Almost anyone can be creative. But sharing something uniquely your own takes courage.
It means stepping out from the crowd and talking directly to the world. You’re sticking your neck out and saying “my experience is real. My sensibilities and my perception matter”. That’s not easy to do as an adolescent. But being creative can be enormously liberating and a big part in helping you find out your identity and prepare for life.
Over the last three years I have enjoyed encouraging and helping to recognise the creative talents of secondary students in writing and art. These pieces have been gathered into School Creativity ebooks for students and teachers to share with their families, friends and community. The response has been extremely positive and the weblink format has proved highly effective for “publishing” and communicating students’ creativity in our digital and social media age.
I was down in my local, Greystones Village Bookshop, last week to ask about the two dozen copies of my books I left with them before Covid. Seems all have been sold. This hardly makes me a remarkable writer however. Book sales are booming. More than 13 million print books were purchased in Ireland in 2021, the 7th year in a row of growing sales. Indeed, Dubray books recently opened another two shops in Dublin.
As menacing events, strident opinions and shocking facts are pinged incessantly at us, is it any wonder people are returning to books and the solace of human stories. Like mythology, novels helps us to make sense of our lives and emotions and to explain who we are to ourselves.
Walking back from the Village Bookshop, I mulled this over and wondered what half dozen novels I’d suggest to readers (aged from mid-teens to 100) to draw them back into our imaginative worlds. In choosing them I applied three criteria:
No politics or history: Ostensibly none could include politics, economics or great historical events
No technology: No mention of technologies beyond telephones (usually a plot device anyway).
Self-contained worlds: Each novel should spirit the reader away, to inhabit another world where heightened senses see and feel everything as if for the first time. (On reviewing my selection, strangely I found that love, or lost love – of all kinds – were at the heart of each story.)
Here are the chosen six
Le Grand Meaules (1913), Alain Fornier
Chronology neatly places this at the top of the list but it would probably have been here anyway. The only novel of Alain Fornier, a young French writer killed at the start of World War One, it brings alive Francois’ young life following the arrival of the older boy, Meaules, as a pupil into the small village school run by Francois’ teacher father. Meaules yearns to find again the elusive chateau where he once experienced a magical carnival hosted by a beautiful young girl, Yvonne, who lived there with her widowed father. The search dominates the novel. Tantalising beauty always seems just beyond reach. This is a really special book.
2. The Go-between (1953), LP Hartley
This novel inspired Ian McEwan to become a writer on reading it aged 14. He freely acknowledged it as the background to his novel, Atonement. It centres on a single summer of glorious sunshine in 1900 when 13 year old Leo is invited to spend the holidays with his more affluent and not especially close school friend. What Leo is drawn into and how he acts as go-between in relationships is only truly understood in later years on reading his diary from that youthful summer and reflecting upon the chain of events and their human consequences which he unknowingly enabled.
3. Arturo’s Island (1957), Elsa Morante
A close Italian friend once gave me Elsa Morante’s La Storia, a novel revolving around the lives of a half-Jewish single-mother, her two sons (and their dog) in Rome during the Second World War. Meaning both “story” and “history” in Italian, it languished on my shelves for twenty years until I read it last summer. My friend certainly knows me and how I tick. She chose well. This brought me to stumble upon l’isola di Arturo, or Arturo’s island. (Tim Parks, who has lived, written and translated in Italy for many years included it among his 5 favourite Italian books.).
The novel describes Arturo’s bohemian and utterly free existence as a boy on a small island off the bay of Naples sometime (it seems) in the 1930s. After his mother’s early death, his strikingly beautiful and most unusual father disappears off the island for long unexplained periods leaving Arturo in the casual care of minders. That is until one day, when Arturo is 14, his father returns to the island with his new 16-year-old Neapolitan bride. As his life is hermetically sealed on the island, Arturo’s every sensation is freshly experienced untainted by the instruction and conditioning of others. An otherworldly but fascinating book.
