Aug 212011

Reading yesterday a blog post / interview about and with William Giraldi, my attention was caught by his statement about reading : “I don’t enjoy writing,” Giraldi said. “I enjoy reading.”, and he shared with his audience his concern about so many wanna-be writers who do not consider that reading as part of the writer’s life, who have not and do not read… Before MFAs and other workshops, the only training a writer would refer to was the reading school: read as much as one can possibly do, and find in those reading the very substance essential to the art of writing. And unfortunately, I have to agree with Giraldi, being like him struck by the number of writers or apprentices who do not read and do not see this as a paradox.

Earlier in the summer I read The Summing up, where Somerset Maugham attempted to «give a coherent picture of [his] feelings and opinions» as a writer, as a thinker. Not a memoir in the conventional sense of the term, The Summing up is an exploration of the life of the mind, of the material that – literally – built the writer in him. And, as one can expect, reading is at the heart of his experience. Here are few of his thoughts on the matter, some of the ones I keep now on my desk…

“To me reading is a rest as to other people conversation or a game of cards. It is more than that; it is a necessity, and if I am deprived of it for a little while I find myself as irritable as the addict deprived of his drug. I would sooner read a time-table or a catalogue than nothing at all.”

“The writer can only be fertile if he renews himself and he can only renew himself if his soul is constantly enriched by fresh experience. There is no more fruitful source of this than the enchanting exploration of the great literatures of the past.”

“No reading is worth while unless you enjoy it”

And this one for the writers among us:

“Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must.”


May 172011

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” writes Juliet Ashton, the main narrator, in one of her early letters to Dawsey Adams, the man who arises her interest for the island and its history.

I’m close to believing in this homing instinct myself, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an “accidental read,” as I mentioned in my preceding post. Accidental not only in its circumstances but also in its language: I read it in the French edition I was given. Thought it is not uncommon for me to read some originally published in English works in French (most of the time for work purposes, i.e. a need for quoting in French), it’s not that often, and several times during the reading I could feel in transparency the rhythm of the English original and missed it. When done with it, realizing I wanted to quote from it (reverse proposition from what I explained earlier), I ended up getting a copy in English… (This is kind of typical of my mixed-up life in between two languages… More about this in another post). But to come back to the homing proposition, I was struck by the expression which not only reflected what I often found in my own reading wanderings but also fitted so well this very experience and how I came to read this very book. A gift rediscovered in dangerously high piles (see picture)… In any case it was difficult to put it down, and I was sad to let it go. One of the reasons again is its everyday nature, the fact that it is grounded in the daily rhythm of life. As such it could go on forever.. and in my mind will. Though it would be nice if somebody would pick up the pen where Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows put it down, and continue to write those letters in the voice of Juliet, Sophie, Sydney, Dawsey, and so many others. And one day, Kit would be old enough to have her own voice too…

May 072011

Except for two piles of papers to come, summer is here. In its first few days, it always seems like this vast land of freedom, where and when everything is possible… Until time goes by too fast to be really accounted for… But I am still in the first days… Days when I feel I can spend hours doing inessential readings, for example. (Definition of inessential: not required by any current project / for other people the definition could be simply «for pleasure»). So this afternoon, I went through my pile of unread books (well, one of the piles…), and selected a couple. In the end I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I received as a Christmas(2010)  gift. The only thing I knew about it was that it had been a success when it first came out in 2008, and I remembered one of my friends mentioning it. From the first pages, I was hooked. Turning page after page, I was getting deeper in the story of Juliet Ashton and her correspondence, her accidental discovery of Guernsey and its fate  during world war II.  The island was occupied by the Germans, and cut out from the rest of the world, a prize possession of Hitler who took it as a first step towards victory on the British. That did not happen, and when the occupant finally relinquished the island, it left behind a decimated, starved population, as hungry for butter as for communication with the rest of the planet. Because of a volume found on the shelves of the second-hand bookshop, one of the islander gets in touch with Juliet, a writer who came to fame thanks to a column printed every week where she chronicled daily life in London under German bombing.

