Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Sense of an Ending: Re-reading the first page of Barnes, after Kermode:

It turns out to be enormous fun!

By the time I finished Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, I was despondent, because it had been such hard work, and I thought that I'd probably missed or misunderstood some of the concepts altogether. Kermode wrote for the initiate, and I am not among them. He assumes a literary literacy I do not have. So I have to work hard at it, thankful that the Net and Wikipedia are at my fingertips. I was straining, though it was a pleasurable effort.

As I started to read Barnes' The Sense of an Ending again, the despondency said that in all probability I would miss what he was on about because I'd had so much trouble with Kermode. Barnes' book is divided into one short chapter and one long (twice as long) chapter. The first is about the past - youth - and the second takes place in the present, with flashbacks based on documentation and reminiscences.

The very first paragraph is indeed about looking back, about memory, which is what the women in my friend's book-group had said.The last sentence qualifies the list of events which are remembered: what one remembers is not necessarily what was witnessed.

The list provides an example of the way the human mind works, described by Kermode as follows: "When we survive, we make little images of moments which have seemed like ends; we strive on epochs." (p. 7)

Looking at it again, I realise that despite the character - called Tony Webster - prefacing the list with the statement that the items are 'in no particular order', the events are listed in exactly the order in which they occurred. This contradiction is typical of Tony, of his unawareness of himself and the way in which he says things without thinking about them.

All the images have to do with fluidity - a metaphor for time - and motion and with sex. The shiny inner wrist is linked (we later find out) to wetness and to an up and down motion. The steam rises from the wet sink as the hot frying pan lands (downward) in it. The sperm is sluiced down the full length of a tall house, the river rushing upstream, the other river flowing one way while the wind blows in the other, 'exciting the surface'. There is more - to do with sex and circularity  - heat, wetness, watch, fryingpan, plughole, torches - but this is getting into minutiae.

Still on the first page of Barnes' book, the second paragraph starts with what I by now think of as a Kermodian sentence: "...time holds and moulds us but we do not understand it very well". Barnes refers to the tick tock of time passing.  This is an expression of Kermode's: between the tick and the tock is a discrete interval to which we can give meaning, which enables us to create a pattern, reducing the anxiety we may experience when faced with infinity.

Kermode writes about the tick and tock of the Bible - of course it is the Christian Bible he means - which starts In the beginning... and finishes with a vision of the end - Apocalypse. With the development of scientific knowledge, our model of the beginning and ending of our world is drastically changed - both recede into infinity. How to represent this accurately in a novel?

Kermode refers to Gwen Harwood's poem The Barn Owl, which is also in Barnes' book - a way for Barnes to refer both to death and to himself. (The owl dies a fearsome painful death.) He slips in a mention of  himself elsewhere as well, as the (invented) 'French philosopher Patrick Lagrange' - grange being barn in French. This is mentioned in a wonderful interview with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC.

Having finished Barnes' The Sense of an Ending - this time with a feeling of completeness, though much remains obscure - am slowly re-reading Kermode again. My copy of Barnes has been lent to a friend in need and so I now can't compare the texts as I go. I feel less driven to do so than  I was.

I've had the time to research the terminology and it is easier to understand, though the reading remains a slow business. Also rediscovered the wonderful Henry James quote about comical fatuous endings of the kind common in Hollywood movies:
"...a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies , millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks".
In the process of reading Kermode, it occurred to me that I should change what I write, in a particular way. The thought was there, and then it left. I have an obscure sense of what it was but am not sure. This could be the most rewarding aspect of the whole effort. I have learnt that though I sometimes don't know why certain things seem important - such as the analysis these two books in relation to each other - the inclination is to be trusted and followed.

This being the seasons for gifts, books have accumulated, waiting to be read.

Update: read a review of this book which said that connections to Philip Larkin were everywhere.
 You can read my first post about the Sense of an Ending here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Sense of an Ending, by F. Kermode

Having read Julian Barnes, I turned to this other book which must be relevant to understanding his work, since he gave it the identical title - bowing to the master?

Kermode's  Sense of an Ending has the subtitle: Studies in the theory of fiction. An eminent Brit, knight of the realm, professor of English, he taught at Harvard and Rutgers as well as Cambridge. He died in 2010. (Is it significant that Barnes' book was published around that time?) Kermode's book was originally published in 1967 in the US. Wellington's Central Library stock it, bless them, though it was out when I first looked for it. Someone else triggered into reading it ...

Now it's my turn, and I have to get on with it, not waste any time. The first chapter is entitled The End.

It's hard work. The most important word in that chapter is apocalypse:  How we imagine an ending to whatever time-bound process we are thinking about, so that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, a pattern we seem to require, whereas life flows on and on strands interwoven, and there is no beginning and end. The apocalyptic view belongs to a rectilinear world view, rather than a cyclical one. Am learning heaps: The Odyssey is written in 'episodes related by their correspondence with cyclical ritual.' The Western model is apocalyptic.

I have to read with the dictionary at hand - several unknown words  - surd, for instance, and clerisy - and some I wanted to be sure about, such as eschatological.

I am now in the middle of chapter 2, unable to progress for a while. Being a mother got in the way. There are some days ahead where I shall - hopefully - be able to work on what interests me.

In the mean time, I think over the Julian Barnes book in the light of apocalypse...As I have said in a previous post, I finished that book feeling I had missed the point, that there was something which I had not noticed. A bit like that psychological experiment on selective attention where someone is told to watch a team of people playing ball and keep their eye on the ball at all times, and then does not notice when a large gorilla (a person in a gorilla suit) walks across the space...(More info about this here). This happened to a friend of mine who has excellent concentration and she was mortified. Some people did notice the gorilla, but quite a large percentage didn't.

We believe instinctively that we see everything that is there to be seen...

A friend told me that she had read Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending with her book group - middle-class educated women - and that by and large people had not liked it. No one had looked up the Kermade connection or knew about apocalypse.

