Just around the corner

I spent a part of Sunday cataloguing my books, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I only catalogued the books I have out, going one by one through the shelves and to the sundry books strewn around the place – mostly by and under my bed. I catalogued around 150 books, a tip of the iceberg really – there are about a dozen boxes in the garage unopened. It’s a start though, and it was a pretty satisfying experience as each time I scanned a book I was made to remember when I’d bought or read it, and what I thought of it. The books I have out are all important books so there were a lot of memories.

One of the things I recalled as I went through them was the book-reading phases I went through – there were a bunch of Sartre, a bunch of Camus, a bunch of Kundera, a bunch of Updike, Hemingway and Roth. They were read at different times, different stages of my life, but generally they were read as bunches. Camus and Sartre I read in my early twenties. Hemingway when I was still a teen, and later beyond that. Kundera was in my thirties I think, and Roth later again in general, though I first read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was 16 or 17. I don’t remember when I first read Updike, but I’ve been reading his stories regularly.

Then there are the bunches of books put away in boxes – Salinger, Conrad, Mann, Musil, and so on.

For those moments I felt as I did when I first read these books. Often present was a great sense of adventure and discovery. To happen across a good author and a promising set of books felt as if I was about to explore new worlds. These worlds represented an experience, a perspective, another time and place, a world yet mapped for me. I felt an intrepid reader. I wanted to enter into those worlds. I wanted to open all my senses to the experience. I wanted to learn and grow and understand. There was great pleasure in all of this, but also a sense of life education.

In the midst of reading I would often stop to consider what adventures awaited me down the road. These were words, but there was also real life ahead, which these words gave me a glimpse of. I was sure I had great things ahead of me. I remember a sense of almost uninterrupted anticipation.

I remembered all that and wondered when I’d lost all of that. I could understand, given my travails, how it could so easily be mislaid, or even corrupted, but I had the sense that it was on the wane even before that. To be rational, I’ve had many adventures, and lived both deeply and widely. Many of the things I imagined at came to pass. Does that make a difference?

I want to feel that again. I’m older now. There’s probably fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me, but that’s no reason to give it away. I’ve set myself to re-ignite that sense of anticipation and adventure. I don’t think it should be too hard. I may be of phlegmatic temperament, but I still retain some whimsy and am enduringly curious. I want to feel there’s still a lot ahead of me.


Writing life

I’m back at work after a long weekend and slow to rouse. It feels like this is something regular until I realise it only becomes a thing when I feel it, the rest of the time, and four days out of five, I don’t notice it because I’m at work and straight into it. I can skive, but overall I’m pretty diligent.

The weekend itself was pleasant without being anything out of the ordinary. It was a standard weekend with a combination of the usual activities: I caught up with a friend Saturday night and another dropped by Sunday. I did my shopping, I cooked, I read, watched some footy, and I put in my usual shift writing.

I didn’t get as much writing as I would have liked perhaps, but I’m moving in the desired direction. I think this will be a good book if I can get it close to how I envisage it, and better probably than the book I just finished. I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I have improved as a writer over the last 18 months. That comes down to sheer discipline and repetition, and having to wrestle with the complexities of the novel. I hope the improvement continues, though I expect it will slow at some point. For now I’ll take it, confident now that I have the goods to be an above average writer at least – though I’m aiming for more than that.

I’ve parked the novel I’ve written. I flirted with the idea of taking it to a publisher, but held off. I have people reading it who give it great feedback, but my aspirations are higher than that. I figure if I leave it for six months, until a point when it’s out of my head, before going back to it with fresh eyes and improved skill, then I can probably polish it an extra 20%. I can wait – it’s about the art (he said pretentiously).

In the meantime I have this other novel to work on, and two more in my mind to move onto afterwards, plus a screenplay (and sundry stories). And there’s a grant to apply for.

A friend sent me a link a couple of weeks ago for a new venture for aspiring novelists. There’s ten slots up for grabs, each of which come with $15,000 of prizemoney and a writing mentor. The money would be very handy, but it’s the mentor that excites me.

