Thursday, January 29, 2009

Passing It On

I made a small contribution to this compilation of answers to the question 'What's the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?' Interestingly, a couple of the answers reveal far more about the writers than they might suppose...

Instant Architecture

Shop in a shipping container, Bemerton Street, North London.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike At Rest

The news is pretty much universal. Rightly so.

I realise that I've been reading his stuff for almost forty years.* I first found it in Stroud Library, when I started to explore books that weren’t shelved in the science fiction section, and came across Rabbit Redux:
Men emerge pale from the little printing shop at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite kerbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and grey milk-bottles and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking kerbside cars wince beneath the brilliance like a frozen explosion.
I went on from there to read most all of his novels and a good deal of his short fiction and his nonfiction (this wasn’t an easy task, given his famously prodigious output). Even in the least of his novels, his fabulously limpid prose is shot through with a fastidious particularity. It taught me a lot about writing, and observation, and the telling detail. He made us see the everyday world afresh, and he portrayed with unpitying sympathy and deft and lapidary precision the mores and milieu of white, middle America in the last half of the twentieth century. His four Rabbit novels (Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit At Rest) rightly belong in the canon; his Bech stories are a fine and funny portrait of his alter ego, a Jewish author suffering an immense block after early success; The Centaur is an excellent portrait of a nascent writer and childhood in rural America in the 1940s. He was sympathetic to science fiction: Toward The End Of Time is set in a near-future dystopia; Roger’s Version is contains a very fine visionary exploration of a mathematical search for God’s existence. And any writer interested in the short form should study his stories. Two collections I’d especially recommend are Pigeon Feathers and Museums & Women.

The New York Times’s obituary quotes his answer to a question put to him by The Paris Review, asking about his decision to shun the New York spotlight: “Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”

I didn’t live in Kansas, but I was that boy.

* Added later. Rabbit Redux was published here in 1972, so I guess that dates my first encounter.

Even later, Ed Champion interviews Updike (main event starts three minutes in).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boats Against The Current, Borne Ceaselessly Into The Past

It pretty much rained the whole weekend, here in London, so I stayed in and worked on the ongoing project, which I hope to be able to tell you about soon, and indulged in some shameless and enjoyable nostalgia, watching a double-bill DVD of two 1960s rarities. The first, The London Nobody Knows, is a documentary based on the eponymous book by Geoffrey Fletcher. Fletcher wrote the script, Norman Cohen directed, and James Mason is the effortlessly sympathetic guide, strolling around the parts of London tourists generally don't see, and which would soon mostly be swept aside by modernisation. It takes in a disused music hall once frequented by Walter Sickert, ancient railway yards, buskers, street markets, an eel and mash pie shop and the site of one of Jack the Ripper's murders in a backyard in unreconstructed Spitalfields, and juxtaposes swinging London scenes with some shockingly visceral squalor. A small gem, and essential viewing for anyone interested in London.

It's paired with Les Bicyclettes De Belsize, a short, silly, but charming musical set in Hampstead rather than neighbouring Belsize, in which a boy on a bicycle crashes into a billboard, falls in love with the model it depicts, and sets out to find her. The catchy title song was a hit for Englebert Humperdinck.

Bonus link - a short colour film from 1935, showing the Thames when it was still a working river.
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