I do think it changes everything.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Reading 'a certain way'

William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, the 'great British critic' recommended that one read 'a certain way', to be a reader on which 'nothing is lost'.

Per Petterson's writing lends itself to this: I curse the River of Time was the most mysterious of his books to start with, and the most rewarding to work on.

Also the way to read Proust - in spite of feeling I don't know enough . Sometimes only a page a day is manageable.. Sometimes a page needs re-reading several times before it becomes clear. The problem with taking so long is that one may lose the sense of the shape of the work as a whole. A landscape began to emerge at the end of the first volume, like hills glimpsed through a mist;  but then they disappear again.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Falling for Wilfrid Owen

I arrived very late at a lecture about the Bloomsbury group, just in time to field three photographs that the lecturer had sent through the rows of elderly ladies. Because everyone else had seen them by then, I was able to hang on to them for a while.  One of them was a sepia print of Wilfred Owen the poet, taken by his uncle John Gunston, a butcher whose hobby was photography. Would John Gunston have been amazed that one of his photos - the only one -  is now at the National Gallery?

The photo was taken  two years before Wilfred's death in 1918. He is in his officer's uniform and is about 25 years old.  His gaze is clear, his nose straight, his mouth beautiful under the moustache. He has a slight dimple in the middle of his chin. The face is very precise. The photographer knew his trade, or maybe his sympathy for his subject comes across.Wilfred sits straight but not stiff, neat and tidy, as if ready for parade. The eye of the camera is lower than he is, so that he looks down a little. This look seems to say, This is what I am not - he seems somehow disassociated from the uniform. The brow is not stern, there is no affectation of courage. It is almost as if he is sharing a joke at the paradoxical situation he finds himself in. He is very handsome.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The real thing

Finished reading Patricia Grace's Potiki last week. I've read several of her books, but this is the first time that her writing touched me: even though there were things I didn't understand, magical events, people with special powers, it showed me a Maori point of view, and some of it at least I understood.

I met Patricia Grace a few years ago, not that she would remember me. I was a member of a group of manuhiri arriving at her marae, and she was in the line of those who welcomed us in the traditional way, nose to nose, breath mingling with breath. We were students and the teacher who brought us to meet Patricia was - is - a respected Maori writer, whose mana opened the doors to this other world. (Maybe I'm wrong and they would have opened anyway - I am remembering how worn-out the whanau were by all the visitors they received. But that's a different story.)

When I met Patricia Grace, I didn't know it was her, but I became aware of her because her blue eyes are so penetrating, like suddenly being drenched in water, or in the sudden beam of a powerful searchlight - shocking, all the more so for being unexpected. She doesn't  peer or scrutinise in a searching way; on the contrary, she is reserved, quiet, modest. But her gaze seemed all-seeing.

I felt wanting. That is what I remember: she was unimpressed and I would have liked to say something, do something to impress her. That did not happen, quite the contrary, I remember I was unhappy about something on the marae, and it seemed to me she disapproved.

I have read some of her previous books and they left no trace in me, until this one, this Potiki.

So this is the book that made her famous: now I understand why people respect her. Here is wonderful writing - a personal truth, in the framework of historical events and characters which one grows to understand and feel with deeply.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Have looked up Allen Ginsberg's Howl: it seems particularly congruent with our times, despite being
written in 1956, according to Wikipedia. 

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose
             blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers
             are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a canni-
             bal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
             Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long
             streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose fac-
             tories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose
             smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch
             whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch
             whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch
             whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The good and the bad

I have read a tremendous amount recently, shall be adding the books by and by, as must get back to my own writing.

At the moment am re-reading Julian Barnes' prize-winning The Sense of an Ending.  The main feeling at the end of the first reading was of something incomplete. Everyone else seems to have understood the book without difficulty, but I did not, though I consider myself to be a careful reader. I have  missed something, so started again. It is not unpleasant to do so. To say that JB writes well would be an understatement.

I received The Parihaka Woman as a gift. The author is Witi Ihimaera. The review in the Dominion Post was positive.
I had to stop reading it somewhere in the middle - when an act was described so terrible and so cruel that I could hardly breathe. Until then, I'd managed to overcome my reluctance: this was due to what I perceive as an unevenness of style - quotes from other works and documents, dialogue between Maori written in English with a Maori inflexion. A sentimental flavour, two-dimensional characters. Off-putting.

I had wanted to read the book to know more about what happened at Parihaka. I don't know if that act actually happened or not. I don't know if the heroine truly existed or not. I am not happy with your book, Witi.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Sophia's wild man

I have him here again, I am looking at the photo.

I am looking at the photo as a vertical, face to face, but actually he is lying down. The space between the nose and the mouth is relatively large. I like his mouth a lot. Though his eyes are closed, he is awake. His mouth is blocked by this white shell, with what looks like an opening, but leads to a shallow space.

Does the whiteness of the shell refer to us Palangi? Does he talk Palangi, is he obliged to talk Palangi, not expressing his true self, while thinking thoughts that go round and round in his head like that silken coil on his forehead? The shell is very much a local shell, a shell from the Pacific Ocean. It must be special in some way, since someone has thought to make an adornment of it. Looking at the length of the cord, when one wears it, it probably sits just a little way down from where the neck joins the chest, below the little hollow there.

I have written my one thousand words this morning, it takes me 20 minutes. May nothing get in the way of this.

Monday, 19 September 2011


I have put a postcard in front of me which is strange and interesting; my friend the painter E said it was disturbing...I don't find it so, but maybe I should. It has also been put on the cover of the catalogue of the Oceania exhibition at the City Art Gallery, where it is on exhibit and there is no print over it at all. It is unblemished. I have bought the book and am very pleased; the quality of the reproductions is great, though the text as usual is vapid.

