Sunday, 23 January 2011

One gigantic oyster, infinite ways to eat it

Limitations can be extremely helpful when it comes to both creativity and decision-making. Starting to create anything with no structure, or no leading idea or collection of them, is hard; decisions when there is nothing to narrow down the choices is even harder.

The only thing resembling a resolution for me this year was that I would aim to persuade my employers to give me a month’s unpaid leave. This is, astonishingly, looking more likely to happen than not. I don’t know when I’ll get it yet, if indeed I do, but I do know how I want to use it. I want to be far away, in a warm place, writing as much as possible. The problem – and I admit it’s a very pleasant problem to have – is deciding where.

It’s been a long time now since I’ve travelled outside of Europe. I’m discounting short trips to New York and Montreal, since both felt peculiarly familiar to a Londoner, and one who has spent a lot of time both speaking French and playing le flaneur in Paris and at home. Even in Europe, I haven’t been away for more than 2 weeks and then always moving around, not stopping and growing accustomed to a place.

What I am craving is psychological and geographical distance from the current pattern of life. I’ve tried to look at it from afar without actually going anywhere, but I can’t sustain the trick of perspective long enough to be able to make any judgements about what I see.

It’s not just life I want to see from a different angle. I know that repetition and familiarity in life can start to be reflected in my thought patterns, and therefore in my writing. Often on a creative writing course it is not just the ideas and words floating about that jolt me into productivity, but the contrast in environment. I want a big jolt, and to be able to hang around long enough to reap the creative benefits.

Part of me thinks that only the alien will do this. Having inherited a bundle of air miles, the alien world is my oyster; I should throw a dart at my National Geographic map (once I’ve plastered over Europe with something impermeable) and commit to whatever it throws back at me.

I know from experience that there’s nothing like living in a hammock in a jungle somewhere for figuring out what you think about things, in writing and in life, even if it’s only to conclude that actually, the public transport infrastructure of Britain is not so bad. On the other hand, I know from experience that there’s nothing like living in sweat-soaked, mosquito-tortured skin for halting the writing process altogether, at least for me. I want to be comfortable, relaxed, able to sit at a table, with access to safe ice for the cocktail at my elbow, writing on paper that is neither damp nor stinking of deet.

So, which bits of the oyster are looking juiciest? I still haven’t the faintest idea. I fear deeply the no-research-just-do-it route, but also collapse in a heap just thinking about the amount of research I’d have to do in order to feel I’d made the best possible choice. Instead I’m going to play some tricks on myself, and invent some complex combination of criteria and elimination processes that will make it feel as though I’m not making one decision at all.

So that I can ultimately hold someone else responsible for where I end up, I am gathering recommendations for parts of the world that would make a temperate retreat for a lone female writer, perhaps in May, and where nature, quiet and friendly people will keep me sane and productive. Tell me where to go!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Existence being rather different from existence…

A subject denied me by my Philosophy department at Bristol was the work of Heidegger, despite his clear links to Wittgenstein and Kant, both of whom I struggled with to immense satisfaction. Never had understanding so little been so gratifying as when I encountered the thoughts of those two peculiar people; sadly Heidegger as interpreted by Hubert Dreyfus has not had the same effect.

I’ve been listening to his lectures, downloadable for free from Berkeley university (see the link on this page to Open Culture for a huge selection of course material from various American institutions), as I trudge beside the canal in London. I love this system of listening without the pressure of writing about it afterwards, and it’s taken me a while to reconcile myself to philosophical subjects rather than the fun and games of psychology and cognitive science. Now I am wondering whether philosophy without text to hand is such a good idea…

Hubert, working with a translation, admits to having read most of Heidegger in German at some point, but in his lectures is repeatedly foxed by Heidegger’s choice of words when he consults a student using the original text. This is not particularly surprising, in a way. I remember the frustration, culminating in a sense of pointlessness, studying Aristotle when my ancient Greek was still good enough to allow me to understand parts of the primary text. The English language seemed totally inadequate to the entirely different set of nuances and connotations associated with the Greek words, and that was before dealing with inevitably sloppy interpretation by translators apparently in a hurry.

Poor Hubert, I thought at first as I listened to him tie himself and his students in knots, trying to make a consistent picture out of a set of conflicting statements. I suspect I would do no better in this context; I certainly witnessed postgraduates do the same with Kant as they attempted to lead our second year seminars. I was grateful that I only ever taught classes on thinkers who expressed their ideas in English, which was challenging enough.

Perhaps the problem with Hubert is that he is too modest. He freely admits to his undergraduate audience that at least once during each lecture he discovers a phrase in the text that undermines his understanding of Heidegger’s view. Thus as a novice, you grasp something solid only to watch it turn to dust in your hands.

Poor Hubert is of course dealing with a slippery customer. Heidegger appropriates words that have one meaning in the everyday use of language and gives them a different, very specific new sense. For example, ‘existence’ is altered to be something that only human beings have; a direct consequence of this is that, in context, it now makes sense to say that trees and other objects do not exist.

