A blog for everything bookish

Friday, 29 May 2015

Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

I had just started my latest attempt at book writing, limiting my reading and blogging to one book a week, when I picked up this book by Jenny Diski on an impulse from the local Oxfam shop. It was only £2.99, which was part of the reason (though Oxfam books are rarely more expensive than that), and another blogger had mentioned Diski positively quite recently which was another piece of the strange puzzle that is my book buying disease. I had also, some time ago, encountered Diski’s name when researching books about the Arctic and had flagged one of her books for future reading (Skating to Antarctica, specifically. Yes, I do know that is quite the other side of the planet). I had no real idea what this book was about, yet when I was mooching about the house feeling a little sorry for myself I picked it up thinking I’d read a few pages to get a feel for it and then next thing you know I’d put all my other books to one side and made this my one book of the week. Or the quarter, at least.

Diski is a travel writer, and this book explores three journeys she undertook: one to New Zealand, one in Somerset and one to Lapland. Yet whilst the structure of the book is created around these journeys, this is very much an exploration of Diski’s desire to keep still.  This seems a crazy premise for someone who is a travel writer, though it also seems that becoming a travel writer is something that mystifies Diski and results, largely, from her more pressing inability to say no. What follows is a strange kind of meditation on the idea of stillness, the guilt at not wanting to leave the house (or even her bed necessarily), the social pressure to enjoy activities such as walking or going out in general, the internal and, sometimes, external conflicts that arise and the difficulty in being honest. It is also very amusing, very truth-filled and wry. What Diski does or doesn’t explain about travel is neither here nor there, but her musings are absorbing, like here:

“What people always say about being alone for long periods is some variation on the theme of the immense and unimagined difficulties of having to confront oneself, a concealed self which lurks unnoticed below the requirements of everyday sociability. Coming face to face with yourself, is how they describe it. ‘You really find out who you are’, they say with a look of agonisingly acquired wisdom, implying an inevitable dark night of the soul. What I have discovered during these periods of being alone for as long as possible, is that I am extremely good at passing the time, and taking pleasure in passing the time, reading, idling and pottering, rarely bored, hardly ever restless, sometimes miserable, often dissatisfied with myself and the world, without finding out an iota more than that about who I am, because that is pretty much what I’m like in company too. The agony of solitude passes me by, until, because social guilt and self-analysis are never far away, the lack of agony at being with myself become an agony of lack of self.”

It is a book very heavily seated in introspection, the journeys being as much about Diski’s own response to her environment as the environment itself. Not such much travel writing as a woman writing about herself travelling. And it works. It is insightful and amusing, it is wise, it is challenging in the way watching anyone doing mental gymnastics whilst being rigidly honest can only be. There were times when reading this book that I felt like I was reading my own thoughts expressed more articulately and with greater insight and humility. It had such a familiarity about it, like listening to the rambling of your own thoughts in a dead moment, which was exactly the space I happened to be in at the time of reading it.

For the purists who like a travel writer to write about travel, there is still plenty of travel in this book. But what makes it so interesting is the intensity of reluctance Diski brings to the whole experience “nothing will persuade me that the mere fact of being in a place is enough in itself to justify the effort of getting out of bed to become a tourist, or even a traveller” Diski says, and there is so much truth in that little statement, the reminder that everything we experience is happening exactly where we are right now and we don’t really need to go anywhere to find it, or prove ourselves to anyone. And if this book tells us anything it’s that we can be exactly who we are, without the need to take part or live up to a certain standard. Exactly what I needed to read.

What I didn’t need, however, was the extraordinary list of books she took away with her to Somerset, listed on pages 77 and 78 and from which I have lifted a shortlist of about 5 or 6 I want to read for myself. Including Montaigne, who I think has heavily influenced this book but whom I know too little about to truly appreciate the connection. And I don’t have to either. In fact it is perfectly fine if I never read Montaigne, though I think I will in the end.

I can’t express here how much I enjoyed this book. It was a breath of stale bedroom air, beckoning me to sleep in. It won’t quash my love of travelling, unlike Diski I love walking and experiencing new places. But in many respects she articulated, with great clarity, the way my mind has been turning. It may have been a stroke of serendipity, but I don’t care. I loved it. 

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho (translator Nobuyuki Yuasa)

No, not that Narrow Road to the Deep North, the ubiquitous Booker winning novel by Richard Flanagan gracing every shelf of every bookshop at the moment, but the original travel sketches by 17th century haiku master Matsuo Basho. He of the sublime poetry. That one.

