Sunday, 20 December 2009

North-European writers

I have read The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (2008, translated by David Colmer, Harvill Secker), what a  wonderful book, a fantastic translation - the writing style is North European - a bit bare, like the living room he describes in the beginning, neutral colours, fewer objects, what is not needed thrown out.

The characters are each given their due, each with their turangawaewae. It's a great skill to have that sensitivity.The changes that happen to them interested me - for instance, when one of the children stays away after his precious poster is damaged beyond repair.

I was completely interested all the time - a rare experience: the narrative was smooth, without the sense of waiting for something to happen, no impending climax or big event, but a constant comfortable tension.

In its style and integrity, this novel reminds me of the work of Norwegian author Per Petterson, In the Wake (translation by Anne Born, Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin's Press, 2002). Also a similarity of topic, a difficult relationship between father and son. And of my beloved Bodil Malmsten whose novel The Price of Water in Finistere has been translated from Swedish (2005, the Harvill Press)

Monday, 14 December 2009

On friendship and passion

Now, this book Embers, by Sandor Marai (Alfred A. Knopf , NY, 2001) translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway.  That last bit matters, all the purists throw up their hands in horror, because the original is in Hungarian, what I read is two moves away from  it.

The book is very very good. I read it in one day and then went over it again, the same day. Two hundred pages, give or take, in a pleasing format, nice Garamond font, space between the lines, and a different, quite wonderful font for the title and the first letter of each chapter, and for the numbers of the pages and chapters: that font is not identified, a pity. It looks handwritten in the 19th century, maybe with a quill. Right for this book.

I know it is anathema to translate twice, but she has done it well. I did not feel that I was reading German or another foreign language. I did not sense a strange grammar underlying the text, needing to be overcome. The thought that this is a translation did not intrude. During the second reading, when the dreadful urgency I experience to know what happens to the characters has died down, I thought about it a little, having read a few reviews online.

The book was written in 1942, in Hungary. It describes the life of a Hungarian General, a member of the aristocracy, and his coming to terms with death. Also the death of a way of life and a way of thinking, of reasoning. I was reminded of something that Leonard Woolf said in Vol 2 of his biography (the only vol I have read), when WWII was about to start, that an essential attribute or value was being destroyed, and I think that is the topic of this book. I had been wrestling with that change in a character I was writing about.

That is not why I am so pleased with it - that comes from other things, from descriptions:

"...the sway-bellied white porcelain stove least a century old, and it radiated heat like some indolent corpulent gentleman intent on mitigating hisown egoism with an easy act of charity..." p. 19

or on p. 23, what I took as a metaphor for the Austro-Hungarian empire: "The castle was a closed work, like a great granite mausoleum foll of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth..."

An evocation of feeling at the end of a chapter:  in Brittany,  "they sat for a long time under the fig tree, listening to the familiar roaring of the sea. It was the same sound made by the forest back home. The child and the nurse thought about the world and how everything in it is related." p. 31. Child and nurse, madonna and child...

The fig tree is strange here, is it not, it belongs to a different climate: it grows in the castle courtyard where it must be protected from the cold...  p. 30: It  "...looked like some oriental sage who only had the simplest of stories left to tell...." .

The boys go to a military academy. Colour: the academy walls are yellow. The General's jacket is also yellow,  and the cover of a diary, the upholstery at the Hotel of the King of Hungary in Vienna, the King's bedroom, and also the walls of a sanitarium, a house of death. Checking the colours of the flag, half the flag of the Hapsburg dynasty is a golden yellow - the other half is black.

About friendship and character: " ..the glow of a quiet and ceremonial oath of loyalty in the Middle Ages..."
"a bond that demands neither aid nor sacrifice..., p. 69: "...a good generation, a trifle eccentric, not at ease in society, arrogant, but absolutely dedicated to honour, to the male virtues: silence, solitude, the inviolability of one's word, and women...Most of them were silent for a lifetime, bound to duty and discretion as if by vows...."
and p. 109: " You know what that [friendship] signified to him, you knew then that any person to whom he had given his hand could count on him, no matter what blows of fate, or suffering, or need, life brought. He did not often give his hand, it is true, but once done it was without any reservation...To my father, friendship meant the same as honour. You knew that, because you knew him.."
and p. 108: "...Sometimes I almost believe that it is the most powerful bond in life and consequently the rarest. What is its basis? ..."
p. 110 "Friendship is a duty...the friend expects no reward for his feelings. ...He does not view the person he has chosen as his friend with any illusion, he sees his faults and accepts him with all their consequences. Such is the ideal. And without such an ideal, would there be any point to life? And if a friend fails, because he is not a true friend, is one allowed to attack his character and his weaknesses? What is the value of a friendship in which one person loves the other for his virtue, his loyalty, his steadfastness? What is the value of a love that expects loyalty? ...our duty to accept the we do the faithful...the more we give, the less we expect?

p. 111 "...a man gives someone his trust...ready to make sacrifices for him because of ...unconditional devotion,...the highest thing any one person can offer another..."
p. 112: "...we have no right to demand unconditional honour and loyalty from a friend, even when events have shown us that this friend was faithless."
p. 116 "...friendship is formed of links as fateful as those between twins...a strange identity of impulses sympathies, tasks, temperaments, and cultural fomration binds two people toegether in a single matter what o ne of them may do against the other...""
p. 139 "...a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word 'friendship'."
p. 141 :..."Friendship is no ideal state of mind; it is a law and a strict one on which the entire legal systems of great cultures were built. It reaches beyond personal desires and self-regard in men's hearts, its grip is greater than that of sexual desire and it is proof against disappointment, because it asks for nothing...death itself cannot undo a friendship that reaches back to childhood...its memory lives on...the selfless human act...Castor and Pollux"
Nowadays this seems sentimental rubbish.