This is fine, as Heidegger is hardly alone amongst philosophers in playing these sorts of language games. I did sympathise with Hubert’s lecture hall full of green shoots though, recalling how much harder it was to keep track of these special word meanings whilst being presented with a whole new world of concepts.

Having finished lecture one with a hazy vision of 'Dasein' – as if seen through a Diana camera lens perhaps – I will keep listening, in the hope that the more Hubert talks, the more outside possibilities of meanings I will be able to eliminate until I have a picture that is at least internally consistent.

I can’t count on this being the right picture though. as Hubert himself pointed out, you can use a paradigm to understand something for a very long time, and then one tiny phrase you’ve never noticed can force you to chuck the whole thing out and start from scratch. Given that this is still happening to him as he delivers his established lectures, I don’t know what hope I have of getting Heidegger into clear focus.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Welcome to Britain, Uncle Lubitel

Another new challenge arrived with me this week, in the form of a vintage Russian Lubitel 166 camera (image above courtesy of Motivated as usual to maximise both beauty and utility in the objects I have, I went for a more obscure model purely because it had Russian lettering on it. I then discovered it has a small plate bearing the emblem of the Moscow Olympics, which took place in 1980. So, this camera was probably produced in the same year as I was: 1979.

Happy synchronicity, but being a one-off (the camera, of course) it doesn't quite match any of the Lubitel manuals available online, which are hard enough to follow thanks to terrible translations. Perhaps they are useless in Russian too, but I wasn't planning to buy Teach Yourself Cyrillic Script this year.

To me this camera is quite intimidating enough without its added idiosyncracies. In order to use it I have to get to grips with f-numbers, apertures and exposures in a way that Diana doesn't ask of me at all. Luckily my brother lent me a technical introduction to photography at Christmas, and for once non-fiction content is acutally gripping me.

Apparently, if you manage to keep it still, a Lubitel can take very sharp shots, doing away with the fuzzy dream world that Diana tends to live in most of the time. That said, even looking through the glass in the top of the camera - the giant viewfinder - is like being transported to another world. Perhaps the glass is tinted, but what I see through it has quite a different atmosphere from the world it purports to show me.

I shan't be neglecting Diana while I get to know what I am already thinking of as her stern, slightly turgid uncle. She will still bring welcome lightness and silliness in contrast to Lubitel's heavy, unfamiliar frame. Just to prove her mettle, here's an example of what Diana is best at:

We'll see what Lubitel can do in my inexpert hands soon.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Enigma and fantasy at Leighton House

Hyde Park late this afternoon was a sumptuous experience of shadows and light. The sun was low, about to sink behind the barracks, silhouetting the promenading public against an iridescent Serpentine. One curving side of the Royal Albert Hall glowed behind the grotesque golden curlicues of the Albert Memorial. Tubby squirrels thumped about the darkened borders of the Flower Walk, gathering their fourth or fifth helpings of lunch from tourists.

It was a fittingly rich hors d’oeuvre for the sensual feast that awaited me at Leighton House Museum. Frederic Leighton, the pre-raphaelite artist most famous for his painting Flaming June, lived in the house for thirty years or so until his death in 1896, and most of the upper floor is given over to his enormous studio.

The place is magical but perplexing. Few of the spaces beyond the studio are ones a person could live in, in any normal domestic sense of the word. There seems to be no personal haven in what is an incredibly lavish shrine to exotic cultures and decoration. The bedroom contains only a single bed, and while the dressing room off it must have once have housed at least a wardrobe and perhaps a washstand, this monastic sparseness is apparently an accurate recreation of the room as it was when Leighton slept there.

Still, I wasn’t looking round with a view to moving in (though I did hear at least three visitors wondering aloud where the kitchen was, as if the ghost of lifelong bachelor Leighton might be found making a lonely cheese toastie of a Sunday afternoon). Looking around was the visual equivalent of a five course meal, each dish hailing from a different yet equally beautiful city.

Leighton paid homage to a room unearthed in Pompeii with his Narcissus Hall, but you don’t need to know that to appreciate it. The walls are covered in deep turquoise tiles glazed by William de Morgan, whose work I have admired many times at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Here they give the impression of a kind of Platonic ideal of water, the colour is so vivid yet varied, as if the shadows of fluttering trees lay across its surface.

A few steps beyond the bronze statue of Narcissus is another hall, lined with 17th century Syrian tiles, again a detail that hardly mattered as I counted mermaids, vines, spotted deer, harpies, peacocks and parakeets in the friezes. Here and in the rooms above there are deep seats, set in alcoves and windows, often the size of a double bed. There would be no way to occupy these spaces except to recline like one of the nymphs Leighton often painted, and it’s easy to imagine one of his models doing exactly that, still draped in whatever fanciful layers of muslin he had chosen for a sketching session.

Before I write an entire Leighton House guide book, I should say that this visit only deepened the enigma of Frederic Leighton. He burned all his personal papers, and there seems to be very little impression left of the person who designed and inhabited this breathtakingly gorgeous building. Indeed it is too beautiful to feel like a home at all, but for me, hoping to experience what his models did when they visited to pose in his gilded alcove, I found what I wanted.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Research: procrastination, self-indulgence or necessity?