In my book the hard thing about writing is getting an alternative, critical perspective on the work. I can have friends and acquaintances read my stuff, and though their feedback is positive and useful in its way, it’s neither professional or particularly incisive. I’m confident that with properly professional feedback that I can repair or enhance my work with their guidance. I think I have a good eye, and a good nose for that matter, but it’s impossible when you’re immersed in a piece to see it properly. You know it too well. It’s all trees to you.

I’ll be submitting my application in the next couple of weeks, with my completed novel being the work I submit as part of that. By the time they announce the successful applicants I’ll have just about finished the first draft of the current book and will be good to return to the earlier one. I have to be successful of course, but there’s no point worrying about that. I’ll do my bit, the rest is with the gods.

Goodbye, Phillip Roth

I shouldn’t have been given his age, but I felt profoundly surprised last night hearing about the death of Phillip Roth.

Surprise, not shock. I’m very sorry he’s gone, but he was at the age when such things happen, and he probably had a few extra years over the average. It is to be expected. The surprise comes as he has appeared just as healthy and intellectually vibrant as ever in the interviews I’ve read with him recently. Of course, that means nothing.

As a keen reader I’m more than surprised. He gave up writing a few years ago, but even so his is a body of work very few writers can rival. I came relatively late to Roth, I’m not sure why. I remember reading Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus when I was still a relatively young reader – just out of my teens. I enjoyed them, but I probably didn’t pick up another book of his for over 20 years.

It was that second coming when I really began to immerse myself in his writings. I re-read those books, then started on the others. I liked some more than others, but across the board I enjoyed the writing, the intellect, and often times the scope of vision. He captured things that were real. As a bonus a lot of it was pretty edgy too, with a wicked sense of humour at work. A lot of that stuff became controversial, but I enjoyed it.

His death feels greater because I think – for me – he’s the last of an era. Writing has changed since he started up, and though there is much I can appreciate in more contemporary novels my literary heartland are the novels of this time, the works of Updike, Styron, Salter and Roth – all now gone. Perhaps it is because I grew up with them, they are both my influences and much of my inspiration.

I don’t know if there is a contemporary chronicler like Roth was. Sad to see him gone, but glad of his work.

A happy game

Last night I watched a documentary on Arthur Miller, made by his daughter. I was keen to see it, not only because he was an acclaimed playwright, but because he was also a seminal figure in the twentieth century. He lived an interesting life.

I’m an admirer of Miller. In my book he’s probably the greatest moral playwright of the last century, and I’m drawn to that kind of writing. My first introduction to him was at high school, where we studied Death of a Salesman. Like many things you’re forced into studying I didn’t take to it overmuch at the time, but I still remember it very well. At some point I caught up with All My Sons, but my favourite of all his plays is The Crucible.

The Crucible takes the Salem witch trials as its setting, but it’s really about McCarthy-ism and the trials that took place trying to root out alleged Communist conspirators in the 1950s. It’s really about paranoia and persecution and the hysterical need to condemn and punish, but it’s also about courage, which is what drew me to the story.

It’s fascinating as a telling of the Salem witch trials, and even more so when you consider it in light of McCarthy, but what rings true in the end is the simple courage of John Proctor and his wife who refuse to submit to untruth, even if it will save them. There’s a line in the play, you’ve taken my soul, leave me my name. That name is their integrity, their identity, and ultimately they can’t compromise on that.

There some who appeared before the HUAC and spilled their guts, revealing to the committee of those who they believed to be Reds. There were others who refused to recognise the authority of the committee, and wouldn’t cooperate. They were punished – as were John and Goody Proctor – but their ‘name’ was more important to them than the threats and intimidation of a blatantly unjust court.

It’s the people who have the courage of their convictions, who are unafraid of going against the flow and are indifferent to popular sentiment I admire. It’s those who are willing to put themselves on the line for a higher principle than self-interest, and will make a stand for what is right and true who elevate society beyond the mediocre.

Miller dealt with such topics, among other fundamental enquiries such as the value of what we do, integrity, belief, the motivations that make us twitch, as well the delusions, and the meanings we come to attribute to our existence. These are subjects close to my heart even at their most raw. Miller was able to encapsulate and give voice to such theme in tales both entertaining and erudite.

