Monday, 27 August 2012

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Longing and attention

Softly raining and the wind loops playfully: Summer has been kept in after school. That's rather how I feel too - relentless work since the first day of August; need a break and not about to get one just yet. And suddenly I'm flooded with longing for other places, new faces, new words and pictures.

Longing is good. Good to reconnect with deep desires after a long, hard time when these were not in evidence, buried under fear.

And longing isn't good. A futile wishing to be anywhere but here, in anytime but now. A hopeless, unproductive tension that denies the present, which is all there ever is.

To hold and shape this, without squeezing out the life, is like throwing a delicate vase on a potter's wheel. It calls for a steadfast, not too effortful, attention to the work 'in hand' that is not synonymous with tension.

That was written earlier. So I sat here holding in my mind the image of throwing a delicate vase on the potter's wheel, and can report that it helped: not as much work done today as I'd hoped, but much more than felt possible a few hours ago. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Monday, 20 August 2012

Squirrel at sunset

Working all hours, all days. So grateful to be working at home, to be near the park - a green place with creatures in it.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

So, August

So hot and suddenly, predictably, August brings a rush of work. Going slowly and patiently, aware that I can't give in to the heat, can't let it get to me.

So, yesterday was five months since the last day in the university job.

Today I catch myself thinking... how I'd like the work to go, how I have fewer headaches, but still way too many, and still have weight to lose. Thinking... this self, these aspirations have been absent in these past few tired and frightened months.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Photographing the Photographers' Gallery

Well, how nice that the newly refurbished Photographers' Gallery is so photogenic, with its lovely light and sightlines and its picture windows.

More photos here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

These green and tangled depths

Hot and humid. Overtired.
Oh, for a dreamless sleep this green,
this cool and dark and deep!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Lavender luxuriates

Lavender flourishes in many parks and gardens around here. Perhaps the soil is conducive - the outer suburbs of South London used to be an important area for the commercial growing of lavender. But in this exceptionally rainy year, like many species, it's grown and spread with an astonishing lushness. Difficult to walk down any residential road without brushing against the bushes overhanging garden walls and trailing across the pavement and releasing gorgeous waves of scent.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Stepping back

I wonder if I shot myself, and worse the author, in the foot with the review of Say Her Name. If I've convinced some friends that it's more upsetting than they could bear - well, that wasn't what I meant to do. I loved this book. It is upsetting, but also (equally and surprisingly and memorably) absorbing and transporting and unusual.  The thing is, I can't really see the point of blogging reviews that are a vastly inferior version of what excellent and polished writers produce for mainstream printed and online publications. I read a huge amount, and am an enthusiastic cinema-goer and attender of exhibitions. I read book blogs and think: perhaps I could do that. I'm inspired by outstanding blogs like Tales from the Reading Room that combine knowledgeable and original reviews with more personal life writing, and thus cast a fascinating light on the role that reading plays in the life of someone who reads a lot. I've had one or two goes at reviewing books more regularly and found that I couldn't maintain the motivation. But every now and then I'm moved to do it, and to write something more personal, subjective and unstructured than the usual review, to try and convey how a book, or some other work of art, made me feel, what difference it made to me - to get up close to it.

Perhaps I got too close to this one and was carried away by certain aspects at the expense of others. I mean, what do I want to do here: express myself or make my friends want to read the book? Both is fine. The former at the expense of the latter - less fine. I guess it's difficult to share feelings about a book without inflicting those feelings (precisely the challenge so impressively met by Francisco Goldman in this book); and it's difficult to be deliberately subjective and impressionistic without painting an unfairly partial picture. All this requires more thought, and no doubt a lot more groping around and learning by doing.

The  reflected image used to illustrate the review was cropped from the photo above (click on it to enlarge). It has nothing to do with the book, of course, but seemed to strike a connected note. The whole photo made me happy because I think it 'works', while breaking most rules of lighting and composition. Rules have reasons, so breaking them successfully - in words or pictures - is really hard, and perhaps most often achieved by accident.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Friday, 3 August 2012

Say Her Name

To write of love and death and grief with self-consciousness, with self-reflection, without self-indulgence; to write a story of death which is full of humour and movement, full of life in short, is quite a feat. It's the gift to all of us from a true writer: to be able to share the essentially unsharable, make the specific universal and the universal specific.

A few years ago, I was at a literary translation event where a Mexican novelist and a British translator of Spanish mentioned a man they both knew, Francisco Goldman ("no, he's American, a Latina mother, but he writes - novels and non-fiction - in English"). A story as stark and tragic as any novel: he'd been married, they said - rather late in life, very happily - to a younger Mexican woman who died in a freak accident, body-surfing off a beach in Mexico. They said what a nice guy he was, what a good writer, and how sad it was. There was a small, shocked pause and the dinner-table talk moved on.

I recalled this conversation when a book appeared in London bookshops this year: Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman, a novel about the extraordinary, ordinary woman he married, their love and her death.

