Worthwhile lives

I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes sitting in a small glade in the front garden reading a book. It was a pleasant interlude. It was peaceful there away from the noise and bustle of the house. On a warm day like today it’s also about 5 degrees cooler. The tall trees surround the little glade, their high leaves filtering the light and heat and creating a serene, cool space. I began reading A Life Worth Living, a new biography of Albert Camus by Robert Zaretsky.

Is Camus one of my favourite writers? I’m not sure, but he is one I admire most. I prefer his fiction to his essays. Some of his novels are seminal in the history of 20th century literature. They are provocative in making us confront themes of alienation, adsurdity and oppression, among others, in language that is sinuous, sometimes lyrical, and often sensuous. Often times reading his stories set in the cafes and beaches of Algeria I can feel it, the heat of the sun, the sweat, the touch of the ocean, can respond to the smile of a pretty woman across the way. There is a sense of place, of moment, which is somehow disconnected from what came before, and what comes after. As a fellow sensualist I feel his sensuous perspective very deeply, and in many ways share it.

I find his essays more difficult. What he expresses through shape and form in his stories occasionally become  clumsy when he attempts to express it straight out. It’s as if his language is not quite up to it – not finely grained enough to properly describe the particularity of what he is trying to say. I’m more sympathetic to Camus as a  man than I am to Sartre, but when I read their philosophical writings I tend to think that Sartre is the better thinker, though Camus sees more clearly. 

Language is the other issue, because, not surprisingly he writes his essays differently to his fiction. Whilst his fictional writing can be sensual, lyrical, it’s as much in form as in the language it uses. His fictional writing is matter of fact in many ways – he describes what there is, often pretty things, but without unnecessary flourish. The picture speaks for itself.

There is no ‘picture’ as such in his non-fiction, nothing to hang a philosophy upon, and so it comes out raw, and often with a flourish that always takes me unawares. It’s a language I don’t agree with. I don’t like the extraneous. I’m mistrustful of high sounding phrases, particularly when there is more earthy alternative available. I don’t want to be sold anything. I want a view expressed, prettily if possible, but without cliche.

Regardless Camus is one of those people I wish I could visit in the way-back machine. I think he’s a good man, though not without vice. I’d love to have a chat to him over a beer, and perhaps debate some of these things. Given a lot of his fiction I reckon we have a similar eye. No doubt he had his earnest qualities, but clearly he was drawn by the sensual as well. I imagine we might break from an earnest conversation to go carousing together.

That’s speculation and sadly I have no way-back machine as yet. He died relatively young, possibly preserving his reputation and creating the aura the prematurely dead so often possess. I wonder what might have happened had he lived longer, but that too is speculation.

In the end I think he is a man who lived up to the title of this book: he lived a life worth living. That very title pinches at me a tad. I went through my French existentialist stage, reading every book by Sartre as well as Camus. I pondered the questions they posed, the scenarios they created, daily, if not hourly. As you do, I passed through that stage, but passed into others. I’ve spent a lifetime inquiring, one way or another, and literature has been the default window through which I’ve peered in wonder.

Living a life worth living was always a concept precious to me, not just in the abstract, but consciously in the every day. That’s a value judgement – what makes a life worthwhile? For me it was to do, to feel, to ask, ultimately, to conquer. Conquer how? I wanted to live and feel, all the way up. I wanted to have rich experience in every facet, intellectual, spiritual, physical, and sensual; wanted to consciously go about life aware that I was alive and some kind of splendid and mysterious miracle. I wanted to drink things in, to absorb all around me and to come to some kind of understanding of. Curiosity is central in this. So too is understanding, but only if you define it as a path you travel on perpetually – there is always something more to understand, another question to ask, another vista to look upon. One life is not nearly enough.

But conquer? I’m not a monk. Knowledge in itself is not sufficient to me. Contemplation is good only to a point. I’m of the very strong view that to make life truly worthwhile that this journey must be parlayed into action. Execution counts. To know is one thing, to act is another. If we really have only one go-round in this life then this is the only chance we have. We have to make it count. For me that means I have to use what I learn; that I must take the understanding I am given along the way and use it practically.

That is what I mean by conquer, which might seem a heavy word for it, though it is apt for my personality type. It’s not about scoring, or profit, or even winning. It’s about making the experience count, otherwise, in my mind, it is only so much intellectual onanism. 

