Wednesday, August 31, 2016
editing the self
A few days ago I finished reading the aforementioned Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (Picador 2005). The last essay in the collection, after many other essays and a big section of his diary entries, is a fairly detailed account of the discovery of and treatment for and recovery from cancer. One of the things that blew my mind about the entire thing was his secrecy about it all, while it happened. For example, in the essay he quotes a few of his own diary entries from that harrowing time. Yet earlier in this same book, and out in public in the London Review of Books before that, his diary entries appear, I thought, in full. But no. In those versions, he edited out any reference whatsoever to his cancer. I flipped back in the book and looked at surrounding diary entries from that year, when he was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, and found it mind-boggling that he presented everyday events as they occurred, while completely leaving out the biggie, the thing that must surely have been occupying much of his copious brain space, not to mention his time.
I have so much respect and affection for him, as a writer and person, and when I finished this wonderful compendium I actually kissed the front of the book and quietly said Thank you. Then (finally! after a two-month hiatus!) returned to the diaries of James Lees-Milne and proceeded to feel a bit petulant that they weren't more of Alan Bennett's, which I really want to continue reading. Because even while I love them, I recognize that Lees-Milne's have a tone, on paper - something like conservative persnicketyness - that gets under my skin. Only a little, like a tiny splinter. Since his diaries are fascinating and entertaining, and he's honest about who he is, even though he too edited out some major life events, when he was alive to edit his own diaries. He's no Alan Bennett, though, who seems to be an ideal writer for the likes of me. His diaries remind me of Michael Palin's. They have a friendly honesty, and some slight subversiveness to balance out what could seem like too much cheerfulness, if I didn't also recognize a tendency toward melancholy (which I identify with). Palin a definite up, Bennett a slight downbeat. But I feel like I could happily keep reading them both for years and years. And so I hope they keep writing their diaries and publishing them for years and years.
I'd love to hear from others about this - do you keep a diary? Or did you? If you stopped, how and why did you stop? Did you begin again? Or would you like to start but haven't yet? I kept one as a child, then again in college, then stopped for several years in my late 20s, then began again and am still writing today. And plan to continue indefinitely. Michael Palin has written a sweet note for would-be diary-keepers. And made a goofy video too. I know from my own experience that what goes into a diary isn't what gets written on a blog. Many things I've written about extensively only in my diary - really to exhaustion - and I can't imagine they would interest anyone else, so they never make it to the blog as a subject or even as a hint. Nothing terrible or tragic, I don't think - just run-of-the-mill life events, so don't worry about that! More like, notes about each of the paintings I make, as I make them, a gazillion quotes from the books I read, as I read them, and family events and suchlike (okay, some terrible and tragic, but that's life) - things that are other people's business, and I respect that and don't want to air anyone's laundry in public, even in a small way such as this. And, all my deep thoughts, about life, the universe, and everything - I mean, omg, ugh! Helps me to put it down, I know, and I've gotten into the habit, and it feels natural and good to do so. But the unedited self can be a bit much at times! Well, diary, or no diary? Handwritten or electronic? Am finding myself curious about what other people do, in this day and age...
Friday, August 26, 2016
The blog habit is a hard one to break. I have tried and failed a few times and apparently here we are once more. Are blogs over? It seems so, but it feels akin another question I hear sometimes, namely, Is painting dead? I answer, if only to myself: painting never; blogs perhaps, but writing never. August is nearly done and I have painted and read and written less than I'd hoped to, all month long. I have, however, read two books that I cannot contain myself about any longer and so here I am to mention them somewhere other than merely in my diary. Which I do write in, regularly, but which doesn't offer much in the way of reciprocity in the realms of empathy or community. Instead it just shows me more of myself, which frankly I am sick of at the moment. Anyway. The books in question. Both are from the library sale haul I wrote about a few months ago. I finally picked them up in turn and thought Read this now.
The first is Pat Conroy's collection of bookish essays, My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese 2010). I had never read anything of his before, none of his sagas, no fiction whatsoever, none of his memoirs. But a good book about books I am always up for and this one sure does shine brightly. All the essays therein are about books, reading, his family and education, and his writing life, but one of the best deals with a bookshop (p.110):
"...by accident, I had discovered the nerve center of my deliverance in a nondescript bookstore in Atlanta.... Thousands of books roared out my name in joyous welcome when I entered that shop for the first time."
He elaborates (p.111):
"Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure. You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years. If you do them the favor or understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart."
