Mantra

Other people’s words about … language

I watched them walk down the steps, [and then I] turned around in the hallway, and heard myself say, ‘I’m so lonely’. It shook me because this sentence had become an involuntary verbal tic. I seldom realised I was saying it or perhaps didn’t know that I was speaking the words out loud. I had started to experience this unbidden mantra even while I was still married, mumbling it before sleep, in the bathroom, or even at the grocery store, but it had become more pronounced in the last year. My father had it with my mother’s name. While he was sitting alone in a chair, before he dozed off, and later, in his room at the nursing home, he would utter Marit over and over. He did it sometimes when she was within hearing distance. If she answered the call, he seemed not to know that he had spoken. That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.

From ‘The Sorrows of an American’
by Siri Hustvedt

Have you ever had the same experience as Siri Hustvedt’s narrator Erik describes having in the passage I’ve quoted above — the experience, I mean, of a single phrase that comes to you frequently and (often) unbidden?

Threshold between sky and sea

Until I read this passage, I thought I was alone in this experience, although the phrase that comes to me is not the same phrase as Erik’s phrase. This phrase, my phrase, sometimes comes to me when I’m awake; and it sometimes comes to me when I’m drifting off to sleep; and it sometimes comes to me when I have a pen in my hand and am writing. The phrase, my phrase, is so familiar to me that it has written itself into my very sense of self.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around: the feeling I have when the words come to me is so strong, and so familiar, that it has formed itself into words.

Threshold between bird and world

As I’ve said many times before, I read to find accord with other people whom I will never meet in real life — either the writers themeselves, or the characters whom they create in their writing. Books are words, but they are more than words: their words cross a threshold between words and lived experience.

That, as Hustvedt herself puts it, is the strangeness of language. And, I would add, of life in this world.

Threshold between night and day

A year of words

Other people’s words about … other people’s words

I’ve been thinking about reading again recently — what it means to me, what it gives to me, why, even though it’s a solitary activity, it makes me feel connected to the world. I like Sarah Clarkson’s use of the word journey, in the passage below, to describe the act of reading. Reading, like life, is a journey. You never know where it might take you.

Reading, rather, is a journey. Reading is the road you walk to discover yourself and your world, to see with renewed vision as you encounter the vision of another … Reading is a way to live.

From ‘Book Girl
by Sarah Clarkson

Reading is a journey

PS It’s good to be back in the blogging world. I’m changing the format of my posts slightly this year, but it’s still all about celebrating other people’s words. So … here’s to another year! xo

Snatched phrases: on translation

But a certain dullness of mind seems an almost necessary qualification, if not for every public man, at least for everyone seriously engaged in making money.

From ‘The Idiot’
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Hmmm … read and weep. Dostoevsky’s observation about people is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in the late nineteenth century. If only our public figures, our business people, our politicians would take heed!

But onto other things — no more weeping for now. One of the overarching reasons I’ve had for writing this blog in the last few years has been to give myself (and hopefully you, my readers) the chance to explore the joys of reading: to revel in other people’s words, to find meaning in their thoughts and the way they express them, to learn from them, to find communion and kinship with them. As I’ve remarked before, without books and reading, I would be a far lonelier person.

Recently, I’ve found a different kind of companionship in my reading. On Mother’s Day earlier this year, my mother and I started a reading ‘project’ together, our own little two-woman book club. At her suggestion, we have decided to read works of translation. We take it in turns to pick a title and read it, and then we exchange titles, and, having read them, meet up for coffee or for a walk to talk about them. The Idiot was one of her choices.

My mother is an inveterate reader. She reads widely, hungrily, curiously. Her joy in reading is contagious and almost palpable. I’m glad — and privileged — to have ‘caught’ that joy from her. And I’m extra glad to be exploring new books with her, to be having my world opened by her and by the writers she chooses.

Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of translation, here’s the thing about reading, and the happiness you can find in it: it translates into life.

And that happiness is only amplified when it is shared.

Snatched phrases: last pages

‘I will love a book forever
if the final pages mark my subconscious.’