Translated by Nobuyiki Yuasa, this slim volume presents all of Basho’s travel sketches, starting with his novice work ‘The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton’ to the work which is believed to be his most perfect ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. For those unfamiliar with Basho and his significance in Japanese literary tradition, there is an excellent introduction by Yuasa which details both Basho’s history and life, as well as the tradition of haiku poetry of which Basho’s are the most sublime. For a more Westernised analogy, think Japan’s Shakespeare and you’ve probably got it about right. Haiku, for the uninitiated, is a three line poem composed in of lines of five – seven – five syllables. There is infinitely more to it than that, and obviously the haiku in the book are translations so the five – seven –five structure doesn’t entirely come across. Yuasa explains in some detail his approach to the translation, and it is well worth reading the introduction before embarking on a reading of the sketches.

Interjection: I love haiku. They are little breathless moments of abject perfection. Like watching a heron’s graceful landing break the perfect surface of a pond.

Image result for the narrow road to the deep north matsuo basho penguin classicsThe book includes the five travel sketches Basho made in his lifespan and these are presented in chronological order which elucidates how Basho’s skill develops over his various journeys. In the sketches, Basho seeks to combine prose with haiku which gives both a record and a flavour of the journey he has undertaken. It is a strange combination, elevating the sketches beyond mere journaling into something which moves the spirit, and this is no more evident in the final sketch, the memorable Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the blend of haiku and prose, his personless observations, attain a kind of eternal grace. It is hard to put it into words, but it is at once calming and uplifting. And there’s a perfection about it which seems effortless.

“Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.” Basho begins in this brief tale. What follows is, largely, unimportant. He visits some shrines, meets an old friend, writes some poetry, suffers, struggles, regrets the trip and regrets its ending. But this, these facts and elements, are not what is important about this book. It is the perfect pace, the peerless intermingling of poetry and descriptive prose, the gentleness of emotion, the faint odour of melancholy. I’ll allow the book to speak for itself for a moment.

“The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together, and covered with age old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the colour of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a soul to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.”

I have read, in my time, quite a number of Japanese books. I have learned some of the history of Japan and a little about its culture. Reading Basho makes me realise that I have barely scratched the surface, that there is a depth here that I can barely penetrate without the cultural background and understanding to untangle it. In spite of this, and perhaps because of the benefit of reading the earlier travel sketches, I can still feel something magical in this brief travel note. I can only respond with a meagre haiku of my own:

It may be narrow –
the road to the deep north, yet
I am enlightened.

My copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was published by Penguin Classics

Saturday, 16 May 2015

High Rise by J. G. Ballard

I was walking to work recently and I was thinking about J. G. Ballard, I’m not sure why. For some reason J. G. Ballard popped into my head, and I had a hankering after reading something by him, something I hadn’t read before. I was thinking about islands, books about islands and what motivates them and the themes they engender: survival, breakdown or absence of social structures, limited resources, enclosure, isolation. I had started to write a novel about a woman cast adrift on an island and was finding myself dissatisfied with the setting, with the cliché of it, the inability to write anything new on the subject. Then I thought about Ballard.

Ballard writes about islands. This thought hit me with an unexpected force. I have read a few books by Ballard: The Drowned World, The Unlimited Dream Company, Empire of the Sun, Crash. All these books involve islands of sorts, even Crash in which the ‘island’ is the motor car and within it and surrounding it a new kind of social order emerges. I had heard about Concrete Island – a story of a man who crashes on a traffic island and becomes trapped there – and, of course, High Rise in which the story takes place entirely within a tower block. All these are islands. I realised that reading Ballard could inform my work. Of course, thinking about Ballard and his personal history this island theme is no surprise, and perhaps rather than islands it is more that Ballard focuses on enclosed environments in which the normal rules of social order are shattered – and knowing his early childhood spent in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, that this subject is the primary fodder for his work is perhaps not too surprising.

They had High Rise in my local library, so that’s where I started. The story focuses on three men: Robert Laing, a doctor (there is often a doctor in Ballard’s novels – reflecting his training as a doctor which he abandoned); Anthony Royal an architect responsible for some of the building’s structure, a man who was injured in a car crash (yes!) and who Laing has been aiding in his recuperation; Richard Wilder, a TV journalist and some time friend to Robert Laing. The men are connected, and each live in distinct hierarchies within the high rise: Wilder on the lower floors, Laing in the centre, Royal in the penthouse suite on the roof. At the beginning of the novel, the last tenant of the high rise has just moved in and the building is now complete, self-contained. Within the high rise is everything the tenants might need: supermarket, liquor store, school, swimming pools, hairdresser. Almost immediately, Ballard sets up the sense that the high rise takes over from the ‘natural’ environment, and its design is somehow key to the events which then take place therein:

Image result for high rise jg ballard“The high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself – Anthony Royal and the architects which had designed the complex could not have foreseen the drama of confrontation each morning between these concrete slabs and the rising sun. It was only fitting that the sun first appeared between the legs of the apartment blocks, raising itself over the horizon as if nervous of waking this line of giants. During the morning, from his office on the top floor of the medical school, Laing would watch their shadows swing across the parking-lots and empty plazas of the project, sluice gates opening to admit the day. For all his reservations, Laing was the first to concede that these huge buildings had won their attempt to colonize the sky.”   

