Thursday, 31 July 2008

On Finding Stig Dagerman

I was on a small expedition of one, exploring the darkest recesses of my local Oxfam shop when my eye was attracted by a book lying out in the open, on a shelf, completely unperturbed by my presence.

The markings of its cover were mute; simple, black rectangles at each corner against a buff background. It could have been an exercise book in its severity, except for the central design. This appeared as if someone had cut bits from a reproduction of a painting, photocopied them in black and white, and stuck them down.

Stig Dagerman. The name of the author meant nothing to me. The Games of Night. The title meant nothing.

I picked it up and flipped it on its back. There was a small quote printed by someone called Michael Meyer. I had never heard of him. However, in his quote he mentions Strindberg and Kafka. Now I have heard of them.

I flick through the book, from back to front, pausing to read a sentence here, a sentence there. Occasionally a whole paragraph.

I come to the introduction. It is written by Michael Meyer, so I am enlightened.

He, it appears, was a friend of Dagerman. He talks fondly of their relationship, that is, he, Dagerman and Dagerman's wife, Anita. He describes details of Dagerman's life in Sweden. Dagerman was Swedish.

He was born in 1923, the illegitimate son of a quarryman and a telephone operater at the home of his paternal grandparents. Two months later his mother left for her home in the north. He never saw her again. His father too left, but Dagerman was to see him again. So his grandparents raised him. At twelve years old, Dagerman left to stay in Stockholm with his father who had recently married. At sixteen his grandfather was murdered by a lunatic. Two weeks later his grandmother died of shock.

It was enough for me. I bought the book. 50p.

It is a book of short stories, not my usual fare, but the best investment I have ever made of a 50p piece. I believed I had discovered a hitherto unknown author of considerable talent. For Dagerman is a considerable talent.

I would launch him on the world.

I planned on inviting my friends around on some pretext with the book casually placed in the centre of the table. I would place myself quietly at one end of the room and observe.

I looked forward to watching them as they were inexorably drawn by that severe cover. I would inch nearer to eavesdrop.

"Stig who?"

"Never heard of him. It is a him, isn't it?"

"Yes, look, here in the introduction."

"My goodness, but he can write."



"An author of considerable talent."

But then I wiki'd him. I wish I hadn't. The first line states:

'Stig Dagerman was one of the most prominent Swedish authors during the 1940s.'

And I had never heard of him. Still I had recognised his talent. So a career in publishing is still a possibility.

You can wiki Stig Dagerman here.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Disgrace is No Disgrace

I was introduced to J.M. Coetzee by my turf-digging pal, Stuart, who, unlike me, studied post-colonial literature while at Sussex University.

I don’t have to make any comment on Coetzee – he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003; enough said.

My other friend, (I have more than one), Sue, recently lent me a copy of his Booker Prize winning book, Disgrace. I read it in a day. No hiccups, no indigestion – pure bliss, despite the fact that that of which Coetzee has to write is highly complex, multi-layered, and seemingly irresolvable. (Though, I should qualify, the latter observation may only be from a particular perspective and, maybe, a traditionalist, Western view at that.)

The storyline of Disgrace is simple: a middle-aged professor of what was once literature but is now communication or media studies or some such, who is discounted by his younger colleagues, has a brief affair with a young student.

It is exposed. He is exposed.

An enquiry, conducted in camera, so, needless to say, immediately public, follows. He accepts his role in the affair and pleads guilty as charged. On a point of principle he refuses to bow to the Jerry Springer demands of contemporary society to make a public recantation. So he is forced to resign, or resigns voluntarily, dependent on your view, and seeks refuge with his daughter who makes her living from a smallholding in the countryside.

She is a lesbian whose partner has left her. Her farm is dangerously exposed in post-apartheid South Africa but she has the support and help of a black South African.


To reveal more would be to spoil.

It is not the story that is important, though, to contradict myself, it is – it bears the gift: it is Coetzee’s writing, his style, his wonderful economy of words, the implication of something other that lies behind every sentence; of more layers than the peeling of an onion that makes Disgrace a book you cannot put down; a book you cannot stop pondering upon for a long time.