4. The stories of Eva Luna (1991), Isabel Allende
This book of short stories enjoyed huge success when published. Much less “rambling” a magic-realist than Gabriel Marquez in for example One Hundred Years of Solitude and certainly less esoteric than the otherwise fascinating Jorge Luis Borges, these stories sweep you up into other worlds. Very sensual (and at times sexual) though never frivolous, the stories recount loves, events and emotions with a freshness and vividness you sense the characters may themselves be experiencing.
5. The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
Not all these books leave a smile on your face or have you reaching back into youthful memory. Some, including this, can scare the wits out of you. I don’t mean Hollywood horror stuff, I mean stripping everything back to viscerally-felt experience. It’s a similar impact as when reading Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade. As a reader you think “it’s stark, microscopic and terrifying but I could feel and see things this way” even if things are utterly different to anything you’ve encountered before.
And despite all the awfulness, at the core of this novel is a love, a desperate love, between a father and his child.
6. Out stealing horses (2007) Per Petterson
The most recently published of these half dozen self-contained, other-world novels of imagination, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson is meditative and unexpected, hinging upon the memories and experiences of an old Norwegian man in his final years. It won the Dublin Literary Award. Their award description is worth the read.
This list hopefully sends you back to the shelves and to dive deeply again into the treasure chest of human stories. Exercising the imagination is as important as exercising the heart. So this summer why not turn off the pings and turn over the pages instead!
As I outline in my introduction, The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife (TBT for short), is in essence a tapestry of many very human stories. It seeks to give a vivid sense of what life had been like – not just for the two central figures of Bruno and Babi – but for countless other Italians from all sides swept up in the maelstrom of the Second World War. It also considers some of the consequences which lingered on in the lives of Italian families for many decades afterwards.
Every author writes to be read. But in the case of TBT the readers I especially had in mind were younger people, those born at least a half century after 1945.
It is therefore a great pleasure to continue my relationship with Ms. Valentina Foschi, the teaching staff and the students of the Liceo Nolfi Apolloni in Fano, Italy. In recent years, Valentina has invited me as key speaker to a number of seminars for teachers, educational professionals and students in this beautiful town in the northern Marche region.
I will now be working in collaboration with many students in Liceo Nolfi on a translation project of TBT. I look forward to their response as young people to the story and to learning from them, Valentina and her highly professional colleagues.
Rereading Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon this week. Not shy about speaking his (immensely well stocked) mind, it caused quite a stir at the time. It still does.
His basic question is: with each of us having only one lifetime and with a world of books out there, which ones should we read and how should we read them?
Simple surely? No unfortunately. It never is and it never has been.
Going through the chapters I’m struck again by a comment the president of an Irish seminary said to me a few years ago. (I had no affiliation to the institution. I was simply there as a paid consultant). “For a young person to enter religious life now is considered radically counter cultural. It goes completely against the prevailing beliefs of most people in society. But in the 1960s when vocations in Ireland were at their peak, the counter-culture meant Bob Dylan. Now he’s an institution and we’re the ones going against the tide!”
Bear with me on this one. Don’t troll me for seeming to give airtime to a “bigoted” counterview just for a moment.
Bloom was pilloried for advocating a Western Canon of writers composed almost exclusively of dead, white (European) males. Challenging himself to condense the canon to a baker’s dozen he named Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Kafka and Proust.
In this book and throughout his career, Bloom, a Yale professor and son of a garment worker, held firm to the idea that literature should be assessed according to its aesthetic quality rather than its social context. In simple terms – was the writing art good regardless of who wrote it or if it said the “right” things.
A cracking debate on the two fundamental and opposing views of modern literary theory took place in 1999 between Bloom and Professor Jacqueline Rose on Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio programme, In Our Time. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00545dp. In the latter part of the debate Bloom came across as pompous, patrician (patriarchal?) and, in my view, Rose’s poise and especially her observations on Shakespeare gave her the upper hand.
For Bloom, Shakespeare is undoubtedly at the centre of our western literary canon. But Rose asked which female Shakespearean character, except possible for Portia in The Merchant of Venice, is strong and substantial? Are they not otherwise all accommodating maidens and counterfoils? How do they inform and reflect the experiences she feels as a woman?
