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One of the best things about hitting the Roaring Forties is becoming more and more comfortable about the things that I don’t like, or don’t understand, and being completely and utterly open about it.  Whilst I’ll defend to the hilt for these things to exist, I’m no fan of opera, I don’t like traditional country music (Johnny Cash is as far as I can get in that direction, and even then it’s only when he’s covering contemporary songs), and, well, uncooked celery is just plain wrong.  However, one part of the arts that I’ve never liked or understood is dear old William Shakespeare, which is a little problematic for someone who loves putting words together to make sentences and paragraphs, to tell stories in the written form.

Every year or so I take myself to see some Shakespeare production or other, thinking it will be this time that I’ll get it, a light will come on, and, as if I was blind but could now see, I’d get what all the fuss is about.  And there is a heck of a lot of fuss about this bloke – can anyone think of a more revered writer in the English language?  Except, for me, no lights come on; I don’t discover any kind of insight.  Five minutes into the production I’m lost: I can’t follow which character is trying to screw over which other character, and quite frankly I don’t care who’s about to kick the bucket.  And all the supposedly brilliant words rush from the stage as if trying to escape from the actors’ mouths.  I can do nothing but hurriedly retreat to my happy place, which is either sitting on the couch with He Who Also Can’t Stand The Bard and knocking off a bottle of Verdelho, or recalling sepia-toned images of a village in the Blue Mountains that’s so special to me I won’t even share its name.

Not long ago, after yet another disastrous Shakespeare sojourn, a friend emailed me an article titled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ written by George Orwell in 1947.  Orwell tries to develop an argument against a ‘pamphlet’ (which I’m assuming is some kind of prehistoric blog post) written by Leo Tolstoy in 1903 in which the Russian literary giant quite summarily heaps so much scorn on Shakespeare that it makes for hilarious reading.

Here are some of the tastiest bits.

Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in him ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’.  Conscious that the opinion of the civilised world is against him, he has made one attempt after another on Shakespeare’s works, reading and re-reading them in Russian, English and German, but ‘I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’.  Now at the age of seventy-five, he has once again re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, including the historical plays and ‘I have felt with an even greater force, the same feelings – this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits – thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding – is a great evil, as is every untruth.

In case you’re wondering when Tolstoy will actually form an opinion on the matter, Orwell goes on to report, Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Leo Tolstoy: possibly not the most easy-going chap that's ever existed.

Although Orwell tries his hardest to pick a fight with Tolstoy, he does find points of agreement.  For example, Orwell states that Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with ‘a purpose’…It is perfectly possible that he looked on at least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about purpose or probability so as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on stage. Furthermore – and I really like this bit – [Shakespeare] was noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular opinions.  Almost never does he put a subversive or sceptical remark into the mouth of a character likely to be identified with himself.  Throughout his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are shamming insanity or in a state of violent hysteria.

Orwell, however, still concludes, [The] most striking thing is how little difference it all [meaning Tolstoy’s bloody brilliant tirade] makes.  One cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts.  There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.  It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.  And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must by ‘not guilty’.  Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him.  Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least pamphleteer.  He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously.  And with what result?  Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly any has read.

Except, thanks to the internet and a learned friend, Tolstoy’s pamphlet has informed at least this humble little blogger and made him very, very happy indeed.  All I can say is, thank God for Leo Tolstoy, for being the great big literary punk that he is, and for making me feel so damn good about not getting the Old Bard, for not liking what the man wrote, for wanting to run a mile whenever a Shakespeare play starts.

Of course, I say again that I’ll fervently defend the right for anyone to put on a Shakespeare play, but, for me, in terms of actually sitting in the audience, I’d rather spend the evening hacking out my eyeballs with a rusty nail.

Or read The Death of Ivan Ilyich over and over.

What can be said about endings that hasn’t been said before (and by endings I don’t mean the last sentence of a story, or the final frame of a film, or a person’s back-side, although perhaps I am, we’ll see)?  All good things must come to an end?  One door closes, while another opens?  What starts must finish?  Clichés, the lot of it, except, of course, in every cliché there’s a grain of truth, which in itself is a cliché, but let’s stop there or else we’re going to get stuck in a dreadful brain-porn cycle.

All I really want to say is that a month ago I came to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, Tasmania, to write, as well as give some workshops, which I’ve enjoyed immensely, so thanks so much if you attended one of the sessions and are reading this.

And write I have, though that’s secret scribe’s business.

Now I’m done.  It’s over.

I’m not sure when I’ll come back to Tasmania – there’s one heck of a large world out there, with lots of residency programs to which I might apply.  Eek, the thought of going on another residency in the near future…well, it’s too soon to be talking about going away again to write.  That’s the future, and this post is about endings, going home, being with He Who Stayed At Home, and the Old Lady of The House, and Cat the Ripper.

To get myself and you, dear reader, on our collective way, I’ve channelled some wisdom from people who seem to know about the whole home caper, and I thought I’d share it with you – see below.

We’ll talk again when I’m snug in my own home, in my own bed, in my own study, with my own books and CDs and LPs, in my own good old flawed life.

