Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The giver and the receiver

Four stories by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

Re-reading after some years: Shadows on the Grass, published in the 60s (Penguin).  The cover illustration is an oil painting by Blixen, of a Somali child  who was one of her servants in Kenya. She came to realise that he was a mathematical genius. When he begged to be to sent to school, she 'scraped the money together', She also bought him a typewriter when he asked for it. Many years later, he wrote to thank her and explained that  the typewriter gave him a significant advantage when he applied for jobs. He became a judge.

She wrote in English, a foreign language for her. Are writers for whom English is not the mother tongue more free to write in unusual ways ? (Thinking of the Pakistani/British writer Nadeem Aslam, for instance.)

Here are the two sentences I most loved:

The first for the way the structure represents Berkeley Cole's leisurely, round-about journey:

"On a day in the beginning of the long rains Berkeley Cole came round the farm from up-country, on his way to Nairobi." (p. 69, The Great Gesture)

Also, for being thought-provoking:'
"A gift may be named after both the giver and the receiver, and in this way my inspiration is my own, more even than anything else I possess, and is still the gift of God." (p. 96, Echoes from the Hills).

All along this book, I heard in my mind the deep longing in Meryl Streep's voice at the start of the film  Out of Africa: "I had a farm in Africa." Great acting.

I have just read Penelope Lively's How it all started, about the unexpected ways in which a person's action can affect others. Clumsy and uncharming in comparison, thought Blixen does set the bar rather high.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lows and highs

Have I mentioned my book group?

We meet once a month. Our last meeting focus on Illuminations, the story of  Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrat. I had chosen that book myself, confident it was good because it had won a prize. Disappoinment: the known facts revealed about Hildegard were the only attraction. The writing was poor, the author failing to evoke what it means to be a genius in the body of a medieval woman.The prize - the name of which I cannot remember - is awarded to writing in the New Age genre, which describes this book well. It is facile, though many people raved about it.

Dutch author Cees Nooteboom has written a book I am re-reading called - in the English translation - The Following Story. Having finished it - it is nice and slim - I went back to the beginning, laughing to myself as I realised how much he'd revealed which I only understood at the end. I may have been particularly dense. I believe that he intends for his unwitting reader to embark on a voyage of discovery. I won't reveal more.

Now in his eighties, Nooteboom has won many respected prizes and continues to write. Some of his articles and books are in the travel genre which he derides in The Following Story. Another feature of his writing is that he kindly provides opportunities for digression - he refers to other authors and their works, to artworks, to places. I find myself following his hints with pleasure. In The Following Story his hero walks through Lisbon and I followed his footsteps (thank you Wikipedia and Google), amused and edified.

I have also read Niall Williams for the first time and wonder how come I've not heard of him before, nor had anyone else in the book group.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ecclesiastes was wrong

A man in his life

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.

Yehuda Amichai

Monday, 4 January 2016

Slow release of comic effect: Echenoz's list of Queens of France

Reading Jean Echenoz again. (I'd like to read everything he's written.) This time: Queen's Caprice, a  collection of seven short stories. (Caprice de la Reine, Editions de Minuit, 2014).

One of the stories had a delayed effect on me, like a time-bomb. I read it attentively and at first it made me smile. As time went by, it must have gone to my head, because the more I thought about it, the funnier I found the world. I laughed a lot about everything. People thought that maybe I 'd had too much to drink - but no, only orange juice.

It isn't a story. It's a list of twenty items:  the title says it all - Twenty women in the Jardin du Luxembourg, clockwise. It starts like this, without preamble:

"Saint Bathilde, Queen of France, holding a manuscript in her left hand, and the left side of her coat in her right hand. Hairstyle: two plaits, tied back. Jewels: necklace with cross. Expression: determined."

Next paragraph, next Queen: you read about her carefully, her posture, her arms and hands, what she's holding, hairstyle, jewels, expression. It rises in crescendo: you're waiting for that last word, you hope for a surprise - but no - this one is 'volontaire' (I was reading it in French - it means 'wilful'.) I reckon there's not much difference between wilful and determined; the third queen is described as 'decidee', which my Petit Larousse confirms also means determined. They're Queens of France, used to power.

Further down the list, some variation does occur:  Marie de Medicis is 'not very friendly'. (I'd say.) Someone else is 'patient', and the final one, Sainte Clotilde, is 'distant'. In two cases, a further qualifier is added at the very end of the paragraph: 'Presence of big breasts'. If you do need to know, they were Jeanne d'Albret ('inspired' - she was a poet) and Anne of Austria: ('pleasant, but dazed' - probably too many children.)

The breast thing tells you that the observer is a man. OK then, maybe not a man, maybe a 13 year-old boy.

It made me laugh.

The next day, I attended a party in a lovely modern house, art on the walls and canapes served. On one side, windows from floor to ceiling, overlooking the countryside, the lawn outside sloping to bushes, trees beyond and then hills and far away the sea and a glowing pale sky, long whisps of  cloud across it. In the middle of the lawn stood a stick with a narrow container attached, the contraption no higher than my knee. I asked the friend in whose house we were what it was: "B's rain gauge. I did ask him if it needed to be there today." she said. I laughed.