The photo represents a man who is unmistakeably from a Pacific Ocean nation, just his face, with closed eyes, in a black setting - it is a photo, I keep forgetting to say that - and we are seeing the face from straight above. She must have stood above him to take it. His face is clearly defined against a very dark background and there is no sign of his neck below his chin or of hair on the top of his head. He is cleanshaven and his skin is a rich brown.
His eyes are closed and in his mouth he is holding a perfectly white, shiny shell which has the shape of a fleshy mouth, with a slender opening like a smile. It is a sea-shell. The size of the shell and his mouth seem to correspond well. The sea shell - is it what they call a conch? a conch sounds like a very big shell and so big it is not. His mouth is not a big mouth. One can see the stretched lower lip holding the shell and the lip above. There seems to be some effort involved in holding it in his mouth.
From the shell, a brown plaited silken rope which is attached to it at one corner has been draped close to the side of his head and leads to his forehead where it lies in a flat coil, in the middle, above his eyebrows. He has a flat fleshy nose and his eyebrows are wide.
Light comes from one side of his face, highlighting the top of his cheeks, unevenly. Also the top of his nose - it is not a ridge as such, more like a broad hill. His skin is a little grainy.
I find it a deeply satisfying photo and I must remember the name of the photographer: she is Sofia Tekela-Smith.
I am a fan.
You can see the photo here.

For the rest, I am in love with Proust.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Enter Proust

It will soon be time for another of the monthly congregational newsletters, which will eat into my time. I've managed to return to my routine of writing every day. Also compiling a list of possible 'scenes' for one of the characters from the translated German document. Then I can make up the material for the character based on that information.

Told P that the division of the book into two volumes according to time and place was now less clear and he was very peeved. I was amazed. Attachment is a strange thing.

Under the influence of de Waal's Hare, I've picked up Proust and am reading him slowly. (I ignored the introduction - it will probably be meaningful when I've finished the book). There is a lot of permission-giving (for me) in the self-centered exploration that he does. Self-centered, but not egocentric. How does he manage that?

Tried to buy a copy of A la Recherche, but it was all too expensive and then found a complete set at the library. The first volume does not belong to the set - or rather it is from a different one - and it is small, the text very dense on the page. Not a good read.

At the same time, took out a book by Marguerite Duras, Yeux bleus, cheveux noirs, Pfouah! Quelle horreur! Two neurotic characters who cry all the time, preoccupied with sexuality. Very irritating.

Monday, 12 September 2011

No time tonight, but much to write

Read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, wonderful.
Saw Oceania, exhibition at the City Art Gallery, I have to go back soon. If I write about these things now, I won't write for my book and I must get going again, it is taking me too long, it is all too slow. So no more for now.  I must write about The Hare later. And about the exhibition.
I am not lending my copy of The Hare to anyone.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

On the Upside Down of the World

A cumbersome title - I don't seem to be able to remember what it is, I have to search for it every time I want to mention it. The play is by Arthur Meek, author of Collapsing Creation, which I'd enjoyed. I'd thought then how remarkably this young New Zealander manages to create an English ambience and vibrant credible characters.

This play is equally satisfactory: a very good script, excellent content and pacing, though I remained dubious about the ladders which crowd the stage, however well they serve to enliven the pattern of movements of the only character. The actress was Laurel Devenie, who is very good.

I minded the colourlessness...Her dress and all the accessories she uses are shades of beige, the ladders are aluminium, there are sand and shells on the ground. Downstage has raw concrete walls - it was all very bland and made me long for the vibrant colour of the New Zealand coast. Maybe they thought that it could not be matched and preferred to leave it to our imaginations - I did see some wonderful things in my mind's eye...

An extensive review of the play can be found here.

Monday, 8 August 2011

When the rain stops falling

Finished The Ancient Garden with a sense of relief. Too long for me : some parts wax political, not so interesting to an ignorant non-Korean. But also because some clumsiness crept in, introduction of a Bodhisattva-type figure who is then killed off when no longer useful.

Saw the Australian play When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell at Circa Theatre in Wellington: some potential for muddle there - combines climat change, families and other man-made disasters...

P was ill and had to stay home. I attempted to tell him about the play when I got back and he kept on saying, But what was it about, what was it about?

It is complex and satisfying, miraculous. The miracle is familiar - a fish falls from the sky (frogs in Magnolia), and it is cradled by its catcher with reverence, for fish are extinct in 2039. The action shuttles to and fro between generations and between countries.
The fish-catcher is down and out, one Gabriel among many, ...he prepares the fish for his newly discovered son Andrew. He also passes on to him as much of the truth as he owns. This is shown in silent action - very powerful.

The actors playing an old couple who have lived together in pain and difficulty for many years were excellent, the best I've seen for a long time - very moving.

Bovell has written the screenplay for Lentana and for Strictly Ballroom . Now that I think about it, Lentana has a similar quality to this play - very powerful, but somehow - not quite right.

And I also think: If I could have written a play like that, I'd be proud.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Bowing to Basho

Reading a Korean novel, apparently a modern classic, very interesting.

On the surface only one voice, that of the narrator who is also the central character. After the death of a woman he loved, he reads the diary she left for him; the novel alternates between his voice and hers - hers is clearly different and we are aware of him reading in parallel to ourselves and how deeply some of the things she writes affect him. It is very good.

The title is The Ancient Garden: a love story, by Hwang Sok-Yong (Picador 2009), translated by Jay Oh. More and more aware of translations and translators, my main gripe with Jay is that he/she uses the American term 'dirt' which betrays the true meaning - the lovely word 'earth' would be so much better.

I am keeping track of the characters by listing them in the prelims, as well as the names of places. It is difficult to remember names that are so different that one can't even tell if they are male or female, and has no idea what they sound like.

The book speaks to me. In particular, on p. 195, describing an atmosphere and a way of paying attention:

Even in silence when [...] the air is not moving, it is soon altered by a grasshopper or a locust jumping out of the grass forest and hopping over the path. Or a frog jumping into water.
A bow to dear old Basho.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Champagne at the bus stop

Only my second post this month. I returned from a Zen retreat after just three days when a person close to me became ill. He was - still is - in a lot of pain, on morphine at times. We spend most of the time in silence. He seems to like it as much as I do.