My life is challenging and it takes all my will and strength to remain afloat. I’ve derived a certain amount of understanding and knowledge through this episode, which, however, is incidental to the effort of survival. Reading of Camus I feel somewhat shamed if I consider my own ambitions. Is this life I have worth living? The verdict on that can only be made the end, but for many years I felt as if I was on the path I wanted to be on. My life, in transit, was worthwhile by the criteria that was important to me. It was not perfect, and I strived for more, but more was always possible.

It’s different now. I suspect that if and when I come out of this I will see things differently. For now though it feels as if I’ve slid down a long snake. For all the unexpected colour of my life there is little of it at this point I think worthwhile.

What I read

There’s a box of books I’m about to take out into the garage for storing which represents most of my reading over the last 4-5 months. For a change I thought it might be interesting to list the books I read.

In no particular order:

  • The Memory Chalet – Tony Judt
  • Dark Avenues – Ivan Bunin (One of my favourite writers. Beautiful, occasionally poignant stories that draw you into the scene like few other writers can. I can particularly relate in many ways.)
  • Report On Myself – Gregoire Bouillier (Not for everyone, but really enjoyed. Terrifically talented and engaging writer. Sort of dude I’d happily hang out with.)
  • Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress – Michael Drury (Read this years ago having picked it up cheap in a remainder bin. Meant a lot to me then – brokenhearted at the time – it seemed profound and wise. Not so much this time.)
  • Lost – Alice Liechtenstein
  • Care of the Soul – Thomas More
  • Driven – James Sallis (Sequel to Drive – and hopefully will make a movie of this too. Not in the same class as Drive, and plotting clearly not a strength of Sallis, still a very good read.)
  • Stardust – Joseph Kanon (Has great qualities as a writer in terms of narrative and atmosphere, but always find his male protagonists limp and unattractive. Read all his stuff till now, but no more.)
  • Before I Go To Sleep – S.J. Watson (Great premise and well reviewed. Being made into a movie apparently, and made for it. Picked the end a fair way out, but I always do, so… Otherwise, a tad over-written for my taste.)
  • The Ego Trick – Julian Baggini (Fascinating read.)
  • Button, Button (uncanny stories) – Richard Matheson
  • True – Riikka Pulkkinen
  • A War In Words – Svetlana Palmer & Sarah Wallis
  • The Substance of Style – Virginia Postrel
  • Drive – James Sallis (Great movie made of this great-ish book. Very similar in tone and characterisations, but movie tidied up the plot a little – to its benefit. Very good read.)
  • Salt River – James Sallis (At his best, a very good author. At his worst, a tad self-indulgent. This is awfully slow and very self indulgent. Doesn’t really get anywhere, boring.)
  • The Song of Fire and Ice series – George R. R. Martin
  • Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp – Douglas E. Nash
  • Field Grey – Philip Kerr (Great series of books, and Bernie Gunther a great character, but this not the best of them. Reckon his books set pre-war are best.)
  • 1222 – Anne Holt
  • Headhunters – Jo Nesbo
  • Thanksgiving – Michael Dibdin (A re-read, years after the first. Profound in the first reading, less so second time around.)
  • The Humbling – Philip Roth (Unsatisfying.)
  • The Weekend – Bernhard Schlink (A favourite author, but not his best.)
  • Mute Witness (aka Bullitt) – Robert L. Pike (Not bad. One of my favourite movies. Book good, but a bit different.)
  • Damn Good Advice (for people with talent) – George Lois (Great! Very engaging, iconoclastic dude giving his take on the world.)
  • Lustrum – Robert Harris (Tedious)
  • Black Robe – Brian Moore
  • The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior – Paul Strathern
  • The East, the West, and Sex – Richard Bernsten (Fascinating)
  • Hannibal and Me – Andreas Kluth
  • Gentleman’s Relish – Patrick Gale
  • Hull Zero Three – Greg Bear (Awful)
  • The Desert War (first two books) – Alan Moorehead (One of the best contemporary journalists and writers on the second world war. Brings the North African campaigns to life with some wit and personality. A forgotten, undervalued, Australian author.)

Besides these probably have about 6 books beside my bed I’m dipping into, probably another 6 lined up, plus the various books I’ve read on Kindle.

The beauty of difference

It’s my experience that coincidence is a normal part of everyday life. What may seem odd and surprising to many people is for me – mostly – simply confirmation that if you spin the wheel enough then you’ll come up with every variation, including the coincidental.