All Professor Rose’s points were well made and convincing. But Bloom always held firm to his deep views on literature. He rallied against what he thought was the sinking of real literary studies (“imaginative literature”) into the morass of “cultural studies” departments. Bloom contented that “great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of the worthiest causes: feminism, African-American culturalism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment.” Every great writer is a law onto him/herself and “is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests, which center entirely upon individualisation”.
These observations will strike home for anyone who has studied English in college in the last 30 years. I recall one of those endless undergraduate lectures on literary theory and the moment my young heart sank like a stone. This was just before The Western Canon was published. Was the dreary theory lecture on structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism, French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction or formalism? I really don’t remember. But I do remember the “moment of truth”. “You know” the chirpy lecturer informed us “for a deconstructionist critic Shakespeare and a superman comic are of equal literary quality and value. It’s all just a question of how you approach the analysis”.
So what’s was the point? What was I studying? Was it an academic’s PhD thesis or was it the writing of a great mind and original artist. Did I care unduly if the writer was of a certain colour, nationality or background?
Every year interest in studying Arts in Irish universities declines. What is it that will fan the flame of interest in books among young students? In the opening chapter of the Western Canon Bloom states “we are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice”.
Do the universities offer students the opportunity to really develop authenticity, creativity, independent-thought and critical expression – all attributes seen by even the most hard-nosed careerists as essential in today’s lives. Do schools and universities provide a place for the study of the life-enhancing humanities or is it just social theory?
As a parent or teacher, how can we inspire a child to read and learn with curiosity? It’s not easy. Especially as Bloom contented that to grasp the Western Canon in a meaningful way would involve the reading, rereading and contemplation of more than 3,000 books – something all but impossible in one lifetime. (In many ways I’m old-school and I consider myself well read. And I’ve still only managed about half of that number).
We live in a fraught age when literature can help us so much in our personal and professional lives. But with each screaming headline prompting anger, indignation and anxiety and social media gobbling us our every waking hour, where is the physical and head-space to read?
So let’s go back to the basic question. Why would a young person read and re-read? Is it not, as it has always been, for the story? And then for its writing quality and artistic originally? (Something once called “aesthetic quality”. Something, for example, abounding in a book like Wuthering Heights.)
Bloom died only a few months ago – in October 2019. But maybe the old curmudgeon might have had a important point to make to us after all?
It’s an unpredictable and difficult period for us all. Self-isolation (for those of us lucky enough to do so) isn’t easy. And we’re only just getting into it. This will extend for weeks. Cabin fever will soon take hold! So let’s take care of ourselves.
People are using social media to stay connected, support each other and to suggest good ways to spend this time. Looking to the positive, we now have the unique time and mental-space to read (or re-read) a book that we’ve long had “on the list”. So rather than just scroll and watch screens, why don’t we read “that book” and share our thoughts on it?
I first read War and Peace 20 years ago and I’ve been meaning to go back to it for at least two years. Something always got in the way. 300 pages into re-reading it, here are my five thoughts for those who might be interested in Tolstoy’s classic.
Give it a chance (it’s a gripping read)
It’s up there with the classics everyone knows but few of us have read – or at least have got no further than chapter two. Who gets past the “snot green sea” Stephen Dedalus describes from the martello in Ulysses, or the tilting at windmills in Don Quixote, or – for the more adventurous – beyond Swann’s Way in Proust’s enormous tome?
The challenge for most people about War and Peace is not its length (my copy has 1,345 pages!) but its panoply of characters. They seem endless! But just remember that the three central characters are Pierre, Andrew and Natasha, and that the Rostovs and the Bolkonskis are the most important families. That way you can’t go too far wrong.
Because like other lengthy Russian masterpieces – Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate – once you get into it War and Peace it really is a page turner.
Life is unpredictable (and it always has been)
If my house ever goes on fire, there are only two books I’d save. My collected Yeats, signed for me by his daughter, Anne, and son, Michael and my 1942 US edition of War and Peace.