Judy Hojin Kimmel
The retreat was led by Hojin Kimmel of the Zen Mountains and Rivers Order. She ran an art workshop on the first day  - something they call journalling; I learnt some useful ways of expressing oneself a la Natalie Goldberg, painting and writing in concert, practical methods of managing.

During the morning before I left, it happened that I looked up towards the altar where she was sitting and had a perception of emptiness, as if no one was there. 

Earlier this month, I enjoyed reading a graphic novel entitled Persepolis, by  Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2007), an autobiography revealing the effect of fundamentalist Islam on a young girl in Iran. Someone had lent me the book, and as soon as I finished it, I bought my own copy, the complete work in two volumes: the first  is better, I think. The illustrations are plain line drawings, black and white, most expressive. The story has been pared down and down, very good.

A recent experience: I was one of the winners in a translation competition with a translation of Rosa Ausalender's Dichten. Rosa Auslaender managed to survive the Holocaust and returned to Germany after the war. She is regarded as an important 20th century poet, a friend of Celan's. Her most famous poem is entitled Motherland:


Mein Vaterland ist tot
sie haben es begraben
im Feuer

Ich lebe
in meinem Mutterland
The local Goethe Institut and the German lecturers at Victoria University organised an exhibition of her poems in German, with wonderful photos, accompanied by translations of varying quality - some were by established translators, some by students, some by Google Translate. A translation workshop was great fun: Lloyd Jones read a translation he'd worked on, and so did Kate Camp, beautiful.

I don't feel that my work is as good as theirs by any means  - but maybe it has the quality of being faithful to Rose Auslaender's words. I am not sure how pleased she would be herself. She may have liked some of the minimalist translations, which allow a lot of air around the words, letting them float.

The four winning entries will be posted in bus-stops around Wellington for two weeks. My friends say, let's party in the bus stop, drink champagne! It will be fun!

Poet Lynn Jenner
On a different scale altogether: Lynn Jenner's book Dear Sweet Harry won  the Best First Book of Poetry Award in the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards - congratulations, Lynn!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Two cultures and CP Snow

Very tired, took to the sofa, much reading and drinking of tea, the gas heater's radiance, winter sun shining bright panels on the floor.

Elizabeth Smithers' short stories The girl who proposed (Cape Catley, 2010): they are somehow unsatisfactory, one knows that the reader is supposed to work, but her characters do not interest me enough to make me want to. Usually I like to puzzle out what is meant, but not in this case.

Something in the local culture escapes me. For instance, in common with a friend of mine who is also an immigrant, I dislike Owen Marshall's work, the greyness and tedium of his short stories, and yet another friend, whose opinion I respect, says that to her they are very meaningful. She is a born and bred Kiwi.

Elizabeth Smithers is a highly regarded poet. I enjoy her poetry more than her short stories.

Coping with the aftermath of a migraine, spent a day or so reading CP Snow's The sleep of reason (McdMillan 1968), one of a series entitled Strangers and brothers. Altogether a different experience: quite wonderful in fact. I don't know what to mention first: the number of new words - I must have looked up about seven, including the use of rake to mean incline and beck to mean gesture, which I vaguely knew, and nepenthe, a drug that drives away grief...His writing is full of ideas, his characters make statements about the world: I paraphrase - 10 000 people run England and X is convinced that if they were all got rid of and        10 000 others installed in their place, England would continue unchanged. Meaning that there are more gifted people than there is opportunity for them to put their talents to good use - one of the themes of his writing, why does one person 'succeed'  and receive society's kudos, and another equally or more talented does not, also how the unsuccessful-but-gifted people cope with this knowledge. Luck is mentioned. He returns to this topic frequently, it troubles him.

I loved the structure of the book - recurring themes such as variations in people's memory, different kinds of memory - someone can quote whole dialogues exactly as they were said years earlier - and the importance of having a good memory - how it affects a person's ability to function.

Two courts of justice in the course of the story, a mirroring - also very good descriptions of personality disorders, of someone vaguely autistic. The importance of children, the forms parenting can take.He notices the many 'coloured faces' in his home town (the novel takes place in the 1960s). The local police superintendant says "Pakistanis - they are no trouble."

He must have been a dangerous man to know - I guess a compulsive note-taker, everything going into his books, everyone a potential character in his stories.

Someone came to dinner last night who knew his lecture Two cultures, about the gap between the arts and the sciences and how most people belong to one camp and fail to appreciate the other's importance. Writers who don't know the definition of acceleration, scientists who have never read Dickens.

I shall get more of his books from a second hand bookstore, I think they may be good company in the future. Read him up on Wikipedia and found that he was a physicist as well as a novelist, and made a peer. He's from Leicester.

* * *

Published a friend's poem in the latest newsletter and added an s to a word, because was sure it was a plural.
She is livid:  'nauseating pedantry', she says in her email, and signs it "Love...". For me, it was just an ordinary adjustment, part of what I do as an editor. Another poem by someone else lacked a title and I phoned to ask for one. The s did not seem to warrant a phone call - I am busy enough as it is - though a bell rang faintly in my mind, in warning, which I ignored.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The right friends

Conflict between writing and other duties - a newsletter to prepare, 10 days to do it in, not much - inviting friends for dinner - some are beginning to take offence at our unsociability - karate, cooking and cleaning. It is now 11:30 am and have been up since 7:30 and done only cooking and cleaning. Nothing written except this.

Writing Walter: I shall write 1000 words every day.

I'll give myself an hour to write write and write - no holds barred - about the synagogue destruction, before moving on to other things.

Memo: I was telling a friend something and she said, It's a story - meaning - Write it! Last time, I did what she suggested - very satisfying. When I came to write this one, I'd forgotten what it was about. I shall sit quietly and hope it'll come back,  I know I've told this one before, so shall probably want to tell it again.

The importance of having the right friends.

I've remembered the story now. About Greece.

