Magic and wonder

I read this morning that the author and naturalist, Barry Lopez, had died.

I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the years. He was a luminescent writer with a keen eye and an open heart. He’s known for his writing on the natural world, but he also wrote more conventional stories. In either case, his prose was sensitive and drew you close inside the essence of the tale.

I think this happens when you have an extreme sensitivity to the world about you – not as something you travel through, but exist within. As a naturalist, he was drawn to detail and understanding context, and the result of that was naturally spiritual.

When you realise that everything has a life and purpose, that the world around us and we within it co-exist within layers of dependencies, then you begin to see a depth of meaning that eludes most of us, most of the time.

I was always found his writing illuminating, and often enlarging. He had a way of showing the wonder in enchanting things. He was one of those writers I would occasionally set aside midway through just to contemplate what I’d just read – to feel it full in me and abundant, to capture some of the truth of it and hold it in me for a while. And that was true for his stories as well as his naturalism.

He was 75, which seems relatively young, but I envy how he saw things, and the delight it must have filled him with.

By chance I’m reading a book by another naturalist right now, Richard Nelson.

He shares with Lopez a lovely lyrical gift of seeing and describing that is almost spiritual. It seems to me to be truly close to the natural world is a humbling and spiritual experience, and it’s there in their words. There’s a weight of meaning that is the very opposite of superficial. In all cases, a forgotten virtue – respect – is essential.

Reading this book, I’m reminded of the years I would go camping with my step-father and hunt for game. Mostly, we’d be far from civilisation. We’d stop in places where we were the interlopers and surrounding us raw nature. I would feel it every time I heard the call of an animal in the night, or see their tracks in the morning, or see the great gusts of cockies fly through the air before settling to cackle at us. The nocturnal thump and scrape, the movement in the bush felt as much as seen. And the owls in the trees looking on, hooting at their desire, and the wedge-tailed eagles majestic high in the blue sky as they circled and swooped.

We visited some out of the way places – out past Narrabri in the hills, the back of Bourke in red soil country, in scratchy brush and drought lands and places green and rugged. Just being there felt eye-opening, because it was a life very foreign to what I knew and understood in the city. I was a sensitive kid, and I felt these things, sitting in the fork of a tree overlooking it, or later by the fire with the scent of wood smoke in the air and deep night beyond the circle of light. Often it felt wondrous and bigger than anything I had ever understood.

There’s a morality to that world you can touch when you’re awake to it. You fit into it. That’s very present in the words of Lopez and Nelson, and most naturalists I’ve read. There’s an innate humility when you realise that life is all around you. I wonder if part of my problem is that I’m feeling an increasing disconnect from that sense of morality.

We live in an age of rampant hubris, and when our arrogance has become so extreme that we are destroying the environment we are part of and killing our future. This is what happens when you feel you are above all life and the environment is there to serve you. This happens when there is no balance or perception, when life is consumption, without magic or wonder.

Living in parallel

The big news yesterday was the the death of David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre.

He was 89, which is pretty ripe as old age goes, and had been writing up till the end. There’s always a tinge of sadness, nonetheless.

For me, some of the sadness is purely selfish. We might get some posthumous publication out of him, but he aint writing anymore. That’s sad because I reckon he was one of the very best novelists writing in the English language – never mind limiting it to spy novels. He was a gifted observer of human foibles and acute when describing them. As far as prose goes, his is some of the more intelligent you’ll come across.

He’s one of those authors that I feel like I’ve known all my life. You know how books evoke memories, and particular periods in your life, well he was one of those writers I feel as if I’ve lived in parallel to, on the other side of the world.

If I close my eyes, I can see places long lost to me, places where I read his books or spoke of them – and of course, all the memories of those places and periods are there also for me. I cottoned onto Le Carre early, and then there was a big gap before I returned to him about 20 years ago.

I had an Aunt, who was a great reader. For every birthday and Christmas, I could count on getting at least a book from her, beautifully wrapped in gold or silver foil with a ribbon around it. She cultivated my reading, and I was happy to have it cultivated.

She lived in Sydney, and I would stay with her most of the time I visited there, and I actually lived with her in her Watson’s Bay apartment for a while in the eighties (what a vivid memory that is). She had several bookcases full of books, and there was Le Carre.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy in hardback while I was there. In the adjoining years, I also read The Spy That Came In From The Cold, and A Murder of Quality.

It was years until I read any of his books after that, though I was an avid watcher of the various TV series and movies made from his books.

I don’t know what brought me back to him. It’d never been a deliberate decision not to read him, more so that he had moved out of my reading orbit. Then he returned.

