Having recently published my first novel, I have entered the strange world of blogging, of, amongst many other things, letting-people-know-that-I-exist. The intention is that someone other than family and friends will read my story and even pass constructive comment on it.
In many ways, this ‘entering the stream’ – which I have borrowed from Buddhist terminology signifying liberation from the suffering that arises through wrong views about the ego – means partaking in the bizarre construction of a moveable and Chimeric market-place somewhat different from the traditional, more solid and geographically predictable one. For a ‘newbie’, it is bewildering: possibilities, choices and connections appear endless. Links engender more links, the social media landscape emerges like a multi-faceted metropolis, almost unrecognizable when compared with the formerly proscribed view from a tiny window. How can I follow it all? And who is the most worthy to be followed? So many variables…
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, in the ‘real’ world, there are people and organisations that still rely on traditional ways of communicating information. These can be successful, particularly where there is a dedicated publicist who understands that many people still prefer the well-organised, clear and uncluttered paper poster to the virtual one. Unfortunately, though, too often the publicity for many events that have been planned, organised, set for a particular time and place, potentially exciting, or useful, or intriguing (I am thinking of irregular markets, exhibitions, even talks) appears to have been left to someone who is unfit for anything else. Torn cardboard, the backs of old table-tops, brown paper, plastic boxes, anything can be the support on which the message is written. But ‘written’ does not describe the almost illegible lettering that is meant to direct, inform and encourage. ‘Vide-Greniers’ says the notice, in white paint on cream-coloured card, miles from anywhere, on a main road, so the only people who will spot the sign are driving by at 90 kph. The time and place are lost in minuscule writing that has been squeezed into the remaining space.
My wife and I recently visited Davejean, a small village in the Corbières hills, where an art weekend had been organized. There were human-sized sculptures on street-corners, houses had been opened to make exhibition spaces, alleyways and gardens invited people to view photographs, space-delineating ribbons, figures in trees, constructions of bones and metal bits and pieces, collages, montages, assemblages. But the most astonishing piece was an installation in the church of Saint-Saturnin, by artist Bernard Alain Brux. We both said, ‘Wow!’ as first impressions were overwhelming: hundreds of human figures dangling in space, illuminated by natural and artificial light, inviting visitors to both view them and walk amongst them. Here’s a link to their website: https://www.lesrendezvoussinguliers.com/
Yes, there is a website, but nothing you would be likely to stumble across accidentally. So how did we get to know about the event? From an A4 printed sheet of paper, attached by two pieces of Sellotape to the door of the local tabac, and visible only when the place was open. The sheet was flapping in the wind: we happened to be passing by. Otherwise, there were no other notices, anywhere, in the local area. Not until approaching Davejean itself did we see evidence that something might be happening.
This village is certainly not atypical of an approach that seems to say: it’s on, but don’t let on. This is a pity, particularly during the ‘season’ when visitors are hungry for markets, vide-greniers and other open-air events.
So: two extremes of the publicity-engine.
As for myself, I feel a bit like a child in an inflatable buoyancy-aid suddenly tossed amongst the white-water kayakers of the Colorado. It’s terrifying (but exciting, new and challenging). It certainly demands more than just quietly waiting for visitors to be attracted to the fragile poster flapping fitfully in an errant breeze.
Now and again, it is possible to come across a book that instantly launches itself to the top of one’s ‘to read’ pile. This happens most frequently in the ‘For Sale’ section of my local library, where children’s stories, Wild West adventures, history, fantasy and romance stand shoulder-to-shoulder with award-winning works by European and Asian authors whose novels rarely achieve the publicity-status they deserve. Sometimes this may be because they have not been translated into English. In the case of Jose Saramago, though, there is no lack of multi-lingual versions of this Nobel Laureate’s work.
‘Seeing’ is a novel published in 2004, a few years after its ‘prequel’, ‘Blindness’, which is about a society most of whose population become blind and where the ‘powerful blind’ of the institution they are housed in terrorize the ‘weaker blind’. I have not yet read ‘Blindness’, but it has been described as a microcosm of the abuse of power and the immorality that seems endemic in those who have fought their way (or been voted) to the highest positions in the land.