In this book, men and women are forced into situations which demand efforts that are alien to them. For one boy, the fit is good, but the other is "a different kind of man".
p. 118:  " were a stranger among the rest of us...what wrong was done to you when, out of love and pride, you were given to the military life...the profound loneliness you felt among us..."
p. 120: "... Was perhaps our uniform, your disguise?"
 p. 135 "...deep inside you was a frantic longing to be something or someone other than you are...the greatest sccourge...the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world.We ...must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognise that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise...there's no reward...we have to accept betrayal and disloyalty and ...that someone is finer than we are in charactger or intelligence..."
p. 163 "...people find truth and collect experiences in vain, for they cannot change their fundamental natures."
 perhaps the only thing to take the gvens of one's fundamental nature and tailor them to reality as cleverly and carefully as one can...the most we can accomplish."
p. 170:"...things do not simply happen to can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It's the human condition...It is not true that fate slips silently into our lives. It steps in through the door that we have opened and we invite it to enter. No one is strong enough or cunning enough to avert by word or deed the misfortune that is rooted in the iron laws of his character and his life..."
A duality repeated, between the friends, between husbands and wives. The friendship of opposites, the gap which cannot be breached.
 p. 173: "...we always love 'the , we always seek it out..."other'

Sometimes kitsch predominates:" ..a feeling known only to men, a feeling called friendship". End of the  chapter.
Most of the women do not come alive - they are all delicate and beautiful, except for Nini, the madonna/nurse who knows and understands everything, all the time.
p. 175: "...She was, as you well know, an inborn aristocrat...not a question of family or social position..." p. 176: "...nobody could stroke a piece of cloth or an animal like [her]..."

What happens in one part of the world - such as Lenin's revolution - affects another - 4000 coolies stop work in Malaysia and demand better working conditions and pay, while a wife in Hungary dies of a tropical kind of disease...

"One cannot keep changing one's nationality," says the guest who became British. The General answers: "In my opinion one cannot change one's nationality at all...".
"My homeland", says the guest "no longer exists...[it] was Poland, Vienna, this house [...]. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded...What we swore to uphold [in 1986] no longer exists...There was a world for which it was worth living and dying. That world is dead. The new one means nothing to me..."

Signals and portents:
p. 155: "...something has happened, life has turned eloquent. ...great care is required, is speaking to us in mute signs, everything suddenly makes us alert, everything is a proof and a symbol, all we need to do is understand...."
p. 194: "...People communicate their thoughts in sign language, have you noticed? As if they were discussing important matters in a foreign language...they have no self-knowledge. All they talk about is what they want, thereby exposing themselves unconsciously in all their hopelessness...Life becomes almost interesting once one has learned to recognise people's ;lies and one starts to enjoy the comedy as people keep saying things other than they think and really want..."
p. 202: "...One has an obligation to seek out the essentials, the truth of things, because otherwise, why has one lived at all?..."

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


Busy  reviewing the translation so far, which is taking almost as long as the first time round, but is increasing my confidence.

(Have read several books, one The Prophet by Shulmaith Hareven, which was a disappointment, ending in mid-air like this   )

The translation is taking up too much energy, I have little left for other creative endeavours. The best I have achieved in the review is about 4 pp a day  - and I have another 90 to go.

(Also I rarely can work several days consecutively, breaks are needed from it. Let's say I do 10 pp a week, that would mean another 9 weeks, double that for the review - without counting visitors and festivities, both of which are on the horizon, or the week and a half per month for the newsletter.)

18 weeks is a good number, at 2.5 weeks per month, starting on Feb 1st. It might take me a year.

I must do better.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Collapsing Creation, a play by Arthur Meek

When I walked to my seat and sat down facing the set at Downstage Theatre, Wellington, I experienced such disappointment that I complained about it to my husband during the entire 10 min before the show started:  the set was far too white, Victorians would have neither white curtains nor white window-frames in a gentleman's study, the carpet was insipid, the furniture boring, beige and tired, the only picture a lone ancestor in a heavy frame. At some point in all this whingeing, a thought did run quickly through the back of my mind that there might be a reason for the blank walls, should one trust that they knew what they were doing, but the complaining was stronger.

From the moment the play started, I forgot about all that and was riveted. The movement on the stage was so dynamic, so expressive of what the characters were feeling, they were so original and natural in their interactions that I was delighted and fascinated. I have rarely enjoyed a play as much. I found I now liked the set, the roominess which gave the characters plenty of scope, the blank walls which became screens onto which people's shadows or luminescent colours, - greens and purples, blues and reds, very satisfying hues - were projected. I have often seen Peter Hambleton perform and felt this was one of his best performances - the moment when young  Thomas brings his Big Idea to him and his heart sinks - I felt it viscerally.

The play itself pleased me, oh yes it is pleasing: the humour - how Science, in the shape of an increasingly cringeing but dogged servant,  keeps intruding on Mrs Darwin's intimacy with her husband, the fight she leads to be the One and Only in his life, her battle with his obsession, his respect for hers.  Never does Darwin say what might upset her - that is left to the other protagonists, Roberts, the man of faith and Thomas, the young upstart scientist. Both evolve and change believably and shockingly in the course of the play. Themes are interwoven - reproduction, fecundity, kinship, 'the most important part of a tree', a man's life work, the meaning of children, of religion, publish or be damned, various ambitions, different kinds of intimacy, and love and trust, hope and despair.

