Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The last day of the year

A busy two weeks, running around, culminating in people and good food.

I did manage one book, from the pile on my floor by the table leg - the books to be read. It includes Ulysses and some Henry James - more than I can chew at the moment. But there was also Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, initially published in 1956. It's slim, he wrote it in nine days, though he says in the introduction that it is a conflation of three earlier short stories, plus some extra bits. The characters are two-dimensional, but the story rings true, it is reality pushed just a bit further than we know it - his own experience of being stopped by a policeman one evening because he and his friend were walking in the street and talking: the policeman wanted to know what he and his friend were doing - the US in the fifties. They had trouble getting rid of him, and he warned them as he left.

Bradbury has a great facility with metaphor, he just writes and writes them, they come pouring out, unexpected, original, striking. In the first paragraph of the first page he is describing our hero, man Montag, burning books with a vengeance using a flame thrower:

"...With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomenous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history...."

And so it goes.

Only a few hours and it's the end of the year... Started Ryszard Kapuscinksi's Travels with Herodotus, (Penguin, 2007) which is instantly surreal - he describes himself, an ignorant young journalist who had grown up under the shadow of Stalin, in thrall to a great curiosity for what lay beyond the frontier - what would be different there? How would it affect him?

He only dared dream of Czecholsovakia, but in the event he was sent to India, via Rome: he knew nothing about these places. His description of Rome on a warm summer night is so immediate that for a moment I slipped into it completely.

His book is a commentary on many things at once - himself as a young naive viewer, the effect of a Communist regime on its citizens, the many other lives he intersects- here is a description of the barefoot man who brings him his tea in the morning - his first day in India in a dubious hotel (bedbugs abounding):

"He placed the tray on the table, bowed, and having uttered not a word, softly withdrew. There was such a natural politeness in his manner, such profound tactfulness, something so astonishingly delicate and dignified, that I felt instant admiration and respect for him".

I love the way he takes the time to describe something properly with a variety of expressions. This book will take a while to be read - not too fast.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's first novel (2008, Atlantic Books, UK) has just won the Booker-Man Prize. The recent giant embezzlement of funds on Wall Street is rumoured to have affected the Man part of the Booker-Man finances - will there be a Booker-Man Prize next year?

I hope so: they choose wonderful books.

This one while dealing with dark matters is original and humourous. The story begins in a part of India described as The Darkness. Balram Halwai grows up in that darkness and is nicknamed White Tiger, for achieving the impossible - learning to read and write at the village school. His father pulls a rickshaw. His dying wish - he dies too young, of TB - is that at least one of his sons should learn to read and write, and live like a man - not like him, who has been trapped into spending his life "like a donkey". The challenge is great: assuming that a boy is clever enough to learn, he might be plucked out from school at any time by his elders, to be condemned to a life-time of menial labour, so that his family may fund the weddings of its many daughters; he also has to overcome laziness and venality of the teacher, who prefers chewing paan and sleeping the day away to teaching, and steals the funds allocated to the school.

We follow the White Tiger and his efforts to overcome the terrible disadvantages of low birth and ignorance. We witness his gradual initiation into the world, his growing understanding of human nature, his terrible loneliness, the choices he makes in what appears to be an amoral landscape. The only sources of strength the author grants him are his sharp mind and the practice of yoga, (from a daily TV programme).

We become acquainted with the other India, the one we Westerners never really know about- the India of destitution. Adiga describes how the poor are taught servitude, its violent enforcement by the rich, how they remaining stuck in it like chicken stuffed tightly and cruelly in a coop. It is similar to 19th century Europe, when people were supposed to "know their place" and stay in it, and the life-expectancy in London's slums was just 19 years.

What makes this book so endearing is the format - letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is about to visit India to learn more about the entrepreneurs who have master-minded a booming economy. The tone is respectful without being sycophantic - for once, Balram seems to be confident that he is communicating with someone who will understand. The first letter is written on The First Night, the second on The Second Night, the third on The Fourth Morning - it makes you laugh. The criticism of India is sharp and funny too: on the second page, he explains to the Premier: "Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them."

