Two in a day

It’s a rare day when I finish reading two books, but that’s today. I don’t have much more energy than to read and, it seems, to write also.

I ran a hot bath before. When you’re weary and aching the thought of a soothing hot tub to laze in is very enticing. My phone went off just as I got in. It was a message connected to work and no-one could answer it but me. For a few minutes, I sat in hot water, sending enquiries and responding to others. Then I put my phone down and picked up a book.

The book is the autobiography of James Salter. He’s an author whose writing I always thought was somewhat less than the sum of its parts – but what great parts. Style is very much an individual thing, and I mind myself drawn to very different styles of writing and books all the time. That is to question, is there a definitive and empirical best style? I think not, and would be disappointed to think otherwise – but there are some writers whose prose jumps off the page at you. It glitters and charms and draws you into the world it conjures before your eyes. Salter was one such writer – perhaps, outside of Hemingway, the writer with the most pronounced style.

To my way of thinking his writing is generally beautiful, and when I think about it I don’t know why I think less of his writing. His first book, The Hunters, was okay without being great, but it opened the way for him. A Sport and a Pastime is the book many rave about, and while much of it is gorgeous, I found it difficult to read. It’s lush and sensual and set in Paris and has a lot going for it, except that, like The Great Gatsby, it’s the story of one man as told by another – but whereas, in Gatsby, I had no issue with it, here I found it too hero worshipful and self-effacing.

That’s on me as a reader, and perhaps is a commentary on my own ego.

My favourite of his novels is Light Years, which has a gentle and wise melancholy to it. Then there are his stories, several of which are very good, but none – though I have his collections on my shelf – come immediately to mind.

Then there’s this, his autobiography.

When I started reading I thought it somewhat typical of his writing – beautiful to read, but fragmentary, and without a common thread. I would read a chapter on a Saturday or Sunday lying on my bed. More recently, it was adopted as my ‘bath’ book as I’d finished the one previous. It was perfect to read in the bath – not too heavy, and episodic enough that you could put it down and pick it up without missing much.

By then I’d reconsidered the book. My earlier doubts about it had become virtues. It’s by no means a traditional autobiography. It’s very roughly linear, but it jumps around and focusses more on the characters met along the way than the events of his life. It has a rhythm that echoes experience as we live it, not in great movements, but in small insights.

His family is touched upon, but you don’t really get to know them. As for his writing, he alludes to books he wrote, touches upon the times around them, but there is little about the craft of writing.

I came around to thinking that a biography structured like this is more true to life than the traditional form. We live in episodes. Much of life is fragmentary. We meet people along the way and they take us places. We learn as we go along and sometimes we feel it deeply, and other times find ourselves looking in the mirror. Things don’t go as we always expect, and not all the things we wish come to be. Times change, people come and go, scenes jump.

Linear progression only really makes sense in retrospect, and even then is often artificially applied.

In the end, I really came to appreciate this book, to the point now I think it his greatest work. It’s so much richer for the oblique view of things he allows us through his eyes. It feels more authentic because it’s not about all the things he did, the things in the papers and on IMDB, but about real-life stuff we know because we have a real-life, too. The attitude throughout is reflective, sometimes weary, often curious – like someone beholding the glittering moments of his life and seeing the expanse for it for the first time.

He’s gone now, but he’s lucky to have had the time to reflect back on everything. I hope I can do the same thing one day.

The rest is history…

I’ve pretty well lost my voice. It’s a weak, raspy husk of a thing as a result of a cold I picked up, probably from some sick colleagues. It hit me Friday night and forced me out of bed to start on antibiotics and take a painkiller. I thought I might get over it Saturday and was out and about, including a visit to a local festival. I was less confident yesterday, but it was Cheeseboy’s birthday lunch, and so I went out again. Today, it’s all caught up with me.

Being home, I’ve spent the whole morning in bed, weary, aching, tired, and free to read. In between drowsing, I finished reading a book, which is what I want to speak of today.

The book is The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War In 1914, by the Australian historian, Christopher Clark.

I’ve read a lot of books about the causes of the First World War, but none nearly as comprehensive, as detailed, or as clearly considered as this. I can’t imagine it will ever be surpassed, though I’m wary of such statements.