From ‘The Museum of Words’
by Georgia Blain

My mother and sister and I (all inveterate readers) were talking the other day about those devastatingly disappointing books you read all the way through, from start to finish, without skipping a paragraph, because you are in the grip of a conviction that you’ll get to the end and suddenly — suddenly — all this time you’ve spent reading it, feeling love and hate for the book and its author in equal measure, will be justified.

You know those books I mean? I say ‘devastatingly disappointing’ because I am describing the kind of book that, when you do finally get to the end, you realise your time wasn’t justified at all. You realise that, on the contrary, the whole time you spent reading it was, in your opinion at least, a waste of time.

You know those kinds of books?

That’s why I love Georgia Blain’s words above.

So I thought I would make a list of books whose last pages have, as Blain so delightfully puts it, marked my [own] subconscious forever. Here they are, in no particular order:

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Prep, by Cutis Sittenfeld
The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt
A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton
The Smart One, by Jennifer Close
Me and Mr Booker, by Cory Taylor
Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher
Tell Me I’m Here, by Anne Deveson (Georgia Blain’s mother).

And, yes, the book I’ve quoted today, Museum of Words, by Georgia Blain.

What about you?

Note:
Despite all I’ve said to the contrary in the past, it seems I’ve got snap-happy for the start of 2018. Join me here (or click on the icon on my home page) if you’d like to, for more photos of the sand, sky, sea, scrub (and everything in between) …

The poetry lover

Other people’s words about … poetry

It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.

from ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.

Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.

Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:

Tea, by Jehanne Dubrow (a sonnet, and the excuse for my tea-themed photo today)
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, by Dylan Thomas (a villanelle)
On the Birth of a Son, by David Campbell (a sonnet)
The Watch, by Frances Darwin Conford (a strict rhyming system of which Campbell would most surely approve)

Snatched phrases on … bibliophilia

‘[I]t was not pride that took me into the village twice a week,
or even stubbornness,
but only the simple need for books and food.’

From ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson

Tentacles

Other people’s words about … urbanisation

Here, town finished, and countryside began. You crossed over, from pavements and shops, towards copses and streams, and meadows full of grazing cows. The streets and the fields seemed to push at each other, the city trying to sprawl further out and the fields resisting. The planners and architects and merchants would obviously win. What force had buttercups and earthworms and cabbages against the need of human beings for dwelling places, against developers’ chances to make money? Alive as a strange creature in an aquarium, the city stretched out its tentacles, grew and swelled, gobbling the pastures and hedgerows that lay in its path. Fields were bought, and new rows of houses built, and then the process repeated.

from ‘The Walworth Beauty
by Michèle Roberts

When we moved to Aldinga Beach almost twenty years ago, it was still — just, almost — a country town. Ever since then, the city has been creeping up on it. Sometimes I think the encroaching suburbs are like an oil spill, seeping down the slopes of the hills from the north, all the way into the Scrub. And so, though the rural world we live in at Aldinga Beach is very different from the nineteenth-century English one Michèle Roberts describes in the passage above, still her words seem apposite.

But the Scrub is still alive and I still go wandering through it, and whenever I’m wandering there, I feel hope. I took the pictures in today’s post one morning last week, in late July. Though the sky was grey and the temperature was chilly, the first breath of spring had wafted over the Scrub, as I hope you’ll see below.

In flower that morning were flame heath bushes …

… and …

… grass trees.

I saw the first shy showing …

… of guinea flowers:

There were green shoots everywhere …

… after the recent rains.

And there were other plants budding, too. Like this:

And this:

And this:

In the southwest corner of the Scrub, where the land slopes down towards the coast, the kangaroos were snoozing …

… although they weren’t best pleased when I disturbed them:

Further on, I caught a flash of gold from the corner of my eye. It was a golden whistler darting about the branches of a tree beside the sandy path.

Whistlers don’t sing at this time of the year, but their plumage is as glorious as ever (though unfortunately faintly blurred in my photos):

So, yes, the tentacles of the city are reaching out here in South Australia.

