Quotes are not always inspirational…

For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.

Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com
Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com

The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’

Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!

Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.

Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.

We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!

Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?

Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.

Does the worm ever turn?

Virginie Despentes from www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.
Virginie Despentes from http://www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.

This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.

Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)

[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)

Reading the World, Mind Shifts and Connection

Friday 13th is nothing to be superstitious about: on the contrary, it was the day when I had the pleasure of meeting in person one of the people I most admire and follow regularly via blog and Twitter: Ann Morgan of ‘A Year of Reading the World’. If you are not familiar with Ann’s accomplishment, here she is describing it in her own words:

In 2012, the world came to London for the Olympics and I went out to meet it. I read my way around all the globe’s 196 independent countries – plus one extra territory chosen by blog visitors – sampling one book from every nation.

readingworldFurthermore, she did this only via English translations, as an experiment in just how much literature in translation is available to English speakers. Her reviews are all available on her blog above, but she has also just published a book called Reading the World in the UK and The World Between Two Covers in the US. The book discusses the background of this wonderful project: choosing the countries, authors and books featured, a wider debate about translation and moving outside your comfort zone in reading.

DarrenRussellBBC
Photo credit: Darren Russell, BBC website.

Ann had been invited to Geneva to give a TEDx talk about her book and her reading challenge as part of a series of talks on Mind Shifts, so I could not resist the chance to meet up with her. We talked about the challenges of literary translations, about cultural differences in writing styles and subject matters and about our own career paths and works in progress. I probably rambled on too much about myself – but it was such a delight to meet with a fellow book lover.

worldbetweencoversProof once again how, for all its shortcomings and potentials for abuse, there are some wonderful ways in which the Internet connects like-minded people.

And a reminder that our only hope of building bridges to other people and other cultures is by reading what some of their best minds and most talented writers have written. We may not agree, we may not like all that we see and read, but we start to understand their context. And thus, ultimately, broaden our own narrow little world.

As Mark Twain is supposed to have said (fact checkers have established that this quote cannot be attributed to him, but it’s still a great quote):

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Geneva Book Fair and Linwood Barclay

P1020280The Geneva Book and Press Fair took place from 30th April to 4th of May at the Palexpo… and to my great delight it was nearly as crowded as the Geneva Motor Show, which also takes place there every year. There was something for everyone at this very family friendly event: from comic books, to a focus on Japan (including learning to draw manga and a demonstration of the tea ceremony), to travel, education, Arab and African literature, to name just a few of the exhibition areas. Needless to say, the ‘stage’ I was most interested in was the Crime Scene, which featured an early morning relaxed Q&A session with bestselling author Linwood Barclay. Here are some words of insight from this hardworking and humorous journalist turned thriller writer:

My recipe for success? It’s when hard work meets luck. There are lots of fabulous authors who go unnoticed, so luck has to play a part as well.

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay

When you write thrillers, both the publishers and the readers have an expectation of one book per year. Luckily, I find it easy to write at this pace. I start a book in January, get the first draft down by end of March, then I spend another 2-3 months to fix it. But there’s also the challenge that you always want your next book to be your best one, and there is more pressure, more scrutiny, so I spend far more time rewriting now than I used to.

I started off writing comic thrillers about a rather anxious and reluctant investigator, Zac Walker, who is really not equipped to deal with bad people. They got nice reviews, but were never big sellers. Comic crime fiction has a small but devoted following. So if I wanted to reach a wider audience, I had to make my stories darker.

P1020266Lots of writers say they don’t want their editors or agents to suggest any changes, that they want to write what they want to write. But I’m not like that. Editors have always made my work better – just like my 2nd or 3rd draft is always better than my first one –  it’s a mistake not to listen to them. Perhaps it’s because I also worked as a newspaper editor and so I understand that, even if the author does a great job, there is a bigger picture, more of an overview which an editor can have.

I’d love to say that I don’t care about negative reviews, but of course I do. I may get 20 fabulous reviews but the one negative one will be the one I focus on and the one that will spoil my day. At some point, I had the idea of writing a novel about an author who goes round the country killing all those reviewers who give him 1 star on Amazon.