‘Seeing’ is about the same group of people, some years later. Who it is and what is seen does not become clear until some way into the story, but what is clear is that the corruption and abuse of power of those in charge is recast under a different set of circumstances.
It is election day in an unnamed city. The people charged with manning the polling-station are waiting for people to arrive. For most of the day, no-one does. Then, after a rainstorm when the custodians of the ballot-boxes have almost given up hope, there is a surge of voters: everyone is relieved. When the votes are counted, however, it becomes clear that 87% of voters have returned blank papers. This throws the council into a panic.
They are forced, by the rules, to hold a second vote a few days later, and the results are even worse. From then on, the panic of the government takes the form of recriminations against the population. A State of Emergency is declared, the government absconds (for security reasons) and barriers are set up to prevent the population from leaving. A curfew is put in place, but even the emergency services and the police are withdrawn, so that the potential for lawlessness is increased. Soon, spies are sent in to find out who specifically did not vote, and why; but we gradually become sympathetic to one police superintendent whose feelings for the people begin to override the demands of his task. From there, events darken further and reach a shocking (but, in a way, unsurprising) conclusion.
There is little punctuation and almost no paragraphing in this book. Description, speech, thoughts, speculations, are spun out together: it takes patience to pursue the first part of a tale that may or may not reward the reader. The temptation is to read quickly, ignoring the subtleties, simply because the customary visual signposts are missing. But slow down, appreciate the shifts of tone, viewpoint, import, and the rewards are there. The tension is deftly managed so that the police-superintendent’s situation, beginning, is at does, with the impression that he is simply just another tool of repression, changes into one where he becomes the victim, and his conscience is unable to influence the behaviour of his superiors.
In his Nobel Laureate acceptance-speech in 1988, Saramago said that he works ‘to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.’ Indeed.
I have just finished reading Yann Martel’s 101 Letters to Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of the title was Canada’s Stephen Harper, and the letters take the form of personal recommendations of novels, short stories, poetry and drama, together with the added spice of Martel’s tangential thoughts and comments.
Stephen Harper was reputed never to read novels, short stories, poetry or drama. In that respect he was not unlike many in this world, but unlike them he was someone with a certain amount of power, a high-profile public figure whose decisions affected countless Canadians for better or worse.
That Yann Martel loves writing is evident, not only in his own work — Life of Pi being probably the best-known internationally — but also in the joy with which he read and re-read the selection he sent to Stephen Harper, every two weeks for four years.
The purpose of his dogged, patient, generous, driven project was to try and encourage a man with a considerable effect on other human beings to become more of a human being himself. And if such a goal might sound like the fantasy of an insufferably arrogant writer with ideas beyond his station, then the tone, the humility and the genuinely humane tenor of these pages ought to convince the reader he is not. And that is not to assume that Prime Ministers (or politicians, or bankers, or Chief Executives, or Presidents) cannot also be readers, or attentive to the human condition: TS Eliot was a banker, Kafka an insurance clerk. And Barack Obama, a President of the United States as sane, balanced and compassionate as anyone in power can be in this unsettled world, actually wrote personally to Yann Martel to let him know how much pleasure the reading of Life of Pi had given him and his wife, Michelle.
The 101 Letters is a fine, eclectic carpet-bag of novels and short stories — from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to Junot Díaz’s Drown; Animal Farm to A Clockwork Orange; Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse to Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models; children’s books, graphic novels, poetry, Waiting for Godot, the Bhagavad Gita, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Niebelungenlied: the list could go on to the end of all 101choices.
Sadly, though, this sender of books, with their attendant thoughtful, enthusiastic and humane observations and exhortations, received not a single reply. Not a thank-you, not even a hastily-scribbled Post-It note to say: Very kind of you, pal, but I never read a damn thing that isn’t to do with being Prime Minister of Canada. No. The nearest Yann Martel got to any kind of response were a few acknowledgements from a Prime Ministerial secretary that could just have well have been issued by a semi-educated Satnav.
