Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Following (10) "There are examples of writing..."

There are examples of writing that only need to be broken up to draw attention to them, leaving the reader marvelling at having missed something in the square of a paragraph.

Here are the last few sentences of John Ruskin's article on Turner's engravings, The Harbours of England (1856), unaltered except for line breaks:

One great monotony, that of the successive sigh
and vanishing of the slow waves upon the sand,
no art can render to us.

Perhaps the silence of early light, even on
the "field dew consecrate" of the grass itself,
is not so tender as the lisp
of the sweet belled lips
of the clear waves in their following patience.

We will leave the shore
as their silver fringes fade upon it,
desiring thus, as far as may be,
to remember the sea.

We have regarded it perhaps too often
as an enemy to be subdued;
let us, at least this once, accept from it,
and from the soft light beyond the cliffs above,
the image of the state of a perfect Human Spirit -

"The memory, like a cloudless air,
The conscience, like a sea at rest."

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Following (9) "A good review..."

A good review does not have to be favourable from the author's point of view - some of my books' best reviews have expressed reservations while laying out the bones of the book fairly.

Having said that, the magnification an author can make of the tiniest admonition is tremendous.

Here are some guidelines for reviewers laid out years ago by John Updike: 

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

                  - from John Updike's Introduction to Picked-Up Pieces, 1977

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Following (8) "Without any idea..."

Without any idea of where the compulsion came from to link a future prime minister of Australia to the wit and wisdom of a state hangman, I simply obeyed, in the early pages of The Following,  the fiction-writing imperative of sticking to an idea as long as it persisted. The connection lasted through to the final draft and the printed page and Marcus Friendly MP,  and Bert Shepherd, butcher of Harden, remained linked to the end.

As a writer I offer no explanation for this unlikely alliance of innocence and creepiness reducible to common sense,  relying instead on a gut feeling of inevitability, or conviction, conveying itself to the reader.

Only after The Following was published did something around this conjunction of opposites became clearer to me. At their first meeting (on page 5) Bert dubs Marcus his "friend-boy". This was a phrase used to me years ago by a European refugee in his forties, nicknamed the Professor, who was fond of me and my teenaged mates -  his "friend-boys" - when we worked, in uni vacation, as Station Assistants loading goods' vans for country trains on Central Station. The Professor was thin, pale, hesitant, respectful, shy and trembly. His domain was a two-carriage electric parcels' van plying the suburban rail network. Sydney in that era was home to a population of displaced persons. World War II had rolled over the Professor leaving him physically intact but only just, and mentally shaky as a parchment blind hanging in a dusty room dark with secrets.

The Professor was nothing like the robust Bert Shepherd, he was unmistakably a victim not a state operator, but what he exuded was unnatural understanding, as if he could see past  the brash shells of who we were into or towards a better self not yet revealed to us.

The next year, when we came back on the job, sporting our union badges and student smart-arsed attitudes, we asked after the Professor and learned he'd been found dead, suicided, in his one-roomed flat in the city.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Following (7) "The novel trap..."

During the writing of a novel beware the author who talks about the work in progress. It won't be a work in any proper sense of the word until it's finished...So how can it, as a work, be spoken about until done?

And after the finish of a novel, the work done, beware the author ready with an explanation of what the work is, or does. The work exists to explain itself, how can it be be summarised?

The novel published, beware the author who clams up, goes dog in the manger, says nothing or retreats to statements like the two paragraphs above.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Following (6) "Knots and their uses..."

A novel finally done (tied together) is a length of words where every part, despite apparent separation, belongs with every other.

Rope, cord, string play a part in The Following, reflecting the novel’s attempt to evoke the ineffable. A rope is real but knots appear and disappear along its length like phantoms. Life and death depend on knots well-tied, the surgeon's knot, railwayman’s and seafaring knots, varieties of occupational knot down to the hangman's knot that collapses (a knot term) after use, into a guileless length of cord. 

The word knot conjures up a thinker, knuckles to forehead, sorting out a tangle. This is Marcus Friendly, entering politics, in Book One.

The word hitch announces Book Two,  signalling a delay, a complication. In the language of knots a hitch joins a rope to something, which happens in The Following when two people come together (in a love match).

A bend in Book Three, “The Yeomans Bend”, is a curve of the horizon that beckons towards Windy Point Light, where world and spirit are joined (a bend is a knot joining two lengths of rope).

My favourite knots are the bowline, which holds reliably tight, but is easily undone, the buntline hitch, which I tied from the age of twelve without giving it a name when I started wearing a necktie (it pulls harder the more strain put on), the sheet bend, for joining lengths of rope thereby extending the washing line on Mondays, the truckie's, carrier's, or waggoner's hitch for tying down everything that might blow away when carrying it to the tip. 

‘You are a shoddy little shit,’ said Herring when he cornered
Tiger alone, taking him by the necktie and informing him inter
alia that in naval terms a necktie knot was a buntline hitch,
tighter the harder it was pulled, and a choker.

