Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Writing

Halloween horror tale

Tuesday, 31 October, 2017 0 Comments

Five werewolves came down from the cold North at the end of October. Old wily werewolf sniffed the fallen leaves and filtered their decay for a scent of humanity blown through by the recent storms. His younger mate lazily curled back her lips, exposing eager fangs, and looked back at the three cubs, their yellow-gold eyes filled with soullessness.

“Well,” she said, a note of impatience in her whine. “What did you find?”

Old wily werewolf stared into the dark, paused, and then spoke.

“I found hints of smoke and toast and traces of rosemary,” he said. “There was an unmistakable aroma of peat and aged birch and, if I’m not very much mistaken, bacon.”

The last word sent a jolt though his pack and they began to bark at the Hunter’s moon.

“Shut up!” he snarled. “Listen.”

“Listen to what?” the cubs cried in unison.

“Listen to me,” old wily werewolf commanded. “I have a plan.”

And he explained that the scents told him a story of an old woman living alone, just a night’s run from where they lay. She would be eager for company and the sound of three hungry cubs outside her door would evoke a natural empathy. From what he knew of human nature, she’d adopt and feed them, and then wily werewolf and his wife would slope by and kill her.

“And can we chew on the bones?” the cubs queried, their yellow-gold eyes now filled with psychopathic love.

“Certainly, lads,” said their mother. “And we can all live in her cosy house for the rest of our lives.” Together, they raised their faces to the sky and howled with joy.

Down the valley, the old woman had just finished her prayers beside the fireplace when the wind carried the werewolf voices down the chimney. “A hungry family by the sound of it,” she said aloud to the empty room, “I have just what they need.” So she got up, her back aching with the labour of almost nine decades, and began to take down the werewolf traps from the wall. Three small ones, and two big ones.

Halloween horror


The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro

Thursday, 5 October, 2017 0 Comments

“All I know is that I’ve wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I’d get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don’t want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow’s sky. That’s what I want now, and I think it’s what you should want too. But it will be too late soon. We’ll become too set to change. If we don’t take our chance now, another may never come for either of us.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro


Gatsby and the greatest of all dreams

Sunday, 20 August, 2017 0 Comments

Our annual mid-August tradition of re-reading The Great Gatsby starts today. The custom began some 30 years ago during a magical mid-August holiday on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York”. In nine short chapters, he captured an era and Long Island’s appeal for the hedonistic and the nostalgic. This paragraph is immortal:

“The old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In the novel’s barely 50,000 words, Fitzgerald gave Americans an enduring meditation on their country’s most central ideas, visions and obsessions: the quest for a new life, the hunger for wealth and those “last and greatest of all human dreams.”


The road-side dog

Monday, 14 August, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 2004, Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet, writer, translator, diplomat and Nobel Literature Prize winner, died in Kraków. He spent his life crossing borders and he wrote about the cruelty and beauty of this world in a language that ranged from the furious to the elegiac:

“I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night — I don’t know where it came from — in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.”

Coppers


Fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, 15 June, 2017 0 Comments

In June 1967, a newly-published novel began with this immortal sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Since then, more than 50 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez have been sold and the original Spanish version (Cien años de soledad) has been translated into 37 languages. García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and his novel became synonymous with Latin America’s “magic realism.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Argentina’s Sudamericana Press printed the first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which García Márquez had intended to call The House. The book’s epiphany had occurred two years earlier during a road trip across Mexico. In January 1965, García Márquez was driving to Acapulco and when he reached Cuernavaca — 86 kilometres south of Mexico City — he suddenly stopped the car. Aged 38, he had already written four books, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, which had been simmering in his subconscious since the early 1950s had erupted. The novel was, he said, “so ripe that I could have dictated the first chapter — word by word — to a typist.”