It is about being of a certain age, sex, morality, the weight and responsibilities of history - personal and public - culture and difference, South Africa and change, South Africa as a model for all societies…

I could go on but far better that you read Disgrace for yourself and enjoy, absorb, brood over, and conclude.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

“Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”

I admit it. I am a sitemeter [sic] groupie.

So it is I have discovered I get more hits from people looking for similes and metaphors than all the other pearls of wisdom that I discard with the casualness of a gravedigger turning a sod.

So, in a rare moment of lucidity, I thought there was room for a blog devoted to the simile and metaphor. In an equally lucid moment, I thought it might be called ‘Metaphor & Simile’. (Sometimes I stagger myself with my logic.)

Just to check on the competition I ran a Google Blog search and found no such blog exists. So I have claimed it.

In the course of my search I did find bloggers who had individual posts dedicated to the topic, like here, (though this seems to contain only M&S in songs). However, I did find one pearl on Grammar Sucks, to quote:

‘Every year, English teachers from across the country submit their collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country.’

The title for this post is from there, as are these tasters:

The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 pm. at a speed of 35 mph.

The question is how to set the blog up. I feel that it is not a venture for a single individual and maybe something like One Book would be a solution. Somewhere that people can post metaphors or similes that have caught their attention for whatever reason. Or whatever.

I shall have to think some more about how to make it work but any suggestions would be gratefully received.

(Picture of head from here.)

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Metropole, Ferenc Karinthy

I seem to have committed myself to doing a few things here recently, like continue with my book list and review Metropole. So I shall start with the latter – my list is an indulgence, Metropole not.

I had to look up Wikipedia to find out who Ferenc Karinthy, the author of Metropole, was. I quote:

Ferenc Karinthy (June 2, 1921, Hungary - February 29, 1982) was a novellist [sic], playwright, journalist, editor and translator, as well as a water polo champion. He authored more than a dozen novels. The writer and journalist Frigyes Karinthy was his father.’

[Do people author now instead of write? Makes you worry about the veracity of this statement. Perhaps Karinthy was, in fact, a polo mint champion.]

Metropole is, and I acknowledge the danger of employing the term, Kafkaesque, at least in terms of its plot. The whole premise of the story is based on a very slim thought: what would happen if you found yourself in a place where no-one could understand you and you could understand no-one. It doesn’t take much imagination to allow that you would face a mixture of emotions in varied order, incomprehension, anger, fear, paranoia, resignation, to name but a few.

Karinthy explores all of these, of course, and more, however it is the manner of his delving that makes this book a page-turner. Just as you find yourself in sympathy with the predicament in which Gregor Samsa, in Metamorphosis, finds himself despite the grossness of what he has become, you rage on behalf of Budai, the hero, in his helplessness facing the stupidity and insensitivity of those around him.

There are many ways to read this book so I shall not inflict mine on you. Suffice it to say, and it may well be a cultural difference, Karinthy’s analysis and observations of the situation that Budai faces are fresh for an English reader, a better word would be foreign. It is, indeed, like being lost in a strange city.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Half a Thousand.

I wrote 500 words of my novel yesterday. Yes, yes, I can hear bodies thudding to the ground around the globe in a faint.

500 words might not be much in the great scheme of things but they are still 500 more words than no words at all. And it is long time since I worked at it.

Besides, they were of a scene that I had been thinking of for ages and worrying that it was not one to which I could do justice. However, it has worked out well.

It takes the book into dark territory. So it is important.

On a separate topic, and briefly as I have to go to work in a few minutes, has anyone read Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy? Not an easy read, but worth the effort. I shall post a review later.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Little Gems from the Dross

In a rambling sort of way I want to give a plug to a new blog I discovered. It is called How Publishing Really Works (yes, I know; I too was sceptical) written by Jane Smith.

I haven’t had time to read all of the material on HPRW but what I have strikes me as being genuinely useful, sensible advice produced in an approachable, concise style, free of jargon.

Not being a published writer [LOUD SOBS off-screen], though beginning the process with the children’s book I wrote for Amy, I would like to hear the views of those who have been through the mangle.

Does what Jane has to say ring any bells for you?

I discovered HPRW circuitously. Some individual had hit this blog after a Google search for Broken Arrow, Ismail Kadare’s book that I reviewed in June last year. Number one on the Google list was a review in another blog, so, out of curiosity, I read what they had to say. You can read it here. (She has an interesting take on why feudal systems can be acceptable.)