Over the last 15 years, I reckon I’ve read a dozen of his books, maybe more. There are no duds, though some are better than others. If nothing else, I always enjoy the quality of writing.

Not surprisingly, he was also an astute commentator of current affairs. He was clever and erudite and his politics – no coincidence – were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Like for many of us, the rise of Trump and Brexit was horrifying to him. He wrote well about that, seeing in it something revealing of the human condition – but then all his writing was about that really.

Funny how people die. That’s another one – and my aunt passed on nearly 20 years ago. Times go on. Sad to see him go, but it had to happen.

White noise

The counterpoint to the movie I wrote of yesterday – The Great Beauty – is the book I’m currently reading – Going To The Dogs.

The Great Beauty is set in contemporary Rome, grand and ancient. It features the creative well-to-do leading a life of endless parties and dinners and intellectual discourse round and round. Going To The Dogs is set in Berlin during Weimar Germany, just after the stock market crash of 1929. It’s provocative and lewd and anything is possible.

On the surface, the protagonists could hardly be more different. One is a 65 year old Italian sophisticate and intellectual. The other is an unemployed German half his age. One has known success and has settled into a life of comfort and sensuality, as well as minor celebrity. The other is talented and intelligent, but lost in the mess and muck of an era in transition – before the Nazis. One leads a gilded life and possesses a manner of charming cynicism; the other is an affable moralist, but without a position in life, and no future.

The differences are obvious, but there is much that ties them together. The worlds they inhabit are vibrant and decadent, though in different ways. One has lost an essence and the other lacks it. Both are observers. Both experience a form of detachment. Both of them quest, one by belated circumstance, and the other by nature. And both possess that quality we called sensibility in the post yesterday.

I find them as two sides of the same coin, very different at first glance, but sharing fundamental attributes. I wonder if they met what they would think of the other, but in between them I find myself drawn to both.

In the case of Fabian, the protagonist of Going To The Dogs, the reasons for that are less clear than they were yesterday.

I like Fabian – he’s smart and thoughtful and a decent human being. He’s capable but unmotivated, though not because he’s lazy. His is more a existential lack of motivation, though he remains curious about what he finds in the world about him, and at times he’ll seek out difference as if to learn from it. He reminds me, in memory anyway, of Ulrich, from The Man Without Qualities. They’re the same age, and both are seemingly searching for the thing that might light them up inside. In their way, both are outsiders, though not by choice. It’s as if something present in most people is absent in them, though it doesn’t stop them from joining in and trying.

It’s a rich vein of literature this, particularly in European art over the last century. I can only guess that it coincides with much of progress and modernisation and conflict along the way which, in combination, have had the effect of drawing us further from the fundamental and numbing our sensibility. Along the way, some get lost in all the white noise. Which is one reason why the experience of lockdown lately has been so profound in some ways – much of the white noise has been muted, and other things heard.

It’s always appealed to me this trope, and think this is the basic story here. Jep, from The Great Beauty, has coddled himself in lifestyle. He’s given way to the white noise. Then he hears something through the  noise and it harkenns to him things that were precious to him, but which he let go. In Fabian, he’s conscious of the white noise, though maybe it’s something he couldn’t articulate in so many words. He’s aware, all the same, of a basic distance between him and the world he has yet to reconcile. At times he thinks he will do the conventional but it appears the world is against him and won’t allow it. Even when he wishes it…

That’s a common part of this – fate has condemned…

When reading is a pleasure

I read a lot of books, and by definition, most of them are average. The genuinely memorable books have a great story well told, but it’s a rare combo. By my reckoning a good 70% of books fit in the middle of the bell-curve – competently written and more or less a worthy diversion, but not something you’ll necessarily recommend to others or remember too long. There’s about 20% of books on the wrong edge of the bell-curve – poorly written and edited, formulaic, sloppy, etc. I’m lucky if I finish one of the books, and if I do it’s generally because some small skerrick of interest has been pricked and I’m curious how it ends. Mostly, when that happens, I’ll scan the last hundred or so pages very quickly, or skip outright to the last chapter.

Then there are the very few – 10% if I’m lucky – which I deem to be a pleasure to read. Often times, it’s the sheer quality of writing that draws me in. I’m a sucker for that. Depth and insight and a mean way of stringing words together make for a delightful reading experience. Add that to a ripsnorting story, and I’m a slave to it.

As someone who writes on the side, and who’s passionate about it, that’s the standard I’m aiming for. You want a cracking story, obviously, but what makes for that is mostly subjective. As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I accept that. I can only measure up to the standards I set myself in that regard, which are my own, so I’ve got that pretty well ticked off from the get-go.