Home is where you hang your head. Groucho Marx

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. Matsuo Basho

When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticise or attack the government of my own country.  I make up for lost time when I come home. Winston Churchill

I never worry about being driven to drink; I just worry about being driven home. W.C. Fields

Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale. Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Home is where one starts from. T.S. Eliot

An unexpectedly intriguing aspect of blogging is the opportunity to see how it all operates behind the scenes.  With a click of your mouse on the button that says ‘My Dashboard’, you are privy to the deep, dark workings of the on-line machine.  It is like being able to see the strings that hold up a puppet show, or visiting the Ghost Train ride when they’re doing maintenance.  On offer are oodles of stats – visits per day, week, year, ever.  You can see all the sites that are referring internet surfers to yours.  But the real delight is being able to view what people around the world are typing into search engines to inadvertently find their way to you.

To get to my blog-shaped home, people have made the funniest searches, for example ‘In what year did Tony Abbott get merried?’  Yes, ‘merried’.  Was an over-worked journalist writing a character sketch of the current leader of the Opposition but slipped a finger?  Or maybe a cheeky internet sleuth was wondering about when this prominently fit Australian man last got himself inebriated on the sauce?  The fact is we can only imagine the scenario, and there’s much joy in that.

Some searches are straight-out bizarre, for example ‘Every city has a sex quote’ (really? I’d not noticed), while others are just plain worrying, such as ‘Asian pop degrading nationalism’, which could end up as a PhD thesis for someone brave enough to give it a go.  And ‘pretty brain’ – was that typed in by Hannibal Lecter?  One of the more disquieting searches that have turned up on my site is ‘what women really should look like’.  Frankly, if you need to ask Google that question you probably need more help than the internet.

But I’m being unnecessarily cruel.  The most interesting search-engine references are the saddest.  To reach my blog, people have done a search on ‘holding hands’ (did they need to know how to perform this particular action?), and the rather terrifying ‘last hours living’.  But the one that stuck in my throat was this: ‘true love is not for me’.  It’s rather final, isn’t it.  Of course, these might be half-remembered song lyrics or lines of poetry or even titles of books, but what if they aren’t?  What if someone really did want to know how to hold hands, or how to live the last hours of their life?  What if someone really had decided that true love wasn’t for them, and they only wanted to let someone know?

Having shared this with you, I should admit these references wouldn’t be ending up at my blog if a search engine wasn’t linking it to something I’d written and posted – a battalion of Google-type technologies was matching my written words with someone’s desire for information, or answers, or the truth.  So it could be just a case of my thoughts coming back to haunt me through the endless electronic fog that is the internet.  Is it a cyber mirror to my life?  Perhaps when posting on-line I am calling into the void, and days, weeks, months later, an echo finds me.  Yes, perhaps.  Though I should be very clear with you about something: I have never once wondered about the year that Tony Abbott got merried.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 8 May 2010.  The wonderful illustration by Michael Mucci originally appeared in conjunction with ‘Bloggers Unplugged’, first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010 and can be found here; this article was then magically posted and can be found in this little e-loft.)

‘In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.’

Robert Frost

The last time I was on a residency, a year ago at Bundanon in New South Wales, I put up an A4-sized sign above my desk – BE BRAVE.  A high-end publisher had given me that advice a week before and I made sure to take it with me down to the Shoalhaven.  Whenever I struggled, I looked up, saw the sign, and then I was brave.  At least, I tried to be.  I have the same sign with me here at Cataract Gorge: it’s just there, on the wall, a metre away from where I’m writing this post (still by hand, would you believe; I’m sticking to my guns).

Bravery seems to be the theme of the week.

Most days in this place young boys or men strap themselves high up to the Gorge cliffs and abseil their lives away.  Sometimes they stop mid-fall, steady themselves, put out their arms and have a photo taken by their friends back up the cliff – should the rope break, or the equipment fail, they’d smash their bodies open on the rocks below.

Every evening, Launceston joggers – men and women – plug themselves into their i-Pods and send their bodies up one side of the Gorge and down the other, across and through and around and over the duckboards, boardwalks, catwalks, even along a suspension bridge that makes you feel drunk just by looking at it.  I scared the living crap out of one of these folk last night, when, wearing my black jeans and black hoodie and black jacket, I rounded a corner and almost ran into a guy.  He stopped, put his hand to his heart, and said, ‘Bloody hell, it’s a bit dark here, eh?’  He meant, of course, I’m sure you were about to stab me with a flick-knife, you bastard.

In summer, apparently, Lonnie boys throw themselves off the Kings Bridge (pictured above, at dawn) and dive or drop or flop or crash into the liquid, silty mud that makes for water at this the Gorge end of the river.

I think I’d rather listen to The Smiths.

As hoity and literary and – quite frankly – wanky as it may sound, I’m having a Grim As Buggery Short Fiction Festival while I’m here in Launceston.  The head-lining acts are the Grand Reapers of Grim-ness, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Australia’s own Nam Le (who can actually be very funny, but that’s beside the point).

In Tolstoy’s short story ‘The Raid’, his main character, a civilian who’s curious about war, says, ‘I remembered that Plato had defined bravery as the knowledge of what should and what should not be feared ‘ [and] wanted to explain my idea to the captain.  ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it seems to me that to every danger there is a choice, and the choice that springs from a sense of duty, for example, is courage, while a choice made under the influence of base feelings is cowardice.  Henceforth, the man who risks his life from vanity, curiosity or greed cannot be called brave.  Conversely, the man who avoids danger from an honest sense of responsibility to his family, or simply out of conviction, cannot be called a coward.’’

Today, am I brave or cowardly?

Would I dive off the Kings Bridge?  No.

Would I run around Cataract Gorge at night?  No, I wouldn’t.

Would I abseil down the rocks and stop to pose for a photo?  No, is the answer to that as well.

But good characters must do all these things, and more.

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