Archive for June, 2009

taylors mustardTomorrow Lanying is going to Germany for a week. Five years ago we would have quarrelled before she went and she’d have said “I hate you. I’m glad I won’t be here.”

When I was training to be a teacher, I had to attend classes in group dynamics and our course leader pointed out that lovers and friends often quarrel when they are forced to be apart. It makes the parting easier.

But we never quarrel now. She just goes. I hope this is a sign of our maturity.

She’s worried about what I’m going to eat. On Sunday we were in the Chinese supermarket and she was making some suggestions. I told her I’m going to have a holiday from Chinese food.

I’m going to eat steak.

I have some mustard to put on my steak. I’ve had it for about three months, unopened. It’s called Taylor’s Original English Mustard.

Finally I can open it.

You’ve got to have something to look forward to when your wife’s about to leave you.


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RLSOne of the writers I’ve always admired is Robert Louis Stevenson. His characters are vigorous and vital; his scenes are thrilling; and his plots are perfect. He enthralls me even more as an adult than he did as a child because I can now see the inimitable artistry in what he does. I can see it but I can’t copy it.

I recently read through a collection of his short stories and I found them quite difficult and tiring. Perhaps that’s why he’s seen as a children’s author. The young have the energy for him.

But it’s easy to forget just how much effort those books cost him. He wrote a number of books before he wrote his first novel and his first novel only came after a dozen false starts.

That novel was Treasure Island and, in an essay on how he came to write it, he explains what a huge challenge it was. It’s an essay I never tire of reading. I find it very comforting, like a chat by the fire with an old friend. Today I need his words more than ever because I’ve just started the long uphill struggle of rewriting my latest novel and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

“Sooner or later, somehow, anyhow, I was bound to write a novel.  It seems vain to ask why.  Men are born with various manias:  from my earliest childhood, it was mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the paper-makers.  Reams upon reams must have gone to the making of ‘Rathillet,’ ‘The Pentland Rising,’ ‘The King’s Pardon’ (otherwise ‘Park Whitehead’), ‘Edward Daven,’ ‘A Country Dance,’ and ‘A Vendetta in the West’; and it is consolatory to remember that these reams are now all ashes, and have been received again into the soil.  I have named but a few of my ill- fated efforts, only such indeed as came to a fair bulk ere they were desisted from; and even so they cover a long vista of years. ‘Rathillet’ was attempted before fifteen, ‘The Vendetta’ at twenty- nine, and the succession of defeats lasted unbroken till I was thirty-one.  By that time, I had written little books and little essays and short stories; and had got patted on the back and paid for them — though not enough to live upon.  I had quite a reputation, I was the successful man; I passed my days in toil, the futility of which would sometimes make my cheek to burn — that I should spend a man’s energy upon this business, and yet could not earn a livelihood:  and still there shone ahead of me an unattained ideal:  although I had attempted the thing with vigour not less than ten or twelve times, I had not yet written a novel.  All — all my pretty ones — had gone for a little, and then stopped inexorably like a schoolboy’s watch.  I might be compared to a cricketer of many years’ standing who should never have made a run.  Anybody can write a short story — a bad one, I mean — who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel.  It is the length that kills.

“The accepted novelist may take his novel up and put it down, spend days upon it in vain, and write not any more than he makes haste to blot.  Not so the beginner.  Human nature has certain rights; instinct — the instinct of self-preservation — forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks.  There must be something for hope to feed upon.  The beginner must have a slant of wind, a lucky vein must be running, he must be in one of those hours when the words come and the phrases balance of themselves — EVEN TO BEGIN.  And having begun, what a dread looking forward is that until the book shall be accomplished!  For so long a time, the slant is to continue unchanged, the vein to keep running, for so long a time you must keep at command the same quality of style:  for so long a time your puppets are to be always vital, always consistent, always vigorous!  I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat — not possibly of literature — but at least of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.”

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antony & cleopatraI had dim sum with my daughter, Hannah, yesterday and she took this opportunity to return some books she’d borrowed for writing an essay on Antony & Cleopatra. One of them was my Signet edition of the play, which I’ve had since I was 15 and which has huge sentimental value for me because it is one of the books that turned me into an avid reader.

My family worried about me because rather than sit and watch TV with them I wanted to disappear into my room and spend time with dry texts by often disreputable authors. But they couldn’t disapprove of Shakespeare. My parents had even been to see Julius Caesar at the theatre. All right, maybe it’s a bit violent and supernatural but, after all, it’s historical and those Romans were a bloodthirsty, superstitious lot. Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I loved and I read it many times before moving onto the others. I always read them in the little Signet editions and I still think they’re by far the best editions I own, although I’ve had to throw some away recently because they were damp and smelly from being too long in my garden shed.

