Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (2)

Is your writing ego-driven? Are you, in your fantasy life, interviewed on Radio 4 by some really clever person? As you write, do you perhaps picture yourself on Breakfast TV’s red sofa, explaining what inspired your latest best-selling children’s book or modestly outlining plans for your upcoming stint as Poet Laureate? Did you read Stephen King’s account of his journey from hospital laundry (maggots crawling up his arms) to best-selling wonder-person and find yourself being Stephen King?

Now, on your Desert Island, is there going to be any point in writing?

Our island is metaphorical, of course. Desert Islands come in all shapes and forms – poverty, disability, obscurity … unpublishability. In fact I discovered a new kind of Island only yesterday.

As you will see from my previous post my blog ‘stats’ stopped working, or appeared to have. Normally I get feedback on the number of people who have looked at my blog and the countries they are in at the time. But for a day and a half there was nothing: no lit up countries, no nice little national flags. I had no way of telling whether this was computer weirdness or whether there actually was nobody at all in the entire universe reading my blog. Suddenly I didn’t feel in the least like writing, or posting. Oh, woe, whatever’s the point, I was asking myself, if even that one inexplicable individual in Bosnia Herzegovina will not be perusing my deathless prose? And then the penny dropped – time to put your money where your mouth is, Clever Clogs – time to answer your own Desert Island Question. Post on into the CyberVoid intrepid BlogLady – if you dare.

 Anyway…

Something to mull over, from American poet Emily Dickinson:

‘Publication is not the business of poets.’

Can we lump prose writers and poets together? Well, yes and no. I see it as a continuum, with, on the extreme left ART FOR ART’S SAKE* and on the extreme right MONEY FOR GOD’S SAKE**.

* L’art pour l’art – French philosopher Victor Cousin, early 19th Century

** Money for God’s Sake (10CC – more recently)

On the whole I’d say poetry – real poetry, not the verses you find in greetings cards and newspaper obituary columns – falls close to the Art for Art’s Sake end of the scale, if only because a person is lucky to get a poem published anywhere let alone make any money out of it – so if they persist with poetry they are likely to be doing so for love.

Prose is harder to locate between the two extremes. There are many ‘craftsmen’ writers who, although they enjoy writing and are good at it, do it solely to make a living. On our metaphorical Desert Island, with no prospect of, or need for, remuneration, they would probably be channelling their energies elsewhere: using some of that delicious stash of paper to design a raft, or to draw up plans for a three-story, dual-aspect extension to the hermit’s cabin. They would be figuring out better ways to catch fish, or constructing ingenious bridges out of liana vines to cross the ravine which I have just this minute discovered divides the island practically into two. They might pause to pop a message into a bottle: no harm in covering all angles.

And then there are – or we must presume there are – the ‘artist’ writers, those who write because they must, or because writing serves some sort of higher purpose for them.

Flannery O’Connor famously said she wrote ‘because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’. I find this too. I find it difficult to follow a line of reasoning through to the end, feel overwhelmed sometimes by the chaos of new ideas. Everything splinters; it’s so hard to hold on to, like living inside a kaleidoscope. But when I write the shiny fragments settle down and start to form a picture. The more I write the clearer the picture becomes. I don’t express myself very well verbally, either. I used to mind a great deal about being forced into the role of Good Listener whereas inside I knew myself to be a Rampant Natterer. I am more sanguine nowadays, consoling myself with the words of Michel de Montaigne:

The world is all babble, and I never met a man who did not talk more, rather than less, than he should; yet half our lives are wasted in this way.

(Essay: On the Education of Children)

To be continued…

THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (1)

You are an aspiring young writer in need of a holiday. Being all but penniless you decide to stow away on an ocean liner, the SS Ruritania. Being also a bit of a lone wolf you tell no one of your plans. One morning you simply pack a bag, lock up your flat and leave. What a story your adventures are going to make. Publishers are bound to snap it up.

It’s not much fun in the bowels of the SS Ruritania. It’s damp and noisy, so dark it’s hard to tell whether it’s day or night. You soon lose track of time. You get so hungry and disorientated that you can’t even remember where the SS Ruritania was supposed to be heading.

One day, or possibly night, you are woken by an almighty bang and hear someone shout ‘Abandon ship – we just hit a reef / whale / iceberg / yellow submarine’. It takes you an age, in your weakened state, to clamber up all those little narrow stairways to the upper decks, by which time everybody has already jumped. You jump too.

You manage to cling to a piece of driftwood and many days later are washed up on a desert island. You could be anywhere in the world. You have no means of contacting anyone, and no one knows you are there.

Exploring the island you discover a plentiful supply of bananas and cocoanuts, and a freshwater stream. There is also a substantial hut, once occupied by a hermit. You find his sun-bleached bones on the beach. The hermit must have been a writer because, in a dry underground cavern you discover – amazingly enough – an enormous cupboard full of A4, wide-feint refill pads (green or yellow tint – easier on the eye) and an unlocked treasure chest full to the brim of 2B pencils, the ones with the orange ends. Oh, and a smaller treasure chest full of pencil-sharpeners.

So, knowing you will never be rescued and no one will ever read your words – will you write?

That is the Desert Island Question.

Which reminds me of another story, slightly more subtle than the one I just cooked up for you, or rather one of those peculiar, po-faced English jokes disguised as a story. It was told at a lecture by Geoffrey Bateson, a brilliant anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and scientist, who died in 1980:

A man had a very powerful computer, so he asked it ‘Will you ever be able to think like a human being?’ The computer rattled and clicked for a bit before printing out its answer:

THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY

 Human beings can’t resist telling stories – which was Bateson’s point. It’s our natural mode of communication. It must have started with the Stone Age equivalent of Guess what? A mammoth chased me and it was THIS big!

But what happens when there is no audience, no other caveman/woman with an interest in mammoths? If you are alone in your house watching tennis on TV, do you leap up and exclaim: Guess what? Roger Federer just beat Andy Murray! Probably not.

On your desert island, will you finally start planning that epic novel? There will be no kids to separate, no dog to be walked, no washing-up to wade through, no tennis on TV – just you, and all that paper, and all those pencils. You might start a diary; but in the absence of other human beings what of interest could be said to be happening, day by day?

It rained.

I made cocoanut-and-banana soup. Delicious.

Saw a fish.

To be continued…