But still, the last remnants of the pre-urbanised world like Aldinga Scrub live on.

A breakfast of clouds and chocolate

Other people’s words about … what works

Chocolate at breakfast has always seemed wrong to me somehow. It seemed too decadent and lusty, entirely out of place, like watching a sex scene on television when your parents are in the room. But I have now spent eight mornings eating chocolate granola for breakfast, and I have concluded –- with all due gratitude to [my husband] Brandon, my personal granola pusher –- that chocolate is, once and for all, perfectly acceptable at any time of day. I had been a doubter for so many years, but now, good lord, I get it. And I think this revelation might, quite possibly, be the cosmic purpose of our marriage.

From ‘All We Ever Really Want to Do
by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette blog

I came to Molly Wizenberg’s blog only recently, many years behind most people. There are so many cooking blogs out there in the internet-world now, and so many of them are so beautiful, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or bored, or cynical. Moreover, the idea of using a recipe to introduce a post that discusses a theme entirely unrelated to food — in other words, to discuss life — has become such a common approach amongst food bloggers that it seems to me to be verging on the clichéd. But Molly was one of the early bloggers to take this approach, and she writes well, which makes all the difference. I will be reading her blog again, I’m sure.

As for chocolate at breakfast — well, why not? A therapist I used to see once said to me, as I agonised over how to live my life better (or rather, how not to live it so very, very badly): Life is short. Do what works. Though I’ve left much of his counsel far behind, I think about these particular words of his from time to time. Life is short, indeed. If chocolate works, then eat it. Please.

(Alternatively, you could try cake. Cake never fails for me.)

Meanwhile, today is my first day of two weeks’ annual leave. I currently have two part-time jobs, so time away from both of them simultaneously can be hard to pull off. (It has only just occurred to me that I live between two houses, too — do you sense a theme here?) The next fortnight feels incredibly precious to me.

For some of that time, I plan to go camping in Yorke Peninsula again, with my partner and my dog. Autumn is in full swing now: our holiday there will be different from our last trip to Yorkes, back in February. There will be clouds; there will be rain; there will be wind. Now that the fire-ban season is over, we’ll light a fire at sunset and sit together by the flames, looking up at the sky as the stars come out. It will be too cold to swim, so we’ll walk miles down the beach and along the clifftops. We’ll sleep late into the morning and go to bed early at night. My partner will surf; my dog will play and sleep; and I will read.

I’ll read.

I’ll read.

Afterwards, we’ll come home grateful for heaters and hot showers, and ready — already — for our next camping trip, whenever that happens to be.

I don’t know if, like Molly, I’ll be eating chocolate for breakfast while we’re away. It doesn’t matter. Life is short, and these are the things that work for me. That’s why I do them.

All in all, it’s not such a bad way to live.

On asides

Other people’s words about … other people

Some writers describe nature beautifully; some express their characters’ inner lives with great insight and pathos; some describe people pithily. I came across two writers of the latter kind recently.

How’s the following for a description of someone, for example?

He had the countenance of someone who’d weathered a thousand tiny insults; they were etched into the lines of his forehead and cheeks. He had the drawn, inelastic face of either a serious smoker (with no time for the inconvenience of food) or a fastidious vegan whose pursuit of a healthy lifestyle had left him on the verge of sickness.

from ‘A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy
by Colin Grant
(p. 2)

Colin Grant’s book is a memoir about life with a brother who lived with, and ultimately died from, epilepsy. It’s also a history of epilepsy’s treatment (both cultural and medical) over the last two millennia. But it was Grant’s descriptions of people which really held me.

He held disgust in his nose, a magnificent diaphanous beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains on the nostril hair and dividing septum, usually slightly cocked and in a permanent sneer.
(p. 16)

After I’d finished reading A Smell of Burning, I moved on (in a completely non-sequitur fashion) to Angela Carter. I’d never read any of her novels before, though people had told me over and over that I should. I’m still only partway through The Magic Toyshop, but already, I’m relishing Carter’s descriptions of the characters who populate her story.