Friday, 17 June 2011


A blobby day, too much physical exercise has tired me out. Rest does not seem to help - even lying down feels like an effort.

And so re-read Milan Kundera's Slowness (Faber and Faber, 1996) in a good translation (from the French) by Linda Asher. The original La Lenteur was published in '96. I'd bought it because of its title as well as because of Kundera, because I'd just finished a brilliant book translated from German, The Discovery of Slowness (2004) by S. Nadolny, translated from German by R. Freedman from Die Entdeckung der Langsamheit (1999), which is the biography of John Franklin, an exceptional man, who suffered from a slowness in his ability to process incoming stimuli, and developed a profound understanding of many things nevertheless. He became Governor of Tasmania (19th century).

I once asked a clever psychologist whether speed (of response to the questions of a test) and intelligence were always linked, and he was surprised and said of course; indeed, the Wechsler Intelligence test - commonly known as the IQ test - rates people partly on the speed of their responses. This book shows how that might lead to an erroneous assessment.

To return to Kundera's book. It is three-quarters good: the ending is disappointing, almost trite. Most of it is witty and very well written, often describing a superficial intellectual discussion between men, with a commentary on what is happening underneath, who wins and who loses and by what process - which may not always be of interest to a less competitive person. But some of the ideas are fun to play with: the connection between memory and speed - the faster we go, the less we remember of our experience. A central story shows and discusses how a slow movement of the characters from one place to another enhances the memory of the events; Kundera contrasts slow and fast - one person dives into a pool, aware only of himself, another is shown - approvingly - as entering the water cautiously, slowly, gracefully - more aware.

The letter to the publisher regarding the translation was posted today.

My writing is bogged down, though little sparks appear every now and then, which may illuminate the way forward. Started chapter 2 of what I call Writing Walter. A temporary title.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Kill your darlings...

Talking with a knowledgeable friend about the short story: she would like me to remove the beginning; I am attached to it.

Kill your darlings! they say. Following that decree, I should get rid of it, though I can't see why.

Changing the story to the first person was a fruitful exercise - it is now longer and more fleshed out. I think I can do more of this, catching events that seem to be almost at the periphery of my consciousness, which gain unexpected importance as I write about them. New vistas open up.

Does the short version leave too much unsaid, especially for those who have no other insight into the society and times that are described? It is interesting to think about.

Still no letter to the publisher re the translation: I must just do it.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A happy ending

Olive Kittering by Elizabeth Strout (Randomo House, 2008): a good book, a very good writer, Pulitzer Prize-winner, I'm surprised I'd never heard of her before.

The format is not the usual novel: about twenty short stories take place chronologically in the same little town in Maine, with the characters reappearing in various chapters, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes briefly mentioned as if at a distance. The language is spare, the psychological truth of the characters a great strength. I particularly liked the way people conjecture about other people's motivations or states of mind and get it wrong, as in real life. 

There is mostly an atmosphere of depression and disappointment, which is redeemed in the last chapter, where Olive finds happiness. I wondered whether the publisher said, Really, Liz, do something about this, too too gloomy...

Indeed some of the reviews complain about that, and a friend of mine never finished the book, because some of the painful events are too similar to what has happened in her own life, through no fault of her own. Reading Elizabeth's biography, found that she qualified in law and attained a Certificate in Gerontology at the same time, the latter being a social work degree. She is very bright and in her mid-fifties.

Plan to review the short story for an hour - no more - and get on to the book again. Ch is out and the house is quiet and warm. Great!

Still reading No Simple Passage, a little irritated that it is not over by now, am finishing it in order to finish.
One word too many on p. 208 - After the 1884 earthquake:.. "Even the Jews... humiliate themselves, fasting from even until even and uniting with their brother colonists in fervent supplication to Him..."  What is this Even? Christianity is descended from Judaism, and Jews humiliate themselves ritually on the Day of Atonement every year...Frequent fasts are ordained in Orthodox Judaism. It is in accordance with their creed. I am also not sure that 'eating up large' is such a feature of the Feast of the Tabernacles, it has more to do with what you eat, not how much.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Short story

My son says that people may not be used to my style and that is why everyone is so critical, he thinks it is good enough as it is, and not to change anytthing. Some things I've changed anyway, but it is very reassuring to hear him say that. He is a good judge.

I will however try to write it in the first person.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The look of a book

Started reading Jenny Robin Jones' handsome book No Simple Passage, (Random House, 2011) - feel a bit overwhelmed by the wealth of detail about the new immigrants, I can't remember the names and so far the personalities of the various writers quoted such as the surgeon and CE, have not emerged. I suppose that every name is the name of someone's ancestor, that someone being a potential reader. There was at least one uncommon name belonging to someone I know, I shall have to tell them.

Am shocked that the single women (those from the working class, mind you!) are kept behind bars at night. There are many such devastating details - except of course that they were not 'details' for those affected by them: the surgeon has the right to withhold rations - their food - from those who swear at him, sometimes for several days in a row!  It's a comfort to read that those who do swear appear to have food of their own.

I skip lists, too much detail for this reader. It may become more story-like - have only reached p. 45 out of 300 plus.

Was charmed by the delicate poem on the frontispiece: 

Some days we are emigrants, 
some days we are immigrants,
some days we are simply passengers
milling about on the deck.

When does a leaving behind become 
a going towards?
When does it become a here now?

And when does a keep out become
we're all in this together? 
Also bought - without hesitation - Jenny Bornholdt's latest book The Hill of Wool (Victoria University Press, 2011). I read it quickly for the first time this morning, - shall read it again in the coming days, a reader has to work on this one, and sometimes even that is no use: symbols of something are there and you either like this poem-y thing or you don't.

Undone and Memory want to be learnt by heart, for occasional recitation at appropriate times - vilanelles, I think. 
Sometimes we forget that we remember
find it distressing that the past
could so evade us, remain as merely tremor
in our brains, so that we know the former
life is there, but can't quite grasp 
the detail. Sometimes we forget that we remember.