It doesn't matter where you put a rain gauge, as long as it is in the open. This one was in the middle of the view, bearing witness to my friend's ability to compromise and her husband's single-mindedness. I laughed so much I cried.After that, I carried on laughing about everything. I had a good time.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Reviewing The Conductor and The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A bad attack of flu left me very little energy, needing to retreat to bed  every day after only a few hours of mild activity. Besides sleeping, I managed to put in some good reading. Three books by Sarah Quigley, NZ-born author now resident in Berlin, starting with The Conductor (2011, Vintage Book) and today, Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement (2010, Doubleday). Camilla Gibb is Canadian. Both women have doctorates from Oxford; they're about the same age, I think - mid to late forties. Quigley's D.Phil is in literature and Gibb's in Social Anthropology.

Their books are cultural tours de force: Quigley's conductor is Russian, a musician, living in Stalin's Leningrad during the siege, Gibb's Vietnamese live in modern-day Hanoi. I have not visited either country, so I may be ill placed to evaluate the veracity of their characters. I found myself trusting what was described which doesn't always happen. All the more so when I realised that Sarah Quigley lived for a while in what used to be East Berlin - not the Soviet Union, but a State similar in its Communist ethos. I wonder whether Camilla Gibb has a Zen connection which helped bring Vietnamese Buddhist culture alive for her.

Most of the important characters are male. They proliferate in The Conductor - various friends, teachers, critics. No female voice at all, except for an enchanting chapter dedicated to a girl in love with her wonderful cello. It's a bit like reading Anna Karenina - all those Russian names - though Quigley has done her best to simplify them for us.  Gibb is less demanding: she has limited herself to two men and one woman in Beauty. Her woman, Maggie, who grew up in the USA, is much less interesting than either Hung, the wise, humble man who cooks perfect pho, and Tu, the young tourist guide. These are believable men, according to a aman who read this book .

Quigley writes authoritatively about musi and it was marvellous to be in Shostakovich's mind as he struggled to compose as well as cope with the conflicting demands of his gift and his family. If The Conductor has a fault it lies in the first 100 pages. One has the feeling of wading through somewhat marshy land, hoping for future relief, waiting for the story to acquire a clear dynamic. The characters don't appear very different from each other, being men of a similar age, so that one struggles a little to know whose head one is in. This is not helped by Quigley's tendency to wait to the end of the first paragraph to tell us whose point of view is taken. Having immediately carried on to read two other books by Quigley, Shot (2003, Virago) and After Robert (1999, Penguin), I realise that this slow start and the slight confusion about the characters are a part of her style. I enjoyed all her books. 

Gibb manages transitions in her own particular way - from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph. It is almost amusing to flip the pages and realise that she inserts the POV character's name in the very first sentence - I imagine her going back over her work after the initial drafts and checking that it's there. Gibb's characters are more differentiated - a young man, an old man, a woman, which provides the reader with a track to follow.

I also liked these books because the characters are introspective, complex  and struggling. They struggle like most of us, with complexity, with morality, with their own natures. The writer has approached them with compassion. That compassion awakens a sympathetic chord, at least in this reader.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How to identify a cliche: the end of a dilemma

A cliche is an expression which is overused, and has been shorn of its original impact in the process. How can one judge when meeting an expression for the first time?

Searching for the words via the search engine of your choice allows an evaluation of the frequency of occurrence.For instance, the words 'technological marvel' - search and pages and pages of references come up.End of dilemma.

Is this obvious? I searched under 'identifying a cliche' and no one mentioned this method. Could everyone be doing this and not writing about it?
  * *
In fact, it is often enough for me to wonder whether I should check, to be practically sure that the expression is a cliche.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


The book is called We need new names (Chatto & Windus 2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean woman living in the US. Half the book is Zimbabwe and destitution, half the US, and at the transition point between them is this short short chapter How They Left, which provides a powerful answer to any person wanting to know why some Africans are desperate to live in the West or more generally, what it means to be a refugee.

How they left
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders.Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders, those with ambition are crossing borders, those with loss are crossing borders, those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.

Americanah (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) by Nigerian woman Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also excellent. Dressing her hair triggers memories and analysis. African hair has its own character which is different from Western or Asian hair. The way is styled or lacks style expresses to some extent one's state of being - I think that's true of anyone anywhere, man or woman.

Ifemelu's mother wears her lovely hair long, until she becomes a religious fanatic. When Ifemelu first arrives in the US, her hairstyle expresses her desire to fit in, as she attempts to look like an American. Then she adopts the African fashion of braiding, augmenting, relaxing, which is expensive and harmful to her hair, until the wheel turns again and she allows her hair to just be itself.

In Americanah Ifemelu reflects directly on race relations in America via her blog, which is witty and trenchant. The blog's style is viscerally different from the story (where the same issues are less obviously manifest). It muses critically on the state of race relations, on the differences between Africans who migrate to America and Americans born black, on white people's perceptions and behaviours and everyone's misunderstandings. On how little we know about another person's world. "Before I came to America, I didn't know I was black."


Both writers invoke a novel from a previous generation which answers the question How the hell did we get to this? Chinua Achebe, also a Nigerian, wrote the beautiful novel Things fall apart, published in 1958. Like Bulawayo, Achebe writes economically. Their books are short, all the more powerful for their brevity.


From still an earlier generation, Cane by Jean Toomey, published in 1923, is a novel "structured around a series of vignettes on the experiences of African Americans" (Wikipedia). In Americanah Ifemelu reads and loves this book. Toomey's writing does not to fit well into existing categories, much like Toomey himself, an American who did not consider himself a Negro, as they were called then. He would say that he descended from seven different races, Black being just one of them.