Just over 300 pages, nice airy type-setting on creamy paper, and not a word too many.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

An endless folly

Lynn Jenner has won the Adam Prize for the best portfolio of her year in the Creative Writing course at the Institute for Modern Letters at VUW - the course that is generally known as 'Bill Manhire's course'. Richly deserved - I have heard poems from the poets who studied with her and enjoyed them too. Lynn's work is very very good.

After many years, have re-read Carlos Castaneda and am struck about how good his writing is - fluent and descriptive. The book is A Separate Reality, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Further conversations with Don Juan - there are two subtitles for some reason. (Penguin Books reissue 2003, first printed in 1971).

An impatience grew in me with all the stories about smoking drugs, being dunked in water and washed, seeing allies or green mists, hearing cracking branches, being very afraid, questions being answered by Don Juan laughing merrily, or heartily and not saying anything, it felt invented, or the product of the drugs, except for about 3 passages which stand out, which seem real. Someone else (it's a library book) had turned over the corner of the page where one of these passages featured, perhaps having a similar reaction to me: This is what matters, this is the important bit.

In the original, it is written as a dialogue. Castaneda's questions have been left out here.

Don Juan says (p. 226):

"You talk to yourself too much. You must stop talking to yourself. [...] You're not unique in that. Every one of us does that. We carry on internal talk. [...]We talk about our internal world. In fact, we maintain our world with our internal talk. [...] The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is. If we stop telling ourselves that the world is so-and-so, the world will stop being so-and-so. [...] confuse the world with what people do. [...]What we do as people gives us comfort, and makes us feel safe; what people do is rightfully very important, but only as a shield. We never learn that the things we do as people are only shields and we let them dominate and topple our lives... [...] The world is incomprehensible. we won't ever understand it; we won't ever unravel its secrets. Thus we must treat it as it is, a sheer mystery!...a warrior [ a truth-seeker] treats the world as an endless mystery and what people do as an endless folly."

Don Juan mentions the folly of human actions earlier, referring to his own vain attempts to influence his grandson into a more thoughtful life-style.

Tried a couple of other books, including a biography of Allen Ginsberg, and a detective story translated from the Japanese, but a few pages were enough - the first far too detailed, the second too slow and stilted.
Back to the library with them.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Annotated Waste Land

A thorough reading of T.S. Eliot's The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose (L. Rainey, ed., 2005, Yale University Press), still on-going.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The fascination of the difficult

A long study of Maxine Kumin's essay on A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman (in Always Beginning, Copper Canyon Press, 2000), learning for the first time (!) about masculine and feminine rhymes, about spondees and trochees. Not all the new information has stuck in my mind, so the chapter will be copied for future reference (the book belongs to the library). It opened up new views, new ways of appreciating a poem. Some of it may be known instinctively, when the lines feel 'right', that's besides the rhyme.

"Nobody knows where the notion of rhyming comes from..." she says (p. 129).

And further: "It is far easier to memorize a rhymed poem than, for instance, the free verse of Walt Whitman. [...] While many poets have abandoned the rhyming convention, they still rely on other traditional devices such as simile, metaphor, and other figurative language, and most of the time they employ stanza breaks the way we employ the paragraph in prose. [...] For many of us contemporary poets, formalism is a way of life, a sustenance, a stout tree for the vine of our poems. We are, for better or for worse, committed to make rhymes, be they exact rhymes or slant...

[...] I know that I write better poems in form - within the exigencies of a rhyme scheme and a metrical pattern - than I do in the looser line of free verse...

[...] But the harder - that is the more psychically difficult the poem is to write, the more likely I am to choose a difficult pattern to pound it into. This is true because, paradoxically, the difficulty frees me to be more honest and more direct. It is Yeats's "the fascination of what's difficult."

* * *

Wrote a short story about a woman at the supermarket. Still bumpy. For the time being it's called New World .