e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Haiku for a cold day

From the cloud filled sky:
a few snowflakes. From the park:
children’s gleeful shouts.

Re-reading ‘The Book Thief’

I first read Markus Zusak’s novel over a year ago. I enjoyed it all – just as well as it’s a long book. I noted that he has an interesting and unusual use of language, but at the time I was wrapped up in the story and didn’t pay much attention.

This time round, I read slower and took in the turns of phrase and descriptions. The author pushes out the envelope of meaning big time:

… the soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying onto the floor like powder.

… a voice stooped out and ambled towards the sergeant. It sat at his feet …

I know at least one person who doesn’t like these descriptions: she considers them incorrect and distracting. I can see her point, but in the story world of this book they seem to me to be natural. In other worlds a simile like ‘… the room that stretched like a bridge …’ might sound really daft.

One reason all sorts of dislocations, including forays into the thoughts of minor characters and sidesteps in time and space, are acceptable is that the narrator is Death. I doubt if many authors have managed to create such a valuable narrator. He can have almost any characteristic the author wants him to have. He can read thoughts and knows what’s happening far away and in the future

Death, according to Markus Zusak, is not an impersonal force: he has a heart, gets tired, suffers boredom and tries to carry the souls away gently. On a battlefield he can be ‘…unnerved, untied and undone.’ He has a very idiosyncratic take on war

… to me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible.

Creating him has given Zusak the best of all possible worlds, narrator-wise. He’s an omniscient, first person observer. He addresses the reader cosily:

We should deal with all of that first, don’t you think?
It’s settled then
We will.

and explains how he’s going to forward the story:

I have Liesel Meminger in one hand, Max Vandenburg in the other. Soon I will clap them together. Just give me a few more pages.

As a literary device he’s brilliant. As a character he’s likeable and reasonable – this is how death could be if it were a person.

I very rarely read the same book twice, but for this one I’m glad I did. Beside the main items of story and character, it has other features to be savoured.

Descriptions of the dark side: ambiguity towards prose and poetry

Yesterday with a bang of letterbox and thump of things hitting doormat, my quarterly surprise from the Poetry Book Society arrived: a magazine, a sheaf of leaflets, and a book of poetry. I get all this four times a year for my subscription.

The magazine is interesting and introduces me to a lot of poets I’d otherwise not know about, but it’s the book I really appreciate. The back of the magazine tells me what I’ll get next quarter, but by that time I’ve forgotten what it is, and I like the surprise. This time it outdid itself – a 4,000+ verse story about the adventures and death of King Arthur.

The Death of King Arthur a by Simon Armitage is a translation of a 15th century manuscript called the Alliterative Morte D’Arthure. The original poem, by an unknown author, has survived in one copy, kept at Lincoln Cathedral. Reading about such chancy transmissions of our literature gives me a chill – what have we lost? what wonderful lines have vanished forever into that void we call ‘the past’? It also gives me a thrill – are there hidden manuscripts and secret caches waiting to be discovered?

Back to my new book. It’s a story in verse and Armitage has maintained the alliterative form. I’m quite keen on alliteration myself; I guess this could be because it’s the style of verse used in Anglo-Saxon and is particularly suited to all forms of English. The original of the poem was written in an English that’s just about understandable:

Now grete glorious God   through grace of Himselven
And the precious prayer   of his pris Moder
Sheld us fro shamesdeede   and sinful workes

but I’m very glad to have Simon Armitage’s modern rendering:

Now may God, great and glorious, by His very grace
and the precious prayers of His perfect mother,
shield us from shame and sinful deeds

The invocation to God is presumably a stock preamble: the rest of the story seems to be firmly about men.

I say seems because I haven’t read much of it yet, just dipped into it here and there, tasting some of the powerful and descriptive lines:

His face and forehead were flecked all over
like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.

The only book-length poem I’ve read before is Sir John Betjeman’s autobiography Summoned by Bells and that is a gentle story. The Death of King Arthur is not. According to the introduction it’s a tale of war and politics, and describes the horrors of the battlefield in full verbal technicolour.

This gives it a universality that bridges the centuries, and the concentration on politics and psychology (again I’m paraphrasing the Introduction) show us Arthur both as a mythic king:

King Arthur had at length acquired by conquest
many castles, kingdoms and countless regions

and a man who can feel sorrow and depression (at the death of his knights):

Never was our Sovereign so saddened and sorrowful,
or so sunk in his spirits as he was at that sight.

As I turn the pages and read snippets I can’t help puzzling over the willingness of translator, publisher and reader to engage with scenes of blood and killing that they probably (in my case certainly) wouldn’t glance at if written in prose by a modern author.

Is this one of the functions of poetry – to turn the dark side of life into a form even the squeamish will study and learn the lessons of?

Gardens and generosity


Today’s reading has been my local yellow book. For those not familiar with this wonderful publication it’s a list of gardens open to the public for the National Gardens Scheme.

The scheme raises thousands for charity thanks to the generosity of garden owners willing to let a lot of strangers tramp round their property, and of the volunteers who man (oops! person) the gates and organise the teas and plant sales.

Visiting a garden is one of the best ways of passing a few hours that I know. So is planning the visits.

I get the booklet for my local area, sit down with tea and a bun and drool over the descriptions of gardens, while noting the ones I might visit. At this time of year the plan is sketchy; I won’t visit nearly as many as I’d like to. But anticipation is part of the fun.

‘Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague’ by Geraldine Brooks

When a member of my book group recommended Year of Wonders, I thought it would be depressing and upsetting. It’s true that some of the scenes are harrowing – the descriptions of plague symptoms are very vivid – but the basic idea is uplifting.

When, in 1665, the plague arrived in their village, the people of Eyam in Derbyshire cut themselves off from the world in order to protect others. This added to their own suffering, but many of them were buoyed up by the knowledge they were doing right. Sadly, others couldn’t take the strain and there are several scenes of madness.

The book is all the more powerful because it’s based on a true event.

On Goodreads there are thousands of reviews. The couple that I read both complained at the ending. I’m still trying to make up my mind if I agree with them. I think that spending a few paragraphs describing the rest of the main character’s life is unbalanced and sort of unnecessary, but on the other hand it’s natural to want to know what became of her.

I shall certainly read more of Geraldine Brooks’ novels.

Writing competitions

Competitions: for a long time a way for organisations to fundraise and for new writers to feel hopeful that they may be published and even get some money for their work. I’ve entered a few myself in the past and had the odd ‘honourable mention’ in the final line-up – but no pennies.

Publicising these events seems a bit haphazard. Some get national coverage, others only a few lines at the bottom of a page in a limited circulation paper.

Recently I acquired  a copy of a quarterly magazine, Kudos, which has a comprehensive listing of competitions – forty pages of them. I hadn’t realised there are so many. The list gives a lot of information and, usually, a web address to find out more.

I love reading about these competitions: their rules and requirements and what the prize is. Some are so specific (a story for bedtime, a poem of fourteen lines) some are very general (open poetry, unpublished novel).

I also love reading the winning entries. I like to tell myself ‘I could have done that, (given time – lots of it).’ But I didn’t do it – too lazy, too distracted, not focussed enough. Someone else with energy, focus and the talent to write well did do it. I salute them for it; they gave me something great to read and that nice feeling of ‘I could do it if …’

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