I think it must become a classic.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Enjoyable coincidences

This may be of no interest to anyone but me: I am busy these days, differently from before. Instead of being pulled this way and that by a confusion of competing priorities, I allocate time correctly - long enough to do what needs to be done at any given time - and stop when it is time to do so, moving on to the next necessary thing, as if carried by a river, flowing with it peacefully. There is little free time, but no feeling of enslavement, no resentment. This happened for the first time a few days ago, and today it happened again: no panic when faced with a large task. I know when to start, and an inner knowledge makes sure that it gets finished on time, as if functioning at an instinctual level.

The same instinct got me my German dictionary, and my books about writing: I bought them years before I needed them, at second hand dealers, not knowing why except that I wanted them and they were not expensive.The German dictionary is a treasure, big, fat and reliable. and if I did not have it already, I would need to buy one for the translation work I do now  which I never expected to do. Two small gold initials are embossed on the red leather cover. They happen to be my husband's and mine.

I don't believe in events that are 'meant to be'. It's a coincidence, an enjoyable one...

I am reading another Jenny Diski, a collection of essays, columns for newspapers, always clever, but not as deep as the Skating to Antarctica. This one is called A View from the Bed and other observations (Virago, 2003). The first sentence is fun:

"It isn't often that I wake in the early hours of the morning to find a happy ending squatting in the corner of my bedroom."

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Great Nanny

Saw Julia and Julie - was that its name ? - film about US TV cook Julia Child, and a present-day writer/cook, cleverly interwoven, and good, pared-down dialogue, endearing characters. Meryl Streep maybe over-acting a bit, but mostly convincing.

The scenes around writing and about the issue of being published or not were upsetting. Close to the bone.

It is distressing to discover how much I want to be able to like the people in movies, and in books, a flaw. Came away from In the Loop - a very good movie, about UK/US politics and a possible war in Iraq - with acute disgust, despite the sometimes witty dialogue, because, entirely believably, none of the characters could remain honest given the pressure. The older the person is supposed to be, the more they are represented as twisted and bitter, while their ambition burns on. Anyone acting ethically or kindly seems a little ridiculous, as if they were living a dream, or in a nursery under the Great Nanny Who rules justly and compassionately over her charges.

Had an insight into a way I might write my book, differently. Off to try it out.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Not knowing everything

Yesterday, translated p. 30 of 120, and it has taken me a month...I am working faster now, both more confident and finding it less tiring. Hopefully it won't take me another 3 months to finish.

There are a number of books to read, which I want to get hold of, for instance one by Diana Athill which she has written now, in her 90th year: Somewhere towards the end. She worked in a management position for a large American publishers and has written another book called Stet, published when she was 83.

P has joined a men's book club; I read last month's offering, a small book by Pat Barker, a psychological thriller, well written , Border Crossing. It has lots of unanswered questions in it and that that feels fine when you read it, people are told what happens though not exactly why. Like in real life.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Daido Roshi Descends the Mountain

Message received from the monastery

Dear Friends,John Daido Loori

It is with sadness that we are letting you know of Daido Roshi's having passed away this morning, Friday, October 9th, at the abbacy of Zen Mountain Monastery. He died peacefully from complications of lung cancer diagnosed eighteen months ago.

Please see our web site for more information.

Thank you for all your thoughts and messages.

Be well

Ryushin Sensei

Zen Mountain Monastery


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Dragon carp

We now own a water colour of swirling goldfish, a painting in Chinese style, in a what I think of as a river - the water is clear and turquoise-y, a few slender willow branches trail the surface. Looking at it for the first time at the exhibition, it meant something I am not sure about...not really writeable. The centre of the painting is full of light.

The painter is an elderly lady - by which I mean, older than me. Her name is Ping Ching Mabbett and she said that she was a Buddhist. Then it turned out that she had met Daido Roshi when he first came to New Zealand: he invited her to teach Chinese calligraphy during one of the early meditation retreats in the mountains near Nelson.

Daido Roshi is very unwell, he may be dying.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Eye of God

True North (2006, Ariel Films, director/writer Steve Hudson) has won many prizes at film festivals, including one for its interesting and quirky editing.

The story is about a desperate Scottish fisherman whose father is about to lose his boat to the banks, when he meets people smugglers and on an impulse takes on a load of illegal Chinese migrants, themselves desperate for a better life.

The film is beautifully shot, on a boat on the North Sea. Towards the end of the film, a shot from high above looks down on the tiny boat on a stormy sea, in low light: what I have come to think of as The Eye of God looking down - a kind of shorthand for a preoccupation with morality or is it love and compassion?

Used most memorably at the end of Lars van Triers' film Breaking the Waves, and from time to time in Silent Light by Carlos Reygeras. Is the device becoming a little tired?

PS Adding this a week later: I discovered a film recently made entitled The Eye of God, and at the opening of a recent art exhibition, the term was used to describe a painting.

Am concluding that it is the term 'The Eye of God' itself which is the cliche. Also remembered that a most favourite possession is the book of Yann Arthus Bertrand's photos entitled The Earth from the Air, each picture fresh and beautiful. The original French title is the same.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


Translating from German, spending too much time on it. J worries about the time being wasted. He emailed about keeping up the momentum in the writing.

