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Tag: writing

Jim Martin RIP

Wednesday, 16 May, 2018

On Saturday, in Munich, in the presence of those who loved him, Jim Martin died. He was an American, a pilot, an author, a bon vivant who loved the pleasures of France, a writer who was fascinated by Bavarian tradition and German history, a democrat in the broadest sense and a Democrat in the votary sense who enjoyed hosting a monthly salon where politics and wine were mixed with humour and hospitality. Our sincerest sympathy goes out to Winni and all the family.

Back in 2012, Jim was so dismayed by the decision of the Pulitzer Prize board to withhold its annual award for fiction — “Book lovers react bitterly to no fiction Pulitzer” — that he proposed setting up a fund for his choice, Denis Johnson, and he offered this guest post, titled “The Pulitzohr Prize”, to Rainy Day. Here goes:

Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He holds a masters’ degree from the University of Iowa and has received many awards for his work, including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction (1993), a Whiting Writer’s Award (1986), the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams, and most recently, the National Book Award for Fiction (2007).

“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.” — Denis Johnson

Not only does he get the prize money, but we buy him beer for a day in Munich (and he looks like he could put a dent in our wallet.)

I identify with the author. I’ve lived in Idaho — still have property in the panhandle. I’ve driven horse carts and flown biplanes there, just like Robert Grainier. I’d have been an orphan too, had it not been for my parents. I’m at least 42% crazy.

I cast my vote for Train Dreams. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times Sunday Book Review by Anthony Doerr:

“The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.

It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like ‘Little Red Cap.’ It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”

Farewell, Jim, Your words and quotations and writers were always well chosen. In his novel, Night Flight (Vol de Nuit), the French pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed well what Jim Martin was and where he was going;

“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.”

Jim Martin


Fish on Trump

Thursday, 19 April, 2018 0 Comments

“Verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.” So wrote the great Stanley Fish in How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Today, the literary theorist, legal scholar, author, newspaper columnist and intellectual Stanley Fish will celebrate his 80th birthday and we wish him health and happiness for many years to come.

Stanley Fish wrote his final New York Times column in December 2013, but he returned to the paper’s pages in July 2016 with a warning to academia titled Professors, Stop Opining About Trump. According to Fish, historians “are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.” It’s not degrees, says Fish, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that tells in the end. Fish returned to Trump later that year in his book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom. Snippet:

“And yet that performance has a method. Trump’s artlessness, like Mark Antony’s, is only apparent. Listen, for example, as he performs one of his favorite riffs. He begins by saying something critical of Mexicans and Chinese. Then he turns around and says, ‘I love the Mexican and Chinese people, especially the rich ones who buy my apartments or stay at my hotels or play on my golf courses.’ It’s their leaders I criticize, he explains, but then in a millisecond he pulls the sting from the criticism: ‘they are smarter and stronger than our leaders; they’re beating us.’ And then the payoff all this has been leading up to, the making explicit of what has been implied all along. Stanley Fish ‘If I can sell them condominiums, rent space to them in my building at my price, and outfox them in deals, I could certainly outmaneuver them when it came to trade negotiations and immigration.’ (And besides, they love me.)

Here is the real message, the message that makes sense of the disparate pieces of what looks like mere disjointed fumbling: I am Donald Trump; nobody owns me. I don’t pander to you. I don’t pretend to be nice and polite; I am rich and that’s what you would like to be; I’m a winner; I beat people at their own game, and if you vote for me I will beat our adversaries; if you want wonky policy details, go with those losers who offer you ten-point plans; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.

So despite the lack of a formal center or an orderly presentation, Trump was always on point because the point was always the same. He couldn’t get off message because the one message was all he had.”

Stanley Fish was, and is, sharp.


A. A. Gill and the je ne sais quoi in France

Sunday, 4 February, 2018 0 Comments

Background: A. A. Gill was an English journalist who died of cancer in London in December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29 and followed the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) “12-step plan” to recovery. In tribute to the fellowship, he began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. His finest writing is collected in The Best of A. A. Gill and it covers his observations on food, television and travel. In “Markets,” published in July 2007, he pontificated on the phrase the French have created to “encompass it all”: je ne sais quoi. Snippet:

“My weakness, my pleasure, is markets… The Mercato in Addis Ababa, biggest market in Africa: dangersous red-eyed tribesmen, maddened and delusional on khat, unloading bushels of the stuff flown in daily from the ancient cities on the Somali border. The stalls selling coffee and the winding lanes of incense dealers, the gifts of the Magi, smelling of martyrdom and plainsong.

Tsukiji, the Tokyo fish market: miles of frozen tuna, lying like a thousand unexploded bombs steaming in the dawn as the auctioneers paint red characters on them, buyers cutting tiny nuggets of flesh from their tails to knead for water content.

Crawford Market in Bombay, the book market in Calcutta, the bird market in Denpasar, the karaoke market in Tashkent…”

However, when it comes to the market’s market, the perfect market, Gills puts his money on “the weekly markets of southern France.” And what makes them so superior? It’s the je ne sais quoi:

Je ne sais quoi is France’s abiding gift to the world. More je ne sais quoi for your euro is to be found in a French market than anywhere else. We wander down the aisles of trestles and stalls aghast at the marvellous repose of produce. There are peaches warm from the tree, ripe and golden. Figs, green and black, bursting with sweet, ancient, darkly lascivious simile. The smell of fresh lemon, the bunches of thyme and lavender and verbena, the selections of oil and olives, pale green and pungent, and the they honey, from orange blossom, from heath and orchard, and the beeswax. The charcuterie, the dozens of ancient and dextrous things to do with a dead pig, in all the hues of pink, and pale, fatty cream.”

