#6Degrees of Separation September: Wildcard Pick

I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.

This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.

The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.

Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.

I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.

Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.

When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).

My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.

So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

You might argue that poetry is fairly obscure in itself, as many people don’t seem to have much of it on their shelves beyond the anthologies they had to study at school. I have many of the obvious suspects (Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath) and many signed copies from contemporary poets. I enjoy exploring new styles and discovering new poets as well as going back constantly to the classics. I am referring here mainly to English language poetry, as those in other languages (or translations) have been shelved with their respective countries. I have reviewed many of my recent favourites on this blog, but here are a few that mean something special to me.

Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening

There is something odd and disquieting about the life and career of poet (and novelist) Rosemary Tonks. After publishing two poetry collections in the 1960s, she then disappeared from public view, reinvented herself, changed her name and never wrote again, somewhat like Rimbaud. There is something very boho chic about her poetry, speaking very eloquently of that particular period of time and the first cool Britannia moment. There is a seething anger and disappointment that sexual and artistic freedom is not quite what she expected. Yet she has a jaded, cynical view which transcends time and place, she is the Jean Rhys of poetry.

Brenda Shaugnessy: Our Andromeda

I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda at a Geneva Writers Conference back in 2014, but I read this volume of poetry long before that. In fact, I was reading it as I was queuing at the border control at Washington Dulles airport and encountered the border guard dissolved in helpless tears. I tried to explain to him that it was because of this amazing, heartfelt poem about the alternative world that a mother and her child create together a parallel galaxy where they can both thrive: the baby who suffers injury at childbirth and the mother who feels anguished guilt: ‘It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ But it’s not all emotional distress, there are plenty of playful language games, as well as ferocious honesty about the body and the conflicting feelings of the mother and the artist. It is a rich, candid, uncompromisingly clear-eyed way of expressing things.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, but this is his lighter side. I adore it not only because I am a cat lover, but also because back in 1988/89, just before the fall of Communism, us students in the English Department of Bucharest University performed our own version of the musical Cats, although none of us had ever seen the show. It was a huge success (although it was censored in certain locations), and we all had huge fun inventing ways of presenting it, while making subtle political references. We were perhaps even more creative than the stage show I saw later on in London. So it reminds me of my youth, although this particular copy of it also is bittersweet. I bought it and gave it as a present to my newly-wed husband in 1998, when he left to go to Italy for a post-doc. (I could not follow him because of visa issues.) We had watched the show together and the dedication reads: ‘To remind you of your favourite show and your favourite cat while you are in Italy.’ Clearly, it did not do its job, since that was the first time he cheated on me.

Nevertheless, if anything can make me perk up and let bygones be bygones, it is Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with his no-nonsense librarian air:

He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking

And it’s certain that he doesn’t approve

Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet

When Skimble is about and on the move.

You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!

He’s a Cat who cannot be ignored;

So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail

When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Books
Books (Photo credit: henry…)

 

I am being naughty. I am sitting on the sofa, snacking on almonds, drinking my nth coffee of the day.  Which would be all fine and good, if I were doing it to fuel my work. My day job: because I have a squeaky-new, hot-off-the-press course to prepare and learn so that I can deliver it on Monday. Instead, I mooch around, resenting the work I have to do, leaving it once again until it is far too late, so that panic, sleepless nights and last-minute palpitations have to set in. Not exactly setting myself up for roaring professional success!

 

What I would like to do is finish my novel, finesse some poems, try out some new ideas I’ve been getting on and off (mostly off).  However, turning my back on what I ought to be doing for the sake of what I would enjoy induces too much guilt. So I end up doing neither. Instead, I read about how others are working on their books, going through the final edits, combining their day job with creative genius.  I vacillate between inspiration and desperation. End up feeling even more guilty, of course, and with nothing to show for my efforts at the end of the day.

 

I read somewhere that having a day job nourishes and enhances your writing. Or, at the very least, it makes you appreciate each little window of time opening up to you. So what is wrong with me that I find it harder and harder to appreciate the interplay between the two?

 

I remind myself how much T. S. Eliot despised his banking job and how his Bloomsbury friends (‘poor Tom’ crops up repeatedly in Virginia Woolf’s diaries) tried to drum up some money for him so he could dedicate himself to his writing. In the end, he found his work-life balance at Faber, but I do wonder if he might have been more prolific if circumstances had been kinder.

 

Creating ‘in spite of’ rather than ‘inspired by’. Hmmm, I wonder… Do adverse circumstances help to distill your work and bring out the truly essential? Or do they just lock you down mid-flow and mid-sentence?

 

A plaque at SOAS's Faber Building, 24 Russell ...
A plaque at SOAS’s Faber Building, 24 Russell Square, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)