Tag Archives: reading

John Fowles, Alexander the Great, and finding your fulcrum moment

“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”

John Fowles, The Magus

I planned to start this blog anew today in the kind of spirit that comes over many, even most of us at this time of year – a dollop of optimism, a dash of cod philosophy, the pinchiest pinch of the confessional. I had a quote in mind, something I half-recalled about how we are free and how that freedom is terrifying. I thought it was John Fowles.

I took down my copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first of Fowles’ novels that I read and the one I love the most. I flicked through it but couldn’t find the quote. I did what anyone would do in such circumstances – I turned to Google.

I still didn’t find the quote. If anyone reading this knows the one I’m talking about, please let me know – otherwise I’m going to have to read the whole book again, and I have a horrible feeling that I’ll discover it isn’t there at all. And then I’ll have to re-read The Magus – which feels like hard going for January; and then The Collector, which is too creepy for winter reading. And then I’ll feel guilty about that copy of Daniel Martin that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years and which I’ve never got around to. And there are so many other things I wanted to read this year and frankly, after the last few days spent stuffing myself with chocolate, and cuddling the cats, and dozing through the second half of yet another Miss Marple on DVD, it all seems just a little bit exhausting.

So for once, Google did not provide. It did, though, lead me to a whole pile of other Fowles quotes, courtesy of Goodreads. After a quarter of an hour or so looking through them – and feeling that familiar mixture of admiration and despair that comes with reading work you can’t fail to acknowledge is about three million times better than anything you could hope to produce yourself – I came across the little beauty reproduced at the top of this page.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

Because I’d been thinking about whether, in considering a fairly big change in my life (never fear – I’ll bore you with the details of that some other time) I was being true to myself or delusional, honest or selfish, brave or foolish. And here, it seemed to me, was someone saying – when you truly know yourself, it doesn’t matter. When you truly know yourself, there are no choices left to make.

Fowles is too sophisticated to suggest that this fulcrum, the point at which, finally, one understands oneself, comes at a particular time in life. Well, he’s either too sophisticated or he knows and isn’t telling.

I’d like to reassure myself that it comes with the wisdom of old(er) age. But somehow I can’t see a 30 year-old Alexander the Great twiddling his sword while he surveyed the greatest empire of the ancient world, wondering whether he was fully expressing his creative side.

Surely some people must just get it.

But whilst part of me would love that certainty, that clarity of purpose, another part can’t help feeling that this is all just a little bit deterministic. It suggests that, at your core, there’s something fundamental and unchanging. A “real you” that you can find if you pull back the layers, like onion skin, and that when you’ve reached it there’s no choice but to live with it, make use of it – chop it up and make a Bolognese sauce. Or something. onion skin

Perhaps this is my problem: making choices. Because choosing one option inevitably means discarding others. Alexander the Great couldn’t have been history’s most successful military commander and, say, Wimbledon Champion. Even if he was really, really good at tennis. I mean, what if the Siege of Halicarnassus had clashed with the qualifiers? Or if his coach had told him that flinging around a spear would be detrimental to his back swing?

Perhaps sometimes you just have to choose. And maybe making the wrong choices now and again is okay. Maybe it’s doing that very thing, and recognising when your choices haven’t been for the best, that brings you to your own fulcrum moment.

Good luck for all your choices in 2016.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

Or actually, disgruntled of London SE13. Let me tell you why…

A month ago, I attended my second ever meeting of my book club. As discussed in an earlier post (Getting More Out Of An Evening With Your Trollope), the first one wasn’t all I’d hoped for. The second, despite having roughly half the number of people present, was much better. We were discussing John Lanchester’s Capital – highly recommended – and the conversation bubbled along merrily over character, plot and voice.  On departing, we were handed the book for our next meeting: Artemis Cooper’s highly rated biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. artemis-cooper-patrick-leigh-fermor-an-adventure-summer

Now, I’ll be honest: my heart sank. The last biography I picked up was when I was about 13 and had ordered David Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon from a book club, thinking it sounded like a humorous teenage novel, or possibly nonsense verse.  It was duly confiscated by my mother who said it was “rude”.  Needless to say, that was reason enough for me to dig it out again the moment her back was turned, but I was sadly disappointed: not rude at all, just dull.

This may very well be an unfair judgement. I was 13, and reading about the life of an elderly, gay actor I’d never heard of was always going to be an uphill struggle. Fast forward a couple of decades (alright – a couple of decades and a bit) and reading about the life of a dead travel writer I’d similarly never heard of wasn’t exactly appealing either.

I steeled myself, however. I told myself that reading books I wouldn’t pick out for myself was one of the points of joining a book club in the first place.  Surely, I thought, I’m intelligent and grown-up enough these days to find this interesting. It has, after all, had glowing reviews.

And so I began.

It was fairly obvious from the first pages that reading about a writer whose work I’d never read left me at a distinct disadvantage. If I’d been more committed to the task, I might have got my hands on one of Mr Leigh Fermor’s books – but then, I don’t much like travel writing either. So I soldiered on.  In the first three weeks I managed the sum total of 50 pages.