Gripped by a creative fever, he returned at once to Mexico City, sat down in front of his Smith Corona typewriter and wrote for 18 months from 9am to 3pm every day while his wife Mercedes worked to pay the bills. García Márquez had smoked 30,000 cigarettes before he typed the final full stop, and after receiving the first printed copy from Sudamericana, he destroyed his original manuscript so, as he said, “nobody would be able know either the secret tricks or the carpentry of his writing.” He spared the galley proofs, however, on which he had made 1,026 corrections and changes to the text.

The English translation was published 1970 and in his New York Times review, Robert Kiely summed it up like this: “It is not easy to describe the techniques and themes of the book without making it sound absurdly complicated, labored and almost impossible to read. In fact, it is none of these things. Though concocted of quirks, ancient mysteries, family secrets and peculiar contradictions, it makes sense and gives pleasure in dozens of immediate ways.”

Two things: No film has been made of the novel. García Márquez wouldn’t permit it. It’s “unfilmable,” he said. Second: The novel’s last message echoes: “…races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”


The Dragon Teeth of Michael Crichton

Tuesday, 23 May, 2017 0 Comments

The brilliant American author Michael Crichton died in 2008, suddenly and much too young, but his work has assumed a life of its own. A new novel, Dragon Teeth, based on an original Crichton manuscript, is being published posthumously today. Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth follows two palaeontologists hunting for dinosaur fossils in the Wild West — and trying to sabotage each other’s work in the process. Excerpt:

Introduction

As he appears in an early photograph, William Johnson is a handsome young man with a crooked smile and a naive grin. A study in slouching indifference, he lounges against a Gothic building. He is a tall fellow, but his height appears irrelevant to his presentation of himself. The photograph is dated “New Haven, 1875,” and was apparently taken after he had left home to begin studies as an undergraduate at Yale College.

A later photograph, marked “Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1876,” shows Johnson quite differently. His mouth is framed by a full moustache; his body is harder and enlarged by use; his jaw is set; he stands confidently with shoulders squared and feet wide — and ankle-deep in mud. Clearly visible is a peculiar scar on his upper lip, which in later years he claimed was the result of an Indian attack.

The following story tells what happened between the two pictures.

For the journals and notebooks of William Johnson, I am indebted to the estate of W. J. T. Johnson, and particularly to Johnson’s great-niece, Emily Silliman, who permitted me to quote extensively from the unpublished material. (Much of the factual contents of Johnson’s accounts found their way into print in 1890, during the fierce battles for priority between Cope and Marsh, which finally involved the U.S. government. But the text itself, or even excerpts, was never published, until now.)

Dragon Teeth

PART I

THE FIELD TRIP WEST

Young Johnson Joins the Field Trip West

William Jason Tertullius Johnson, the elder son of Philadelphia shipbuilder Silas Johnson, entered Yale College in the fall of 1875. According to his headmaster at Exeter, Johnson was “gifted, attractive, athletic and able. But the headmaster added that Johnson was “headstrong, indolent and badly spoilt, with a notable indifference to any motive save his own pleasures. Unless he finds a purpose to his life, he risks unseemly decline into indolence and vice.”

Those words could have served as the description of a thousand young men in late nineteenth-century America, young men with intimidating, dynamic fathers, large quantities of money, and no particular way to pass the time.

William Johnson fulfilled his headmaster’s prediction during his first year at Yale. He was placed on probation in November for gambling, and again in February after an incident involving heavy drinking and the smashing of a New Haven merchant’s window. Silas Johnson paid the bill. Despite such reckless behavior, Johnson remained courtly and even shy with women of his own age, for he had yet to have any luck with them. For their part, they found reason to seek his attention, their formal upbringings notwithstanding. In all other respects, however, he remained unrepentant. Early that spring, on a sunny afternoon, Johnson wrecked his roommate’s yacht, running it aground on Long Island Sound. The boat sank within minutes; Johnson was rescued by a passing trawler; asked what happened, he admitted to the incredulous fishermen that he did not know how to sail because it would be “so utterly tedious to learn. And anyway, it looks simple enough.” Confronted by his roommate, Johnson admitted he had not asked permission to use the yacht because “it was such bother to find you.”