But I want to translate Kolb's diary as well as another important document, about the real estate robbery - not only were the Jews robbed, but the Nazi party felt that it had been robbed too, by its own people, and indignantly put a stop to that aspect of it. I have not been able to write about this period because I had incomplete information.

Still reading slowly - note-taking - about Leo Baeck, my hero. And about the British during the war. More heroes.

The newsletter has been printed and sent. As soon as it was too late, discovered an important item missing from the cover. Imperfect as usual.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The limitations of peace

Reading Our Longest Days: a people's history of World War II, by Sandra Koa Wing (2008) which is escapist in comparison with the other stuff, but full of the detail necessary for the writing about every day life in Britain during WWII. It does not grip me enough. It is based on the diaries kept by British people during the war, within a scheme called Mass Observation, which sounds Orwellian, but is only mildly so. The ruthlessness is in the writers' note-taking of what they witness, which is what any writer does.

I've reached the proof stage for the newsletter without needing the intense labour that has been associated with it in the past. Less than 30 hours for this issue, reasonably good. Not sure if it is because I now understand some of the software's formatting shortcuts, less time spent fiddling, or for some other reason.

This week was the memorial service for an old friend. I was asked by the family if I would speak. They said afterwards that I "stole the show". I'm not sure they were entirely happy about that.

I put in a brief plug for the Holocaust Centre, and in support of refugees, anywhere, any time. This is a safe country: its people have no idea what it can be like elsewhere.

Why does one feel superior? "They have no idea!" - dismissiveness. Isn't it a situation we want for our children and our loved ones - that they may lead lives of peace.

Old soldiers often remember war as the time of their lives. Do most of us need to experience ourselves on the brink of death in order to truly live? Happiness is not what we want, but to live on the cusp, in support of an ideal...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The task

I understand what I am doing, why I am doing it: the key to understanding the character who is the grandfather - whom I do not enough insight into - lies in the books about that period. I shall have to decide what he thinks about the situations and can only do that if I have a better understanding of the period.

Am taking notes regularly and processing them daily. Avoid looking at the time spent at this, though I compare: J has finished his latest novel - within a year, and the publisher is delighted with it. He keeps at his writing daily, rising early early - 5: 30 am.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Up and down

Reading the book about Leo Baeck when I feel brave, and the book about Churchill and Hitler for peace - politics are less threatening. Both books are riveting.

For light relief, went to see Up, the movie by Disney productions. The early review said it was beautiful. It is beautiful the way any plastic item that has not yet been used is beautiful - shiny, gleaming, and doomed to disappoint. Seeing in three dimensions is a gimmick and the rest is the usual syrupy-sweet sticky nonsense. The start was magic: a beautiful snow flake floated in the air apparently above the heads of the audience. From thereon, the film went downhill: technically flawless and boring. I'll admit: I am no longer six years old.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Red tape and passivity

Serendipity: a book about to be thrown out from the TS library is a novel about the Evian Conference in 1938 (convened by US President Roosevelt to help desperate German Jews find refuge).

Entitled The Mission (1966, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd) by Hans Habe, it is excellently translated from German by Michael Bullock. The main protagonist is an elderly and respected Jewish nephrologist sent by the Gestapo - unlikely but true - to plead on behalf of his people. The story is full of believable complexity. Jewish organisations were there en masse to plead, and nothing was accomplished.

Habe, who attended the Conference as a League of Nations correspondent for the Prager Tagblatt, says in the final Commentary that he knew the man on whom the novel is based:

"For more than twenty-five years, I have been carrying my knowledge of the Conference at Evian-les-Bains and the "Benda Mission" about with me like a burden and a duty...

Habe delineates the real from the invented. The final section contains the names of all the participants, a form of bearing witness to evil committed through red tape,passivity and a lack of imagination.

A NZ delegate was there: NZ was perceived as a country which might take in refugees.
The NZ public service was riddled with anti-Semitism, so nothing came of it. Nothing in the scale of what was needed.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Real Work

The first Wednesday of a new start: work on my own book. Kind advice from J: 'Say No'. He means, to people wanting my input on other projects. (He and Helen are off to Germany today- till next July. Nine and a half months)

Too late already, a small commitment was made - enough to stop me from falling outside the circle of friendship.

The newsletter (out on time with an error in the date on the cover) took 40 hours to produce, too long. The previous editor said she spent 20 h per issue: ask others to edit the too-long articles, she said. I shall spread the work over two weeks after all, doing it in the afternoons - not every afternoon - keeping the morning for Real Work.

After reading a NY Review of Books article which mentioned John Lukacs, started on The Duel, Hitler vs Churchill, 10 May-31 July 1940 (1990, The Bodley Head, London). Not the book reviewed, unfortunately, as it's not yet available here.

Lukacs is a thoughtful expert; he writes well, a pleasure. Reading it now is self-indulgence: the material suits the second part of the book, set in that time in England, though there are some direct benefits. For instance, he says: "In 1940, London was the largest city in the world." Something the children in my story will know and wonder about, coming from a provincial German city.

Goal: list the material to read from the overseas archives, plus the material available online. Program the reading and translating, a little every day, not thinking about the end.

I am fearful of re-reading my MS, worried it may trigger a frenzy of fiddling, rather than the broad reshaping it needs.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Full tilt

Very very late with the newsletter. It is due for publication this time next week: in the urgency to get other things done I forgot about it. No, I didn't forget, I mistakenly thought I had plenty of time. I should be panicking.