I had an epiphany on Wednesday morning, at 8.24, on the corner of Albert Road and Leopold Road. It’s a wonderful experience, when everything comes at once, and I floated the next few hundred yards swearing under my deep breaths as I examined this wonderful free gift of thought content.

One of the consequences of this is that my current novel now has a real world setting, in a real time, beginning around 1928. I can’t do anything about this; the epiphany has determined it, and it feels right. As I swayed back and forth on the commuter train a few minutes later my mind was gleefully listing all the things I would have to find out about.

This is a familiar high, resulting, I think, from years of academic research. It is a relief and a joy, at the start of a project, to know that before any of my own ideas or arguments can be expressed, there are at least ten papers and three books that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases.

Later it becomes an excuse; there’s always one more paper, one more reference, that might contain something really important, before I can attack the blank page. By then, of course, there are pages and pages of notes that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases…

Research can start to feel self-indulgent partly because it’s one of those things that is never really finished, but also because afterwards, when the argument has been formed and expressed, so much of it can appear redundant. I don’t think it always is, and perhaps research for creative purposes is different from that for argumentative ones. Immersing oneself in an era, a place or a place, and letting it rub off even if individual details are discarded, must be useful.

Last year I listened to Peter Carey talk about his new book Parrot and Olivier in America, admitting that in the end he didn’t use 90% of his research. An architect had painstakingly drawn up the plans of a house that the ‘real’ Olivier had lived in, and Carey didn’t even look at them while he wrote. But he visited similar places and the atmosphere infected him.

He’s not the only writer I’ve heard making this kind of admission, so I feel vindicated as I pore over websites uncovering obscure characters from the early twentieth century. Deep down I know that there must be a point where enough research turns into too much, but that point is still far away.

Last year I also listened to two successful authors of fiction declaring that they never did any research. It’s fiction, they said, you’re supposed to be making it up. They urged their audience of budding writers not to bother either. Perhaps they were lucky and were writing on subjects and in genres that didn’t require background information.

I certainly didn’t plan to write something that would mean precious writing time would be taken up with learning. My first novel required very little. But as I said, it’s the epiphany’s fault, and now I can’t wait to dive in, especially as my first port of call will be Leighton House Museum. I will tell you all about it next time.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Reading for pleasure and inspiration

Does anyone who has read more than twenty books have a favourite book of all time? Someone asked for mine recently, and then before I’d even started thinking admitted that it was a silly question.

Avid readers I know do have books they go back to though, for reasons of mood, the desire to indulge in a guaranteed pleasure, or frustration at not finding anything new that they like. I reread two books that I would count as favourites recently, each for different reasons.

As a writer, reading a book that is brilliantly written can be a risky business, as the skill on display can make you want to give up there and then. Other times, the presence of such talent can be so exciting and inspiring that I have to stop reading in order to jot down ideas. Both of these books remind me why it is worth the effort of writing, and trying to improve, in the hope that something even a tenth as good will come out.

The first is The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. This book is my equivalent of a well-worn DVD box set. It demonstrates the kind of writing that is so good you forget that it’s there, and instead enter the world beyond the words. It is long, so can be read for hours at a time, and knowing how it ends takes nothing away from the narrative. It slides effortlessly back and forth in time, following three female friends as their lives are wrecked by the ultimate calculating femme fatale.

It is a book about recovery, really, and how friends can help a person accommodate calamity into the narrative of life. Or at least it bears that reading, being rich in themes that characterise several of Margaret Atwood’s earlier novels to do with self, womanhood, and fitting into a world that doesn’t seem to fit you. I read it greedily, wallowing in the three lead characters and letting them feed me the way they feed each other with defiance and black humour and love.

Occasionally, when I can bring myself to slow down, I notice the deftness of expression, the choice of words and of omissions, and the way the reader can gradually see over the heads of the characters and recognise the fault lines in their versions of their lives. It is rich in humanity, and provides desolation and warmth in equal measure.

The second is Pollard, by Laura Beatty. There is no female solidarity in this book, though plenty of defiance in the face of an unfriendly world. Instead of humanity, it revels in the beauty of nature, as a girl who is a mental and physical misfit in the conventional world attempts to survive alone in the woods.

Her success in doing so, even temporarily, brings an irresistible sense of relief at the achievement of an underdog, but it is the writing about woodland that makes reading this such an intense experience of beauty. It makes me want to run out into the wildest parts of Epping forest and set up camp immediately, but also I turn to my notebook, feeling validated as I indulge in description.

Laura Beatty does it so cleverly though, keeping her description simple in a way that befits her central character, who starts out with no names for flowers or knowledge of bird calls. She is never smug in her understanding of woods in the way some nature writers can be about their subjects.

So, two sort-of favourite books that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone but which I know I will read again and again for many years, in the hope that some of the shine will rub off onto my own writing.