However, what intrigued me was the number of widgets and gizmos on the blog. One in particular caught my eye. It was a cloud of books under the banner, ‘Random books from my library’. I clicked on the heading and found myself at LibraryThing.

What is LibraryThing? to quote:

Enter what you're reading or your whole library—it's an easy, library-quality catalog. LibraryThing also connects you with people who read the same things.

Of course, I signed up. I’ll sign up for anything. However, I am not really sure how useful it is. (Like I am still not sure of the value FaceBook.)

For instance, I can see that thirteen other people have a copy of Violet: the life and loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse by Jessica Douglas-Home, one of whom, who has given himself the moniker of TabbyTom, a large, jolly looking, retired civil servant, who lives, coincidently in Sussex, has posted a library of 2,818 books.

Two thousand, eight hundred and eighteen books! It’s not the size of his library that astounds me but the time it must have taken him to post the details. To put that in context, it took me 35 minutes to post just 21 books. (If you do come across them, don’t take them as typical, as half are novels in French and half from my studies on the literature of WWI. They just happened to be closest to hand.)

The question is, does the fact that TabbyTom too has a copy of Violet: the life and loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse indicate that we would clasp to each other like long lost brothers should we ever meet? I doubt it.

I suppose the one useful thing to come out of this exercise is that I discovered HPRW.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Book Vampires

I jokingly referred in a comment on one of Caroline's posts that I believed my daughter would steal in on batwings at night to raid my book shelves as I constantly find volumes that I had thought I had lost lying abandoned at her place.

In short, I described her as a book vampire.

Imagine my consternation when I reached for my copy of A Tale of Two Cities to discover that, far from being a figment of my imagination, such dark creatures of the night exist.

Horror upon horror, its vowels had been bled dry!

I offer proof. Here are the desiccated remains of the opening paragraph.

t ws th bst f tms, t ws th wrst f tms,
t ws th g f wsdm, t ws th g f flshnss,
t ws th pch f blf, t ws th pch f ncrdlty,
t ws th ssn f Lght, t ws th ssn f Drknss,
t ws th sprng f hp, t ws th wntr f dspr,
w hd vryting bfr s, w hd nthng bfr s,
w wr ll gng drct t Hvn, w wr ll gng drct
th thr wy--n shrt, th prd ws s fr lk th prsnt
prd, tht sm f ts nsst thrts nsstd n ts
bng rcvd, fr gd r fr vl, n th sprltv dgr
f cmprsn nly.

Bookworms beware! And please report if you have been attacked.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Babies, Grandbabies & Me.

A whole week since I last blogged.

I am lazy
I am lazy
I am so very lazy!

Mea culpa
Mea culpa
Mea maxima culpa

(For the Catholics among you.)

However, while at work yesterday I had an excellent idea for a new story for Amy, my first granddaughter. And, in due course, for her sister, Katie, now six weeks old. (My Amy is almost a palindrome. And she is at the stage where everything is "Mine".)

Readers will know I wrote one for her third birthday. It ran to 6,000 words. My darling Mrs ex-Wife, though very complimentary, observed that perhaps it was more suitable for a six or seven year-old.

She observed this several times.

I finally got the message.

So yesterday this idea popped into my head.

Funny how ideas *POP*. I wasn't even thinking consciously about Amy or stories. Perhaps Mrs ex-Wife's observations had been rankling in the nether regions. Though I do agree with her. The first story is too much for a three year old. (Mind you John Stuart Mills was speaking in Greek and Latin by that age and Mozart had written several operas, including Jesus Christ, Super Star and every other work by Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

Last night, I discussed the idea with the Mummy of Amy and Katie, i.e. my daughter Emily. (Good grief, my baby is now a MUMMY. Do other grandparents find this strange? I know I have lived with the reality of the situation for a few years now but every so often it thwacks me.)

Mummy Emily has been told the idea. She loves it. She loves me. So no choice. And because the nature of contemporary story telling for children is repetition, (is this necessary?), I am hoping she will be able to contribute. I am sure she will.