I made time - what does that expression mean? Stretch time to suit the needs of the's as easy as trying to squeeze more water into a bottle. I'll have to work full tilt for the rest of the week.

Having made time as described above, I read Penelope Lively's Spiderweb, (1998, Penguin) short and sharp. A nice psychological consistency to the solution the main character finds to her dilemma at the end of the book. Good pacing in terms of the anxiety we experience on her behalf. I also enjoyed the lack of a 'proper' ending, less predictable. A good novel: the characters interact in credible ways, affect each other, and move accordingly. Very tidy. Not a great novel, but a good one. That sounds snooty: I mean, if I could write like that I'd be very happy.

Having finished a major project - that finishing has played havoc with my sense of urgency for other things to be done - I watched two movies that I'd missed at the Film Festival in the last few days, one of them twice. Both describe death, silence and stillness, and the preparation of the body for burial or cremation. P picked up Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas (Mexico) at Aro Street Video. The other I saw at the Penthouse with a friend: the Japanese Oscar-winner (2008, for foreign film) Departures by Yojiro Takita.

Departures is fascinating to watch, for the depiction of ritual and its Zen-like quality. Its weaknesses are sentimentality and the predictability of the story. The Mexican film is harder to watch, more demanding, with slow shots, a slow rhythm to the story and a mysterious development.

Visually, it is wonderful. This is the one I saw twice - a rewarding exercise. The actors are amateurs playing people like themselves, members of Mexico's Mennonite community. They speak a weird kind of German and live religiously. Contact with Spanish-speakers only happens at a time of crisis. I loved the silence and quietness of the characters, which seemed to be a part of the way they live. People spoke briefly, succinctly, with gaps for thought. I'll probably watch it again.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

On being silent

The Man in the Hat is a local film, a documentary about Peter MacLeavey, who is a well-known Wellington art dealer. For forty years, he has run his gallery from two white rooms on the first floor of a seedy building on Cuba Street. The rather messy entrance is squeezed between a dairy on one side and another shop - a jewellers' called Hemp? - on the other. You go up some stairs with plump bannisters, walls and woodwork painted white - not recently - weave your way around the stairwell to find the door to the gallery, a square room with the artworks, and Peter is there too, in the little room next to it which is barely furnished. Lots of light. He is always mild, always open to people. A calm man.


The film has a definite slow rhythm, both visually and musically. Certain sequences are repeated - not often, briefly. Shots of him taken from a distance, sitting still , doing nothing. Lying on the ancient sofa under the window, looking at the lovely old ceiling, where a little white airplane flies in the white expanse.

They show him getting dressed for work, a deliberate thoughtful act in front of the long mirror in his bedroom: "These are my vestments". Towards the end of the film, he comments on his working life: "Some days nobody comes, some days two or three people come. I spend most of my working day in silence" - [not an exact quote].

A large part of the film follows him walking to work, a light step, tidy and conservative in his dark suit. He speaks to people easily. There appears to be no judgement of the person. They show the quality of acceptance. He has a great eye for art and much kindness (this I know for myself). He is a fine person. Also I think, an intelligent man, with the confidence that comes with it. I was glad his wife was in the film too.

P who is not much interested in art as a rule, went to Cuba Street after the show: "I looked up and I saw him through the window, just like in the film, talking on the phone." But he didn't go in.

Monday, 17 August 2009

More compression

Read Jenny Bornholdt's The Rocky Shore (2008) in one sitting, laughing out loud, and when I'd finished surprised myself by having a proper cry, unusual for me, not sure why...

Her writing is without pretence. Clear and simple, like a child telling a truth, instantly evident. I have another seven minutes to say what is so good about it. Also I want to say that the word compression occurred in italics in the very first poem, Confessional.

...when people talk about poetry
they often mention
compression - yes it can

be that, but it can also be a great sprawling
thing. And Kenneth Koch has died."

I don't know who Kenneth Koch is yet.

I'm always a fan of good presentation, and Jenny Bornholdt's book is pleasingly done, the inside of the cover is a pure pale green, the paper is the creamy, slightly rough paper which suits poetry.

I read from the book to the women in my sewing circle, just dipping in here and there for good bits, and I was worried about imposing this on them, so stopped early - then later I looked up and one of them was sitting with her nose in it. The reading was difficult - trying to speak the line breaks - that didn't work.

Some of her best bits are what other people say, she sets them up nicely in the poem, you can have fun with her. I felt that all the way through, invited into her thoughts, an honour, to share intimacy. Her appraisal of a builder or plumber who said "Smells of soup, have you got a bacon hock in there?"

The loss of her father, the fear for the child - those are in the background, touched upon, left for you to think about. I shall re-read it and discover what it is that made me cry - probably the writing about Nigel Cox. He came to speak to a class I was in. He knew then that he was dying - such a sad man - but we didn't, we were pleased he was there, in his beautiful foreign, brightly striped shirt. His youngest, a boy, was five when he died. After reading his diary from Berlin, Phone Home Berlin, I thought, he must have seemed like a mystery to the Germans, they will have liked his manner so much, the gentleness and ability to get things done without being authoritarian, very Kiwi. I've written about that book previously.

PS - Jenny Bornholdt has been a Poet Laureate of New Zealand, and this book won a Montana Award in poetry (2009).

