Monthly Archives: September 2009

Give me the glass, and therein will I read…

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while; how to frame and explain what seems a rather esoteric idea. It goes something like this…

If I had been born in the Netherlands during its Golden Age, if I had studied painting and produced work for the exploding population of middle-class merchants seeking work of less religious and more domestic themes, and if I had I been a genius, I could have painted something like Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing. I could never have painted Vermeer’s Wine Glass.

If I had been developing television series for the BBC in the 1980s – and had been hugely talented – I might have come up with something like the Singing Detective; I would not have been able to conceive Smiley’s People…

I glimpse in these first works, dim and incomplete, qualities that are deeply and personally felt, superior reproductions of my own semi-conscious preoccupations and sense-tones: I see aspects of myself expressed better than I could ever say them.

And this is not the same thing as admiration or enjoyment, or even quality. I stand stunned before the works of Proust, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Miles Davis, as acts of skill, as vast intellectual and emotional accomplishments, yet I do not encounter myself in their works, I am located outside the perimeter, gaping in. Passages of HP Lovecraft, on the other hand, echo to me the histrionics of my own prose, and sometimes even my gloomier suspicions about the world. It unnerves to identify more with the tormented Rhode Island racist than with, say, a genius such as Joyce.

We don’t choose the works in which we recognise ourselves (I say we, assuming that others may have the same eerie experience). A work resonates with private truth or it does not. In Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum – the film when I was a child, the book as an adult – I found what seemed the perfect ensign for how I imagined the best my fiction could aspire to, not because it was the best I’d ever read but because I sensed, radiating through it as a kind of palimpsest, qualities that felt intimately familiar. For the good and bad.

There are some geniuses that can produce both kinds of work: King Lear, for me, reads like my darkest, most pagan inner voice speaking direct, human truth. Julius Caesar, whilst magnificent, seems beamed from another thought-world entirely. Titian and Dylan also achieve this, I think.

These thoughts are instinctual and inconclusive; could we each amass a tribe of these avatars, on a separate shelf, and say ‘over there is the great work, but here is the work – good and bad – that explains me to myself’? And if you could do that, would you show anyone, or would you box them in the cellar?

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The naming of cats is a difficult matter…

Warning: this post contains dewy reminiscence and less-than-critical personal analysis

There is a window to the right of where I sit. Just below there, I can see a small sun terrace belonging to the neighbours on the floor below. But beyond that things fall away for another hundred metres into a gorge; two plateaus are linked by the Puente Nuevo, which leashes Ronda’s old town to the new. The old town – which perches opposite me across the gorge, is one of Spain’s oldest settlements. There are signs of habitation going back to 2,500BC. The architecture is a palimpsest of Moorish, Counter Reformation and modern tourism. Beyond the town the mountains, currently paled in a morning haze quite unlike the unfiltered all-day sunshine I had expected.

I’m not sure why I’ve included this information, except maybe to illustrate that I’m far from home, which may explain one of my current preoccupations.

We travelled here from Weeze airport near Düsseldorf, just across the border from the Netherlands. It was a quick flight but, coming after several weeks of sofa-surfing with friends and family, we caught the bus from Seville airport to the centre of town with a sense of newly-relaxed exhalation. I remember the moment precisely; we had passed through the rotating door of the budget hotel we were to occupy for the night before moving on to Ronda and, smiling at the dried flowers and twigs – giant pot pourri – sealed into the glass between the compartments of the door, I felt a tingle of excitement that all had gone well and soon I would be somewhere in the town, drinking a beer with my beloved and marvelling at the tiny, inconsequential differences between nations that still, to my untravelled eyes, seem so telling, alien and thrilling. Continue reading

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