 

For much more balanced reviews of Linwood Barclay’s novels, see here and here on the CFL website. I look forward to cracking open my signed copy of Trust Your Eyes now, a story of brotherly love, schizophrenic obsessions and witnessing a murder via Google Earth.

Chi by Konami Kanata
Chi by Konami Kanata

On a complete tangent, at the Japanese stand I discovered the adorable series Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, about a curious little tabby kitten. Since our household is currently rather cat-obsessed, I couldn’t resist this manga, nor the assorted cat figurines or key rings.

 

 

 

 

 

The Japan Stand
The Japan Stand

 

Poetry Review: May Sarton

MaySartonMay Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.

And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.

Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised,  a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse.  All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.

There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:

And then suddenly in the silence someone said,

“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:

I shall remember that long after I am dead.”

Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,

How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,

And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look

Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,

Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,

So one seeing it marveled the other night,

Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”

Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular

Reflection of your grace like fire on snow –

And loved you there.

CollectedPoemsMany of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’

There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:

We enter this evening as we enter a quartet

Listening again for its particular note

The interval where all seems possible,

Order within time when action is suspended

And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.

Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:

It is not so much trying to keep alive

As trying to keep from blowing apart

From inner explosions every day. […]

Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling

Where everything is seen, and  nothing mine

To plead with or possess, only partake of,

As if at times I could put out a hand

And touch the lion head, the unicorn.

Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.

One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.

 

Poems to Celebrate New Beginnings

Here are a few quotes which describe my start in the New Year, courtesy of The Poetry Foundation, The Poetry Archive and my own bookshelves.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.    (Naomi Shihab Nye)
The problem
of time.          Of there not being
enough of it.
My girl came to the study
and said Help me;
I told her I had a time problem
which meant:
I would die for you but I don’t have ten minutes.
Hawking says
there are little folds in time
(actually he calls them wormholes)
but I say:
there’s a universe beyond
where they’re hammering the brass cut-outs .. .
Push us out in the boat and leave time here—
(because: where in the plan was it written,
You’ll be too busy to close parentheses,
the snapdragon’s bunchy mouth needs water,
even the caterpillar will hurry past you?   (Brenda Hillman)
How far is far?
And how many ways to get there?
We walk
and walk towards meaning
and don’t arrive    (Mahmoud Darwish)
The trees are coming into leaf,
like something almost being said. […]
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.   (Philip Larkin)

much against everyone’s advice

I have decided to live the life

I want to read about and write it

not by visiting the graves of authors    (Sam Riviere)

Born Out of Place

English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career.
English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

W. Somerset Maugham has a beautiful quote, which I think describes so well the feelings of us global nomads, who are never fully at home anywhere, but also easily at home anywhere.

I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.  Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage.  They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among they only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves…  Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Her is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.  Here at last he finds rest.

And here are two more quotes about that exquisite tension between ‘home is where your heart is’ and ‘but my heart is in several places at once’.

I feel like I’ve never had a home.  I feel related to that country, to this country, and yet I don’t know exactly where I fit in… There’s always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself. (Sam Shepard)

The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not to be questioned. (Maya Angelou)

Perhaps that is why I enjoy fiction set in different locations so much. I’m exploring potential homes.

Words Not My Own

I’m struggling a little to find my words right now.  6 months of corporate speak, constant travelling and consummate professionalism have taken their toll.  Writing and I have never been further apart – or so it seems.

But the good news is that the holidays have started now.  I’m taking all of July and August off.  July will be dedicated to the family, but August is mine, to read, review, blog, read your blogs and … finally nail that novel.  If only the words start flowing again.

Here are some quotes from women poets and writers which currently guide and inspire me:

The joy of writing.

The power of preserving.

Revenge of a mortal hand.  (Wisława Szymborska)

I’m not mad. It just seems that way
because I stagger and get a bit irritable.
There are wonderful holes in my brain
through which ideas from outside can travel
at top speed and through which voices,
sometimes whole people, speak to me
about the universe.  (Jo Shapcott)

For it would seem …  that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. (Virginia Woolf)

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.  (Adrienne Rich)