I picked up my copy from one of the wonderful second-hand bookshops in Berkeley when I lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s/2000s. What makes this 80 year old Simon and Schuster edition so special is when it was released. In November 1941, months before the Battle of Stalingrad, nobody (including the publisher) knew if the Germans would, like Napoleon, succeed in driving and destroying all before them to reach Moscow.
Maps of both campaigns – Napoleon’s and Hitler’s – literally bookend the edition. The backcover map shows the terrifying “Farthest Line of Advance” in red to indicate Hitler’s position by the time of the book’s release.
It seems to say: “We don’t know how these tumultuous events they will turn out. But similar experiences have happened in past centuries.” Illustrating how calamitous events were experienced in the moment by those in the past, helps us to endure in the present.
Isn’t that one of the values of great literature?
You’re in for a treat (if you’ve never read Tolstoy)
And on that note….if you have never before read Tolstoy, a huge experience awaits you.
Tolstoy doesn’t “write”. Everything in his books gleams with “realness”. It’s as if his hand reaches out from the tome and drags you in real life.
Tolstoy served as a soldier in the Crimea. He knew war. He brings it to life. Even when he does use literary artifice, it never seems contrived. Think of the very first military salvos in War and Peace where he inserts an accountant on the battle scene. Through the accountant’s unmilitary eyes, in just a single page Tolstoy creates the disorientation and fear of war for the reader who has almost certainly never experienced battle themselves.
But War and Peace contains more than army campaigns. While slightly more a “man’s book” than Anna Karenina, it’s also “a woman’s book” too. It tells of courtships, marriages, friendships, enmities, deathbed manipulations and family relationships. It shows life and human-interactions with blinding intensity and in a way that is wholly real for the world we know today.
Anna Karenina, written after War and Peace, is often seen as the more perfect novel. I’ve read it twice and I agree. But to my mind War and Peace contains the finest prose passage in all of literature. Turn to Book 3, Chapter 13 (after reading the chapters with the characters’ meditations in advance of the conflict). This passage describes Prince Andrew’s sensations as he lies severely injured, gazing at a translucent sky, hovering between life and death, on the bloody field of defeat after the Battle of Austerlitz.
It’s an epiphany. It’s wondrous. Read it. Read it!
Countless ordinary people really shape the world (not just the leaders and politicians)
War and Peace deals with the lives of many men and women of all ages over a period of more than a decade. It is however centred on one “great event”, Napolean’s 1812 invasion of Russia. The French Emperor swept across Austria, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia to capture an abandoned Moscow. Ultimately the Russian winter and an army under General Mikhail Kutuzov routed the French on the famous retreat from Moscow. Arguably, just as in the Second World War, it was the Russian campaign that defeated this powerful invader threatening the world’s peace and prosperity.
Perhaps one reason for the enormous scope – and length – of War and Peace is how the author believed history is shaped. The decisions and personalities of “Great Men” (Napoleon and Kutuzov) may influence human affairs. But for Tolstoy, events are predominantly dictated by chance and the individual actions of many ordinary courageous people.
In our own time of less than stellar international political leaders and often strident, false reporting, it is something for us to think about. Once again, many brave ordinary citizens are quietly battling for those around them. There really is still great humanity out there.
Time passes (we endure)
The Corona virus will “ground” us for weeks, if not months. It will be a time of many concerns and busy households. We could do a few jigsaws, watch endless Netflix TV, take up a new hobby or worry ourselves endlessly. Or we could let a few great writers show us wider vistas – and just how vivid and extraordinary the world and its people can be.
That’s why I will be reading War and Peace during the Corona virus.
As you put in those years (it will be years, sorry!) writing your book, it’s essential to repeatedly ask yourself three things.
What’s it about?