PPS - From Wikipedia: Kenneth Koch (1925 -2002): American poet, playwright, and professor, active from the 1950s until his death at age 77. He was a prominent poet of the New York School of poetry, a loose group of poets including Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery that eschewed contemporary introspective poetry in favor of an exuberant, cosmopolitan style that drew major inspiration from travel, painting, and music.

Friday, 14 August 2009


No other writing beyond this blog yesterday.

Brought in an additional bookshelf to the room, now tidier. More tidying up planned today.

Nathan Englander in an interview: he works to compress - ninety years into eighty, eighty into seventy...ending with the book covering just 3 months. He compressed two children into one, got rid of a grandfather...P says loyally, I don't think you should get rid of your grandfather [in my book].

I am studying James Wood's book How Fiction Works (2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The first chapter is about a style of writing which merges point of view and the type of speech expected from a given character - for instance, a peasant or a child having their own typical language and range of terms which they think and speak in. Free indirect style is the name he gives to this - maybe it is not just his name for it, maybe the rest of the world knows all about it and I don't. Choose the right vocabulary: it mitigates the need to explain that we are dealing with a child or a peasant, and leads to compression - that word again.

Study will be needed - everything works best when it happens unconsciously. Writing more succinctly was already the purpose of the poetry. Thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald's little books (less than 200 pp.), and of Frederik Uhlenberg's book about a German youth growing up, a slim masterpiece. I can't find it now, I hope I have not lent it to someone.

I have not yet looked at my MS. To re-read it now - a scary thought - or later, after I have studied some of the material I brought back with me. I have made room on my new shelves for the books and papers which are to be read.

At the moment am also reading a book by a NZ German born in the same year as my mother, an intelligent woman, who lived in Germany during WWII and whose father was a high-ranking officer. It gives me the shivers, but also provides background info, for instance about a festival in a Bavarian village, the kind of clothes the villagers wear, what they do. Grist to the mill. It is called Strawberries with the Fuehrer, a Journey from the Third Reich to New Zealand, by Helga Tiscenko, (2000, Shoal Bay Press). It has already been reprinted once. She manages to combine attention to detail and a good pace for the story, one does not feel bored. Well, someone like me, who wishes to write about that period, does not.

We decided to disconnect the phones in the mornings. A strong stance. I am about to reconnect my phone in order to ask someone a question which is bugging me. There you go.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The proper study of mankind...

Several commitments met, worries resolved: now free, am able to resume a routine - writing in the mornings. Timer set to eight minutes. Started the day with 20 min free writing, superficial stuff.

Finished Goethe's Elective Affinities (first published 1809). An outcome: the discovery that Ottilie (portrayed as young, innocent and deeply wise) writes in her diary that 'The proper study of mankind is man'.
I was surprised to find the sentence here as a part of the text, not as a quote. Did it originate from Goethe? But - No. A search (among English-language sources, natuerlich) revealed the source as Alexander Pope (born 1688). (P thought Shakespeare.)

Phaedrus, an animator of the Quotation website, provides the following source: Pierre Charron, French philosopher, (born 1541) in his treatise Sur la Sagesse (1604). Charron says that reason is paramount, and juxtaposes it nevertheless reverently to faith.

Similarity to the writings of Galileo (born 1564) : watched a TV doco about him last night, where his great Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) is described: the dialogue is between a wise man and a fool. Unwisely, Galileo gave the fool the opinions of his friend Pope Urbino.

The Catholic Church banned the book - for 200 years, until resurrected by John Paul II (pun unintended) .

It seems that the quote will be attributed to Goethe in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to Alexander Pope in the English-speaking world, and to Charron among the French.

In the 17th century as today, some intellectual people thought their way out of organised religion. Charron sees no connection between morality and religion.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Writing fast

Monday morning, a crazy week ahead, the entire newsletter to do from start to finish, (so am perversely writing this blog instead). It should be a record, especially as it is a Jubilee Issue, permission granted by the Board to splurge on full colour for the cover, first time ever in the 50 years of the newsletter.

This week-end, read Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases - an American writing completely believably about Argentina's disappeared and their families. (When an Argentinian aunt visited us in the early 80's, I asked her about those times: she shut me up with a single word - I almost looked over my shoulder, in my own home in safe New Zealand.)

The writer has succeeded in absenting himself from his book - you never think of him, in itself an achievement. The characters are absorbing and heart-rendingly funny, particularly if you are familiar with the inflections and rhythm of Yiddish.

At first the style seemed all magical realism: a graveyard digger named Kaddish, and his son Pato are in a Jewish cemetery at midnight, chipping off names from gravestones by torchlight, at the request of the wealthy doctors and lawyers whose parents were pimps and whores in a Jewish Mafia.

Slowly, the reader realises that this is for real. When Pato disappears without warning, he is suddenly completely absent from the novel, an eerie silence settles over him. His parents become isolated as if infected with the plague.

Kaddish, himself the son of a saintly whore from Poland, wistfully thinks back to when the older generation was alive - they would have had the nous to deal with the junta's murderous craziness. Kaddish is a great character, a failure by society's standards, by his loving wife's standards, by his own. And yet, when he lies down to sleep on the bench of the abandoned synagogue, and covers himself with the Torah curtain, he is the only person in touch with the truth.

PS Have just discovered a BBC interview with the author -

Monday, 13 July 2009

Goethe's teachings

I didn't finish The Love of Impermanent Things because it didn't belong to the person who lent it to me, and she needed to return it. The person to whom it does belong is unwell. A greater need. Now I discover that I miss it and want it and shall order it soon for myself. There's a recommendation for you.

