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.