Here she is on five-year-old Victoria:

Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
(p. 6)

And here’s her description of twelve-year-old Jonathan:

Jonathon ate like a blind force of nature, clearing through mounds of food like a tank through the side of a house. He ate until there was no more to eat; then stopped, put knife and fork or spoon and fork together neatly, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and went away to make model boats.
(p. 4)

Meanwhile, when Melanie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Carter’s story, first meets Finn, she watches him from afar before he notices her. When she does capture his attention, he fixes his gaze upon her before speaking:

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
(p. 38)

These are snatched phrases, I guess, more than anything. But that’s the thing about the experience of reading: it’s not just about plot, or emotion, or catharsis. It’s about the little things, too: the words and the phrases; the asides and the diversions. The sentences I’ve quoted above aptly capture the essence of the people they’re depicting: they made me smile in recognition (and wry admiration) and then re-read them, just in case I didn’t miss anything. And, like the characters they’re describing, they stayed in my mind long after I’d put the books aside to get on with the business of my day.

They stayed in my mind. I can think of no greater praise for someone’s ability to write — and no greater reason to keep on reading — than that.

Acknowledgments

Other people’s words about … gratitude

Andrew Wylie and Sarah Chalfant continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again.

from the ‘Acknowledgments’ section
in ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

There is a ritual I always follow when I first pick up a new book to read. Before I begin to read it, I flick to the end to see how many pages it is. I like to know the length of the book I’m about to read, so that as I’m reading it, I know exactly how far I am through. It’s a way of measuring the pace of the story, perhaps: a way, too, of pacing myself and measuring my mood as I read. Sometimes, also, I admit, it’s a way of determining whether I’ll keep reading the book to its end. (If I’m bored and I’m not even a third of the way through, I stop. Life is so short and the library has so many books, it’s not worth spending time struggling through one I’m not enjoying!)

Once I’ve done that, I like to read the ‘About the Author’ section. I look at the author photo and check out their biography. Are they an academic? Is this their first book? How old are they? What do they like to reveal about themselves? Do they stick solely to their writing history, or do they mention their family, their loved ones, their hobbies? Do they write full-time, or do they have another job that pays for the privilege of writing? Maybe reading about the author is a way of trying to find some kind of connection. Reading is better, in my experience, when you feel connected in some ways — to the characters, certainly, but also, at least for me, to the author.

Next, I look at the list of the author’s previous publications, near the front of the book. I look at the copyright page, to see the date of publication. And then, finally, I read the acknowledgments. I love to see who the author thanks in their acknowledgments, and in what order, and whether their acknowledgments are formal or perfunctory (or both), or informal and long-winded and meandering. Sometimes there is a hint of how the author felt as they wrote the book — whether the writing of it was a joyful process or whether they were filled with troubles and doubt as they wrote.

There is an art to writing good acknowledgments, I think. If the author says too much — gushing about how wonderful the writing process was, or moaning about how difficult it became — they embarrass themselves. If the author says too little, the words are meaningless. Sometimes — unfairly, no doubt — I am so swayed by my reaction to the acknowledgments that I have already decided whether I love or hate the book before I’ve even read the book itself.

Rachel Cusk’s acknowledgments for Aftermath are of average length; the writing of them is neither perfunctory nor over the top. There is no hint of whining in them, and yet the sentence I’ve quoted above hints — subtly, I think, and poignantly — at serious writerly doubt. Once I’d read that sentence, I was determined to read the book all the way through, no matter how difficult I found it. Cusk, in those few words, had won me over.

They continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again. That might be one of the most grateful sentences I’ve ever read from a writer. Gratitude, graciousness, humility — these are qualities I admire in others and aspire to myself. A writer who can write a sentence like that is, simply, the kind of writer whose books I want to read.

Note:
Some readers may remember that I published an earlier version of this post by mistake, before I had finished writing it — a version I subsequently (and very hastily) deleted when I realised my mistake! This is the finished version, finally …