It is midnight and I am not asleep, nor am I working. The book I have to finish producing produced a nasty trick of its own - a third of the MS is missing in the Publisher version, a shock. As I go back through previous P versions, that third was missing all along. It is there in Word, though the actual physical manuscript has also disappeared. How can that be?

I stay calm for some reason and revisit the process of transferring from Word to Publisher and become absorbed in the editing and shaping and choosing of the place of each element - these are short essays that need to be linked somehow - similar topics grouped. I am learning to work with Publisher, becoming better at it. I show the book who is boss. I have a deadline to adhere to, but there is time: I put off attending a meditation retreat. It is put off - not abandoned altogether. If the first proof is done by Wednesday, I may still go - though I can't imagine myself there.

I have read Tender at the Bone : Growing up at the table, by Ruth Reichl, the American restaurant reviewer. There is a warning at the beginning - Reader Beware - to the effect that enhancements and embellishments and even some travesties of the truth are a necessary part of the telling of stories - even when they are entitled autobiography.
Here is one which was my favourite, until it became worn with the re-telling:
The maid enters the dining room carrying with the Beef Wellington and drops it. She scrapes it off the floor under the gazes of her horrified mistress and the surprised guests and as she leaves she says "Shall I bring in the other one, Ma'am?"
The book is well balanced - the wit and the love versus the painful growing up with a narcissistic, manic-depressive mother.

Now I've started reading - for the second time - a translation of Goethe entitled in English Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandschaften, first published in 1809 - that is 200 years ago!). This time round I progressed to read the first two chapters. The style is heavy, ponderous. He seems to tell and explain far too much.

Am choosing to read it for two reasons: One, my grandfather would have read it and I need to understand better the spirit of those times; two, Goethe is so greatly revered that
I am curious to know what he can teach.

Already I have learned something: at the end of the first chapter, the reading of which was akin to walking through long unkempt grass, which velcros itself onto one's clothes and restricts movement, long sentences with no space to breathe in. The last sentence - itself rather clumsy - spoke to me out loud and said a useful and practical thing, as if Goethe was in the room saying it, a word of advice about the act of correspondence:

"...In many cases it is necessary and a more friendly act to write about nothing than not to write at all..."

In the second chapter, a man described as an intermediary, a mediator, visits a mature couple - recently married, both for the second time - and he is irritated when they want his advice about a decision they must take. "Take whatever decision you wish," he says. "If things don't work out, then shall I be of use to you. But this decision must be yours."He cannot run their lives for them. It rings true psychologically, very satisfying. I am now involved - though more with the author than with the characters.

What big picture is he drawing? I have not read the preface nor any other writing about Goethe and his work: I shall enjoy them more when I've finished the book.

At the moment, this blog is all the writing I do. Not enough. No poems at all.

I did read one by Mary O'Reilly, entitled Passover. That was good.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Written about two weeks ago

Finished off the Bulletin - the newsletter that I publish for a local community. The fifth issue, I think, fun after the interruption of holidays, though also a worry whether I would remember everything I had to do...I ended up with too many pages - didn't realise I was sending off 21 instead of 20, so of course there was a blank page at the end, not good, but not terrible either. Worse was having left off the issue number and date from the cover. There was also a lot of good stuff, things that I'd found along the way that might interest people and added in. The difficulty is to carry on working instead of flopping afterwards.

Two Zen books are my bed-time reading, one Eloquent Silence which I bought overseas (a wonderful hour spent at Foyle's, bliss) by Nyogen Senzaki, edited by Roko Sherry Chayat, which is his commentary on the Gateless Gate a collection of koans, one every night, which is probably all wrong, I should read the same one over and over and see what happens.

The koans are familiar, Senzaki Roshi's commentaries are new to me, different emphases, for instance on the importance of not hesitating in action. The other was lent by a friend and is called The Love of Impermanent Things by Mary Rose O'Reilly.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Henning Mankell

First day back at my desk after a long long holiday - no writing, lots of reading.

The latest book was by Henning Mankell, who is Swedish and writes great thrillers and absolutely bad novels. (There is more to him than that, you can look it up on one of the many fan sites.)

His detective inspector is a classic, getting old on his own, with an ex-wife he loves and a daughter he does not see as often as he would like to. The stories take place in a little town in Sweden, which reminds me - maybe wrongly - of a windswept Dutch town by the sea where I spent a holiday when I was young. I enjoy the Swedishness he describes, it satisfies my curiosity about that country.

The novels on the other hand seem to be all ego - one suspects that the central character in Italian Shoes is Mankell himself, in character if not in actual fact, living by himself on a remote island - the second time Mankell has used that setting. Mankell intrudes into his novels, both telling and showing. His female characters have no depth, they seem to differ only in name, despite diverse backgrounds and different ages. The interactions can be violent and unexpected - they don't always make psychological sense. In this book, the best-drawn character is the hypochondriac postman, I'd have liked to hear more about him.
Mankell overwhelms us with unnecessary detail - I suspect that he writes down everything that he sees and hears and that everything goes into his books, maybe because it is real. Real does not always make good reading.

If you read Mankell, stick to his Inspector Wallander stories, they are truly good. One of them was recently selected by a well-known US newspaper as a best-seller. And a film is being produced too.