It’s different when it comes to the quality of the writing. It’s harder to get right too, I reckon. Sure, you can turn in something competent without breaking into a sweat, but where’s the fun in running a five-minute mile? It’s not the point, either.

The point is to write something people want to read, and keep reading, and take pleasure – and perhaps even wonder – out of the reading experience. That comes in two parts, I reckon.

The first part is simpler, I think – to put words in a sequence and with a cadence that bewitches the reader into reading more. It sounds nice in your head and has a quality that stays in mind. I guess you’d call this style. There have been some great writing stylists. The best of them make a simple shopping list a thing of pleasure. They resonate. Their words linger. Think of Hemingway and Salter, writers like that, and many other writers just enjoyable to read. I say it’s simpler, but it’s still very hard.

Style is great, but most of us aren’t going to splash out for a well-written shopping list. What I’m talking about is human insight and understanding. I’m talking about the rare writer who exposes through their prose human nature and vulnerability. Somehow, they see with more precision than the rest of us and have an understanding of how we act and interact, the why’s and wherefores and even the hows of it. They tug the curtain aside to give us a view of things otherwise hidden to us, but which so often feel ineffably true when we come across them. They’re the writers you find yourself looking up from the page in contemplation. Something dawns on you. You feel enriched. You wonder why you never knew this before. Then you bend your head and read some more. Think of Roth and Updike, Mann or Remarque. These are writers who have lived. This is a rare gift.

Naturally, I hope to put together style with insight. Time will tell.

I started a new book last night, which is what prompted this discourse. The book is Commonwealth, by Anne Patchett. She’s an author I knew of but never read previously. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it’s a winner.

As I began to read, I felt a sense of pleasure. This lady knows how to write, I thought. With that came a subtle pang. For one of the rare occasion reading, I felt self-conscious about my own writing. I knew wasn’t this good, and I felt both sad and inspired knowing it.

I don’t know about other people, but writing is one of the few areas I don’t feel particularly competitive about. Mostly I’m content to do my own thing while others do theirs. On the occasions when I come across writers like Patchett, I feel much more humble than aggrieved. I’m glad of the opportunity to read such quality. I drink it up, and at the back of my mind, I figure I can learn something – and maybe that’s my get out clause. I’m not the finished product, I figure, I’m still learning, still improving. One day I might be as good.

What’s the quality that seduced me reading last night? It felt so real, and so rich at the same time, like a story passed down through the family, you know backwards and forwards. You know it in yourself and can see and feel it too. And though she’s not a stylist like some of the big names her prose is of the top shelf, easily read, easily absorbed, and totally engaging.

Let’s see what chapter two is like.

Philip Roth Was My Friend – The Atlantic

Source: Philip Roth Was My Friend – The Atlantic

I’m a big fan of Philip Roth. His early stories are vivid, including Goodbye, Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint was a seminal (no pun intended) book in my reading development. I read it when I was about 20 and thought, wow, you can write about that! His characters were tortured and thought and spoke in a mad rush of words.

There’s a cheeky pleasure in reading his early stuff, but it’s his late-career writing that took him to another level. As someone reading from far away it felt as if this work – more thematically complex, more sober – was a reflection of the journey he was on himself. It felt as if he explored in his novels the themes and stories he wondered at himself. The early stuff is like a barroom lothario using his easy charm to get laid. The later stuff is a man of the world unwilling to barter with easy words, intent on the questions life has posed him.

I admire him as a writer, but I relate to him as a man. In particular, though I’m a different character to any he’s written of, I found myself reading his stuff hooked on the same themes. To me, his writing development reflects his personal experience. Other authors write variations on the same themes throughout their life, but his books are true to the stage of life he’s in, and what he sees.

I find that interesting and I relate to it. It helps that I share some of the same appetites as his characters, and Roth himself.

I enjoyed reading this piece, but there are two things from it I particularly want to share.

This first is a reflection on getting old and turning away from the erotic possibility:

“Wait ’til you go well and truly to sleep where the body forks,” he said. “A great peacefulness, yes. But it’s the harbinger of night. You’re left to browse back through the enticements and satisfactions and agonies that were your former vitality—when you were strong in the sexual magic.” The peace was hard-won. “First my vehement youth, all fight and craving,” he told me. “Then this so suddenly—old age telling me to have a long last look. I’ve come through. I’m on the other side of all battles. Aspiration, that beast, has died in me. Whenever death comes to mind, I tell myself, It is now and here we are, and this suffices. So long as we’re alive, we’re immortal, no?”