My Reading Life is a delight and almost convinces me to read War and Peace, so fervent is his chapter on repeatedly doing just that. A sample (p.271):
"On the third reading, I found that spending time between the pages of War and Peace was one of the most compensatory pursuits I had ever discovered."
"...this novel will make you dizzy with joyous affection for the people you will meet on these pages."
And again, as if we remain in any doubt (p.281):
"Over the years, many critics have said that War and Peace is not even a novel, and they may be right. Whatever it is, there has never been anything close to touching it. It stands alone. A star in the east. Magnificent. One of a kind.... I envy the young man or woman picking up this book for the first time more than any reader in the world."
Okay, okay, I'll get to it! He out-effuses every other book reviewer or critic I have ever come across. A noble feat. I have a recent translation of War and Peace, should I read it this winter? I want to, and I wonder if I actually will. I did read another Pat Conroy book, after finishing My Reading Life. His memoir about teaching black children at a tiny school on an island off South Carolina, The Water is Wide (originally published in 1972, still in print, I read a recent softcover edition). Pretty rough, pretty fantastic. Not like anything else I've ever read, it left me wanting much more.
The second book I feel compelled to mention is Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (Picador 2005) - over 650 pages, the middle section of which is made up of his diaries from 1996-2004. The next installment (diaries 2005-2015) will be published in the U.K. in late fall and in the usual way of things I cannot wait but will have to, unless I want to read bits online, since his diary entries have been published annually by the London Review of Books. Apparently it's no good having set aside my reading of James Lees-Milne's diaries, since here he is in Alan Bennett's diaries. Not James Lees-Milne himself, but his diaries, since Alan Bennett is re-reading them himself and mentions the fact in his own diary. I am lost in diary-heaven! The volume of Lees-Milne I left off with is still sitting on my bedside table, by the way, and has been all summer. Even though it's on the bottom of the pile I won't forsake it much longer, I know. Meanwhile Alan Bennett unknowingly provides me with the impetus to continue my blog, even if only sporadically, when he writes (p.179):
"Diaries lengthen the days. To read back over a year when nothing much seems to have happened is often to be nicely surprised.... A diary is undoubtedly a comfort. I feel better for having it written down, however hard the experience." (p.179)
I look back in my own diaries and again here in this edited online version, and I must say I cringe sometimes, but at the same time I regret nothing! A funny paradox. Perhaps I have reached the stage of life where I'm no longer embarrassed by myself and my literary and artistic attempts and aspirations. Not certain about that point yet, but there are glimmerings at least. I don't know if I can bear to leave good books un-talked about, or diary entries unwritten, or paintings unpainted. By me, I mean - tons of people are doing all that stuff, all over the place. But I am talking about mustering up the bravery to make my own particular contributions, slowly, over time. So I muddle along, and my work piles up as it usually does. The older I get the more I think that these small day-to-day attempts are all that there is - they accumulate and may become something bigger or may not, but all start with the small choice, on any given day: This happened; I have feelings about it and here they are. You know?
Back to Alan Bennett, whose voice is so different from Pat Conroy's - reticence versus boldness perhaps, or even more simplistically, British versus American. The essays in Untold Stories are terrific, and his diaries are compulsively good reading. I want them to go on forever and dread that they won't. Here is an example, perfect in my eyes - one entry from 1997 in its entirety. Perfect purely for itself and also for that early-fall feeling, much in evidence around here, not to mention blackberrying, which I have been doing myself, along the roadsides of our small Maine town. I'll leave you with this passage, which has everything I love most in prose - the decidedly rural, in contrast with the urban, where Bennett also lives; painterly colors and evocative repetitions of imagery; outward circumstances echoing inward feeling (p.217):
"15 September, Yorkshire. Blackberrying up Black Bank, taking with me one of Miss Shepherd's old walking sticks. Huge clusters of berries so that one can gather them almost by the handful. Never so utterly at peace as when picking blackberries or looking for mushrooms, the spread of Ingleborough and Pennyghent still sunny while black clouds gather over Morecambe. A flock of sheep comes up the road and won't pass me until I stand in the ditch. The pretty farm girl who is bringing up the rear seems almost as reluctant to pass as the sheep, just giving me a shy 'Hello' and running on. A mountain ash tree, weighed down with huge swags of crimson berries, catches the last of the sun. It's like something by Samuel Palmer; paint it as bright and glowing as it is and it would seem like a vision."