I can see the illustrations already. It is a strange feeling. On the one hand, reassuring, on the other, OMG, I have to buckle down and do them and will they be as good as I imagine them. Never. But maybe better. Or worse. Or different. OMG.

Do other grandparents find the idea of their babies becoming parents wonderful but strangely disturbing, or is it just me? Do let me know.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I can do lists.

Of a Sunday morning, I like to read the blogs of fellow writers that I have linked here while listening to the Archers omnibus. (Ruth: Oh noooo!)

I have noticed there is growing trend for bloggers to publish lists. Caroline seems to me to be the one who has been promoting this trend. She is an avid list publisher. Perhaps it is just the impression I have. I could be wrong. She might slap me for saying so. (But she is obsessed by Simon Callow, so she had better not or I will tell the whole world.)

So I am publishing my list. Trouble is I am not a person who has favourites. Ask me what my favourite book is and I will respond by asking, ‘What time is it?’ I don’t have a favourite book. I can list books that I enjoy, have enjoyed, for different reasons and different moods.

Wow – a list! I mentioned a list so let me list, in no particular order, some of my favourites and the reasons why.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte: I first read it when quite young, 15 or 16, so its dark romanticism filled my adolescent soul. I studied it at University when I was 50, so the unconscious allegory of the protagonists and location gripped my imagination.

Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier: same as above, but I didn’t study them later.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré: Having grown up through the Cold War years, and being a boy, I do like a good thriller. For my money, le Carré is the most intelligent writer of this genre.

Doctor No, Ian Fleming: one of Fleming’s secretaries lived just down the road from my uncle and aunt in Richmond, Surrey, so, at the age of 14, I believed I knew him intimately. Doctor No includes a small erotic scene that was, how shall I explain this delicately, jolly exciting for a 14 year old.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell: again a book I read as an adolescent and adored. Being the son of an army officer and so having lived in a number of countries in my early life, Durrell caught the dream like quality of my youth albeit in a country I had never visited then.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh: I was educated at Stonyhurst College so was a Catholic. (Waugh’s youngest son was there when I was.) Be that as it may, and accepting the fact that Waugh was not a pleasant character, the exploration of sin, sexuality and sanity in the character of Sebastian is masterly.

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene: I choose this book, though I could have selected any by Greene, because it is encapsulates everything that was to dominate his writing for the rest of his life, i.e. the precise nature of good and evil.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding: similar to Greene, I could have selected any of his works, my reason being because he first awoke in me the idea of social determination and thus my interest in philosophy.

Hmmm, having said no particular order, I notice that so far I have listed books that had an early influence on me and have remained with me. I shall have to continue this at a later date.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Quand en France, mange et dors!

It is almost a month, seems like a year, since I set off to stay with Stuart and Gabrielle at their wonderful smallholding in Brittany. It is set midway between Dinan and Rennes and seems less of a smallholding than a small ranch.

Needless to say I ate extremely well. Apart from some spider crabs that we bought at Rennes market, and which I cooked á Singapore, all the food served at the table was home grown. This is typical of a dish that would grace each meal.

The first impression to make an impact on me was the local rural architecture. Traditional farm buildings are made of clay, the colour of a rich, warm terracotta, on a stone foundation. Perched atop each gable end is individual glazed pottery figure - this one is, appropriately enough, a tiler.

Such material sounds though it would not last a summer's storm but I offer proof that at least one building was erected pre-revolutionary times.
The five days was a holiday for me - something I had impressed on Stuart or the dear man would have regimented my days. A time to reflect on my writing. A time to reflect on chickens.

They have a flock of ten or so, variously named M. Rôti, Mme Coq au Vin, Madame Oeufs Brouillés. Heartless, I know, and I did my best to block the ears of the fowl to their ultimate fate.

I could reflect on chickens all day; on their comings and goings, their petty rivalries, their muttered conversations on the latest gossip, their ambitions to scale the ladder of social standing. Even on their deep appreciation of art.
The cats, on the other had, are interested only in the art of merging into the background.

Their was only one shock in the five days I was there. It seems the Bretons, for some reason known only to themselves, hold the former deputy leader of the Labour party, John Prescott, with deep respect.

For in the market square in Dinan, I found a statue erected to him kitted out in full regalia.