Coincidence leads me to write today though. Yesterday I was referred to read a piece from Salon about the alleged, and supposedly sexist, imbalance of book reviews of male versus female writers. This morning over my morning coffee I picked up the Weekend Extra from last Saturday’s Age I had yet to read and came across a piece critical on very similar lines: that the literary establishment favours male writers over female, that in effect it was sexist. I read, as I did yesterday, with scepticism. Do I believe there is a male conspiracy? Certainly not. Is there an unconscious inclination then to books written by men? Possibly, but I think it more complex than that – or possibly more simple. Most of all I left reading with a sense of disquiet, which is what prompts me to write today.

I imagine that if I were a woman writer struggling to make way in the literary world then I might be disturbed at first glance by some of the figures quoted. Since statistics can be made to say anything let’s stick to the basic and very general numbers quoted, essentially that while women write approximately half of all books and make up supposedly 80% of readers they are reviewed less than men (here the figures are fluffy, but let’s settle on 40%). On the face of it you might think that unfair, and perhaps it is – but perhaps there are good reasons for it. Regardless, wjhile I understand why said woman writer may be outraged by this I reject the notion that I should be likewise.

Let’s start with the numbers in a very unscientific, but anecdotal explanation of why there might be some skew in them. Let’s presume for a start that half of all books reviewed are non-fiction. Now that’s a guess, but not far from the mark I would think. Again, without reference to magical stats, I would suggest that non-fiction is a male bastion, both reading and writing. I’d suggest maybe 75% of non-fiction writers are male, and logically would be represented in the review pages in the same proportion.

So, what about fiction then? If males predominate in non-fiction then it follows that women do in the fiction states. We’ll assume that to be the case, though personal observation and experience makes me dubious. Now there is high-brow literary fiction all the way through to chick-lit and cheap action thrillers. There are a lot of different flavours, and reviews pages tend to favour the high-brow over the cheap.

One of the contentions I think by these I articles I read is that not enough women are considered to be literary masters, not because they are not, but because the review pages won’t consider them so. While books published by Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and so on are considered literary events, and widely reviewed, there are few if any female equivalents. Now I’m open to the possibility that there are women authors every bit as good as the aforementioned who I have not been exposed to, as these writers suggest. It may be literary taste, but I don’t think so.

I’m an avid browser of bookstores. I pick up and put down dozens of books each week. I read the review pages as a matter of course. I’ll watch the occasional review program on the TV, and catch documentaries on all sorts of artistic figures – male and female – on a regular basis. I read woman authors such as Lionel Shriver or Janet Turner-Hospital, and so on. Still, my firm belief is that at the literary end of the quality spectrum that men once more predominate, for reasons I don’t care to speculate on here. Ergo, they get reviewed more. Combined with non-fiction reviews and there’s the alleged imbalance explained.

Now there will be many women who complain that they should be equally represented in the literary stakes, but the fact is that women writers are not ignored – every book by Toni Morrison is a big splash – but that there are just fewer of them. A more substantive argument would be that there is a whole genre of books that never get reviewed because they are considered too low-brow and common. Of course these are the books that sell best, that most people read – the literary fraternity is nothing if not snobbish. Why should they not be reviewed if they are what the man (or woman) in the street want to read? And probably the biggest single genre is chick lit, which (yes, without reference to stats) accounts for the great edge in female over male readership. If they were reviewed, as perhaps they should, then the imbalance would be in the other direction. Now if that happened the arguments would be different – not based on sex, but rather on quality.

That’s all as it may be, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out how credible my analysis is. There is one final, and ironic note though, that outside the literary superstars the big selling and unreviewed author of a popular chick lit book makes a lot more money than her male counterparts.

Putting aside the practical explanations of this I found myself troubled in a much deeper level by these articles. They were worthy and impassioned and contained some pretty strong comments from female authors and critics. Their perspective I understand, but I found my hackles raised by the inference that I too should be outraged by this ‘sexism’ (as they thought it). For a start I don’t like being told what to think or feel. Secondly, and more substantially, I hate it how there is an apparent norm we are meant to measure up to, and everything to either side of that is aberrant. I reject that completely.

Every mother wants her little boy to grow up and become an upstanding and fair-minded member of society. The fact of the matter is that with so many factors forming us we grow into individuals of every shape and size, and that’s as it should be. Some are upstanding, and some are not. Many wouldn’t even know what it means. We are a world of diverse opinion and perspective. We honour in our words the politically correct standards that have become the norm, but if we all grew up to conform to them then society would be a world of same thinking drones. It’s difference that makes us great and, for example, makes literature possible.

