Saturday, 21 February 2009

On passion

A friend lent me a short novel entitled The Man of Feeling by Spanish author Javier Marias,(1986, New Directions Books) in an excellent translation by Margaret Jull Costa (2003) (except for the use of the word 'teddy' to describe an item of woman's lingerie - though I admit to not knowing what else to call it). Her name rang a bell - a short search revealed that she is also the translator for some of Nobel-Prize winner Saramago's books. She has won several international prizes for her work.

A short book - an unusual format, a bit wider than the palm of my hand. The predominantly orange cover reproduces an Edward Hopper painting - a couple in a New York restaurant - wonderfully suited to this story, showing the isolation and alienation that characterise the lives it describes.

Reading this book, I developed a fondness for the designer Semadar Megged, her orange tones on the cover pleasingly contrasting a page of mat blue in the prelims (what is such a page called?). The elements of the book are harmonious, the
typeface classical, the margins narrow, the page numbers at the bottom of the page surmounted by a delicate horizontal line - it is all pleasing.

Yet the characters are not to be liked. How does the author manage this, to describe these entirely credible people in their loneliness and desire for ownership of another, and keep the reader wanting to know what happens next? I did not care for these damaged and damaging people, for their passivity and lust for power.

The answer lies I think in the way Javier Marias writes: in his long sentences with many subclauses which roll on and on in an un-English way, he describes the inner world of the main protagonist, a self-absorbed opera singer who believes he has fallen in love. We witness in tremendous detail the development of his thoughts, the minute changes of colour and emphasis, like a pointillist canvas, which lead him to consider his past, his future and his wish to destroy, and to relate the dream which torments him. Marias is a tremendous observer and thinker - his voice comes through as a truth-teller - as for instance in the following paragraph (p.158):

...Manur had already been abandoned by Natalia, although he did not know it then. Nor did I: most of the time one does not know when one has been taken up and when one has been abandoned, not just because this always happens behind one's back, but because it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when such upheavals happen, just as one never knows if the fact of being taken up has to do with one's own merits or virtue, one's own unrepeatable existence, one's own decisive intervention or, rather, merely to one's casual insertion into another person's life. ..."

See what I mean?
A tremendous writer.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The scribbling returns

Returning to routine is pleasurable. I used to give myself eight minutes to write my blog, every day a little. Am back to that. Cheating a little, because I revised yesterday's entry first, and only now have set the timer.

I am re-reading Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. I first bought her book Collected Poems because of her poem One Art, and then found the rest of her writing harder to enjoy.

Something has changed: I am reading a few of her poems before going to sleep, and find it rewarding. Better still, when I switched off the light last night, the beginnings of a poem, or rather the subject for a poem came to mind, something worth while writing about. Light back on, scribble, scribble, and I hope I'll have time to work on it today - this will be a busy week with a newsletter to produce, a new chore I have taken on, not a mistake, I hope.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Back in business for 2009

A month and a half gone by, and only now can I re-establish myself as someone who writes - too many other pursuits, some of which turn out to be satisfying.

One of them is the New York Review of Books, which friends are passing on to me in bundles of 6 at a time. They are big and heavy. So much to read there, all excellent. Too time-consuming. One has to choose, a difficult thing. Afterwards they go to friends, who pass them on to someone else. The original subscriber lives in the US, I think.

I just read Kate Atkinson's thriller, When will there be good news? (Doubleday, 2008). I had read the first chapter on-line and was pleased to read the rest. It almost takes off properly at times - "Give her a medal" she says, a leitmotiv reminiscent of Vonnegut's "And so it goes". A good story, enjoyable.But weak from the point of view of the differentiation between the characters. The strong ones all seem the same person to me, the weak ones fade into insignificance.

Before that - from the ridiculous to the sublime - I had managed to get hold of a major book edited by Walid Khalidi, entitled All that remains. Khalidi is a Palestinian, born in Jerusalem in the 1920s, an historian who has taught at Oxford, Princeton and Harvard. He left Oxford in disgust at the role of Britain in the Suez Canal crisis.

The book documents precisely and factually the fate of 418 villages in what is now Israel, villages which have mostly been destroyed. For someone who has an allegiance to Israel, it is a devastating document. It notes which land had been acquired from the Palestinians prior to their leaving, and which had not. Also the manner of their departure. Deir Yassin is there.

I was glad to see that 95% of the land of Gal Ed, a kibbutz I have a connection with, was Jewish-owned before the Palestinian tenants were asked to leave. I wished it was 100%. That was at the time of the War of Independence: six Arab armies threatened the new state on the day it was formed. The Palestinians were caught in the middle, thought putting it like that makes them seem uninvolved, whereas I am sure that they did not want the Jews.

This book is a blue-print for financial compensation. It is one of the reasons I believe it is important. It is based on reliable sources and is careful in the detail that is represented. In NZ, a copy of it is held at Massey University. Maybe elsewhere as well, but that is where I found this copy. It is a big book, expensive.

Some things it is impossible to put right.

When I was young, I saw delapidated, abandoned Arab houses in Israel and asked why: someone, an adult, said "They ran away". The houses that are in good condition have someone living there - in some of them, Jewish families. (Not in all of them - over a million Palestinian Arabs live in Israel today, voting and represented in Parliament.)

History repeats itself.

I visit the house my grandfather used to own in Nuremberg.

It reminds me again of Yehuda Amichai's poem,Jerusalem 1967, Poem No. 5. He wrote that poem in 1968. He stands facing the shop of a Muslim in the Old City in Jerusalem, a shop similar to the shop his grandfather had owned in Poland. It is Yom Kippur, and in his heart, he asks for forgiveness.