 Also liked Christmas and After Hours... Time will tell.
The book itself is not as nice as the previous one, though the cover illustration is satisfying.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Wrote a short story based on Einat's visit and Memorial Day (for Israel Defence Force soldiers), which needs more work. Several people have read it, all had suggestions to make, not one the same as the other, which means that it is not quite right in some way, since all the suggestions are quite far-reaching.

I am pleased with it anyway, writing it has satisfied a need in me. I shall save this version and play with version B to see where that may lead me.

I have managed in a mysterious and disastrous way to lose some of the writing which is the new beginning for the book. Only a few pages, but they packed a punch. A by-product of having spent a lot of time on it, is that when I re-write now, it may flow out pretty much as it was.

I also cannot find a letter I thought I'd written about the translation to be published.Maybe I only thought I wrote it?

Best was cleaning the kitchen this morning. You start with dirt and get rid of it and feel good. Nice and simple.
Unfortunately time-consuming and a diversion from what really matters.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

An autumn leaf on a dancing stream

Writing: After the work of planning and establishing structure, the book went off to a new start from a different unexpected angle, nothing to do with the plan at all. I am surprised and pleased, what is there makes sense, though I have the feeling of being bogged down at the moment. Never mind, important to keep on keeping on.

Israeli visitor, Remembrance Day for the Fallen with the Embassy and the rest of the Wellington community - her brother was a pilot who was killed, intense grief, trying to do my best. Old feeling of betrayal of Herzl's dream.

A friend came to see me and said: I have recurrent dreams where I dream that I am nothing, I have achieved nothing, my life made no difference to anyone.
She was upset.
But it is true, I said, we both laughed out loud, and that was it.
Last night, she slept without dreaming.

The usual stuff:  "Life is fleeting, an autumn leaf carried away on a dancing stream..." (Not a quote, but it might be).

Monday, 2 May 2011

On reading the Todesfuge at the Holocaust Memorial Ceremony

At the Holocaust Memorial ceremony last night, the programme cover said in big words Compassion and Re.....(can't remember the Re... word right now - forgetting words happens more frequently: during the week-end, forgot the word 'parsnip' for a while. I stood and stared at the parsnip and only the p came back. The rest of the word absented itself for a couple of hours).

The Holocaust is not about Compassion and Re..... (I'll add the Re word when it comes back, at the end of this post), which were one might say, significantly lacking at the time. Restrained myself from prefacing my reading by mentioning that even if the 12 000 Righteous Gentiles had been double the number, that is 24 000, and even if each of them had saved 10 Jews - which most did not, though a few saved thousands - only 240 000 Jews would have been saved. Reminded myself that 'He who saves the life of one person, it is as if he had saved the entire world." (Who said that?)

Someone whose opinion I value said I read Celan's poem 'appropriately', the best compliment that evening - some people came to tell me I'd read well. The poem seemed to take over, and there was the intent silence of attentive people. Several people had previously turned down the opportunity to read that poem, too difficult to read, they said, no punctuation.

I am glad that it ended up being me. A duty fulfilled. It was a bit of a battle to get it into the programme - another poem by a Holocaust Survivor was suggested, about a credo about belief  in human goodness. I responded that it was 'powerfully optimistic' whereas Celan is not a comfortable read (Hah!). But then the Holocaust was not a comfortable event.

Still waiting for Re... to reappear.

The poem about a survivor's belief in human goodness (Alexander Kimel) was read last, after several poems and songs which were full of grief. That felt like the right place for it, a positive thought to go home with.

Added the next day: the Re... word was Resilience.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

On apology and victimhood

On Yom Kippur, it is traditional to apologise to those whom you may have offended during the past year. As an exercise,  someone  I know decided to apologise to everyone he knew in his congregation. Since he was an active person within the community, this meant apologising to a great number of people.

He found to his dismay that all those he apologised to felt that he had indeed offended them, and acknowledged his apology as their due, rather than dismissing it with a wave of the hand, which is what he had anticipated. He found the experience was so devastating that he had to stop before completing his mission.

At this point I must explain that this man is loved by the congregation. He is a sensitive and caring person.

Despite our efforts to be kind and loving, it seems that we cannot live together without hurting each other. It is like holding a new-born baby - take care of its head - and when meeting another person - take care of their heart. We are so fragile, so very fragile, the slightest touch leaves a mark, a bruise, which we nurse and brood over. We live together, constantly bumping and rubbing up against each other. It is unavoidable.

Thinking about this man's experience, I hypothesize furthermore that it is possible that most people originally had no conscious grievance. His apology might suggest to them that they had missed something, that they had been wronged - and so they obliged by immediately remembering a situation involving him when events might have turned out more favourably, when things turned out to what they view as their disadvantage. Such a situation is easy to find, even, sometimes, with a slight shifting of perspective, easy to manufacture. It is enticing to produce the goods required: the temptation to assume the victim position proved too strong to resist. A victim after all is pure and faultless, one might almost say perfect.

This connection between victimhood and the sense of being an elevated sort of being explains the attractiveness of the situation: by apologising to someone, we offer them the chance to inhabit the realm of the injured innocent, the realm of the angels, while all that is bad and wrong resides within us. They are good and we are bad, they are right and we are wrong, they are the light and we are the darkness.

It would seem that this temptation is to be resisted, for while we may be injured, we are rarely innocent.

Furthermore, when you think about it, cultivating a feeling of aggrievedness creates a world full of reasons to feel aggrieved. One is reminded of the joke where a mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. When he next visits he is wearing one of them and she asks: "And what is wrong with the other one?"

What is wrong? What is wrong! Notice the typical expression - the other one. The fault lies in the other.

Never this one here, it is never us. One is always looking beyond oneself for what is wrong. This is where an apology is the right action: the only wrong we need to be concerned with is the one we have committed ourselves. Apologising to people teaches us how easily they are hurt, where and how we may have gone wrong.