I loved Anthony & Cleopatra probably more than any other because it was romantic and exotic. I was always attracted to foreign girls and Cleopatra was the ultimate foreign girl because there was so much uncertainty about her ethnic origin.

One of my favourite scenes was the banquet on Pompey’s galley at the end of Act II. Reading it, you might wonder why I liked it so much, but it’s because everything is left to your imagination. Shut away in my little bedroom far away from the din of my family, I was transported to a world of extravagant sensuality and otherworldy delights.

The idea of reading Antony & Cleopatra is odd because it wasn’t written as a book but as a play, to be seen. But I prefer reading it to seeing it. The fast-paced 42 scenes are notoriously difficult to stage. The play is so very different from the concentrated power of Phèdre, which Hannah has just seen at the National Theatre with Helen Mirren in the starring role. You need to pare back all the props and do something close to what Shakespeare’s own company would have done, which is to let the language suggest all the background pomp, the vast desert landscapes and magnificent costumes. I have seen it staged like this with plain white costumes and no scenery at The Globe, and it worked, but I still prefer the Cleopatra of my imagination.

You can learn a lot about how to excite someone’s imagination from this play. Its epic sweep is achieved with remarkably few words. The legendary love story is one in which the lovers rarely appear alone on stage together and the true nature of their relationship is as elusive as love itself. Cleopatra’s mythic charisma dominates even the scenes where she isn’t present and, when she does appear, the dialogue is brilliant, fizzing with playful, sexy, selfish passion. But even in the dialogue some of the deepest emotions are once again left to the imagination. The eloquence of the two simple words given to Charmian in Act V, scene 2 has often been cited as an example of Shakespeare’s genius. I once attended a whole lecture just on these two words. The lecture made a lasting impression on me and ever since, whenever I write dialogue, I try to apply what I learnt. Ah, but it’s difficult.

I don’t have the text of that lecture, but here is something close to what was said, which I found in a book called Making Theatre by Peter Mudford.

T.S. Eliot, writing about Shakespeare’s Antony And Cleopatra, showed his genius as a critic, as well as Shakespeare’s as a playwright, in pointing out what Shakespeare had added to his source in North’s Plutarch. In Act V, scene 2, Charmian, Cleopatra’s attendant, has watched the queen commit suicide by applying the asps to her arm and breast. She follows her queen into death, as the guards rush in.

What work is here! Charmian, is this well done?

It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.
Ah! soldier.

Eliot pointed out that Shakespeare had added the last two words, ‘Ah, soldier,’ and commented, ‘I could not myself put into words the difference I feel between the passage if these two words, “Ah, soldier,” were omitted, and with them. But I  know there is a difference and only Shakespeare could have made it.’ Christopher Ricks – the finest critic of poetry writing today – pointed out again what Eliot had perceived, adding ‘it is an act of genius in the critic to see that the act of genius in the artist was the cry “Ah Souldier”‘… Shakespeare has left to the actress, and the audience the responsibility for settling upon the right response to a phrase which gathers up all the previous action in a final comment on the quality of Antony’s love for Cleopatra. The resonance of the phrase illustrates the relationship between word, performance and audience as Shakespeare created it, and at the same time gave it freedom.

From Making Theatre by Peter Mudford

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cocteau beautyLast night my internet access was cut off because I hadn’t paid my bill. I searched through my piles of unopened letters and eventually found it and paid it but I had to wait 24 hours before being reconnected.

At first I was cross. Why couldn’t they have phoned me instead of cutting me off? Then Lanying came home (in a foul mood because she hates her job) and I told her about it. I was apologetic because she is a chronic emailer.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “In fact it’s a good thing. We don’t need the internet.”

Sometimes she says just the right thing and I adore her. Even when she is in a foul mood. “By the way,” she said, “they did phone and I didn’t tell you. You get too many nuisance calls.”

So I have been reading The Second Sex.

It is very good, of course, and very stimulating and I am relieved to discover that it is also very familiar. It takes me back to when I was 17 and writing what I thought at the time was probably a very adolescent thesis on “love, sex and the cosmic experience.” I wish I’d kept it because it was probably better than I thought.

But how could I have attempted it without reading Simone de Beauvoir?

At that age, I had little practical experience of sex but I probably knew as much about love and the cosmic experience as I do now (which is to say, nothing at all). I can remember quoting long passages of Virginia Woolf, Teilhard de Chardin, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Percy Shelley and even the Marquis de Sade. But probably the reason I didn’t feel the need of S. de B. was that my English teacher (who was another woman I adored) had given me stacks of sixties socio-sexual psychoanalysis that borrowed very heavily from S. de B., from Kinsey, from Jung, from Freud and from Fromm. (That’s Erich Fromm, whose Art of Loving was all the rage when my beloved English teacher was a student.)