I’m only half way in the book, and I’m very attached to all the characters, curious to see the story unfold of course, but mostly interested in the account of the everyday. And I’m far enough in it that I start dreading the end, afraid to have to bid goodbye to all of them. I do not really care about the plot, I’m just enjoying the journey, the exchanges, the tiny stories, the mundane of the letters, the day to day chat. And one of the charm of book is that it is a book about books, a book about reading. The main character is a writer, who just had a book published – at first she is on the 1946 version of a book tour, having tea after tea in bookstores all over England -, a writer who does not know what to do of the sudden success of her first book, and whose main worry is what she’ll write next. Her friends in London are publishers – hers, a Londoner and childhood friend; an American competitor, a ferocious entrepreneur. In Guernsey her epistolary friends have in common the book club they created out of necessity, first a cover-up for a forbidden dinner, quickly transformed into  a community knitted together by books: while one is infatuated with Charles Lamb and his works, another one reads the same volume of Seneque over and over, and others share the joy they found in reading the Brontë’s novels at candle light, long after the curfew.
The book has a Helen Hanff taste to it, another book about books and bookshops, but it has more to it, in the sense that the sample of characters is wider and far more diverse, including some that would never have been in physical contact with a book if it had not been for the unfortunate circumstances of war.
To be continued…

Apr 152011

Re-reading Valery Larbaud’s essays, I was reminded of “Consolation”, a prose poem by the Londoner writer Logan Pearsall Smith:

The other day, depressed on the Underground, I tried to cheer myself by thinking over the joys of our human lot. But there wasn’t one of them for which I seemed to care a hang–not Wine, nor Friendship, nor Eating, nor Making Love, nor the Consciousness of Virtue. Was it worthwhile then going up in a lift into a world that had nothing less trite to offer?  Then I thought of reading–the nice and subtle happiness of reading. This was enough, this joy not dulled by Age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene, life-long intoxication.

Larbaud borrowed the expression “unpunished vice” to title his volume on Anglophone literature, a book he prefaced by an extraordinary essay on reading, on the joys and dangers of this vice / passion. I promise to attempt later some translations in upcoming posts … Since none of these essays have yet been translated in English.

Apr 042011

Yesterday I started a new project, writing again. It is always intimidating, frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Intimidating, because suddenly I am not sure how to handle it, how to start, and I rewrite the first sentence about twelve times, until I finally decide that I should write the second and the third and come back later to that first one, or I’ll never move on. The reality is that what is first today will almost for sure not be in two years, when I’ll get closer to the finish line. I may change the sentence, or more likely paragraphs will get shifted around, and this idea/fact only appear on page two or three, if at all. But if you are not sure how to proceed, hanging on those first words feels good, it feels like you are working, a good reason not to forge ahead: the first sentence is shaky, I need to make it sound, forceful, attractive, to retain, on those few syllables my reader. Well, I’m not writing fiction, and even if I would love to see on the page some of my best writing, my readers will be holding to the book mostly because of its subject, not because of me. So if indeed I need to encourage them in their endeavor, to not scare them away with wobbly sentences and cloudy arguments, my opening is not as vital as it would be if I was a novelist.
Intimidated, I’m also frightened. And this time not by details of style, but by the ‘big picture’: will I be able to carry on this work? How am I going to gather all the material I need? Organize it and present it?  Fit it in a form and with a tone that not only satisfy me but also the reader? One of the challenges I’ve always faced writing biographies is keeping some balance, presenting my vision, my interpretation of my subject without obstructing the view, without prohibiting other interpretations. What is difficult is to defend without arguing, to defend without appearing too partisan. And the balance is essential if I want my work to be taken seriously: an obviously biased work will discourage readers and disqualify the author (…).
But it is also exhilarating: to tackle new materials, to enter a new world and pick up the writing where I have left it, about a year ago, when completing the preceding biography… And that’s why, despite all the obstacles, hurdles, headaches and heartaches, I keep doing it. And the Anne Sexton quote that appeared on so many literary blogs last week seems resonates deeply: “When I am writing, I am doing the thing I was meant to do.”

Mar 242011

When Polly Andrews, one of the young women portrayed in The Group, is faced with a sudden and astonishing marriage proposal, she first thinks of all the reason to refuse, all the reason why this would not work. And one of her first thought is for the apparent lack of common book culture with her groom-to-be:

«What bothered her most was the thought that she and Jim had so little in common – a phrase she kept repeating anxiously to herself. Outside the hospital, they had not a single common acquaintance. And as for those old friends, the characters in books – King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Mr Micawber and Mr Collins and Vronsky and Darling Prince Andrei, who were like members of the family – why, Jim seemed hardly to recall them. When she mentioned Dr. Lydgate tonight, he confessed he had never read Middlemarch – only Silas Marner in school, which he hated. He could not read novels, he said and he had no preference between Hector and Achilles.»