Faced with the bill for the lost yacht, Johnson’s father complained to his friends that “the cost of educating a young gentleman at Yale these days is ruinously expensive.” His father was the serious son of a Scottish immigrant, and took some pains to conceal the excesses of his offspring; in his letters, he repeatedly urged William to find a purpose in life. But William seemed content with his spoiled frivolity, and when he announced his intention to spend the coming summer in Europe, “the prospect,” said his father, “fills me with direst fiscal dread.”

Thus his family was surprised when William Johnson abruptly decided to go west during the summer of 1876. Johnson never publicly explained why he had changed his mind. But those close to him at Yale knew the reason. He had decided to go west because of a bet.

In his own words, from the journal he scrupulously kept:

Every young man probably has an arch-rival at some point in his life, and in my first year at Yale, I had mine. Harold Hannibal Marlin was my own age, eighteen. He was handsome, athletic, well-spoken, soaking rich, and he was from New York, which he considered superior to Philadelphia in every respect. I found him insufferable. The sentiment was returned in kind.

Marlin and I competed in every arena — in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the undergraduate pranks of the night. Nothing would exist but that we would compete over it. We argued incessantly, always taking the opposing view from the other.

One night at dinner he said that the future of America lay in the developing West. I said it didn’t, that the future of our great nation could hardly rest on a vast desert populated by savage aboriginal tribes.

He replied I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I hadn’t been there. This was a sore point — Marlin had actually been to the West, at least as far as Kansas City, where his brother lived, and he never failed to express his superiority in this matter of travel.

I had never succeeded in neutralizing it.

“Going west is no shakes. Any fool can go,” I said.

“But all fools haven’t gone — at least you haven’t.”

“I’ve never had the least desire to go,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Hannibal Marlin replied, checking to see that the others were listening. “I think you’re afraid.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Oh yes. A nice trip to Europe’s more your way of things.”

“Europe? Europe is for old people and dusty scholars.”

“Mark my word, you’ll tour Europe this summer, perhaps with a parasol.”

“And if I do go, that doesn’t mean —”

“Ah hah! You see?” Marlin turned to address the assembled table. “Afraid. Afraid.” He smiled in a knowing, patronizing way that made me hate him and left me no choice.

“As a matter of fact,” I said coolly, “I am already determined on a trip in the West this summer.”

That caught him by surprise; the smug smile froze on his face. “Oh?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am going with Professor Marsh. He takes a group of students with him each summer.” There had been an advertisement in the paper the previous week; I vaguely remembered it.

“What? Fat old Marsh? The bone professor?”

“That’s right.”

“You’re going with Marsh? Accommodations for his group are Spartan, and they say he works the boys unmercifully. It doesn’t seem your line of things at all.” His eyes narrowed. “When do you leave?”

“He hasn’t told us the date yet.”

Marlin smiled. “You’ve never laid eyes on Professor Marsh, and you’ll never go with him.”

“I will.”

“You won’t.”

“I tell you, it’s already decided.”

Marlin sighed in his patronizing way. “I have a thousand dollars that says you will not go.”

Marlin had been losing the attention of the table, but he got it back with that one. A thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1876, even from one rich boy to another.

“A thousand dollars says you won’t go west with Marsh this summer,” Marlin repeated.

“You, sir, have made a wager,” I replied. And in that moment I realized that, through no fault of my own, I would now spend the entire summer in some ghastly hot desert in the company of a known lunatic, digging up old bones.


The dreary quarrels of Northern Ireland re-emerge

Wednesday, 11 January, 2017 0 Comments

In a time of global turbulence, when we should be focused on issues that will affect stability and prosperity, Northern Ireland threatens to divert attention with a crisis fueled by, well, fuel, and headlined “Cash for Ash”. The bizarre Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is exposing the old tribal antagonisms and the brittle peace is endangered. Nothing new, however. Let us pause for a moment and go back a century to Winston Churchill describing the aftermath of World War I:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

High Dive The integrity of that quarrel is central to the latest novel by Jonathan Lee. High Dive centres on an event that took place at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984. Then, the Provisional IRA terrorists group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed including a Conservative MP, and 31 were injured, by the long-delay time bomb planted in the hotel by the IRA.

