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Bellini's 'St Francis in Ecstasy'

I have no idea why, perhaps I’m currently in a particularly good – or even great – patch, or it could be because at last the Australian summer has kicked in, but I’ve been thinking a lot about ecstasy, not the drug (except it’s impossible not to think about the drug in this context), rather those moments, or periods, of real, pure, unadulterated enjoyment, because they do happen, they can actually occur in our lives.

Last year I wrote a post about the ordinary type of ecstasy, those little moments of bliss, such as drinking a glass of freshly poured cold water in bed just before turning out the light, or finding yourself feeling as free as ever when on a push-bike.  This time, however, I’m interested in the bigger, more expansive events, those ones that can well and truly knock us for a six.

It’s a strange word, this ‘ecstasy’.

My trusty 1992 edition of the Oxford has it as ‘an overwhelming feeling of joy, rapture’, adding that it comes from the Greek ‘ekstasis’, meaning ‘standing outside oneself’, which is rather lovely, if only it were possible, and perhaps it is.  My 1932 Pears’ Cyclopedia doesn’t actually know the word ecstasy, just ‘ecstatic’, which it defines as ‘rapturous’.  My 1976 Roget’s (yes, these dates are important, if you were wondering) heads towards the slightly more level-headed world of ‘gratification, delectation, relish, zest, gusto’, and, quite strangely, ‘kick’, but then the more lively ‘bed of roses’, ‘bed of down’ (which I love, both the idea and the actual thing), and the totally sexy ‘velvet’, before far-too-swiftly moving on to ‘pain: suffering’, which is a bit of a cold shower, it has to be said.

Back to where we were: rapture.

Here goes a list.  Discounting a small (sweaty, and potentially stupid) handful of chemically assisted midnight hours of bliss, I have felt an overwhelming feeling of joy when:

  • being a boy and falling in love with other boys
  • sharing the most intimate moments with a certain long-term man
  • sun-baking naked when reading, or not reading
  • being informed that something I’d written was going to appear in print, as in on real pages
  • listening to a record and slowly but surely realising that it’s becoming very, very important to me.

But now, inexplicably, I find myself thinking of those minutes and hours after a funeral, when it seems perspective has been turned on its head, when we may well be outside of ourselves.

This could be ecstasy, too.

There will be an art

of the future

and it will be so lovely

and beautiful

that we’ll give up our youth

for it but will surely gain serenity.

– Vincent van Gogh,

as quoted by Australian pop-art guru

Martin Sharp

She is here

for you

and me


she can.

For the last few days – these slow, almost alcoholic summer days – I’ve had on my dining table a pile of books, the books I’ve read in the past year.  There are not many books in the pile, just fifteen in total, which isn’t much more than one book per month.  It’s a busy life and this pile, so it seems, is all that I can manage.  Of the fifteen books, twelve are fiction; there are three books of short stories; there is only one poetry collection, though in the pile is an essay by a poet, the same poet who wrote the collection.  Seven of the books were written by Australians; only three of the books were written by women – two of them by the same woman, actually, the poet.

How I’ve loved having this tower of books on view!  What worlds I’ve explored in the last twelve months!

Why, however, is the pile of books on my dining table in the first place?  Because it’s good, good as in telling, to review the year’s reading.  When I scan the covers, which make my heart skip a beat?

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson was a completely edifying non-fiction read about a man who inherits a castle but then takes on the National Trust as he tries to return the estate to how he remembers it being when he was a child.  No, it doesn’t sound much, does it, but ultimately it’s an exploration of place and belonging, and if there are two words I adore they are place and belonging.  Into the bargain is the fact that Nicolson writes beautifully, which is handy because his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.

The late Dorothy Porter’s Love Poems is an exhilarating collection of poems about love, desire, passion and obsession, the bliss, the poison, the sheer dangerous drug of it all.  But this isn’t love poetry that could find its way into greeting cards, oh no, it’s not that.  Try this on for size: ‘There’s a white-blue nerve burning/across my night sky/I wish it hurt to watch/because then/I might stop’ (Comets 1).  Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, check out Love Poems. Please do.  You might find yourself in love, or lust.  If only with words.

Two other books that really did it for me are story collections from Tolstoy and Chekhov (which makes me sound dreadfully literary and stuffy and tweed, but I can only tell the truth): The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 respectively.  The sparse, intense and – yes – grim realism from these Russians can be breathtaking, and just a little humbling.  Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ is a good example of how short stories can achieve so much; the ending in particular is extraordinary, and really it’s just ink on paper.

Speaking of short stories, I finally read Nam Le’s The Boat, and it lived up to the hype, which is always a relief.  ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which I’d already read in the Australian journal Overland, is one of the best contemporary short stories I’ve experienced in years.  Oh bugger it, it is the best.  And many of the others are very nearly as good, including the title story, which should be required reading for all Australians, especially at Christmas time.  In this collection, Nam Le displays such a wide range of themes and styles that it’s almost unbelievable that this is the work of one person.  Clearly a very good book by a writer a lot of people will be watching.  Australia’s Franzen perhaps?

However, the two books of 2010 that truly moved me were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (yes, I’m a little late getting to this) and The Lakewoman by Alan Gould.

I read Capote’s monumental work on the way to spend a month in Tasmania, which is rather apt considering that island’s terrible penal history, and I was overwhelmed by the author’s control of his material, the depth to which he plummets the characters and their situations in order to unearth the core of the tale, and the startling qualities of the prose.  How’s this for a final sentence: ‘Then, starting home, he walked towards the trees, and under them, leaving behind the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’.  Ah the weight – and sheer life – of poetry.  A bold, important book that appears not to have aged one bit.

Speaking of poetry, Alan Gould is a wizard of the craft and he brings this wizardry to his ‘romance’ (his term, or at least his publisher’s) about an Australian soldier who parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields.  Whilst magical, The Lake Woman is not magic realism, and I gobbled up the last third of the novel in one sitting.  A full box of tissues needed to have been on standby.  Not only was it the story that got me in the gut, it was the quality of the sentences, each and every one of them giving the reader something to savour.   If you’re looking for a love story with depth and intelligence and written by a master of the English language, do hunt down this book.  Stealing it from the grannie on the train-seat next to you would be justifiable.

So there it is: the best of my year of reading.  What the dining-table pile says to me is that, yes, what wonderful worlds I’ve experienced in the last twelve months, and without these worlds, and without the music I listen to (music which, in its own strange way, can augment these worlds), life would be bereft of much of its meaning, worthless even.

Bring on the new worlds!

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