In the end, she accepts to marry Jim, and unfortunately Mary Mc Carthy ends the novel before the reader knows if Polly’s concerns were justified or not. Meanwhile, it is the first time I remember encountering the question: would my literary culture go with yours? Something to ponder, definitely…

Mar 062011

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. TO leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting, that is, to find you own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stop too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare to it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.”

In the article, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed”, Susan Sontag reflects on writing practices in general and on her own in particular. For her writing is pleasure, a pleasure mixed with effort and frustration, but pleasure nonetheless, and a pleasure that is inseparable of the one of reading. On the contrary to some writers who dissociate the two practices or even drop the reading part altogether (I’ve been appalled at how little some would-be writers read, and Sontag herself quotes her friend V.S. Naipaul – “Susan, I’m a writer, not a reader” – ), she can’t think of one without the other, and just as Martin Eden discovered, “reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer”…

Mar 012011

There are a few writers I follow, visiting regularly their sites, buying every book, waiting eagerly for the next one..   Nina Revoyr is one of them. I can’t remember if I discovered her through her second book, Southland or the first one, The Necessary Hunger. Initially I picked them up because they were set in Los Angeles, a place I was (and am still) exploring, trying to make sense of the city and of my experience in the city. And a good part of The Necessary Hunger is set in Inglewood, a place I know well for family reasons, while I go accross Southland setting every time I drive to work. But if place affinities can make me leaf through a book, what caught me was the writing, the atmosphere, and last the plot (I’m one of those readers for whom plot is not essential). Place is also at the heart of The Age of Dreaming, Revoyr’s third novel: Los Angeles, Hollywood, Little Tokyo are the neighborhood haunted by Jun Nakayama, a silent movie actor from the nineteen-twenties, fallen out of fame. Although these stories are suspenseful, breathtaking at times, extremely well plotted, what really kept me prisoner of them were the characters, strong, thick, multi-faceted, never predictable. They are so humanly fraught that it is hard to really dislike any of them, and every time I just want more and more of them, beyond the epilogue, beyond the last page.
So, when I discovered that «a new Revoyr» was coming out, I immediately pre-ordered it, a way for me to make sure I’ll get the book as soon as it is out, as well as  to schedule a unexpected treat: by the time it arrives, I usually have forgotten all about it, and it comes as a surprise… So, when at the beginning of February I opened the package and discovered Wingshooters, I was happy and anxious to dive in. Life and work delayed gratification, but finally I was able to shut myself within its pages. And, as for the preceding ones, the magic happened. Wingshooters does not take place in Los Angeles, but in Deerhorn, Central Wisconsin, in a country of hunters and farmers, where one of the top citizen is Earl Watson, who owns the gun store, and the main gathering spot for the oder – wise – men of the community is Jimmy’s Coffee shop. The narrator in the story is Michelle, a nine year old girl, born in Tokyo from a Japanese mother and an American father, who, by the time the story starts, have abandoned her, too tangled in their own conflict and separation. Left with her paternal grand-parents, she quickly discovers the dangers of not being white in a town that until her mother’s appearance, «had never in all the years of its existence, been home to a soul who wasn’t German, Polish, Norwegian, or French Canadian». Deerhorn prizes its insularity, and the county’s limits might just have been insuperable thick walls, keeping the seventies away from its inhabitants, who, if it wasn’t for TV, would never know what was happening in the rest of a country they do not seem to belong to anymore:

“While people in other parts of the country were growing their hair long and smoking pot and wearing polka dot ties and bell-bottoms, the people of Deerhorn dressed in overalls and drank cheap Wisconsin beer. And while there were stories on the nightly news about antiwar protests, women’s rights, the school busing crisis in Boston, and Watergate, these events seemed so distant and strange that they might have been taking place in a different country.”