Unlike the other books I’ve read, this goes back into the years long before the conflict erupted to dig out the roots of it. It’s a fascinating story of unscrupulous, opportunistic and naive characters, of shifting alliances and back-room deals and grand politics.

Everyone knows how the war was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. I knew, or thought I did, about the events that followed on from that and which ultimately led to war. What I didn’t know was the intricacy of regional politics leading up to the assassination, and the alliances forged that ultimately led to one domino falling after another. And while I had read of the headline events that followed the assassination, it’s the conversations, the politicking, and the general intrigue revealed in this book that give it a whole new spin.

It’s folklore that Germany were the instigators of the war, and got their comeuppance in the end. It’s a story that suits the victors, who get to write the history. German aggression and militarism are blamed, and the good guys had no other option but to stand up to it and beat. Cue the band.

I got a very different reading from this book.

There are difficulties in cleanly attributing blame for a catastrophic event such as this. For a start, everyone has a share of it. But it’s also very complex with a million moving parts, and repeated occasions when had it happened differently the whole thing might never have occurred. A conflagration like this requires a mass of events to arrange in such a way that finally it becomes inevitable. But it wasn’t inevitable until it was.

Looking back from a hundred years on, and with the benefit of this history, some things are familiar. The Archduke was murdered by Serbian nationalists calling themselves the Black Hand, encouraged and secretly supported by large swathes of the Serbian government seeking independence from Austria.

The Archduke was not only an Austrian national, he was a member of the Austrian royal family. If something like that were to happen today then there would be widespread outrage, particularly if it was believed if the other nation was supportive in any way, and wished to cover it up.

It happens today. These days it’s terrorists and the response to something like this is generally an airstrike, or something similar. Basically, it’s a message, if you’re not going to do anything about it, then we will instead. Generally, it works, and for the most part, the justice of the action is accepted.

There are many differences then to now, the main one perhaps in this instance is that technology allows for swift and surgical retribution. That was never possible then, but war may never have eventuated had that option had been possible. It would have cauterised the situation quickly – but I’m only speculating.

Instead, within their rights, the Austrians gave the Serbians when it became clear that the Serbian response was inadequate. It was a member of the Austrian royal family who had been murdered, but it was this ultimatum that became the pretext for war.

The Serbians may have acceded to it, and that would have been it most likely, no war required. And while they wavered, the Russians stepped in.

If you were to ask me who’s to blame for the war then I’d say the Serbians made the trigger, but it was the Russians, egged on by the French, who pulled it.

Again, a hundred years on, and with the benefit of history, it’s hard to imagine a more catastrophic turn of events. The Russians, ambitious, and greatly overestimating their own might, saw the situation as an opportunity. The French were all over this, seeing it as their chance to do away with the hated Boche. They wanted war.

For Russia, the decision to mobilise, and effectively go to war, led to the slaughter of WW1 – and to the end of their nation as they’d known it. We know that the Russians were soundly beaten by the Germans, and suffered much misery and misfortune, leading ultimately to Revolution. Surely this goes down as one of the greatest turning points in history: what if Russian hadn’t so itched for a fight that it mobilised? Chances are, no war, and if the revolution was to come – big if – then not in 1917 or even soon after, and almost certainly no Lenin, no Stalin…

From there, the alliances took over. All entente eyes were on Germany, but Germany had been nothing more than supportive of its own ally to that point. Then Russia mobilised which meant that Germany must, which meant also that France must also in support of Russia – though they had intrigued for just this outcome. Finally the English, incompetently led, joined in. Et voila, the Great War!

If you’re interested in this history, then I’d well recommend the book. I’ve summarised and generalised drastically, and this is my take on it – the author just presents the facts. There’s squillions of facts though, more than any comparable book, and a lot of fascinating detail. It’s a book that adds real substance to our knowledge of the times.

Aspiring to UHD

The first book was set in China and was competently written and mildly entertaining, but forgettable. Like most books, really. The second was by Le Carre, the modern-day master of the genre. The difference between them was like watching a program in normal definition and then watching another in UHD.

I often think on these things – because I’m a compulsive reader, and because I have a personal as well as general interest in the craft of writing.

If you were to compare the two plots in these novels, then you’d have to say that Le Carre’s was more sophisticated and finely attuned. In general terms, it’s the difference between a description of life and the lived experience of it – because life is full of moments and complexity. It’s made up of infinitude brush strokes, not broad swathes of colour.

