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Showing posts from July, 2012

The Lives of Others

I find it hard to disabuse myself of the notion that the biography is a secondary art. It takes the stuff of other peoples’ lives, mostly the salacious bits, and tries to make a conclusive narrative out of what is essentially fragmented. Those who can’t write their own material, become biographers. Or even worse, become writers whose sole metier is autobiography: those often shapeless (or alternately, deformed with over-significance) baggy monsters. I don’t feel that way about published journals. Journals seem fundamentally more honest. It is where self-knowledge, if possessed, gives itself away.

At an Oxfam booksale a few months ago I picked up a copy of Richard Holmes’ Footsteps , an autobiography of his experiences as the biographer of Romantic figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley. I recognized Holmes; his huge Shelley and Coleridge biographies are still well thought of. It was in reading about Holmes’ younger years as a waifish biographer, living hand-to-mouth in Europe and…

The Selection

I went to Blackwells this afternoon to buy a unit of fiction and I found choosing extremely difficult. I am always plagued with the feeling that the same book is being written over and over – a novel during wartime London; a tale of young women vying for the stage in the 1920s; an affair set in the present day; an old man remembering his first sexual experience; a historical romp beaded heavily with elaborate camp; stories of young male vagabonds whose consciousnesses disintegrate while walking the streets at night. Books on shelves – with their bright loopy covers and vibrant letters and bumptious puffs - seem to mean nothing. Perhaps this is a result of not reading contemporary fiction for so long. The hackneyed book news, the schools of fiction, the masters writing classes, review readers, Costa and Orange awards; what do they mean? It took me two trips and at least an hour of choosing and then discarding everything and clinging to Diego Marani’s Finnish Grammar and thinking At Las…
A house, not in Paris, but covered in vines. I wake as early as I can force my body up – nearly noon – and scamper around the house, looking out windows and vantage points, photographing nooks, admiring sunlight in crevices or on the old chicken coop. C tells us later that there had been Easter chicks and a cock, and the woman who worked for them told them that the chickens had all been carried off by a fox. Strange, but no matter. More chickens were bought to raise. The next year, the same thing happened. All the chickens carried off by a fox. This, together with the fact that the orchard is full of healthy trees that never manifest ripe fruit, confirms C’s suspicion about the French in general and his housekeeper in particular. The French are lazy and try to get away with everything, he said with disgust, momentarily forgetting his thoroughly French heritage.

A and I walk into the village to buy baguettes. I practice the most important phrase I know, Est-ce que je peux prende deux c…

Au reservoir, Angleterre

The passport control in Dover was French and, despite me rocking back and forth, we had no problem leaving English soil. He smiled and waved us forward. And so onward: on to the ferry, that lumbering giant of duty-free shops and European tweens dressed in American sports paraphernalia and practicing their smoking and football hooliganism. On to the noticeably different French landscape, with its tall slim trees and wild underbrush, and tawny Van Gogh wheat fields. We drove into Burgundy after midnight in a lightning storm. I’ve never seen such violent electricity at so close a range, splitting the sky in several places at once, and lighting the vineyards which spread for miles on every side. C, our host, rolled down the window to crow. ‘Do you smell that?’ he said, breathing in the thick, humid storm-air. ‘That is the vines. That is the smell of wine.’ He continued to exclaim ‘vineyard!’ at every plant we passed. ‘Look at that? That field’s covered in vineyards. And on the other side…