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Archive for August, 2010

Imagine Noël Coward at the wheel

There are many books written for writers. They can be fun to read and one or two may even be useful. But few are as deep or as influential as the recorded experiences of flesh-and-blood writers. We can learn a lot from these writers. Real writers. You know, the giants of the craft who have blazed a trail for those of us “undone by sloth, discouragement, and of course distractions.”

Take Ian Fleming, for example. His was a complex personality but I believe he nurtured, from a very early age, a consuming literary ambition.

A real writer, as Fleming’s life proves, is a writer even when he isn’t hunched at a desk bashing out words on a typewriter. Happening to be in Estoril during wartime, Ian urged his boss to accompany him to a Casino. He was thrilled by the atmosphere. Even so, he couldn’t help applying his imagination to give it an added twist. Having lost his money to some Portuguese businessmen, he remarked, “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting.”

And so the plot for Casino Royale was conceived.

Imagination is all very well but writers need other skills. They must be resourceful and diligent researchers. They must be observant, with a keen eye for the telling detail. It helps, of course, to have a quick and agile mind. But what a writer really needs, what a writer must have above all else, is an unflinching urge to tell the truth and the ability to puncture pomposity wherever it occurs.

On a jaunt in Jamaica, recounted in Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Fleming confronted the unassailable egotism of Noël Coward and demonstrated that he was a writer of genius.

Coward’s move to Firefly coincided with his decision to leave Britain, sell his two houses there, and become a tax exile, living part of the time in Jamaica and part in Bermuda, where he became a resident. To celebrate this change of circumstances, he bought himself a vast sky-blue Chevrolet Belair convertible. When he took Ian and Cole Lesley for a drive along the coast, a local Jamaican, observing the extravagant vehicle and its high-spirited occupants, exclaimed, “Cheesus-Kerist”, whereupon Coward asked, “How did he know?”

Their stately progress was almost halted when they reached a petrol station. The car seemed to take an inordinately long time to fill up. When Coward asked the problem, Lesley informed him, “They can’t find the hole.”

“We’ve all had that trouble at one time or another,” replied Coward who refused to get out and look himself, thinking it would demean him in front of the natives.

With the help of the instruction book from the glove compartment, Ian finally solved the problem: the petrol-tank cap was behind the stop light.

“Anyone could have told you that,” Coward pronounced airily.

“It’s interesting,” Ian shot back, and he was the only person in the world who could have said this, “when you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.”

“Don’t be childish,” blustered Coward.

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Sybille Bedford

I love it when books come alive and talk to you and enable you to experience things that you could never have experienced without them. That’s what has happened with the biography of Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett.  It is full of surprising details.

One of the details led me to search out some books by Sybille Bedford, who I’d never heard of. The most alluring of these is her memoir, published in 2005 and called Quicksands.

Sybille writes eloquently about her uncompromising ambition to be a writer, her failures, her frustration, her missed opportunities.

I had reached the age of twenty-nine when typescript number three was turned down by Chatto and by NY Harpers and this, except for a little journalism, brought me to a stop for — I must face it — many years. These and other long fragments of the life I wasted in not working lie heavy on me, and now, in the 2000s when lost time is irretrievable, I am often overcome by regret and disbelief. Oh what has remained undone by sloth, discouragement, and of course distractions… Distractions of living the siren song of the daily round — chance, often choice had led me to spend the squandered years in beautiful or interesting places: to learn, to see, to travel, to walk in nocturnal streets, swim in warm seas, make friends and keep them, eat on trellised terraces, drink wine under summer leaves, to hear the song of the tree-frog and cicada, to fall in love… (Often. Too often.)

She led an eventful and unusual life. Here, in this candid, rambling, wise and beautiful memoir published in the year before she died, she invites us to share it all. This is what writing should be. Delightfully uninhibited, a celebration of life and friendship, utterly irresistible.

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An unusual climax

It takes an American to really understand England. But you have to leave America to do it. I’m thinking of Henry James.