That’s all very well, but many a fine story has been spoiled by average or lack-lustre writing. As I said, the first book was competently written – there were no great jarring moments, the words placed in the right order, it told the story effectively. But then there’s a vast difference between being competent and being talented.

There are books I’ve continued to read simply for the quality of the writing. A well-written book draws you on. I might reference someone like James Salter here, whose books – with exceptions – feel less than the sum of their parts, but are always gorgeous to read.

Not surprisingly, there’re very few writers who can compose a memorable storyline and render it with style and insight.

As an aspiring writer, that’s who I want to be, though, predictably, it’s no easy thing.

For mine, I reckon John Le Carre is one of the great contemporary novelists, regardless of genre. His stories are engaging and intelligent and, as I said, he writes in UHD. Once more, that’s exactly what I want from my writing – engaging and intelligent, and with deep insight.

I reckon I can write with style. I can write a sentence as good as most, and a paragraph to follow it up. Certainly, I think my prose is superior to the competent spy thriller I just read, if not yet up to Le Carre’s standard. I’m an astute learner, however. I read a lot, and I pay attention. And I’m sensitive to human nature, able to quickly read people and often to detect what’s unsaid, the meaning between the lines. It’s why I started to write I think, because that insight came naturally to me and led from one thing to another. I was sensitive to the world about me, not just people, but the physical world as well. There’s fascination in that, and wonder, and from it comes the need to understand and observe it. In time you seek to render it in your own words, to give your interpretation of it.

I’m passionate about this, but I think that’s true of many writers. You don’t necessarily choose to do it; it emerges from within you. I want to learn and get better. I have high expectations. I fully expect the day will come when I am close to being the writer I aspire to me. There’s some natural talent in that achievement, but a lot more is the burning intent to be better.

The truth of things

It’s a popular pastime to put together a list of people you’d invite for dinner. I’ve been working at my list for years, adding names to it very carefully and only after long consideration. A lot of people reel off names quickly, commonly referencing movie or sporting stars. Not me. By and large my criteria – never stated till now – is for people I can imagine having long and interesting conversations with. They’re people who either by their experience or intellect have a story to tell or an insight to share. Marilyn Monroe isn’t on my list (but Mohammed Ali might be).

One of the names on my list will be unknown to most people, but is an easy pick for me: Victor Serge. (Here’s an interesting and descriptive article on his life and times):

For mine, Victor Serge is one of the most fascinating characters of the last century. He lived a vivid life in exciting times and was brave enough to take a position on the events he was caught up in.

I found him through his writing, though that’s only one aspect of him. His books, autobiographical in essence, deal with the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and with the tumultuous times, he witnessed and was a participant in. His writing is candid. He presents as someone committed to understanding the truth of things, and not just the form of them. He was an anti-Stalinist, and while there is a strong humanist element to his books, they’re marked by great insight and intellectual depth.

Reading his books, I liked him – or, felt great respect at least. He’s one of those writers who would make me occasionally stop to think about what he had written. For that reason alone, I could imagine having long, stirring conversations with him.

Of course, he’s long dead, and exercises like this are not much more than indulgent list-making – fun all the same. It highlights a gap in my life though – who do I have to speak about these things with? I don’t reckon any of my friends would have a clue who Victor Serge is. Those conversations happen only in my head, and sometimes make an appearance on these pages.

It’s a pity. I like to ask questions, but there’s no-one to ask them of. Instead, I think on them. I wonder, I examine, but the debate is internal. It seems an obvious thing to me that one should engage in the broader questions of existence – history, culture and thought. These are our times, this is our life, and even if you don’t find it fascinating, then at least you must see something vital in addressing these themes.

So I say. In the meantime it means my public life goes on with very little of my private life on display.

I sometimes think that being a person with these interests locked away and invisible sets you apart. Everyone has a secret life, but these things, outside of your self, give you a perspective that few others share. That may be indulgent twaddle, but I find personally that my take on things is more detached because I have a broader view. Perspective takes on a literal sense then because everything is to scale – what looms large to many you see as being small and fleeting. It’s all happened before, and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, and it will be resolved. There’s no advantage to such a perspective, it seems. The opposite may be true when the prevailing view is to the contrary.