(from Book Three)

The world was run by knots and methods of knots, demanding the agreement of a nudge or a tweak, and if you didn’t slant them, or snug them, or roll them they would not be right. Everyone from railwaymen to priests, storemen and underground miners had their knots of trade: end-stoppers and eye-splices, tassels, sinnets, round turns and half-hitches, occupational hitches and working bends.

(from Book One)

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Following (5) "Today is publication day..."

Today is publication day of The Following,  about an Australian politician and his line of descent, a few days out from an Australian election where parliamentary democracy will return a party majority of one sort or another, and as a writer under the sway of either, I will be free to insist on my own metaphorical take on anything I like (and have).

It was very different for Boris Pasternak in 1936, addressing the Minsk congress of the USSR Writers' Union, a petrified and obedient assembly of writers whose lives literally depended on denying their interior intuitions and giving themselves over to political instructions on what they should or should not write. And who can blame them? I fear I would have been one of them.

Pasternak spoke about the poeticising of experience, hardly a threat, you might think, to the might of a tyranny, yet it takes no effort of the imagination to sense the hall hushed to the danger of the writer's words: 

"The unforeseen is the most beautiful gift life can give us. That is what we must think of multiplying in our domain. That is what should have been talked about in this assembly, and no one has said a word about it…Art is inconceivable without risk, without inner sacrifice; freedom and boldness of imagination can be won only in the process of work, and it is there that the unforeseen I spoke of a moment ago must intervene, and there no directives can help."

Pasternak survived this moment of dare inexplicably. He lived through European politics played out in what he called "the bestiality of facts" by "the left and right wings of a single materialistic night."

Gearing up as he was even then to write Doctor Zhivago or something along its lines, Pasternak conveys the strangeness a writer feels facing "the novelty of the themes and situations" he wishes to address. This he must accomplish "in a space rarefied by abstractions and the language of journalists."

He added, "I will deal with subjects that are common to us in a language different from from yours. I will not imitate you, I will dispute with you..."

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Following (4) "...a yacht sailed into the story..."

A few years ago, Gerry Clark put a flyer on the Akaroa Yacht Club notice board seeking a crew member to sail with him to the Bounty Islands for his annual bird count. Don answered and went along. 
After a week’s sail they stood off Bounty Island (in the direction of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands) and Don and another crew member went ashore. A gale was building and Clark said he would move the yacht farther out, clear of the low islet bereft of anchorages, but return before dark to collect them. He did not return, it was blowing too hard, they lost sight of him, and Don and his mate slept ashore between boulders with a flapping tarp over them in cold conditions. In the morning Clark was sighted, not far off shore, and all was well.
A later trip, Don told me, followed the same pattern as the one Don went on, but did not end well. Clark put two men ashore from Tortorore for the bird count and once again the yacht moved off into open water farther from land, out of sight. Clark had someone with him on the yacht this time, a third crew member who, like Don, had answered the thumb-tacked appeal. 
Once again a gale blew. Towards evening, when it came time for the men ashore to be picked up, there was no sign of the boat. The two on shore spent the night more or less as Don had, then crossed the island looking for Tortorore on the other side. Eventually, among the rocks, they found wreckage of the yacht. Clark was never found along with his scratch crew member.
“It could have been you,” I said, when Don told me about it. There was a feeling that Clark had something like the possibility of this coming at him for years, hardly welcome at any age but he was in his seventies, doing what he loved in a place he loved, a low set, wind swept, bird-breeding haven in the wild south. No better memorial could stand for him than those rocky islets barely above the tide. But while “doing what he loved” may equally have applied to his much younger crew member, Roger Sale, it seemed bitterly sad that the two fates, older and younger, fulfilled and promising, were yoked together.
On the subject of solo sailing versus taking crew along, Clark once wrote: “I am more frightened in storms when I am by myself – I cannot quite understand the psychology of that, unless it is just because there is nobody to give me a hand in an emergency.”
In another age, I thought, Clark might serve as a Jack London-admired model, self-interested if not quite as self-impressed as the skipper of the Sea-Wolf, a dangerous man on the sea.
The sorts of storm Clark meant would rank as emergencies in anyone’s language. In 1986, having seen his crew home by other means after Tortorore was dismasted, he was soloing back from the Antarctic on a ten week stint that has entered small boat history. Near Heard and McDonald Islands the jury-rigged Tortorore rolled five times in seas only a degree above freezing, leading Clark to decide that his chances of survival were negligible: as he was already numb with cold he would have the benefit of dying quickly. But he came through, eventually, arriving off Fremantle on a balmy, breezy afternoon, where the New Zealand America’s Cup contenders were training (he took a photo of them streaming past). The half-wrecked Tortorore limping along without fanfare under a home-made spritsail was like some lurking ghost-ship from the wrong side of the universe and was appropriately ignored by, if she was not outright invisible to, her countrymen racers.
Allowing Clark a better fate, and a more considered personality, the yacht Worker's Comp sailed into Book Three of The Following.