Jonathan Lee’s book doesn’t offer an analysis of violent Irish republicanism or Tory party politics, but it excels in describing the particulars of the English hospitality trade. Lee, like so many members of the writing class, harbours some sympathy for the “rebels”, but the reader should be aware that the characters in his novel are no idealists. More than three decades after the Brighton bombing, the antagonists of Northern Ireland have turned their dreary, squalid feud into an industry that supplies their claques with cash from ash and other combustibles. The integrity of their quarrel is endless.


Book of the Year: Conclave

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016 0 Comments

With Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, Robert Harris explained ancient Rome to an intrigued modern world. Now, he does it the same for the Vatican with Conclave.

As its title suggests, the novel is about a papal conclave. This one takes place sometime in a near future where the pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to elect his successor. All the classic elements of the English mystery novel format are here: a locked room, intrigue, rivalries, enmities, sex (!) and a surprise ending. Robert Harris writes about power, secular and religious, with an insight that places him beyond all his peers, and that’s why Conclave is our Book of the Year.

At the end of the aisle, where the nave gave on to the cupola of the dome, they had to pause beside Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus, close to where the choir was singing, and wait while the last few pairs of cardinals filed up the steps to kiss the central altar and descended again. Only when this elaborate manoeuvre had been completed was Lomeli himself cleared to walk around to the rear of the altar. He bowed towards it. Epifano stepped forward and took away the crozier and gave it to an altar boy. Then he lifted the mitre from Lomeli’s head, folded it, and handed it to a second acolyte. Out of habit, Lomeli touched his skullcap to check it was in place.

Together he and Epifano climbed the seven wide carpeted steps to the altar. Lomeli bowed again and kissed the white cloth. He straightened and rolled back the sleeves of his chasuble as if he were about to wash his hands. He took the silver thurible of burning coals and incense from its bearer and swung it by its chain over the altar—seven times on this side, and then, walking round, a separate censing on each of the other three. The sweet-smelling smoke evoked feelings beyond memory. Out of the corner of his eye he saw dark-suited figures moving his throne into position. He gave back the thurible, bowed again and allowed himself to be conducted round to the front of the altar. An altar boy held up the missal, opened to the correct page; another extended a microphone on a pole.

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and intoned in a wavering plainsong, amplified around the basilica:

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti . . .”
And from the colossal congregation arose the murmured sung response:
“Amen.”
He raised his hands in benediction and chanted again, extending the three syllables into half a dozen:
“Pa-a-x vob-i-is.”
And they responded:
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
He had begun.

Conclave


Short stories by Truman Capote

Tuesday, 6 December, 2016 0 Comments

“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.” In 1957, Patti Hill sat down with Truman Capote and the Paris Review interview was presented as “Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17.” What shines through is Capote’s appreciation of the short story format: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.”

Along with the short story, Capote was obsessed with the weight of the semicolon:

“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.”


Churchill on brevity

Thursday, 1 December, 2016 0 Comments

The great Winston Churchill was born on this day in 1874. He was the nemesis of Hitler, a champion of “the short expressive phrase” and an opponent of “the flat surface of officialese jargon.” This is the writing advice he sent to his officials on 9 August 1940, while engaged in the business of saving Western Civilization from its enemies.

Churchill writing advice


The past of William Trevor

Tuesday, 22 November, 2016 0 Comments

For William Trevor, who died yesterday, there was just one tense: the past. The present, he believed, was too instantaneous to describe, while the future was unknowable. It was the past, and only the past that could be assessed and reviewed and put in perspective.

“A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.” — William Trevor

William Trevor