Monday, 27 September 2010

The Book Sponge

I have a habit, and I’m not sure whether it is good or bad. Sometimes when I’m reading, a sentence or a paragraph just leaps out at me. It’s a cliché, but some things just resonate. So I write them down somewhere. I almost highlighted something in a novel the other day, but then I thought that would make me look a bit too much like some kind of literature student.

So, why could this possibly be bad, you ask? Well, I believe that I am a sponge. I do it with music, with pop culture, and with books. I absorb things until they are pretty much a part of me. With music, this involves semi-obsessively listening to my latest crush, which tends to be reflected when I next pick up a guitar. With odd slices of pop culture, it involves internalising and then quoting with irksome frequency (I have done this one since I was a child; everyone does, to some extent). With books, this involves cutting out pieces that I particularly like and leaving them lying around on my laptop. Then I read them a few more times every now and then. It’s a sort of bluffer’s guide to knowing the whole book really well, I suppose. It means that a part of it remains lodged in memory.

Naturally, I blame my father for this. His memory is like a mutilated encyclopaedia of snatches of poetry, literary references, bad jokes and obscene limericks. I have only just realised that I am doing more or less the same thing. Witness:

There was a young man named Dave,

Who kept a dead whore in a cave,

He said, ‘I know it’s disgusting,

And she needs a good dusting,

But think of the money I’ll save.’


I am a sponge, and when it comes to books I have a theory. It is a theory worthy of one of Borges’ characters. Remember Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote? It is a short story about a modern-day individual who attempts to recreate Don Quixote. Not to copy it, but to write it again from scratch. He immerses himself in the language and the culture of the period, and he writes little stumps of the story which are identical to the original, yet somehow infinitely richer and more sublime.

If I can absorb styles of writing - in my more deluded moments I sometimes think I have a gift for writing pastiches – then the logical step is to read, and absorb, as many books as possible. I won’t say all of them, because there’s a lot of tripe out there. And I won’t say that I will attempt to recreate them, as Borges’ character does. Much as I enjoy picking small holes in the boundaries between reality and fiction, I do ultimately live in the real world. But if I didn't, this would be my masterplan for literary world domination.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Blackpowder tales

I am newly cast adrift from the student world, having handed in my dissertation just a few days ago. Restarting this blog is a part of the drive for self-improvement which I have begun since then. It is part of a commitment to write more, an undertaking which has been going surprisingly well for a couple of months now, in spite of the dissertation. Before then, having worked on it all day, the last thing I wanted to do was write more in the evenings. But I seem to be writing more all the time, which is excellent.

On my train journey yesterday I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In some ways it follows on from Hemingway. Both focus on slices of Hispanic history, Hemingway in Spain itself and Marquez in Columbia. Neither of these are histories or countries with which I’m familiar, apart from one term spent studying Spanish Mudejar architecture. Which I’ve mostly forgotten about. To me, this gives these books a mysterious romance. I was trying to pin this down yesterday. Both books are set on the cusp of modernity, but take place in benighted, dirt-poor settings. The result is a kind of cross-over between the antiquity of an unknown land and the magical intrusions of modernity – the maquina which is so vital to Robert Jordan and the rebels, the magnets and alchemical devices which the gypsies hawk to Jose Arcadio Buendia. This is a land where one can gun down a hundred men with a clanking, modern weapon but still unearth a rusted suit of conquistador armour.

I half-remember a line from an old computer game (I know, I know) which sums this up for me. It was something about a sorcerer using some new form of dark magic named ‘science.’ Guns, magnets, alchemy. The first block of ice that Jose had ever seen. These are the products of this dark new thing called science, at once modern and ancient. This is what has enchanted me about these two books.

Marquez’s ability to evoke antiquity and mystery in a few words reminds me of Borges. ‘The gypsy wrapped him in the frightful climate of his look before he turned into a puddle of pestilential and smoking pitch over which the echo of his reply still floated: “Melquiades is dead.”’ The magic is incredible. I think there is a genre at work in a lot of these books that I really enjoy. I think I’ll call this genre Historical Magical Realism. Perhaps I’ll write its manifesto sometime, but essentially it’s about invoking magic, old magic, and all the associations we make with past epochs. For me, the rusty suit of armour and the conquistador’s muskets are ancient and romantic and evocative. I find this in Hemingway and Marquez, in Borges, in Don Quixote and Blood Meridian. It is almost a saturation of the imagination, and for me it can be evoked by these few props.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Holidays and Hemingway

As it’s holiday season, I have once more been Reading A Novel. This is not something that happens during the normal course of things, since reading a large amount for work purposes tends to discourage reading for pleasure. But it makes a very refreshing change in the holidays.

I am currently about halfway through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a second-hand book I bought for a pittance a while ago on the basis that I would quite like to read it at some point in the not-too-distant future. Unlike most books that I do this with, I am now actually reading it.

If you ask me why I wanted to read that particular book, I would quietly admit that it is partially because there is a song of the same name by Metallica. But it’s more because I’ve read a bit of Donne in my time. And yes, the band named it after the novel, not the ‘no man is an island’ business. (I don’t want to give the impression that I normally base my reading on recommendations by rock bands, its just that it was something I’d heard of and wanted to have a look at. It also falls into the category of ‘classic’ literature, which makes me something of a sucker for it.)

So, thoughts on Hemingway. More or less the only thing I know about the man himself is that he was fond of a drink. This is something that comes through in the novel, but Hemingway certainly isn’t sympathetic towards the untrustworthy, bristly, porcine drunkard Pablo, whose shadow is cast over the plans of the bold American, Robert Jordan. Nonetheless, there’s already been an awful lot of wine, whiskey and absinthe (especially absinthe, inspiration to author and protagonist alike) and I’m only halfway through the book. So, the music I listen to influences my choice of reading, and Ernest’s love of liquor influences his writing. So far, so reprehensible.

Hemingway seems to have a slightly irritating habit, starting about a third of the way in, of wandering off on a series of stream-of-consciousness type monologues. These clearly help to develop our view of the war and the characters’ views on it, but they are less interesting than the dialogue and actions of the characters themselves.

Despite this, I’m really enjoying the book. The high point so far (and this says a lot about me) has been a flashback narration of the execution of some fascists in a small town at the start of the war. The fighting is dealt with laconically; the pathos of the executions is the real focus. There is blood and drink, and the instability of the crowd and its painfully inevitable degeneration from dignified and reluctant executioner to howling mob is riveting. The humanity of the scene is affecting, and the predictability of the clean, ideal revolution spiralling into bloodshed is hypnotic.

At this stage in the book, very little has actually happened. The small-town origins of the revolution were distanced from the action of the plot, and Robert Jordan’s main objective of demolishing a bridge is really just beginning to come to prominence. Much of the first half is about humans and how they behave around other humans, and this, I think, is where Hemingway is at his best. The Shakespeare-lover in me enjoys his pseudo-translated, pseudo-antiquated Spanish with its idioms and its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. The rest of me, of course, enjoys its carefully-crafted insults and curse-words, ‘in which the acts are never stated but only implied.’ So, for now, I bid thee unprintable thyself and obscenity on thy way.

And incidentally, the title of this blog is also from Hemingway. I just happened to like that part too.