Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Willa Cather and her name

From attending one seminar by creative writing Ph D students at Massey University, a host of new authors or old authors to revisit. I had heard of Willa Cather. This time there was a connection with Eleanor Catton - I can't remember how, except that one of the characters in her award-winning book The Rehearsal (which I read since the seminar) is called Willa. I liked that: both that it is an uncommon name and that it refers to this famous Willa.

Willa Cather wrote My Antonia, which I read, avidly. I made myself turn off the light half-way through - it was after midnight . After two hours spent staring at the ceiling, I resumed reading. Two hours later: still not tired, but made myself switch off, to lie awake for yet another hour. My mind was not whirling, I was neither tense nor stressed, sleep was simply absent. Today will be no good for writing. I blame Willa and the people she wrote about.

The main character is young Jimmy: his parents have been killed off in the first chapter. No explanation is given nor does Jimmy appear to suffer from their absence. He does not miss them or refer to them at any later time. When Antonia's father dies, the shock and loss are visceral, though it is hard to understand - that he was so wonderful and disciplined in many ways, yet could give in to depression and inflict his suicide on his family.

It is a gripping book strongly anchored in a time and a place, among immigrants to America - the old world versus the new. In A.S. Byatt's preface, she writes about Antonia's tremendous energy. (I used to think about this kind of energy as a prerequisite to achievement: as a mother of young children I was tired all the time and felt doomed to fail. The children having grown up, the issue seems more a question of choices, application and timing.) Antonia works very hard her whole life and has many children. She is beginning to show a weakening towards the end, but her physical energy is one of the attributes which has helped her through the difficulties.

It is not, however, what we like most about her. What is attractive about her is that she loves people and she loves life. She is genuine and intelligent and also quite simply, as someone says towards the end, a good person.

Monday, 29 October 2012


Saw The Truth Game: Sex, Lies and the Fourth Estate, a play by Simon Cunliffe - fun enough but a bit predictable - a soap on stage. The media are changing, what will be the fate of traditional newspapers? Meanwhile the lust for sex and power remain the drivers of people's actions today as ever.

However, there were a couple of lines which surprised me and held some truth. (Are they a commonplace to journalists round the world?)
Here they are in approximation:
"What is humanity's deepest urge?"
Which the novice journalist answers tentatively and shyly with "Sex?"
But it was "The urge to make changes to someone else's copy". I took that away to brood upon.

Also saw Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary film by Malik Bendjelloul (despite his Muslim name, hails from Sweden and UK), about US rock musician Rodriguez, and the impact of his music on South Africa in the 60s and 70s. The film is rivetting, heart-rending and uplifting. The story of a bodhisattva.

It won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit at the Sundance Film Festival (couldn't find which year, but fairly recently).

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Many one, many two, many many, lots

Read Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal (Victoria University Press, 2008) all in one go in 24 hours, hard to put down. I should re-read it to find out more about how she does what she does.

I enjoyed the saxophone teacher, her hard nasty thoughts and exchanges with the mothers who come to talk to her for reasons often remote from their daughters' musicality or welfare. I think I'll discover more when I re-read it.

I usually don't have patience for abuse stories - for all kinds of reasons. But here it was well treated - the salacious interest of all parties, the shame the sister experiences, the unpleasant groupiness of the schoolgirls. I liked that the relationship between the man and the girl was real and important to the girl - enough for her to  keep its details private and to continue seeing the man against all odds, even though readers are shown that he is unreliable and weak. Maybe it was all sex. I would like it otherwise, and the author allows the possibility to exist.

I have taken up Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1990) by Patricia Highsmith, on a friends' recommendation. A little every day, some of it might rub off.

Read very quickly George Orwell's War Broadcasts: the facts of the situation are there. Besides a solid description of the London Blitz, it shows the censorship that the so-called Ministry of Information exercised on the BBC - he called it 'the Ministry of Truth' in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the first documented cases of the 'Black is White' phenomenon predominant in advertising today - eg  Buy XX and Save!!

Checked my library card : 8 books out, too many - an arrogance.  (The title of this post is a Terry Pratchett quote, a family favourite).

Friday, 12 October 2012

Proust on sacrifice and the art of editing

Proust on the art of leaving things out: “...il en est d'un salon au sens social du mot comme au sens materiel où il suffit de meubles qu'on ne trouve pas jolis mais qu'on laisse comme remplissage et preuve de richesse, pour le rendre affreux. Un tel salon ressemble à un ouvrage où on ne sait pas s'abstenir des phrases qui démontrent du savoir, du brillant, de la facilité. Comme un livre, comme une maison, la qualité d'un salon, ..., a pour pierre angulaire le sacrifice." (Le Côté de Guermantes, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Vol III, p. 415, NRF)

Free translation: "...it is with a salon in the social sense of the word as well as in the material sense, that it is enough to leave, as padding and proof of wealth, furniture one does not actually like, to make it horrible. Such a salon is like a work where one has not known to abstain from the sentences which demonstrate knowledge, brilliance, ease. Just like a book, like a house, the quality of a salon has sacrifice as its corner stone."

Editing applied to life.

The previous paragraph- and a substantial proportion of the book - is about snobbery, behaviour differences between the strata of society  and the way choices are made as to whom one allows into one's life. Also how desire waxes and wanes - in this case sexual desire for a particular person.