This is, perhaps, another pre-occupation of Ballard’s work: the way in which the environment shapes the people within it. At the point of completion, a change takes place within the high rise. Almost immediately, the social order begins to break down. There are parties which become increasingly wild, bottles thrown from windows damaging the cars parked in the car park below. Aggression towards women and children, a sense of violence in the air, breakdown of shared resources – elevators, waste disposal, air-conditioning. There is an aura of insomnia, with noise and parties going on until the early hours of the morning. Yet life continues almost as normal. People go to work in the morning in a civilised manner, and no one talks about what is happening in the high rise.

Prescience is a word which is often associated with Ballard, and this is no less true in relation to High Rise. I was stalled out of the book when I read the following paragraph, written in 1975, which seems to predict the world of social media and which reflects the polarisation of life within the high rise of the book, the point at which the building splits into three: the lower classes in the lower floors – the first to lose their lights and air-conditioning -, the middle classes in the centre playing the lower and upper floors off against each other, the upper classes at the top maintaining their semblance of civilisation whilst being the first to commit atrocious acts of violence. But before I go on, here is Ballard, ever prescient:  

“Perhaps the recent incidents represented a last attempt by Wilder and the airline pilots to rebel against this unfolding logic? Sadly, they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusion, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”


What follows is a descent into violence, sexual violence, degradation, starvation. Someone intentionally drowns a dog. The building turns into a free-for-all battle zone, with stairwells turned into war zones, barricaded against the ‘enemy’ being anyone from a different floor. The three men: Royal, Laing, Wilder become representatives of their zone. Wilder becomes obsessed with the idea of reaching the upper floors, confronting Royal who he perceives as the ‘king’ of the high rise. He reaches it once, only to be violently slung back to the ground with the rest of the waste. Yet he doesn’t give up. Laing hovers in the middle, cementing his territory, collecting his women and hunkering down. Royal is waiting for Wilder on the roof, anticipating the violence to come with a sick relish. As he describes here:

“Royal stepped down on to the roof deck. He enjoyed the hostile gaze of the birds sitting on the elevator heads. The sense of a renascent barbarism hung among the overturned chairs and struggling palms, the discarded pair of diamante sunglasses from which the jewels had been picked. What attracted the birds to this isolated realm on the roof? As Royal approached, a group of the gulls fived into the air, soaring down to catch the scraps flung from a balcony ten floors below them. They fed on the refuse thrown into the car-park, but Royal liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were close to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come. Fearing that they might leave, he frequently brought them food, as if to convince them that the wait would be worth their while.”

There is always an edge of violence, the descent into chaos and pure will in Ballard’s work, quite probably informed by his experiences in the prison camp. Whilst the unwillingness to talk, the unwillingness to escape from the high rise seems implausible, I couldn’t help feeling that it is this very fact that Ballard is seeking to warn us about. His own experiences have shown how the breakdown of the social order to which we cling – the ideas of justice, of civilisation, of honour and righteousness – are a thin barrier holding back our inherently violent nature, in which whatever we want is there for the taking if only we are powerful enough, violent enough, depraved enough to grab it. Yet though they may be seemingly mere sexual pawns in the men’s violent game, Ballard never underestimates the women and, in the end, they may become the ultimate rulers of the high rise…

High Rise is a short whirlwind of a novel, hard to read at times and heavily violent. The words ‘rectilinear’ and ‘chromium’ appear perhaps a tad too often, but this is a signature Ballard flourish and forgivable in the wider context of the novel. Uncannily prescient, Ballard shows us how dystopias can arise in pockets even within the wider confines of a civilised society, and whilst the residents’ compliance makes little sense, any descent into violence is nonsensical. One might argue this is domestic violence on a macrocosmic scale. But sense doesn’t matter in a violent world, only the violence and those surviving it matter. It is a warning worth paying heed to. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky (translator Christine Lo)