Henry James is a very confident writer. He’s a writers’ writer. Which means he’s probably not a readers’ writer. But to other writers he is simply ‘The Master.’

He’s the master of many things. He’s the master of dialogue:

The father caught his son’s eye at last and gave him a mild, responsive smile.

“I’m getting on very well,” he said.

“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.

“Yes, and enjoyed it.”

“Shall I give you some more?”

The old man considered, placidly. “Well, I guess I’ll wait and see.”

It takes supreme self-assurance to write dialogue like that. And to write so much of it. For he’s the master of spinning out a threadbare plot into tens of thousands of words. He’s also the master of obfuscation. After all, what really happens at the end of Portrait of a Lady? Has anyone ever worked it out?

“Ah, be mine as I’m yours!” she heard her companion cry. He had suddenly given up argument, and his voice seemed to come, harsh and terrible, through a confusion of vaguer sounds.

This however, of course, was but a subjective fact, as the metaphysicians say; the confusion, the noise of waters, all the rest of it, were in her own swimming head. In an instant she became aware of this. “Do me the greatest kindness of all,” she panted. “I beseech you to go away!”

“Ah, don’t say that. Don’t kill me!” he cried.

She clasped her hands; her eyes were streaming with tears. “As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!”

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free. She never looked about her; she only darted from the spot. There were lights in the windows of the house; they shone far across the lawn. In an extraordinarily short time — for the distance was considerable — she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

Two days afterwards Caspar Goodwood knocked at the door of the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings. He had hardly removed his hand from the knocker when the door was opened and Miss Stackpole herself stood before him. She had on her hat and jacket; she was on the point of going out. “Oh, good-morning,” he said, “I was in hopes I should find Mrs. Osmond.”

Henrietta kept him waiting a moment for her reply; but there was a good deal of expression about Miss Stackpole even when she was silent. “Pray what led you to suppose she was here?”

“I went down to Gardencourt this morning, and the servant told me she had come to London. He believed she was to come to you.”

Again Miss Stackpole held him — with an intention of perfect kindness — in suspense. “She came here yesterday, and spent the night. But this morning she started for Rome.”

Caspar Goodwood was not looking at her; his eyes were fastened on the doorstep. “Oh, she started–?” he stammered. And without finishing his phrase or looking up he stiffly averted himself. But he couldn’t otherwise move.

Henrietta had come out, closing the door behind her, and now she put out her hand and grasped his arm. “Look here, Mr. Goodwood,” she said; “just you wait!”

On which he looked up at her — but only to guess, from her face, with a revulsion, that she simply meant he was young. She stood shining at him with that cheap comfort, and it added, on the spot, thirty years to his life. She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience.

As the above example shows, Henry James is also the master of description. But above all he’s the master of describing things that are quintessentially English. To appreciate the truth of this, you have to go back to the beginning of the novel — a beginning that ushers in an eternity of pleasure.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not — some people of course never do, — the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

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shortsighted view

duan jian or suicide

Oh dear! I’ve been immersed in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I love them. Then I moved on to the biography by Andrew Lycett, which is even better. I’m so saturated in pleasure that I forgot about my blog.

Imagine my horror when I looked at the statistics tonight and saw that the only people reading this are those of you searching for the Chinese word for suicide.

Well, it’s very interesting, as a matter of fact. The Chinese word for suicide also means “shortsighted view.”

It may be a shortsighted view but it’s a long-term decision.

Don’t take a long-term decision when you’re suffering from a shortsighted view. Take a step back. Read a James Bond novel.

James Bond didn’t suffer from a shortsighted view even when he was being towed towards a coral reef that would rip his body to shreds in an ocean swarming with sharks and barracudas.

Of course, he was at the time strapped to a beautiful naked woman who had just fallen in love with him, which has its compensations.

Oh God, I hope I haven’t depressed you! Lucky bastard, wasn’t he?

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