Don’t say “lots of stuff, it’s a fascinating story” and then struggle to explain. Most books can only “carry” at most two main threads. Stick to them. If this means you need to cut lots of well written text, do it. If you aren’t ruthless at this stage it will make the writing process endless. At the publication and promotion stages it may make you come across as lacking a compelling story or, for non-fiction, lacking in clear purpose.
2. Who is your reader?
Some UK newspapers are famously reputed to have reader levels in mind. The Sun is written for an under 14 literacy level, the Daily Express for under 16 and the Telegraph and The Guardian for over 17.
This is eminently sensible because who your intended reader is will define the style and content of your book. Very specifically it determines your “voice”. Are you going to be humourous, informative, colloquial, authorative? How “tight” will your style be? Will it be Hemmingwayesque or Proustian?! Twitter pithy or Sunday supplement effusive?
During the writing of my books, I always reach a stage where I have one (or at most two) people in mind as my end reader. These are named people. Does he/she need this level of (historical/political/social/geographic) explanation? Is that reference too rarefied – or too obvious? Would he/she see the humour? How patient would he/she be with the pace of the narrative? Am I cutting too much – would the reader like more in this section?. Is this too long-winded? Am I adding something just because it’s an interesting detail but not related to the central story/ies?
3. Are we there yet? (or when do I know it’s finished?)
Every writer fluctuates between the sense of being an undiscovered genius or an idiot for ever thinking they could put pen to paper. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Writing a book, one you feel really holds together, is an endless process. So when is it “done”?
There’s no right answer here either, I’d suggest. I prefer to draw in (impose upon!) a trusted reader only when I think I can’t proceed without a fresh steer. Don’t waste the time of your good readers (invariably friends) if you want to call upon them again. Most friends, at best, will read your draft only once. Only the most dedicated will read it twice over your years of toil. So be smart and value their time and goodwill.
If you feel truthfully the text needs more work it’s almost certainly not ready to share. Are the sentences polished when you open a page at random? Does the text “sing” (at least to your ears) or are there still jagged sentences and paragraphs? If so, continue to write, edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite. Only then show it to your reader(s).
At some stage you must have the confidence to say (hand on heart!) “yes, this is good. And I’m prepared for anyone to read it without any long preamble or excuses. This is no longer ‘just a draft’. Rather ‘this is it’ (more or less). And in 5 years time I know I’ll feel the same about it too”.
If you feel you’ve done everything you can to prepare your “baby” for the real world, then most likely it’s ready. That’s when you should consider sending it out on its own two feet via a paid editor or indeed by directly contacting publishers. And that’s when another process altogether begins!
Joyce called a halt to his endless (re)writing and tinkering of Ulysses so it would be published by his 40th birthday. Writing is subjective. So is reading. Just as there’s no perfect book, so there’s no perfect way to know it’s “finished”.
So stick with it and enjoy your time with “baby” as you help it to grow and flourish!
Any other thoughts or helpful tips you’d have on this thorny subject please email is on email@example.com
In October and November 2019 it was a pleasure to do presentations and answer questions on the Bicycle Thief and the German Wife with four groups in south Dublin and Wicklow .
My thanks to Jetta and Linda in the U3A groups in Blackrock (Deansgrange) and Bray, to Gabrielle in the Dun Laoghaire Active Retirement Association and to Rosemary from the the Dalkey Women’s Group for their invitations.
If your association/group would like to include a presentation on this very moving family – and intriguing national – Italian story in your 2020 schedule, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
My sincere thanks to Ass. Prof. Ursula Fanning, Ass. Prof. Eric Haywood, Melanie Pape and all in the UCD SLCL for hosting a wonderful event for “The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife” last week and to all who attended. Eric gave a very kind introduction to the book and was most engaging in his role as MC. The observations and experiences shared by Corinna Salvadori Lonergan, Professor Emerita of Italian, Trinity College Dublin, were particularly striking and memorable on this intriguing evening of discussion.
Ass. Prof. Eric Haywood (with author) in the UCD School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.
All welcome to an event Ass. Prof. Eric Haywood and the UCD School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics are hosting for The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife. Please RSVP on http://bit.ly/MartinLaunch