There is something about islands which captures the imagination, about which every person has an instinctive reaction. Perhaps that reaction is fear: a terror of being trapped or contained, a horror of being isolated or alone. Perhaps that reaction is exuberance: the prospect of forging your own destiny unhindered by wider society, the idea of being free and independent, self-reliant. Our reaction to the idea of an island may depend on mood. Perhaps in a good frame of mind we envisage our island as a paradise rich with bird and plant life, luscious blue seas and a cocktail bar on the beach. In more forbidding moods we may imagine our island to be tiny and desolate, edged by vicious rocks and a wild sea, a tempestuous wind. Even for those of us that live on an island, as I do, the islands of our imagination rarely match the real thing and it can be hard to conceptualise the idea that we are alone and isolated, cut off from the mainland, though ringed by seas that cannot be bridged without reasonably advanced technology.  There are so many of us here, after all. Yet something about this reminds me how once I became trapped in an elevator, and the whole time I felt like a person abandoned on an island, isolated and alone. I quite enjoyed it, but the experience lasted only around 1 hour and 15 minutes and I was well provisioned. Surviving on a remote island may be a different proposition entirely.

Image result for the atlas of remote islands“It struck me for the first time that islands are in fact small continents and that continents are in turn no more than very large islands. This clearly outlined piece of land was quite perfect and yet lost at the same time, like the loose sheet of paper on which it had been drawn. Every connection to the mainland had been lost. There was no mention of the rest of the world. I have never seen a lonelier place.”

Judith Schalansky explains in the detailed introduction to this book, tantalisingly sub-titled “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will”. I often skip book introductions, impatient to get to the ‘meat’ of the story, but this introduction is well worth reading as though it Schalansky explains both the concept for this book and what the exploration, from the safety of her study or library, has taught her about what islands mean to people. “a land surrounded by water is perceived as the perfect place for utopian experiments” is one answer; “The attraction of a beautiful void” another. Perhaps more disturbingly “the island that has been the focus of so much yearning often turns out – as might have been expected – barren and worthless” or “a remote island makes a natural prison: surrounded by the monotonous, insurmountable walls of a persistent, ever-present sea”. Chilling just to think about it.

The fifty islands themselves are an eclectic bunch, and their stories are unique and, whilst brief, strangely satisfying. It is a book to read at leisure, taking time over each story to absorb its brief beauty. Organised by ocean, Schalansky devotes a page to text and a page for a map of each island. She shows us islands inhabited and uninhabited. Islands abandoned and islands claimed. Islands which are remote, inaccessible, frozen and lifeless. Islands with unusual and dying customs. Some islands are more familiar than others: Easter Island, for example, that monument to human folly; Iwo Jima representing folly of a different kind. But it is the stories themselves that fascinate, like here as Schalansky describes Lonely Island, a Russian island in the Kara Sea shaped, curiously, like a decaying leaf. Now abandoned, a record of the island’s history remains in the log book from polar observatory that had existed on the island and Schalansky draws our particular attention to its last entry:

“The final entry in red felt-tip pen spills over the confines of the columns: 23 November 1996: the evacuation order came today. Pouring the water out. Turned off diesel generator. The station is…The final word is illegible. Welcome to Lonely Island.”

But this book, whilst focused on the islands, is also a love letter to the art and adventure of cartography. Schalansky didn’t set out to find these islands, instead she traced them on dusty old rolls of paper hidden somewhere in an archive or the dark belly of the public library. What she learned of the islands, she learned through meticulous exploration of records and archives, old newspaper reports and notes from scientific journals. “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts,” she says, “and for the atlas to be recognised as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum terratum, the theatre of the world.”

Image result for the atlas of remote islands

I’m inclined to agree. I, too, have a love of maps. I remember, as a child, tracing the outlines of countries in my hand-me-down Australian encyclopaedias that had belonged to my brother and sister when they had lived on that rather larger, warmer island than the one I found myself growing up on. I remember my own drawings of islands: imaginary ones and those intended as representations of the real, taking care over all the tiny twists and turns of the coastline refining, perhaps, inaccuracy to something in the order of hundreds of miles. Even now I have a ritual when we go camping that I will always pick up the Ordnance Survey map of the area, and it is a small excitement unfolding the map, laying it out on the uneven ground and tracing the contours I can see if I only look up and around me. Finding the odd place names and trying to imagine how they came to be. The secret pleasure in being able to refold it properly, which always seems near impossible. My children, on account of this exposure, have inherited this love too, and this makes me wonder if the joy of map tracing is something of a dying art, as the world moves to a more ‘accurate’ and less romantic digital view. Perhaps as long as gorgeous books like this one exists, the art of cartography and the joy of map exploration on a damp Sunday afternoon will long continue. I hope so. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Time to think

I’ve taken a few days off work, taking advantage of the bank holiday, and as always happens when I have a few days to spare with no real plans I find myself with time to think. Not straight away. It takes a few days, a few days of reading, of travelling around, perhaps, a few days of going to the shops or looking out of the window and watching the rain or the clouds passing by. Eventually those things run out of currency, and I’m left with nothing to hinder the thoughts I try so hard to escape from. This time I've decided to listen.