One of the articles quotes a comment made by V. S. Naipul about women writers. He is dismissive and cruel, and it’s pretty obvious that any woman, writer or not, would be upset by them. That’s his opinion though. Does it make him sexist? Well it does in the general sense, but then if that’s his perception then he’s entitled to it. He’s entitled to an opinion, and to publish it. He’s entitled to be a nasty piece of work. He’s entitled to be sexist, that’s his right. And we are entitled to have a go at him for that sin. Or equally to disregard it altogether.

As it happens I tend not to read books by women writers. Does that make me sexist? Generally I find the voice of female authors hard to accept. And often the themes and story-lines are foreign to me. Is that a surprise? Well, I’m a man with a male perspective, so it’s no surprise I find something foreign in reading a woman. Still, one of the joys of reading is the opportunity to experience different voices and perspectives. And so while I have a preference for male writers over female if I find a book written by a female writer then I’ll read it – and have enjoyed many.

I have similar problems with many Australian movies, which tend too often to be dull and worthy rather than interesting and provocative. I’m an Australian, I want Australia to make great films and to be proud of them. I’m anything but anti-Australian, but I won’t watch one just to be patriotic. I’m not a bigot – but perhaps if I lived somewhere else I might be called one.

As I wrote before, we are all formed by our experiences. If we come into this world a blank sheet then our experiences quickly make their mark upon it. We learn what we favour, and what we don’t. We know not to put our hand in a flame because of that first time it burnt us. We discover that brussel sprouts are awful and that too much beer makes us bloated. We prefer over time jazz to classical music, or classical to jazz; our favourite colour becomes blue or red or yellow, but we wouldn’t be seen dead in orange. That’s human life and experience. Does any of that make us a bigot?

It does when we come to prefer the human – and often times that is perfectly valid. Not always though. Preferring male literature to female doesn’t make me sexist, it just makes me another human being acting upon his experience – and exercising free will. I won’t be told what to think or feel, refuse to be coerced into feeling some political correct outrage (as we witness so often). And I reject utterly the mediocre assertion that all things are equal. They are not.

The Death of Ivan Ilych

"Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana", 19...Image via Wikipedia

In my journeys to and from work this week I’ve been plugged in listening to an audio version of the Tolstoy story The Death of Ivan Ilych.

I read this the old fashioned way many years ago, when I was just out of my teens. It was powerful to me then and in the years after as I moved around the world, from one address to another, through jobs and relationships, over the seas and back again, this book was one of about a hundred I kept close to me.

From time to time I would be moved to pluck it from the tightly packed shelves of my bookcase and return to the yellowing, brittle pages of a long ago paperback edition. More than anything else I returned to the last couple of pages when Ivan Illych was in the final throes of a protracted, painful illness.

His family is arrayed all around him waiting for his inevitable end. To them he is the picture of pathos, crying out in pain and seemingly delirious with it. His perspective is different. Throughout the story we have read as he journies himself through the different stages of his illness. At some point he recognises that he will die, and alternately denies and despairs at it. What is death, what does it mean? It looms dark, mysterious and terrifying.

Then in those last few pages he finds a measure of peace. While he writhes and cries out in seeming pain before the horrified eyes of his family he is actually slowly reconciling himself to the spiritual journey that culminates in his death, and possibly goes beyond it. “Forgive me” he mutters to his wife who, in his weakened state mishears him thinking he is saying “forgo”. It matters not.

He passes away and the scenes we read at the very beginning of the story now take place, but he is gone.

Though I cannot put my finger on it those last couple of pages seemed to contain a supernatural wisdom. Each time I read it I find myself pausing, moved in ways I cannot explain.

I go back to it again and again for that reason; and because the story is a masterpiece. I read it appreciating the art and genius of it. I study it trying to learn. Perhaps I can become a better writer by reading it closely I think, and I do, feeling myself fall into the story.

This is a story in full, with every character completely developed, with their flaws exposed in perfectly normal ways, and the story pervaded with a deep sense of humanity that seems very Tolstoy. They are normal, good people living through normal events revealed/exposed beneath the nib of Tolstoy’s pen. He knows these people thoroughly, to the bone, and that is where his wisdom and genius comes from: an eye for human nature, an innate understanding of what motivates and moves us more than any other author. And he expresses that simply and clearly, recording it as it is.

Listening to it this time rather than reading it I was reminded of that. It’s a story every literature lover should read at least once in their life.

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