Gotta go.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

On passion

A friend lent me a short novel entitled The Man of Feeling by Spanish author Javier Marias,(1986, New Directions Books) in an excellent translation by Margaret Jull Costa (2003) (except for the use of the word 'teddy' to describe an item of woman's lingerie - though I admit to not knowing what else to call it). Her name rang a bell - a short search revealed that she is also the translator for some of Nobel-Prize winner Saramago's books. She has won several international prizes for her work.

A short book - an unusual format, a bit wider than the palm of my hand. The predominantly orange cover reproduces an Edward Hopper painting - a couple in a New York restaurant - wonderfully suited to this story, showing the isolation and alienation that characterise the lives it describes.

Reading this book, I developed a fondness for the designer Semadar Megged, her orange tones on the cover pleasingly contrasting a page of mat blue in the prelims (what is such a page called?). The elements of the book are harmonious, the
typeface classical, the margins narrow, the page numbers at the bottom of the page surmounted by a delicate horizontal line - it is all pleasing.

Yet the characters are not to be liked. How does the author manage this, to describe these entirely credible people in their loneliness and desire for ownership of another, and keep the reader wanting to know what happens next? I did not care for these damaged and damaging people, for their passivity and lust for power.

The answer lies I think in the way Javier Marias writes: in his long sentences with many subclauses which roll on and on in an un-English way, he describes the inner world of the main protagonist, a self-absorbed opera singer who believes he has fallen in love. We witness in tremendous detail the development of his thoughts, the minute changes of colour and emphasis, like a pointillist canvas, which lead him to consider his past, his future and his wish to destroy, and to relate the dream which torments him. Marias is a tremendous observer and thinker - his voice comes through as a truth-teller - as for instance in the following paragraph (p.158):

...Manur had already been abandoned by Natalia, although he did not know it then. Nor did I: most of the time one does not know when one has been taken up and when one has been abandoned, not just because this always happens behind one's back, but because it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when such upheavals happen, just as one never knows if the fact of being taken up has to do with one's own merits or virtue, one's own unrepeatable existence, one's own decisive intervention or, rather, merely to one's casual insertion into another person's life. ..."

See what I mean?
A tremendous writer.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The scribbling returns

Returning to routine is pleasurable. I used to give myself eight minutes to write my blog, every day a little. Am back to that. Cheating a little, because I revised yesterday's entry first, and only now have set the timer.

I am re-reading Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. I first bought her book Collected Poems because of her poem One Art, and then found the rest of her writing harder to enjoy.

Something has changed: I am reading a few of her poems before going to sleep, and find it rewarding. Better still, when I switched off the light last night, the beginnings of a poem, or rather the subject for a poem came to mind, something worth while writing about. Light back on, scribble, scribble, and I hope I'll have time to work on it today - this will be a busy week with a newsletter to produce, a new chore I have taken on, not a mistake, I hope.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Back in business for 2009

A month and a half gone by, and only now can I re-establish myself as someone who writes - too many other pursuits, some of which turn out to be satisfying.

One of them is the New York Review of Books, which friends are passing on to me in bundles of 6 at a time. They are big and heavy. So much to read there, all excellent. Too time-consuming. One has to choose, a difficult thing. Afterwards they go to friends, who pass them on to someone else. The original subscriber lives in the US, I think.

I just read Kate Atkinson's thriller, When will there be good news? (Doubleday, 2008). I had read the first chapter on-line and was pleased to read the rest. It almost takes off properly at times - "Give her a medal" she says, a leitmotiv reminiscent of Vonnegut's "And so it goes". A good story, enjoyable.But weak from the point of view of the differentiation between the characters. The strong ones all seem the same person to me, the weak ones fade into insignificance.

Before that - from the ridiculous to the sublime - I had managed to get hold of a major book edited by Walid Khalidi, entitled All that remains. Khalidi is a Palestinian, born in Jerusalem in the 1920s, an historian who has taught at Oxford, Princeton and Harvard. He left Oxford in disgust at the role of Britain in the Suez Canal crisis.

The book documents precisely and factually the fate of 418 villages in what is now Israel, villages which have mostly been destroyed. For someone who has an allegiance to Israel, it is a devastating document. It notes which land had been acquired from the Palestinians prior to their leaving, and which had not. Also the manner of their departure. Deir Yassin is there.

I was glad to see that 95% of the land of Gal Ed, a kibbutz I have a connection with, was Jewish-owned before the Palestinian tenants were asked to leave. I wished it was 100%. That was at the time of the War of Independence: six Arab armies threatened the new state on the day it was formed. The Palestinians were caught in the middle, thought putting it like that makes them seem uninvolved, whereas I am sure that they did not want the Jews.

This book is a blue-print for financial compensation. It is one of the reasons I believe it is important. It is based on reliable sources and is careful in the detail that is represented. In NZ, a copy of it is held at Massey University. Maybe elsewhere as well, but that is where I found this copy. It is a big book, expensive.

Some things it is impossible to put right.

When I was young, I saw delapidated, abandoned Arab houses in Israel and asked why: someone, an adult, said "They ran away". The houses that are in good condition have someone living there - in some of them, Jewish families. (Not in all of them - over a million Palestinian Arabs live in Israel today, voting and represented in Parliament.)

History repeats itself.

I visit the house my grandfather used to own in Nuremberg.

It reminds me again of Yehuda Amichai's poem,Jerusalem 1967, Poem No. 5. He wrote that poem in 1968. He stands facing the shop of a Muslim in the Old City in Jerusalem, a shop similar to the shop his grandfather had owned in Poland. It is Yom Kippur, and in his heart, he asks for forgiveness.