Something wrong can always be found. Take an ordinary experience like drinking coffee in one of Wellington's coffeeshops. The service may be too slow, the coffee too cold, too sweet, too weak, too expensive, the cup too big, too small, unwieldy, the cafe too dirty, too noisy, too full, too empty, we can go on and on, our creativity is immense. We emerge from this practice displeased with our place in the world, disgruntled.

An Orthodox Jew told me that Jewish practice requires one to say on average 100 blessings a day. This is another creative practice: find what is good, what to be grateful for, and learn the fine art of contentment.

Monday, 4 April 2011

'Juedische Winterhilfe'

Those are the words at the top of the page: I am starting again, reading a bundle of photocopies of 1930s newsletters in German, in Gothic print - an emotional experience, delving into what is both precious and fertile. I am writing a reconstruction of the past, something to be examined and understood.

About twenty years ago, I visited an old lady who was a therapist and she said to me, Last year at this time you were also depressed - what is it about November that upsets you so much?
At that time I did not know, but now I am sure.
I must follow up on that little CD too.

I am unable to read anything else now.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Living in the 21st century

I am so glad I live now: the wonderful local City Library - this city is neither very large nor very rich, on an international scale - stocks most of the books I want to read. Researching translation, I found both Umberto Eco and Lawrence Venuti on their shelves. I am most grateful.

There are many other things to be grateful for, this is the one for today. Found another book on translation which I have not read yet but which promises well, Edith Grossman, Why translation matters. Found it between the two others, it is also physically a beautiful object, made with care. Ah, care!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Saying more about what is gone

Up on time this morning, still dark, exercises, Zen, breakfast with the news (Japan's misery, Libya's misery), load washing machine, remove and fold dry washing from line, tidy up kitchen, Skype phone call with a sister whose birthday it is today. Answer varied emails.

Finally, at last, to the dining room, taken over for the purpose of planning the novel.

The stickies I used on Friday to work on a plan for the novel have curled away from the large sheets of thick paper which are supposed to provide a panoramic view. These stickies had previously curled away from the back of the door in my study, I thought it was the door, but it is the stickies which are the problem. They  are small and white. I wrote on them in four colours, one per main character.

Went to the local supermarket, some auxiliary shopping - milk, bread, fruit etc. - but in the end they don't stock Stickies, they're not sure what they are. Finished shopping, checked out the local Post Office which doubles up as a stationery store, yes they have some - not the usual ones, these may be more expensive. Bought 300, larger, light yellow.

Drive home, two full bags heaved onto the kitchen bench, everything put away, make cups of tea for two, enter the dining room again with my new stickies. The coaster from Amsterdam is waiting for my cup of tea. It is now 11:20 am.

An annoying stimulus has disappeared - something like a sound, an inner manifestation. I am in a quiet place and all is well, at last. I want to write. I can write.

Latest books: Chaim Potok, The Book of Lights (Heinemann, 1981) - not my favourite of his, that remains The Chosen,  this one is partly autobiographical. As always a terrific tale-spinner, creates a world I find hard to emerge from, I am very susceptible- my preference is to read books such as these in one go, get them over with. Umberto Eco refers to such writing as 'para-literature'.

Most other people seem to enjoy them without becoming trapped. Missed the time slot for an important phone call. Upsetting, maybe for both of us.

Jose Saramago The Elephant's Journey  (Harvill Secker, 2010) translated by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa: enjoyable and whimsical, though at times a little formulaic. Maybe not so for someone who hasn't read his other books. One feels that Saramago is very old and a little child-like in his optimism. Is that what is wrong with this book - that there is no true evil in it? Saramago has written well about evil elsewhere - read his book Blindness, a masterpiece.

Yesterday raced through a slim volume entitled A Murder in Lemberg: Politics , religion, and violence in modern Jewish history, by historian Professor Michael Stanislawski of Columbia University. First of all, it is well written, a good pace, an enjoyable read. The murder takes place in 19th century Poland, the
brilliant Reform Rabbi is assassinated by an Orthodox Jew. (Documentation of evil in various forms). The brilliance of the Rabbi is not sufficiently substantiated for my liking, but the positive outcome of reading the book - from the point of view of the one I am writing myself - was learning about the ways in which certain practices changed between the Orthodox and the newer forms of Judaism. Also: with his description of contemporary Lemberg, Professor Stanislawski bears witness in a powerful way to the destruction and disappearance of Eastern European Jewry, a topic of which much more might be said.

Finally, I am about to finish a short book on the theory of translation: Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, (Phoenix, 2003) from his lectures at the University of Toronto in 1988. I also started Lawrence Venuti's The Translator's Invisibility, a History of Translation (2nd edn.,Routledge, 1995, 2002). I have to prepare a translator's statement of principle for the translation I have just finished, and this reading is supposed to give me the required insight and jargon.

Eco's book is engrossing: it would be satisfying for anyone who has lived in several languages. I started Venuti's book because I couldn't get hold of an article of his which encapsulates his theory. Maybe I'll try harder: the book is too much work for my purpose. There is a reference by Eco to another Venuti article which I'll follow up.

For my edification, am continuing to read No Time to Lose, by Pema Chodron (Shambhala, 2005). Slow work, like building a brick wall, or putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Every now and then, a sense of having achieved/understood something new. But mostly one has to carry on, a little doggedly.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Tao

So much has happened since January:  Zen retreat - definitely no writing then - two issues of the Bulletin published, one visitor for ten days, another for one night, a book launch organised at Temple, two sermons written - there is something to show for the time spent, but I've not been writing here.

Am sporadically re-reading Per Pettersen's I curse the River of Time, third time round - I am sure that his book's message is clear to a literate Norwegian - as an outsider, I feel the need to research the hints that are there - the name of the ship, the films which impressed the main characters, the books they read. It is frustrating and satisfying at the same time - I'm spending a lot of time with it, contentedly. For some reason, the hopelessness of the main character, who drowns his gifts in alcohol, does not affect me. I am interested in how Pettersen manages to draw the reader into the book. It is a masterpiece.

