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 moment...it'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.