I watched, this story of his work, and the life that surrounded it, and in a part of my mind I was working on the story I’d been writing earlier, figuring it out, reflecting on it in light of Miller and his work. It fell full in me, and real. I’ve been struggling with this book but this weekend it began to come together. I saw the depth of it, saw where it might go and how it might get there. It’s an exciting feeling. It’s as if it has gained meaning and life of its own accord and begins galloping away from you, and you hurry after it not wanting it to get away.

And in the background, as it has all weekend, was the sense of contented affection. I know enough that it’s this feeling that I’m drawn to. You fall in love with being in love. I’m not in love, but I have a mighty sense of desire. It feels like a truth that is unique to me, which is likely true. Whether I’m entitled to the love of another person I cannot say, but I know I’ve got every right to feel as I do. I’m easy with it, happy to be myself without striving to be more: it is enough, or it isn’t. I am me, and this is all I have to offer – but it’s much.

So as I watched, reflecting on the work of Miller against my own authorly aspirations, I found myself similarly attending to the story of his relationships, and ultimately the one true love he finally settled with. It seemed right.

There was an affecting moment near the end. After about 40 years together his wife dies. Miller writes to a friend about her, and how it has devastated him:

“I am very old now, like a dog I always laid my catch at her feet. Now I carry it around aimlessly, the happy game disrupted. Forever.”

It seemed such a sad and true thing to say, and I found myself with tears in my eyes. And it seemed right to me that this is something I could honestly aspire to – to be with that person I wanted nothing more than to lay my catch at her feet. To play that happy game. It is something that fits well with the man I am.

Bath books

I love a hot bath. It’s indulgent and sensual and there’s something awfully cosy about it, like a return to amniotic fluid. Yes, baths are a lot of fun in my household.

I don’t every time, but very often I’ll lean back with the hot water up to my throat and read a book. The books I read in the bath are different from the books I read elsewhere. There’s a whole separate category: bath books. They’re books you can dabble in piecemeal, books that stay in the bathroom and close to hand once you settle into the bath. I read a book by Osho in the bath once. I read Jung’s autobiography, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Right now I’m reading what amounts to journals by Georges Simenon, the author of the famous Maigret books.

This is the perfect book for the bathtub as you can read a few entries and then set it aside for next time. It’s a good read, too. It’s always interesting to get insights from writers, and in this case, being a journal, very candid and personal insights.

He writes well, in a discursive manner, curious about the world about him and about his work, posing questions of it and raising conjectures. He is a man who can’t stop wondering, can’t stop seeking sense or pattern, searching backwards and forwards through time and memory. It feels very familiar to me as my mind seems to run on similar tracks. Delving into a mind like his is a reminder of how fascinating individuality is.

I pity people who don’t read. For many I know it’s a habit they were never properly introduced to, or it became a chore because it was something they must do for school. Others, I guess, never experienced the magic of these alternate realities. I always feel that imagination is lost to them, where in fact a rich imagination is one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed on someone.

It’s an elementary statement for me when I say I would be a very different person if I didn’t read. In fact, the me that writes this today would not be possible without reading. I am a man that reads, and how lucky is that?

Towards a perspective

Randomly flicking between stations last night I came across Annie Hall, just started. I’ve seen it a zillion times before and thought I’ll just watch for a little before switching to something else. Of course I didn’t. I got hooked early, seduced by the easy familiarity of a movie I know so well, and which I grew up with.

I reckon I know half the lines in Annie Hall. There’re some crackers. I’ve used a lot of the lines myself on a regular basis, though the time has come when most people now don’t recognise the source.

As I was watching I realised that it had to be one of my favourite films. It’s so bloody clever, not just the dialogue, but the way it was made too. And it’s familiar too, a familiarity that comes from having watched it so often, but capped off by the familiarity of having lived a life in which similar episodes were not only possible, but almost common. It’s a shared experience of living, which is probably another reason I love it so much – it feels in some convoluted way as if half of it could be my life, albeit I’m not a pasty Jewish New Yorker.

It’s one of those shows that become important in your life, and when I think about it there are a dozen other programs that hold a similar place in my life.

