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The Canberra Times reviews 'I'm Ready Now' - wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

The Canberra Times reviews ‘I’m Ready Now’ – wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

Beneath everything that’s been going on – finding a way of paying the bills, covering the cracks that have been appearing in the walls, the death of a divisive UK matriarch, the barrage of daily emails, dodging kangaroos – there’s been a simmering story: how is I’m Ready Now faring in the rapidly shrinking world of literary reviews?

For an excellent but sobering analysis of the current book-review situation in Australia have a read of ‘Parallel Fates’ by Sybil Nolan and Matthew Ricketson, which was recently published in the new and much-needed Sydney Review of Books.  I’m just eternally grateful that I’m Ready Now, a story about two difficult people making difficult decisions, a novella by a regional writer and published by an independent press, has managed to be reviewed at all, first in BMA Magazine, then Whispering Gums, and now The Canberra Times.

As ‘Parallel Fates’ makes clear, book reviews are extraordinarily important: they provide a thoughtful, dispassionate and contextual critique of a writer’s work; they offer advice and feedback to a publisher; and they help connect books with readers.  Without book reviews, especially the articulate, erudite and fearless kind, there can be no viable literary culture – writing is as much about response and contribution as it is about creation.  They can also help to toughen writers, who are, no doubt, innately sensitive souls, and they help to educate readers, encouraging the broadening of interests.  The book pages, however, particularly those in the mainstream press, appear to be dwindling.

But what of the review in The Canberra Times – is it any good?

Well, it does have this to say:

Writing novellas might seem a little anachronistic or studied, a bit like playing the harp, say, reading Henry James, or listening to LPs. In Featherstone’s hands, though, the novella form becomes an opportunity for concise, intense, concentrated emotion. For him, 156 pages are plenty to introduce plot twists, to give characters depth and feeling, to juxtapose emotions, and to colour his settings with textured, intriguing detail (Mark Thomas)

Which is very generous and resulted in the drinking of wine.  Lots of wine.  Far too much.  And a hangover the size of a bastard country.

In other I’m Ready Now news, Blemish Books has produced a podcast of me reading a short (3-minute) extract, there’s an interview I did with ArtSound FM, and if you’re in a book club you may be interested in the reading notes that have recently been made available and the associated discount offer.  So the good ship I’m Ready Now, skippered by the tireless Blemish folk, keeps sailing despite some challenging seas, and here’s hoping that the wind remains in the sails for a little while longer.

As always, thanks to everyone who’s said a kind and supportive word – I appreciate it very much.

Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

Recently, while reading a review of a famous ex-pat Australian novelist’s latest masterwork, I came across a reference to Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. Now, I haven’t read James’ novel, which may well be a crime, but it did get me thinking.  If there was a novel called What Nigel Knew, what exactly would be in it?  I considered the question, but after an hour of pacing up and down, all I had was a six-foot high pile of notes on things that I might know but couldn’t be absolutely sure.  So I set myself a challenge: by the end of the day I was to identify just three pieces of knowledge in which I have complete and utter confidence.

Thankfully, I came up with the goods.

1. When feeling blue, plant something.  If you find yourself in a bit of a funk, go outside, get a pot, terracotta’s the best, get some soil, put the soil in the pot, get a plant, put the plant in the pot, pat the soil down, then give the plant some water.  When all is done I guarantee you’ll feel better, everything with the world – and I do mean everything – will be alright.  And just so you know that I walk the talk, I did this last Tuesday, when I found myself concluding that I may never be as good a writer as, say, a certain famous ex-pat Australian novelist.

2. The first cold day of winter is always a treat.  This is true.  When you’ve woken to the great, still sky, when you’ve put on your ugg boots and gone to get the paper, your breath’s ghosting in front of you, and the paper is dusted with frost.  Then, back in the house, you switch on the heater and fill the loungeroom with the smell of burning dust.  Despite the heater staying on for hours, you still have to get out your grandmother’s mohair throw so you can do your usual weekend thing of spending hours on the couch, beside you a plunger of coffee and a packet of Caramel Crèmes, and you get lost in, well, a famous ex-pat Australian novelist’s latest master work.  It’s just bliss.  (Special Note: should they occur on the same day, Knowledge Item No. 2 is outweighed by Knowledge Item No. 3, which is below.)

3. Sunday afternoons are melancholic.  This is an irrefutable fact.  As soon as 3pm Sunday hits, the glums start rolling in.  Now, for me, I’m happy to report that the Late Sabbath Day Sadness hasn’t anything to do with the proximity to five consecutive days of work – I get to spend my days in the arts and you won’t find me complaining about that.  It’s just that this time of the week makes me feel as if I’m the lovechild of Winston Churchill and Leo Tolstoy, which isn’t a good thing.  No amount of dog walking, lap swimming and/or Tai chi yogalates will get rid of the feeling.  Tomorrow I’ll just have to remember Knowledge Item No. 1, and put it into practice.  Again.

At the ripe old age of thirty-nine and a half, this is what Nigel knows.  It’s not much, certainly not enough to fill a novel.

In fact, it’s barely enough for a column in a newspaper.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, February 16 2008)

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