I am tempted to quote a bit of S. de B. and explain why I like it so much but also explain why it inspires me to write a novel instead of another (post-adolescent) thesis. But first I should maybe explain how, as a self-confessed slow reader, I’m already at page 397 when I only ordered the book from Amazon two days ago.

That’s easy: page 392 contains a chapter called “Sexual Initiation” and I wanted to be initiated right away.

Look at what she says:

“The environment, the climate, in which feminine sexuality awakens is thus quite different from that which surrounds the adolescent male. More, the erotic attitude of the female is very complex at the moment when she faces the male for the first time. It is not true, as is sometimes maintained, that the virgin is unacquainted with sexual desire and that the man must awaken her sex feeling. This legend once again betrays the male’s flair for domination, expressing his wish that she should be in no way independent, even in her longing for him. The fact is that in the male as well it is often contact with the opposite sex that rouses first desire, and inversely the majority of young girls long heatedly for caresses before they have ever felt the caressing hand.”

No wonder Irina said she has to read this stuff slowly. What a lot of information, imagination, assertion and suggestion in those sensuous sentences! And she hasn’t even got onto the female’s complex erotic attitude yet.

Can’t wait?

Here it is:

“The truth is that virginal desire is not expressed as a precise need: the virgin does not know exactly what she wants. The aggressive eroticism of childhood still survives in her, her first impulses were prehensile, and she still wants to embrace, possess. She wants her coveted prey to be endowed with the qualities which, through taste, odour, touch, have appeared to her as values. For sexuality is not an isolated domain, it continues the dreams and joys of early sensuality; children and adolescents of both sexes like the smooth, creamy, satiny, mellow, elastic: what yields to pressure without collapsing or altering and glides under the look or the fingers. Like man, woman delights in the soft warmth of sand dunes, often likened to breasts, in the light feeling of silk, in the soft delicacy of eiderdown, in the bloom of flower or fruit; and the young girl loves especially pale pastel colours, the mist of tulle and muslin. She has no liking for rough fabrics, gravel, rockwork, bitter flavours, acid odours; what she, like her brothers, first caressed and cherished was her mother’s flesh. In her narcissism, in her homosexual experiences, whether diffuse or definite, she acts as subject and seeks possession of a feminine body. When she confronts the male, she feels in her hands and her lips the desire to caress a prey actively. But crude man, with his hard muscles, his rough and often hairy skin, his strong odour, his coarse features, does not appeal to her as desirable; he even seems repulsive.”

Actually, there’s no need to explain, is there? That’s just perfect. Doesn’t it inspire you to write a novel too?

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zodiac-sign-cancerMy wife Lanying paid me the ultimate compliment this evening. It was her birthday so we went for dinner at a restaurant called Randall & Aubin in Soho. It’s a seafood restaurant. Lanying is from the south of China, a province called Fujian, where they eat a lot of fresh fish and especially many different types of crab. She loves crab and it’s the thing she misses most about China so we ordered a seafood platter with mussels, whelks, oysters, prawns, scallops, langoustines and a huge fresh crab.

Her sun sign is also, of course, The Crab, so it was very satisfying on her birthday to watch her hold this huge red shell against her beautiful moon face and slurp the insides out.

And then came the compliment. “I will only eat crab with you,” she said.

“Thank you, darling. Do you mean it?”

“Of course. I can’t eat it with anyone else. I would worry too much about my table manners.”

“I’m glad you feel relaxed with me,” I said, attacking a claw with my knife handle.

Our vigilant waitress was perturbed by my actions and touched my arm lightly. “Let me get you some crackers, darling,” she said.

The waitress’s name, according to my receipt, is Susuluscious.

“I’m really sorry about the mess,” I told her as she cleared away my debris.

“Oh don’t worry about that, dear. You’re eating seafood. If there wasn’t any mess I’d worry.”

So reassuring. She called me dear and darling. She touched my arm tenderly. She watched me eat crab without flinching. Thank you, Susuluscious. A waitress I could grow to love. So rare, in London.

But she never paid me the ultimate compliment: “I will only eat crab with you.”

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the second sexI spent five days with Irina and we talked all day every day. She talks like she walks – very fast. Half way through the first day I developed a sore throat because I don’t talk much usually and I wasn’t used to it.

She talked about all her experiences from her early childhood up to the present. It’s interesting to discover which snippets I pull out to tell to different people.

I told my colleagues I was given a very thorough education in Estonian politics. I didn’t think it was appropriate to mention the sex talk. I thought they might misunderstand. “Estonian girls all have an inside leg starting at 32 inches, don’t they?” one colleague asked. He has been to Tallinn and is familiar with the sex trade there.