It dilutes the take, but when everyone is manic and fraught, you run the risk of being viewed as a dilettante.

The next Ned Kelly movie

Soon after it came out, I remember reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and being blown away by it. It was dark and mystical and had thematic overtones worthy of Shakespeare. It was lyrical too and gorgeous in parts when the language would gallop away in the eyes and words of one of the characters. As an Australian I was affected by this – it’s a very Australian story and, as Carey told it, something quintessential to the Australian experience way beyond the oft-told and fabled tale of a bushranger. There was something in this that was about us.

I remember getting into a discussion about the book, and the story of Ned Kelly, with some NYT readers in the book review comments. They were intrigued by the story and, carried away perhaps, I recall saying that as a settled nation, we had a short history, but this was like one of our sustaining myths. It’s a grand story too, the Jerilderie letter with its evocative language, and the boldness to seek insurrection by derailing a train and taking on the troopers. Then there’s his suit of armour, so iconic now that Nolan painted a whole series using it. Every Australian my age knows the story pretty much, but I wonder if it’s more vivid here in Victoria, where it all happened.

In the years since there’s been some revisionist accounting of what happened, pointing out that in fact, Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He was, but the story has though mythical elements that make it so much more than a simple crime story. And when Carey wrote his book, it was those elements he drew upon.

When I heard a while back that they were making a movie of the book, I was both excited and concerned. My concern was not so much that it wouldn’t live up to the book, but rather that it would be different from the book.

There was a Ned Kelly movie made earlier this century with Heath Ledger, based on the book by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine. That’s a fine book too, and it draws the story of the Kelly gang exuberantly as if they were boys to men, possessed of bountiful talent and high spirits. The language shone with life and buoyancy, and the title was well made. Yet in my memory, the movie is gloomy and dirty and muddy and filled with a sense of doom – as if the story was adopted, but none of the sense around it. I won’t watch it again.

This morning I read a preview of the new movie, and it sounds boldly made and cleverly put together, and by a director who seems to have understood the essence of the tale. I haven’t seen it, but I read that Peter Carey liked it and that’s a great vote of approval. I can’t wait to see it because I know it will make me think.

The marvellous Clive James

Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

Faux summer days

It feels like summer, not because it’s especially warm – it’d be about 16 degrees outside – but the sky is blue and the sun shining and, as I sit here, I can hear one neighbour going about his mowing while another has the whipper-snipper out. Sure signs. All I need now is the waft of some barbecue aromas (and maybe the cricket on in the background), and I’ve got pure summer cliche, just like so many others in the past. Some things never change.

In reality, this is the dead time before summer. It’s not winter and, despite all signs, not summer either. I think they call this spring. It’s a bit of everything and I don’t mind that, especially as the days grow longer, and you can see things coming into bud. You get a bit of a skip in your step this time of year because winter is over. Finally, enough is enough, though enough is just right too – I like winter, but steady, boy.

For someone who views the calendar through a sporting lens, then this is a bit of a dead time. Footy’s over, cricket hasn’t begun proper. The A-League re-commenced last night, but it’ll take me a while to get back into that. Likewise the NBL, which I’ll keep an eye on without ever getting too excited. There’s motorsport, but, nah; and the horse racing season heats up now – I’ll get into that in a couple of weeks.

It’s a convenient opportunity for me to catch up on things then without distraction. I did a solid shift working from home yesterday, but still managed to take down a few boxes to the local Salvos. There’s a bit more of that sort of stuff to do, as well as the well-timed spring cleaning I rarely get to in any season of any year. And there’s my writing.

A couple of weeks ago I exclaimed to some close confidantes that I’d be finishing my book that weekend. But then I got crook and by then had lost the plot anyway. I did some more work on it last weekend. This weekend I’m a chance to finish, but don’t hold your breath.

I’ve got plenty of time now without distraction and if it’s not this weekend then almost certainly it’ll be next weekend. That’ll be a moment, though it’s only a first draft and I already know so many things about it I want to change. That’s why it’s a first draft.

Once it’s done, I’ll stick it in the bottom drawer and take from there the MS I prepared earlier – the first book, ripe for a final re-write and polish. That’s how it goes.

In the meantime, might fire up the barbie.