Monday, March 18, 2019

More bons mots from Diana Athill

The great London editor Diana Athill (think Jean Rhys, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant, Philip Roth, VS Naipaul, Simone de Beauvoir) was also a talented writer. Her first book, a memoir, came out in the 1960s under the title Instead of a Letter. Fifty years on, Granta published her correspondence with American poet Edward Field as Instead of a book: Letters to a friend.  

Here are some of her epistolatory gems:

"I don't see the singingness of words entirely as an evil, although it can certainly lead writers astray."

In reference to the Fellows' Common Room at All Souls: "an exquisitely comfortable book-and-print-lined room, marinated in centuries of intellectual privilege."

Aging Fellow John Sparrow's little verse (quoted below) struck her as being "like a spell against decay:"

I'm accustomed to my dentures
To my deafness I'm resigned
I can cope with my bifocals --
But oh dear! I miss my mind.

Reading a book about postwar economics, she comments that although "one never ...had much time for politicians, but the extent of their idiocy when fully revealed is gobsmacking."

Delighted at Edward's having dedicated a book to her, she comments, "poems, like short stories, are difficult to read...because you read one and go greedily on to the next one, and the next and the next, until you realize that your eyes have started bouncing off them without taking them in."

The Hay Literary Festival, held in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales she calls "much the nicest of all the literary festivals." This year it goes from May 23 to June 2, and Anna Burns will be there.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ian Rankin: In a House of Lies

The latest Ian Rankin novel portrays the decline of the press as a group of trained and responsible journalists who do research and check facts. DI Siobhan Clarke reacts angrily when a journalist Laura Smith, asks her to do a trade: inside info in exchange for a heads up on a breaking story that casts the police in a bad light. Smith's response to to the police officer's refusal to bargain is food - however unappetizing - for readerly thought.

"Know how few of us are left out in the wild, Siobhan? Journalists like me, we're an endangered species. It's all bloggers and social justice warriors and gossip hounds. How many of them can you put a name to? Maybe you better start trying, because soon they're going to be all that's left."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Diana Athill describes the writer's dilemma

How brilliantly the great writer and editor Diana Athill expresses the problem I face now. It's finally time to offer my manuscript to agents and publishers, and I desperately need a dose of her casual self-understanding:

"I am gravely tempted to...[fill in the blank with any of a number of distracting tasks] - but probably that is the subconscious throwing up a diversionary tactic."
(p 101)

Monday, March 4, 2019

Charles Cumming: the pulse of the past beats in the present

With its preoccupation with the potentials of the internet and social media for good and ill, Charles Cumming's latest thriller has its pulse firmly in the present. Humourously, Cumming applies layers of timeworn spy tropes. After Robert Mantis makes the approach, author Kit Carradine goes to an internet cafe and tapes over the camera. Seeing that Mantis has no internet domain or checkable credit record, and is "not listed as a director at Companies House nor as a shared freeholder on any UK properties," the new recruit is satisfied that he's "a genuine Service employee." But for Carradine, the exciting game of spydom is cut short. "His career as a support agent, a counterpart to Maugham and Greene, and his attempt to live up to the example set by his father, had ended in ignominy." In real life, Cumming was approached by MI6, but didn't accept their offer. Unless he did, and writing thrillers is his cover.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Zadie Smith interviewed by Jael Richardson at a packed Stanley Theatre

Thursday evening, Leslie Hurtig, the Artistic Director of Vancouver Writers Fest, realized a dream when she brought Zadie Smith to the city to address fans in the sold-out Stanley. After reading from Feel Free, she responded to interviewer Jael Richardson's questions. The need for freedom keeps her moving forward artistically. Writers must free themselves "from needing to be liked," think their own thoughts and say what they see. "Part of a writer's job is finding language for new experiences."

It is of vital importance to say what you see and avoid being caught up in the masses who are "bullied into speaking in one voice." The pressure to write comes from within: "I never wrote a book except from a feeling of necessity."

Regarding the writing process, she commented on the need of writers "to sometimes restrain our natural instincts." With her "generative imagination," she creates large casts of characters with little effort. Different writers have different abilities, and in the novel form, it's possible with care and attention to hide what you can do less well.

An interesting cultural observation on fame was the comment that "it's strange being known and not knowing those who know you." Intimacy is difficult, but "fame is much worse." Yet a recent survey showed that a whopping 8 out of 10 British school children wanted to be famous. What drives that, she wonders, and what will come of it?

When Richardson asked her if she had a sense of cultural betweenness, Smith responded that it was necessary to avoid being too hardline, even to maintain some "moral flexibility." Proud rootedness in a single place is not something she values; indeed, people who use this to define their identity can be dangerous. "To take the accidents of birth as deep realities is absurd," she said, illustrating with the fact that her son is an accidental American with British parents -- her husband was born in Northern Ireland -- and Jamaican grandparents.  The reason? She was too pregnant to be allowed on a plane back to London to give birth. In our times, such wide-rooted families are no longer unusual.

Not belonging, on the other hand, can be extremely powerful -- "it helps you see around the sides and provides the gift of radical empathy." On the notion of class, she feels it was "freeing" to come from the lower middle and working class, when "your parents haven't achieved." Middle-class life, on the other hand, can be stultifying," as children are defined as the sons and daughters of a person with a certain high status job, and can easily be bamboozled into following parental paths.

Currently, she spends her time between New York and London, and finds it "Interesting, moving between two dumpster fires." Responding to a question about Brexit, she admitted her unwillingness to even think about this "epic act of self-harm," and fears the Brexiters might win again if a second vote were to held, though her husband, poet Nick Laird, is more optimistic.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Author quotations: Donna Leon

Donna Leon routinely strews witticisms and wry observances of the human condition through her Venetian mysteries.

Taken from Through a Glass Darkly, the following comment comes from an elegant and revealing exchange between two colleagues at the Questura in Venice. Both the conscientious and philosophical Comissario Guido Brunetti and the talented and discreet information-gatherer Signorina Elettra work for the vain, corrupt and inefficient bosses.

But when Brunetti needs information, Miss Elettra can always find it, and the Comissario is careful not to ask how. Thus, in one of their cautious exchanges outside the vain and corrupt Giuseppe Patta's office, "She smiled with what a less astute person might have mistaken for sincerity."

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Author Quotations: Diana Athill

This memoir of Diana Athill, celebrated writer, editor and co-publisher with Andre Deutsch in London, shares the joys, sorrows and humour of one facing mortality after a life well lived. From this perspective, she calls Elias Canetti's claim that he would live forever "plain silly," saying it's "obvious that life works in terms of species rather than individuals."

Meeting an elderly painter who has been keeping her art in a drawer, Athill observes that she's "an object lesson in the essential luck...of those born able to make things."

A dog lover who is "baffled by those who dislike them," she's too old to take on another "velvet-faced pug." This inspires thoughts about dogs. Calling them "the only animal whose emotions we can truly penetrate," she says "Dogs and humans recognize one another at a deep and uncomplicated level."

Her comment on how writers and readers connect gave me a feeling of great comfort: "I think that underneath, or alongside, a reader's conscious response to a text, whatever is needy in him is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need.” 

Ms. Athill's humour and wisdom on a wide variety of ordinary subjects makes me wish I could have known her from the time she was young.