It is good to have time to think. The most creative times, I find, are those times when you have no option but to think, where thinking is something that springs upon you almost as an inevitability. Like in the shower, or on a long walk. These are often the times I find the keenest insight into my life and what I need to do with it. It is, perhaps, not surprising that so many writers are often keen walkers.

When I’m at work, when I’m in my normal routine, I don’t think. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think in my job, of course I do – I have to – but what I have to think about is everything other than myself and what I am doing. I can think about my work, I can think about my role and the meaning of my role, I can think, hard, to solve a problem. I think a lot, but that thinking is never reflection. On my way to and from work, I read. My free time at home is limited, and I can easily fill it with administration, with my kids, with housework or gardening or more reading. All this enables me to carry on through my life without thinking about what I’m doing. This engenders a kind of blindness, a lack of awareness and a failure to make real decisions. If I ever challenge myself, I spin out that old trope ‘I’ve made compromises,’ which isn’t quite true because ‘compromise’ implies a conscious choice whereas I think it is truer to say that I’ve simply taken the expedient route. This is nowhere else more apparent than in my reading obsession. If I think about the next book and the next book I want to read, then I don’t have to think about why I’m reading them or what it is that drives this need, this need which enables me to avoid confronting the course my life is taking. Reading, it appears, is a great source of distraction and I’m reminded of one of my less successful university interviews, many years ago, when my interviewer asked me why I read and I answered ‘escapism’. I didn’t get a place at that university, but I knew myself better then it seems.

Not surprisingly, then, my thinking has started with my relationship with reading, which I’ve blogged (briefly) about before. I am reading more than ever. I have a list of books I want to read which is ever growing, to the point that it is unachievable. I could buy a book every day, add them to my stack and get around to reading them, one day. Part of this is driven by my blog, but there’s something underlying it which I’ve been hiding from and which, to my surprise, has been revealed to me when I’ve thought about all the books which have particularly affected me. Those books were telling me something, and giving myself some time to think has made this clear to me.

Those books have been Tracks, A Book of Silence, A Woman in the Polar Night, Full Tilt. More recently, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain – which I will blog about shortly – all of these books have shook me to my core. What is it about these books? All these women have taken a brave (or crazy) step. They have all done something which seems impossible, whether it is cycling across the world or walking across the Australian desert. All of these women have actively sought isolation and in the course of doing so have discovered who they were. This is something which I know absorbs me, as every idea I have for a novel centres around this theme. All of these women have sought an intensity of experience, they have risked their safety and suffered social approbation for what these have chosen to do. Yet their experiences have shaped them, they have enabled them to have a transcendent experience. What is my obsession with transcendence if not a sign to myself that the way I am living is simply not enough?

I am not unhappy with my life, in fact if I was unhappy it would be easier to make a change. What I see, instead, is that I am living an unchallenged life. My work is challenging, but not risky and it is easy to rise to that kind of challenge and pretend it is enough. It is not enough. I need to challenge myself, I need to confront myself and always remember that a fulfilled life is not necessarily an easy life. I let myself off the hook too often. I love reading, but there comes a point where you realise that the story you want to read isn’t out there, but is already inside you waiting to be released. I am ready, I think, to write my story. Actually it doesn’t matter if I’m ready, I simply must. I need to stop living this middle-of-the-road life. I have walked a path which has been opened up for me, instead of forging my own way and I have let my dreams fall along the wayside, victims of expedience and practicality.

My dream as a child was to be a writer, but along the way I have created the excuses which have permitted me not to pursue my dream. I have tinkered here and there but never taken it seriously. No one should give up their dreams so easily. I need to read less (crazy as that sounds), blog a little less and stop myself from filling those free hours with anything other than writing activity. I need to stop buying books, because the story I need to read is right here already. It will be a difficult read, and I won’t be able to read it and move on to the next story in a matter of days; but it will be the best story I will ever read and if I don’t nurture it from me now I’m condemning myself to die an old, regretful woman. I’m determining, right here, that this is not going to be the story of my life.