I didn’t really want to have that discussion. Irina told me one of her friends works in the travel business. “When you are expected to provide women as part of the package, it is a pretty sick business,” she said.

But I had no qualms about telling Lanying everything. She was particularly interested in Irina’s medical symptoms and even consulted her brother, who is a doctor, about Irina’s insatiable appetite. “She should see a specialist,” her brother suggested, “because it may be a hyperactive thyroid problem or even a more serious problem with her brain.”

“She has seen many doctors,” I told Lanying. “The problem with her brain is that she’s an intellectual. Men just don’t expect it and when they find out they resent it and become cruel. Men think she is flirting with them but actually she is just being herself. She has an overpoweringly sexual presence and there’s nothing she can do about it. Whenever she bends over, for example, men get a rush of blood to the brain. (I had to keep averting my eyes.) It doesn’t matter where you are sitting because she is overwhelming from any angle – from in front, from the side, from behind. Some men think she is being provocative and giving them a signal but nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, she could be just reaching into her bag to pull out her copy of The Second Sex.”

Simone de Beauvoir is Irina’s idol. “I insist on reading her only in English,” she had told me, although she can also read French. “I read her very slowly,” she had said, “and think about every sentence.” Then she had added, with a significant look over the top of her elegant glasses: “The men I talk to always go away and read Simone de Beauvoir.”

The first thing I did when I got home was order a copy of The Second Sex on Amazon.

“What!” Lanying was shocked. “You mean you’ve never read it? It’s a literary landmark”

“When I was a student I read The Mandarins. It was very boring and not at all what I expected of such a great writer. So I decided to give The Second Sex a miss. Do you mean to say you’ve read it?” I asked Lanying. “It’s 700 pages.”

“Well, all right. I haven’t read it all,” she admitted.

Then Lanying told me how she had spent her weekend.

It turned out that while I was in Helsinki listening to Irina telling me how often and at what time she washed her vagina, Lanying was having lunch in London with a man who was telling her how often and at what time he washed his penis.

Married life falls into these predictable patterns after a while.

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See Emily Play

emilyplay_nmeI’m not sure if I’ll tell Irina’s story here. Already my notebook is full with it but I haven’t yet got to the heart of what I wanted to say.

While I am thinking about that, I will play with Emily’s meme.

“Instructions: Please answer the Meme with a post on your blog, and reference the original link:   Got Muse? A Writer-To-Writer Meme. Leave the link to your Meme in my comments section, so we can go read it!”

Got Muse? A Writer-to-Writer Meme:

1) Where do you write?

Everywhere but most often in an underground shopping mall outside Lehman brothers. Is there some dreadful symbolism there?

2) When do you write?

All the time but most often in my lunch break. Some days I only write for 30 minutes, sometimes 45, sometimes an hour, depending on what is happening at work. I don’t count the words. I always know roughly how many words it is but my rule is to write for a set amount of time, regardless of the number of words.

3) Planner or Pantser?

Writing is a process of discovery, but I always plan how best to present the discoveries I’ve made. I rarely write in the sequential order in which a story appears in its final form. In order to maximise the use of my writing time I write about whatever is uppermost in my mind, which might be anywhere in the story.

4) Coffee or tea?

Not while I’m writing because I don’t have time.

5) Pen and paper, or computer?

I write a lot at the computer but for my daily routine I use a small notebook which I can take with me anywhere, particularly to the underground shopping mall.

6) What gets you in the writing mood?

Waking up.

7) What pulls you out of the writing mood?

What my colleagues call a “production crisis” which means everyone is shouting because a vital computer system is down. It’s not quite as serious as a global financial crisis but it’s more distracting.

8 What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever read/heard/received?

From Raymond Chandler. Set aside a time when you will write every day. It doesn’t matter how much you write or how much time you set aside. I think he set aside four hours. But the rule is you’re not allowed to do anything else. You can’t sharpen your pencil, look out the window, listen to music. Nothing. Sooner or later you will get bored and write something. But if you don’t set aside the time you will never write often enough to produce anything worthwhile.

9) Got muse?

I discover inspiration through writing. Once you start, it never ends.

10) Who is the biggest supporter of your writing?

My wife enjoys reading what I write. Sometimes without my permission. She once discovered one of my novels hidden under my bed and she read it through in one day while I was at work. She even showed one of my stories to a friend without my permission because she wanted to show it off. But most of the time I don’t want to share what I write. I’m a very private person.

11) Sound or Silence?

I prefer silence and only use music to drown out distracting conversations. I sometimes listen to music when I am typing up my notes but if I start to get involved with what I’m typing then I don’t hear anything anyway.

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