Friday, October 26, 2012

By Heart

A whole supplement in The Guardian last weekend, about how to write a novel in 30 days. And nothing in there, I bet, about the tricky business of Epigraphs. Many years ago, I wanted one for my second novel, The Alchemist, so I started by thinking about poetry I knew by heart. That didn’t get me very far.

     Do I contradict myself?
     Very well then, I contradict myself,
     I am large, I contain multitudes.

I think I remember that because I like the direct address, the acceptance that real life doesn’t slip into neat files, it’s more complicated than that, more messy and various. If you know it ‘by heart’ then perhaps it’s because it speaks in some way to your heart, hits you on an emotional level.

     At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
     Your trumpets angels and arise, arise
     From death, you numberless infinities of souls,
     And to your scattered bodies go,
     All whom flood did and fire shall overthrow.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s stirring stuff, with a fantastic rhythm. You feel like you want to shout that ‘blow’ at the end of the first line.

     Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
     In time the curtain edges will grow light,
     Till then I see what’s really always there:
     Unresting death, a whole day closer now
     Making all thought impossible but when
     And where and how I myself shall die.

I’m not sure that’s right, but it’s something like that. I can remember more of it too, there seems to be quite a lot of it in my head. Death and miserableness have always drawn me towards them. But what’s my memory doing? At school we were given large chunks of Shakespeare (the seven ages of man, Hamlet’s speech involving ‘a quintessence of dust’), and the whole of the Donne sonnet beginning  ‘Death be not proud ...’ to learn, but I don’t remember more than the odd word or phrase of those. They’re presumably floating around my brain somewhere, in some dusty backroom, perhaps along with everything I’ve ever read which, as mentioned below, has just fizzled away like steam.

In the end, many years ago, I looked in a dictionary of quotations for my Epigraph, and came up with something that seemed appropriate.

     A cheat, a thief, a swearer and
     blasphemer, who smelt of the rope from
     a hundred yards away, but for the rest
     the best lad in the world.

It’s from Clement Marot’s Epitres, as you probably know, (that's a joke), and it does have some aptness, since duality is at the heart of the novel, and my young hero does some very unheroic things, but it felt like cheating to have to look it up. I’ve never used an Epigraph since, or wanted to, but I do sometimes wish I could remember a bit more poetry ...

Monday, October 01, 2012

Blood Meridian

I don’t often reread novels, but I was in the middle of the slow, sad procession of CANADA, by Richard Ford. It begins by saying he's going to tell us about his parents committing a bank robbery, and for a hundred pages or so I thought, OK, creeping sense of inevitablity, good, but for the next hundred I was thinking for God’s sake, rob the bank! I suddenly felt a desire to read BLOOD MERIDIAN again. I bought it in the Eighties, it was recommended by a friend, Adrian Curry, who worked on a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. It blew me away, and I’ve read a lot of Cormac McCarthy since. SUTTREE, a Faulknerian rush of a book, its prose glittering and lush; ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, a wonderful start to a disappointing trilogy; THE ROAD, his masterpiece. You can get a little impatient sometimes, with his relentless examination of masculinity. There are more ways of being masculine than being either noble and taciturn or savage and taciturn. And there’s another gender out there Cormac, 51% of the world. On the other hand, this is what he's chosen as his subject. He's like a solemn witness to things most people prefer to look away from.

And what a pleasure it is to read him. You just have to take a step back and admire the sheer relentless power of BLOOD MERIDIAN. You sense him, over his career, struggling to hold despair and misanthropy at bay, that’s what makes THE ROAD so wonderful, that attempt to hold up the relationship between the father and his son as the last hope in the darkness. But the darkness pretty much conquers everything in BLOOD MERIDIAN. Even the epigraphs are ominous and admonitory. Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. And the writing seems to come from some ancient hermit, crafting strange sentences that have never been written before. It has the rhythmic cadence of the Bible, idiosyncratic syntax, very little punctuation, and a muscly prose, lumpy with flowery, unfamiliar vocabulary.

Try this – The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely a space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are no less. Sprent? That sentence is very nearly ridiculous, and perhaps wrenched out of context it seems silly. (What’s going on with that last clause?) But it carries itself with a dark, confident strut, and it smells of doom. Black and bitter doom. Cormac McCarthy – greatest living American writer?