"I still regularly imagine Aura is beside me on the sidewalk. Sometimes I imagine I’m holding her hand, and walk with my arm held out by my side a little. Nobody is surprised to see people talking to themselves in the street anymore, assuming that they must be speaking into some Bluetooth device. But people do stare when they notice they your eyes are red and wet, your lips twisted into a sobbing grimace. I wonder what they think they are seeing and what they imagine has caused the weeping. On the surface, a window has briefly, alarmingly, opened."

It's a brilliantly structured book, whose narrative emerges in glimpses, moving not forward but around and around, never letting you go, as the writer's grief and memories go around and around and never let him go: "a window has briefly, alarmingly, opened" into a life in crisis.

This evocation of an ordinary love story between two literary types, a middle-aged journalist and novelist and a younger PhD student and aspiring novelist, is tender, intimate, hilarious and heart-breaking - as full of life as it is of death. It paints a deeply unromantic picture of the deepest romantic truths: that people, together and separately, are much more than we can rationally account for; that those we love don't die before us, because they become woven into our hearts. It pulls on the heartstrings in the best and most powerful of ways. It takes a dark and confused route and ends up convincing us that that which is most painful is also most life-affirming.

"I was back at my Condesa gym two weeks after Aura’s death… I felt a hard hollow rectangle filled with tepid blank air. An empty rectangle with sides of slate or lead, that’s how I visualized it, holding dead air, like the unstirred air inside an elevator shaft in a long-abandoned building. I thought I understood what it was, and told myself, The people who feel this way all the time are the ones who commit suicide. I wanted to just get off the bike and run away, or drop to the floor in fetal position, or raise my arm and call for help. But I kept pedaling hard, moving to the music and the instructor’s commands, and the rectangle full of dead air slowly faded."

This book moved me so much. I picked it up to re-read and then put it down again - it's so sad, so upsetting. But quite soon, in the right mood, I did find myself re-reading it. It's truly company for the reader in the way I crave the company of books, as the next best thing to real people. In that capacity, of course, they so often disappoint. This book did not.

To bring off something so raw and direct demands of the writer a magical weaving of raw emotion with the highest level of craft and sophistication. To make of grief something so finely crafted that is still... grief: oh, this is rare!

We know from the start that Aura died. The reader is taken in endless, obsessive circles with the mind and memories of the bereaved writer as he tells the story of their relationship, the gradual deepening of his knowledge of her, his memories of scene after scene from their daily life and conversations. Back and back through the story, around and around with his grief we go, until we know this woman very well, have spent months and years with her, by the time we witness – in the very last pages - her death.

"Aura always just closed the lid of her laptop when she was done working for the day, so when I opened it later, I found the screen as she’d left it. There were two open documents, the latest version of her story about the schoolteacher, and something new, probably the start of yet another short story, titled ‘Hay seƱales en la vida?' Or, Does Life Give Us Signs?"

It's a complex book that must have taken a long, long time to write, just as grief takes a long, long time to become something that can be lived with.

Just four years after they met, Aura, in the midst of this life we've seen painted in such loving detail, tries to surf a fatal wave, floats to the surface almost lifeless and hours later is dead. It's devastating. In a small way, the reader understands how following her story around and around through the blockages of grief and the inexorable, circling movements of memory has somehow been cathartic.

At the end of the book is a photo that they used on their wedding invitation. Just the bottom half of Aura and less than half of Francisco - dark, headless figures hand-in-hand, and their shadows on a cobbled street. It's the kind of photo I'm always trying to take, that by showing less directly shows more.

"One morning I found myself standing in the kitchen looking through the window at the chair on the fire escape as if I’d never seen it before. That’s when I thought to name it Aura’s Journey Chair. I imagined her descending slowly down a long shaft of yellow-pink translucent light, in a sitting position, holding a book open in her hands, landing softly in the chair, returned from her long, mysterious journey. She glances up from her book, notices me watching through the kitchen window, and says, like always, in her cheerful, hoarse-sounding voice, Hola, mi amor.
Hola, mi amor. But where did you go? Why were you away so long? I know you didn’t
get married just to go off by yourself like that and leave me alone here!"

I can't recommend this book too highly. It's a one-off, as funny, individual and eccentric as it is almost unbearably sad.

"The parlor… was our bedroom. It has such tall ceilings that to change a light-bulb in the hanging lamp I’d climb a five-foot stepladder, stand on tiptoes atop its rickety pinnacle and reach up as high as I could, though still end up bent over, arms flapping, fighting for balance – Aura, watching from her desk in the corner, said, You look like an amateur bird."

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Purple rain

I have a long blog-post about a novel I've been deeply moved by, but haven't had time to finish it for the best possible reason - I'm busy copy-editing a big book.  So here and here are some more photos of Dulwich Park lake in the rain. And, while mindlessly messing about, I accidentally hit the wrong button and screwed up my blog design, so now I can't get rid of the dark border except by going back to the basic template and doing all the advanced formatting again. Oh well. . .
(small screens: click on photo to view without scrolling)