And while Michelle’s arrival causes quite a stir in the small town, the fact that she is the grand-daughter of one of the most respected men in the community keeps people at bay. Bullied at school, she is cherished by her grand-father who takes her to his favorite lakes, hunting spots, and shares his dog. And Michelle’s foreignness is almost forgotten when comes to town the unthinkable: an African-American teacher is recruited to substitute in her school, while his wife works for the new county clinic as a nurse. Their fate is at the heart of the novel, and Michelle’s story is going to be entangled in theirs, pushing Deehorn and its inhabitants toward a reality it has so far denied.
Soon the reader knows something is going to happen, something bad probably, but difficult to predict. And while Michelle goes hunting, bikes all over town, walks through the wood with her dog, I felt more and more anxious, lost in between the ordinary of this country life, and the mounting hostility toward this couple, the harshness of the xenophobic, racist discourse, and the fake quietness of the rural environment. To the point that, to release my own tension, I had to skip ahead, figure out what was to happen, and then come back to where I was in the book, and resume my reading. It did not spoil my pleasure, but on the contrary, allowed me to savor Revoyr’s writing, to concentrate on Michelle adventures and thoughts, and admire the author’s command of her plot and characters. Like in her preceding books, the characters here are too complex to be simply liked or disliked all together,  and I found myself able to relate to some I was not expecting, to respect some I should be despising: only one is never redeemed and incarnates the villain from beginning to end. And I was still able to enjoy my reading after digging out the main plot,  because it is only one of the threads of the novel: others include Michelle’s own family issues, her relationship with her grand-father, with her grand-mother, her grand-parents and parents stories, her fight for life…
Wingshooters is a new attempt on Revoyr’s part to make sense of inter-racial relations, to retrace history and evolution of mentality in a country where people have been divided and defined by class and race more than they are willing to admit. And when Michelle, adult, does not rebel against her partner’s affirmation “I always forget that you are half-Japanese and half-redneck”, it might be because she is ready to assume the multiplicity of her identities, what comes with the mixing of races and places… and the fact that she chose to leave the Midwest and come to Los Angeles should not be a surprise: where could it be easier to live for somebody who did not fit, who did not really belong anywhere than in the Angeleno melting pot?

Feb 192011

This summer, thanks to another blog, I discovered Wordle. This online program allows us to create “word clouds” from a list pasted into the generator’s window: once the cloud is generated one can apply different fonts, layouts, color scheme, and tweak it until satisfaction, and then the image can be saved as a pdf, printed, etc.. I did it with a list of words I created when starting to work on one of the projects that occupies my time right now. Why this list? Because I wanted to have an idea of the vocabulary used in a series of poems I was studying, envisioning that I could add as a constrain on my own creation the sole use of those words. I dropped that idea, keeping only the form as a working tool, but I kept the list, as it drew a world in which I had to try to imagine living. Hence my enthusiasm when I discovered Wordle, a way to visualize the words, to play with chance (we do not have any control on the way the words are arranged, nor on the size of the font for each one), and to have in front of me (literally propped up on my desk) the roots of my work. Because, if I am not going to use these words specifically, the world they point to is the one I want to decipher, and bring to verse, the visual is here a strong support to focus and think. I have to admit that I have always be fascinated by the visual representation of ideas, and always dreamed of using programs such as Mindmanager to map out my work. Unfortunately, I was never able to make it work for the kind of writing I do, and kept jotting down notes on pieces of papers strategically placed around my computer… Today I found another word cloud generator, Tagxedo, a bit more complex than Wordle but with more options to compose the cloud, and maybe more importantly more options to save it (from Wordle you can only create a pdf or print) : the image you see here was created with Tagxedo and saved as a JPG. Go ahead, try it, and create your own mental maps…

Feb 122011

Reading a post on the Guardian’s Book Blog on the centenary of Elisabeth Bishop reminded me about my own discovery of her work, and the circuitous routes that drives us  to certain books, to some works. I was listening to the radio in my car, going somewhere or coming back from some place (remember, I live in Los Angeles). As often though, the radio was more of a background noise: my mind was wandering away from the streets, the car, the city… and suddenly my attention was called to the voice coming from the speakers :

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

Most readers have recognized here the first three stanza of “One Art”, perhaps the best known poem of Bishop. But I had never heard or read her poetry, she was just a name, and I had missed the introduction to the reading, which meant that I had no idea who wrote those verses. Home, I was saved by Google of course, and was quickly able to locate a copy of the Complete Poems: back in the car, for a short drive, eager, hungry to read more.

And it was to discover that just like “One Art” catered to some of my personal interests, many other poems evoked familiar feelings and impressions. Questions that will appear on this blog (I’m not sure about answers), readings that I’ll discuss, will have at heart Bishop’s interrogations such as the one she asks in “Question of travel” :

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?”

Buying the Complete Poems I could not resist its companion volume, The Collected Prose. And was deeply struck by Edwin Boomer’s house:

“As house, it was more like an idea of a house than a real one. It could have stood at either end of a scale of ideas of houses. It could have been a child’s perfect playhouse, or an adult’s ideal house – since everything that makes most houses nuisances had been done away with.”