Bought the Tao Te Ching in a swap of books at a 2nd hand bookstore; I'd lost the copy I'd bought in the 70s in Amsterdam, probably in that marvellous bookshop Au bout du monde...This not-so-new copy is ostensibly for P, who is discovering the Tao via his Chinese student, - they are discussing the Tao in English together, as an exercise in pronounciation, having finished Confucius' Analects during their first year. An interesting process.

I find this Tao Te Ching particularly beautiful, (translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with lovely photographs, Vintage Books, Random House, 1972) though P reports that Jian Liang does not always agree with the translation. My friend Helen was interested, so searched out a copy for her on the Web and came to realise that it must have been a popular edition, because copies are available all over the place.

This edition includes the Chinese, written in calligraphy and I spent several peaceful hours one afternoon absorbed in working out what the ideograms meant...except that I should be working.

So in a guilty surge of energy, finished the translation I was working on and sent it off for feedback. End of Stage One, the longest part. Now I have to wait to hear back.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

An island in infinity

Heart-touching poem:

THE MOON RISING                        LA LUNA ASOMA

When the moon rises,                          Cuando sale la luna
the bells hang silent                               se pierden las campanas
and impenetrable footpaths               y aparecen las sendas
appear.                                                        impenetrables.

When the moon rises,                          Cuando sale la luna,
the sea covers the land,                        el mar cubre la tierra
and the heart feels                                   y el corazon se siente
like an island in infinity.                         isla en el infinito.

Lorca, translated by Stephen Spender & JL Gili.

There are two more stanzas.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Blank day - but good

Was up at 6:30 am, now it is almost midnight - and have done no work and no reading.

On the other hand: visited the Dr, coffee with a friend, shopping and cooking dinner for 7, using new Asian cookery book, which as H.M.cN says "changed my life"! The many uses of a wok and the right sort of tools to use with it - from steaming to deep frying - very interesting and made this meal much easier than usual - all done in 2 hours max.

Nice evening. But nothing else.Worthwhile?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The UN: Babble Bubble

A bit of everything, - no time for reading. Trimmed the roses and watered the garden. It hasn't rained for four days. All my reading is effortful or depressing: Dore Gold on the United Nations: The Tower of Babble, How the United Nations has Fueled Global Chaos (Crown Forum, NY, 2004).

I daren't read it before I go to sleep, too upsetting. At first I thought/hoped he was biased (against everyone who is not pro-Israel), but the evidence he provides is consistent: the UN fails to protect the weak against the strong. I still have half the book to read, having read about Rwanda and Srebernica so far....

Another illusion gone.

Friday, 7 January 2011


Middle of the day and not enough done - but want to mention that I recently read Going West by Maurice Gee, (Penguin, first published in 1992) which would be better if he had had more discipline and cut out repetition.

Urgent writing to do about Exodus, chapters 10 - 13. If I can shall add something about that later.

I am now at the last three pages of the translation, second round...should finish it next week. Last year I was hoping at one point to finish the work in June! I didn't think then that I should go over it again - but am very glad that I have done so.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Lebanon and Albania

Missed writing one day, again, I must prevail - a lot to write about - saw the Israeli Lebanon, Director Shmuel Maoz - very moving and to my mind, accurate portrayal of life in a tank on the first day of the war...No, have never been in a tank, but have served in the Israeli army and been in a war and been shot at. A long time ago. A local told me at a party in my house that he thought the film was propaganda...I said, No. I introduced him to two Israelis who were staying with me - passing through - a young couple in their mid twenties - she had been an officer. Both small, quiet and gentle.
I don't think it did any good.

A friend lent me a book entitled The Accident by Ismail Kadare, (translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson, 2008, Text Publishing Melbourne), Booker Man International Prize winner for 2005 -  the commendation says that he 'has had a truly global impact'. Not with this book, that's for sure. I thought it was dreadful, inane dialogue between two sex-obsessed people, probably a metaphor for something - Albania's past domination by a tyrant?  and Israel is mentioned randomly, never clear why - but the accumulation of words is so ghastly in its meaninglessness, it was all I could do not to throw the book across the room...True - some people live that way; I don't choose to associate with them. I couldn't finish the book.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Yet another fresh start...

Wanting to write more, I must do this every day.

Just been looking at the 'next blog' - first time I tried this, and it was a very interesting one - a photographer, Polish, called Tomasz Wiech...see his report on 300 Hassids 'from all over the world' visiting the grave of a holy man in a small Polish town. It cost me at least 15 min of the time I had planned to write in.

Back to books: a friend lent me - it was insistently 'only a loan' - a 1976 book by Peter Dickinson, entitled King & Joker (The Mysterious Press). A crime story at Buckingham Palace, with a fictitious Royal Family, one who is also descended from Victoria, - based on an idea of Lytton Strachey's about what would have happened if  Edward, Victoria's grandson,  had lived to rule as King Victor I. Very engaging whimsey, but it peters out as the idea becomes familiar and the discrepancies and irregularities gradually emerge from the tale like figures in a mist. Maybe when writing about unusual situations, new features ought to be meted out bit by bit, one after the other...  My excuse for enjoying it as much as I did was that I was sick and lay on the couch alternately reading and sleeping all day. The author loves his characters, it's twee and endearing at the same time.

A great book for Xmas, A History of the World in 100 Objects , by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, in collaboration with BBC Radio 4. 100 chapters, easily read out loud, which we ( P & I) do for each other from time to time, and always, at some point, the listener says :Oh?!, full of amazement : the objects have an interesting complexity, more than the culture they come from, they also reflect some of the invisible forces of the time.The photos are good: I was interested in this collaboration with radio, and the confidence expressed by Radio 4 people (in the Preface) that they would be able to describe the objects well enough - they do. The Powerful Word.

The other book I am reading, also a most welcome gift, thank you Evie, is The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, (1955, 2005, A New Directions Paperbook) with an introduction by W.S. Merwin. Contains the Spanish as well. A treasure.