When I think of movies I’d add in Dangerous Liaisons and Age of Innocence (and likewise the books those movies are based on). Dream Story (Schnitzler), A Hero of Our Times (Lermontov), A Balcony In The Forest (Gracq) had a similar impact. Then there are TV shows like Seinfeld, which I still reference with like-minded friends (I’m actually giving Donna a t-shirt for her birthday tonight with the legend ‘Spongeworthy’ printed across the front of it). Then there are other shows like Mad Men and Californication which had a connection to me unlike other favourite shows, because I could share something with them.

I called up my mate from Sydney afterwards last night. Growing up we would go and watch Woody Allen movies together, Love and Death at North Sydney, Manhattan at Double Bay (I think), and for years after his movies would crop up in our conversation. It was another reason we were friends, a shared appreciation.

Last night we riffed on it for ten minutes or so, in the same groove. He made a random reference to the second lobster scene in the movie and the leggy woman non compos at Woody’s cracks, and both of us knew exactly what that was like.

These are some of the many things that knit together a life story, and I reckon you can get a pretty good idea of a person by the books, the music, the movies and TV they like. I don’t know why we don’t do more of that because it goes beyond taste, and towards a perspective.

Mini life experiences

If you’re someone like me, someone with an insatiable curiosity on top of being an avid reader, then you’ll know the feeling of discovery when you pick up a new book. It’s something you feel in perpetuity, but I think at a certain of life it’s much stronger.

That stage of life is approximately between 18 and 25, I reckon. The binding confines of routine and discipline that are a part of school life are behind you. Most, if not all, of the things previously barred to you are now legal. You can drive a car, have a drink, have sex with almost anyone you want. There’s a mad rush of possibility when you look forward at the long road and many years ahead of you. Fuck it feels good, like anything is possible, like everything is new, like nothing can be kept from a clever and resourceful character you figure yourself to be. You just know it’s going to be wonderful and adventurous and memorable as all fuck. Man, you just soak up the possibility like a sponge, and off you go.

Like I said, if you’re curious and a decent reader you’ll do your share of driving and drinking and fucking, and maybe a little more too, but in between there are a mountain of books to get through, and ideas, and experiences, whole fucking vistas to absorb and swallow up. That’s when every book you pick up feels like a whole new world waiting for you to discover. That’s a precious feeling.

I remember it so well. I was curious about other people’s ideas. I had a lot of questions. I was filled with wonder. I wanted to know why and how. I wanted to feel some of the things I read others felt; wanted to explore as they did, wanted, very often, to set aside the book for a moment and imagine that life as if it was mine – or else my life as it could be. There was a lot of learning in this. It was a steep curve but I was hungry for it. I read all sorts, but I remember poetry, and Hemingway, remembering reading Camus and then Sartre and pondering what it all meant. I remember reading Hesse and Manne, before getting onto Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Lermontov and Pushkin. There was another too who had a great impact on me, Antoine de Saint Exupery.

He was the dashing philosopher, the man who flew mail planes before the war and wrote about the experience. He was deep thinker, sensitive to the swirling currents about him. His books read as grand adventure stories, but there is a profound element that I swallowed whole at the time.

I was impressionable then. If I read him again now (which I will at some point), then the experience will be different to what it was then. That’s true of most books, I think, the experience soaks up not just the words of the text but also the events of your life. There’s a cross-pollination when the book is a good one. In the case of these books I was also young and aggressively seeking experience. The notion of flying mail planes through wind and storm, across the Andes and over the Sahara, was incredibly romantic to the man I was. This I could do. There was a wistful element to it: if only I was there to see it for myself, to feel it. It was a form of elevated fantasy, but at least I had the genius of St Ex to guide me. In any case, while the romance deepened with the fact that he disappeared during the war while flying, the reality of it was probably a little too real.

I make reference to him now because I’ve been getting into the habit of posting my thoughts on the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching. I’ve started to delve into the past to give recommendations based on my experience, and for whatever random reason St Exupery was one of the first authors I wrote of (along with Paula Fox). I could write about books all day.

That’s the thing about a good book – it becomes a life experience. I often remember things by the books I was reading at the time, or I pluck a book from the shelf and a flood of memories surrounding it return to me. There’s a little bit of Proust’s madeleine in every good book you experience.