Never was A.A. Gill happier than when in France, the land of Armagnac, Calvados and a thousand cheeses, wandering its markets, savouring the je ne sais quoi.

Apples


Christmas with Elizabeth Bowen

Monday, 18 December, 2017 0 Comments

Now that the third Sunday of Advent is behind us, it’s time to really focus on Christmas and we’ll be doing that in the coming week with the help of Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, who died in 1973. Her writing about the meaning of Christmas is full of beauty and poignancy, as we’ll see over the course of the next seven posts, and we’re starting with an excerpt from an essay titled “The Light in the Dark” that she wrote for the American edition of Vogue in 1950. Snippet:

“The idea of Christmas is like a note struck on glass — long ago and forever. For each of us, this is the earliest memory of the soul. Day-to-day existence, as it goes on, drowns so much in its clamour, deadens so many echoes — but never this. Behind our busy thoughts and distracted senses remains a silence in which, again each year, the sweet resounding ring of the note is heard. We have expected Christmas, almost without knowing — wherever we are, wherever we turn, it claims us. The Holy Night links up all childhoods; we return to our own — to the first music, the first pictures, the first innocent and mysterious thrill and stir. With the folds of the darkness, something has happened; even the cities know it, and the winter country seems to hold its breath. Once more we have the vision of wide night snow, of the shepherds listening and looking up into the air rustling with wings of singing angels, and the Star in the blue of the frosty firmament. This is a time when magic joins hands with holiness. The dear, silly, gaudy symbolism of Christmas cards stems from race myths and ancient midwinter rites. We inherit this feast from out of the dark time before Christmas morning — mankind sought it, from some primitive need.”

Tomorrow, a famous portrait of Elizabeth Bowen.


Kavanagh: The Irish writing racket

Thursday, 30 November, 2017 0 Comments

Today, we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of that great satirist Jonathan Swift and today also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the superb poet Patrick Kavanagh. That’s why our posts this week have commemorated these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. To recap: On Monday, we had a joke by Swift; Tuesday, a poem by Kavanagh and yesterday we looked at Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, which still resonate in the turbulent relationship between England and Ireland that’s now being overshadowed by Brexit.

Swift and Kavanagh were Irish and both were men of letters, and it’s those two factors that have made them memorable and lucrative, despite the passage of time. The act of remembering them has many facets. There’s a Dean Swift bar in London, there’s a Patrick Kavanagh pub in Birmingham, there’s a guide to Dublin’s Literary Pubs and Emerald Isle Gifts does a steady trade with its “Famous Irish Writers” poster that includes Kavanagh and Swift, along with Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce… They’re a blessing for the pub trade, they’re a boon for Irish tourism, they’re meat and potatoes for academia and they’re dead. Patrick Kavanagh couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of a country that forced its best writers into exile and then profited from the legacies and he took to the pages of Envoy in 1950 to condemn the racket.

Who Killed James Joyce?

Who killed James Joyce?
I, said the commentator,
I killed James Joyce
For my graduation.

What weapon was used
To slay mighty Ulysses?
The weapon that was used
Was a Harvard thesis.

How did you bury Joyce?
In a broadcast Symposium.
That’s how we buried Joyce
To a tuneful encomium.

Who carried the coffin out?
Six Dublin codgers
Led into Langham Place
By W. R. Rodgers.

Who said the burial prayers? –
Please do not hurt me –
Joyce was no Protestant,
Surely not Bertie?

Who killed Finnegan?
I, said a Yale-man,
I was the man who made
The corpse for the wake man.

And did you get high marks,
The Ph.D.?
I got the B.Litt.
And my master’s degree.

Did you get money
For your Joycean knowledge?
I got a scholarship
To Trinity College.

I made the pilgrimage
In the Bloomsday swelter
From the Martello Tower
To the cabby’s shelter.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


Swift and Kavanagh week

Sunday, 26 November, 2017 0 Comments

On Thursday here, we’ll celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the satirist Jonathan Swift and on the same day we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Accordingly, the daily posts here will commemorate these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. Age before beauty, they say, so we’ll kick off tomorrow with Swift:

“And he gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” Voyage to Brobdingnag, Jonathan Swift

But we’ll have Kavanagh on Tuesday:

“I always say to these here, marry the first man that asks you. There’s only three classes of men a woman should never marry — a delicate man, a drunken man, and a lazy man. I’m not so sure that the lazy man isn’t the worst.” Tarry Flynn, Patrick Kavanagh


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


The Lord of Flies

Monday, 19 June, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1993, the novelist, playwright and poet William Golding died. Best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 and also won the Booker Prize in 1980 with Rites of Passage.

The main theme of Lord of the Flies is the contradictory human desire for order — living by rules, peacefully and harmoniously — and the innate drive for power. A group of well-educated children descend into savagery when left to themselves on a paradisiacal island. Far from the constraints of modern civilization, they regress to a barbaric state.

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood — and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies


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.


Cronin and Kavanagh in a bar

Sunday, 8 January, 2017 0 Comments

The Irish writer Anthony Cronin, who was born on 28 December 1923 and who died on 27 December 2016, recalled arriving arrived into McDaid’s pub in Dublin one Sunday morning in the late 1950s to find the poet Patrick Kavanagh with the day’s newspapers strewn around him. This impelled Cronin to remark that the News of the World was running extracts from an autobiography of the retired English jockey Tommy Weston.

“He must be broke,” Cronin said.

“Any man at all that’s writing anything whatever is broke. Don’t you know that by now?” was Kavanagh’s answer.