I have to say, however, in the interests of fairness, that I have only Yann Martel’s word for all this. Being no more acquainted with Stephen Harper than I am with Kim Jong-un, I can’t be certain that he was not an avid reader who simply objected to being sent unsolicited material by an upstart Canadian Mann Booker Prize-winning author and literary celebrity; or that he never came within sniffing distance of the books, which were spirited unseen onto the shelves of the Governmental Library, or passed on by the secretary to family and friends as Christmas gifts.
Whatever the destiny of these chosen works and their commentaries, I think we should be happy that writers such as Yann Martel blow the trumpet for literature and the expansive effect that encountering others’ cultures, emotions, proclivities, spirit, can have on us human animals. Henry Miller did something similar for me many years ago, when I was but a long-haired and bearded trog. His The Books in My Life introduced me to such writers as Blaise Cendrars, whose work I have not seen in a British bookshop or library to this day. Thank you, both.
Just to let people who may be interested know, I have my first novel on Amazon, printed and Kindle versions. Having waited in vain for agents to even acknowledge my e-mails, I have decided to self-publish because I would like people to READ it.
It’s called Zazou and Rebecca, and is set in Southern France, in the Languedoc, where my wife and I spend several months each year.
Now, doing it this way and in this area may have completely gone against blogging protocol, and, if so, I would be very happy to put this info. in the right place. Please advise!
All I know about this post is that I am going to introduce myself and lay down what I might write about.
My name is David Pearson. I was born in Dudley, in the West Midlands (formerly the glorious county of Worcestershire) at a time when the streets could be smog-bound and the canals were slicked with oil and choked with all manner of industrial and domestic debris, including unwanted pets. This was not long after WWII. 1950, to be precise. On the birth-date of Thomas Hardy, to be even more precise.
I wandered the streets of Dudley and Birmingham until I was eighteen, then travelled further afield to Europe and Asia. In 1973, my wife and I moved to Jersey, Channel Islands, where I wrote and painted, intending to write or paint as a career. Instead, I became a non-qualified teacher with three children. From there, we decided on Somerset, where I became a (now-qualified) teacher of English, Drama, Art and French, writing in my ‘spare’ time and amassing hundreds of pages of poetry, prose and jottings, most of which I didn’t have the confidence to send out for publication. I also **** Buddhism. (I need to insert a word or phrase here that suggests I took a keen interest in/was absorbed by Buddhism, but that I didn’t formally commit to ‘being a Buddhist’). That personal involvement has not diminished, though the Sangha (Buddhist community) aspect has always felt a bit tricky. More on that in my ‘Buddhist Musings’.
The time to retire from full-time teaching arrived after I fell down the school steps and shattered. Although I continued with Somerset County Council, I worked in a centre comprising small groups and individuals for whom school was no longer an option. I also became part of the Virtual Classroom, communicating through the internet with those who could not even face going to the centre. Some of them were unable to leave their bedrooms or talk to their own parents, but these very ones did, in many cases, achieve qualifications in the ‘core’ (or their own choice of) subjects via the wonderful Virtual classroom platform.
Once I had become a full-time retiree, I was able to finish a novel that I had been working on when I could. Again, more about that elsewhere. And to tackle a trek across the Pyrenees. There are things to say about that, too.
But that’s more than enough for the moment. I shall try and ‘blog’ quite regularly: it’s a case of getting into the habit. I shall, as all good bloggers do, discuss what I have read and seen; link to, and recommend others’ blogs, books, poems, exhibitions, activities, organisations; issue the occasional left-wing pinko liberal diatribe against political and institutional stupidity (plenty to mention there) and neo-fascism and white supremacy and sexism, ageism, youngism, tongueism, even, when necessary (eg the treatment by some harm-no-living-creatures-and-work-for-the-welfare-of-all-sentient-beings Burmese Buddhist priests of the Rohinga people is beyond despicable) Buddhism. Bye for now.