Still, there’s nothing like a deadline to galvanise the spirit, and with Thursday’s meeting approaching I picked up the pace.  I skimmed rapidly over paragraphs, pausing now and again to cross-refer one of the characters to their photo, learning about Paddy – I now felt we were on first name terms – and his travels, his exploits in Greece during the Second World War, his various affairs, his long-suffering girlfriend and eventual wife (long-suffering being my term: the biographer preferred “not emotionally jealous”), and his struggles with writing and the curse of procrastination. I quite liked that last bit.

Even so, it was hard work. Paddy evidently inspired quite different reactions in people, and I’m afraid I’d have been one of those who found him rather an irritating arse. Plus he was surrounded by a cast of characters where every woman was beautiful and talented and vivacious, and ever man was clever and dashing. What an exhausting bunch!

And when it comes down to it, the truth of the matter is that I like my stories told as stories, not reportage, no matter how well written. I’m confirmed in my view that biographies just aren’t for me. That probably makes me irredeemably unintellectual, but there we are: at least I’ve learned something.

But none of that makes me Disgruntled of SE13.  The cause of that was quite simple: after dutifully completing the whole book I missed the meeting! 

I can be quite smug about the reason for this: I was working away at the rewrite for my novel, and for once was concentrating so hard that I forgot the time. The smuggery associated with this (“Oh, I was so caught up in my writing, the hours just flew by!”) is not, however, full recompense for all that biography-reading time I’ll never get back. And what to do now with the handful of observations I’d managed to garner?

Well, there weren’t many of them. Probably just enough for a para or two about why I didn’t much like either Paddy or biographies generally.

Maybe just enough for a post on my blog…

Twittersweet Symphony (or How To Get Noticed When Everything Around You is Amazing)

The other night I was sat reading the book for my first ever book club meeting next month (Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, since you ask) and, in a rare scene of domestic tranquillity, my husband was sat next to me on the sofa looking at Earth Pics (@Earth_Pics) on Twitter. (That’s right, the telly was OFF. Sign me up for my subscription to Organic Vegan Yoga Weekly now.)

The raison d’être of Earth Pics, for the uninitiated, is to share astonishing or beautiful things from around the world, captured on film.  Every so often, Husband would interrupt my reading to show me something particularly astounding. Photos I saw:

  • a German cavalry soldier circa 1935 standing ramrod straight and perfectly balanced on the saddle of his horse whilst firing his rifle;

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    Dobbin wasn’t sure that Thai massage was for him.

  • a towering wave in Antarctica, turned to a snow-coated tube of ice at the very moment when it should have broken;
  • two oceans joining, a clear line between royal blue on one side and turquoise on the other, because the waters for some reason don’t mix;
  • a couple of 1940s types playing tennis on the wings of an aircraft in flight.

Anyone with access to the internet can see this stuff. It’s amazing.  We should spend our days in a state of perpetual amazement.  We should pause on that very first photo and spend the evening discussing it.  We should spend the next day telling our friends about it.  Instead, we murmur to one another how wonderful it is and move on to the next one.

My point is this: when everyone has access to these incredible images, to a world of fantastic, eye-popping, brain-scrambling photos and paintings and video, all at the click of a mouse, how on earth do you get your material noticed?

I don’t just mean this little blog (though I mean that too, obviously).  But setting aside the wonders of Earth Pics and thinking about reading for a moment, there are five centuries’ worth of incredible books out there.  All those classics that have withstood the test of time are now free as e-books. Austen and Dickens and Thackeray and Trollope, all of them amply re-paying second and third readings and all of them available for precisely no pence.

Fair enough, Woman cannot live on the classics alone.  But honestly, am I the only aspiring writer out there who reads a new David Mitchell or a Barbara Kingsolver or a Julian Barnes and dies a little inside?  When there’s so much writing out there that’s absolutely, bona fide brilliant, what miracle of chance or fate is needed to get a reader to choose to spend hours of their life with my offering?

Taking as read that the odds are stacked against me, I’ve seen two tips over the last couple of days that I think might help.

The first was: be a perfectionist in your writing.   Having spent the better part of the last two years trying to silence my inner critic in order to complete my novel’s first draft, I’ll be  honest, I find this one a little disheartening.  I’d got to the point where I quite enjoyed the freedom that came with recognising this or that paragraph didn’t quite flow properly, that my simile was a bit of a cliché, or that my whole chapter’s structure seriously needed work and ploughing on regardless.  This being a perfectionist business sounds like a lot of hard work.  That probably means it’s worth doing.

The second was that persistence is more important than talent.  I like this. It feels reassuring.  Talent seems to me one of those things you either have or you don’t.  Persistence, on the other hand, surely just requires a bit of will power.

Both of them, though, imply a degree of effort. A measure of blood, sweat and tears.  A soupçon of struggle and strife.

Hmm. I think I might be revising my deadline for completing that second draft.