I wrestle with the fear of this, even now, when possibility still exists for me, and I have every expectation of fruitful years ahead. But what happens when I don’t? There’s a sense of essence I feel leaking away, and in a way, I think he explored that – the mind going on while the trappings of the body subsided. If you read Everyman, he counts back from it all ended to when it was all possibility. It’s both heartbreaking and beautiful. It haunted me when I read it first.

Near the end of this piece Roth is quoted reading from Conrad, and lingering on the phrase:

‘In the destructive element immerse.’

It’s a lovely phrase, and I think it resonates to Roth because it’s this he had to contend with. I think it means to accept the darkness inside you and make it yours. There’s the great temptation to conform and behave. We tend to the sensible because it’s what society expects.

I’m always torn by this. I want to give in to myself all the time. How many times have I written, I want to be myself? It feels true to me to accept this and know it’s true – to embrace that essence regardless because all else is meaningless.

I think a good part of his writing explores that, in different ways. I think it likely mirrored his own torment – a man of strong appetites and opinion, sensitive to the world and seeking through his (often controversial) books to investigate and attempt to understand it.

In the destructive element immerse – good advice.

A good day to write

It’s cold and wet this morning, the wind gusts are polar, the sky low and grey. It’s almost the ideal day to be in lockdown as, even if you could, you wouldn’t choose to stray far from home. It’s the sort of day, in fact, I would wish I could stay home, cosy and warm, on those occasions when I would have to head out into it instead and to work.

A lot of people complain of weather like this. I like it. It has character. I like how dynamic it is, as if there is a tempestuous personality ruling it. I like the cold and the chance to dress up warm, I like the sound of the wind as it comes and goes, like waves on a shore, and I like the shadings of rain as it falls, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, and sometimes easing off altogether. Though it likely depresses many, to need lights on during the day adds an atmosphere absent otherwise. It’s dim outside, the quality of light shifting, but never bright, as if we’re enclosed within it. Right now I sit here, lights off, but lit by the glow of the screen.

Of course, it’s different if you have to be out in it. It’s truly miserable then.

As this is my designated day off, I’m free to make the most of it. I could lay on the couch and watch Netflix. I could crank the heater up and read through the day. I could even go back to bed, fully clothed, as I have on occasion. What I’ll do likely is perhaps a little of some of that, plus my usual cooking – a chicken curry today – and perhaps, if I can, will write a little. (I do have a single 30 minute VC I have to attend for work).

I got out of the habit of writing when I finished the last draft of my first book nearly two months ago. I took a break from it because I deserved it. I’d written almost every weekend for the three years previous to that. When I returned to writing after a few weeks of ordinary life, it didn’t gel for me. I’d picked out some old stories, hoping to revamp them. It was hard work, and after a while, I set them aside. Then the whole pandemic thing hit the fan, and I was working weekends to deal with that. The only writing I produced was for these pages.

Over the last few weeks, I tried again, this time returning to the second novel and the second draft of that. In the time since I’d set it aside, some firm ideas had emerged of the changes I wanted to make. That’s the point of setting it aside, to get some distance from it. Clarity of a sort emerges. You see the bones and observe the fat. You come to know – or so you believe – what is necessary, and what isn’t. And you return to what the story is about, which is more than just words.

I knew all of that, but when I sat down to write, I was uninspired. I know how to write, but what was lacking was the flow that makes for easy reading, and that’s because I was confused at how best to represent it. To a degree, I had over-thought it. The best stuff comes naturally, organically. You know it in yourself, and so the writing comes easily and barely considered. It contains a natural liveliness because it comes true from you.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get to that point – hopefully. I’ve found I’ve got to live with the idea of writing again to make it right, and not just launch into it. I had set myself to write again, but rather than rushing it what I needed to do was to become acquainted with the story again in my middle, and to let it breathe. Gradually, I found it returning to me in snippets. I’d be reading something or listening to music, and a scene would come to me. Likely it’s a scene I’ve already written but know it isn’t right. But now, emerging from my deep insides, is an insight my conscious mind knew nothing of until I type it out. Gradually these little snippets coalesce into a theme, and then you know you’re ready – I hope.

What I’m after are authenticity and truth. It’s fiction, but it has to be true fiction, and the characters, the personalities, the things they do, authentic. These are things you know in your stomach, both as writer and reader, but it’s a lot harder to produce than that it sounds. I guess it’s not meant to be easy, and it isn’t. It’s a good day to write, though.

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.