Portrait of an Atheist Monk at Prayer, Oran Ryan’s first collection, reflects on the nature of existence in a world of conflicting ideologies and belief systems, an age seeking certainty in a post truth state, an era of rising new empires and changing values and faiths, an era of absolutist thinking that hides a deep uncertainty about once seemingly timeless values. It’s also about sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and robots.
“With poems that draw their inspiration from space travel, music, art, pop culture, science and philosophy, this book is the perfect read for anyone with an interest in questions of belief and unbelief…This is writing that will play on your mind and your emotions long after you have turned the last page”Eileen Sheehan
“Like a Fly Agaric gospel from outer space, these poems are a hallucinogenic Book of Revelations.” John W. Sexton
“In poems of sometimes cosmic irony, comedy and tragedy dance together in a way that is often sublime.” Kevin Higgins
“The questing gnostic voice, rising from the tumult of discordant collision at the interface of popular culture and organised religion, speaks to both seeker and saved.” Eamon Carr see also Horslips
Oran Ryan is a writer living in Ireland. He has written novels: The Death of Finn (Seven Towers, 2006) Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger (Seven Towers 2007), and One Inch Punch (Seven Towers, 2012). He has written plays: Don Quixote has Been Promoted (2009, Ranelagh Arts Festival) for the stage and radio: Preliminary Design for a Universe Circling Spacecraft (KRPN, San Francisco, California 2010). He has written and published short stories, poetry and literary critical articles.
Kevin Higgins, whose best-selling first collection, The Boy With No Face published by Salmon Poetry, was short-listed for the 2006 Strong Award for Best First Collection by an Irish poet. Kevin’s second collection of poems, Time Gentlemen, Please was published in 2008 by Salmon Poetry and his poetry is discussed in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry. His third collection Frightening New Furniture was published in 2010 by Salmon and his work also appears in the generation defining anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Ed. Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010). A collection of Kevin’s essays and book reviews, Mentioning The War, was published in 2012 by Salmon Poetry. His next collection of poetry, The Ghost in The Lobby, was published in 2014, by Salmon. Press.
Around 2009 I was unwell. I didn’t know it, but I was not ok. I had began to feel tired. Looking back now this comes as no surprise. For the previous six years I had been working on a novel called One Inch Punch.
I had stopped taking care of myself: mentally, emotionally, physically. I was insomniac, drinking too much, sleeping odd hours, not exercising. I was obsessed with the novel. I lived the book, day and night. I dreamed the text. I woke up in the morning with dialogue in my head. I had images of the various characters fluttering like butterflies around my conscious and subconscious. One Inch Punch had become a monster, and how I loved my monster. It slept beneath my bed and gazed at me as I ate and worked at my desk. How I loved my characters. In a sense they had become more real to me than my friends, my family, indeed the world itself. Life had become something of a distraction. All I wanted to do was go on writing. I wanted to trace the life of a failed genius, this guy, this fictional Gordon Brock. I named him after my obsession with the band Hawkwind, whose lead singer’s surname was Brock. before I started writing pers se, I was noting things down, for a long time. I started from the beginning, from Gordy’s experience of being bullied as a kid to his life as a philandering psychotherapist who wrote garbage self help books that kept him rich and idle, to the end of his marriage, to his meeting in middle age with his nemesis, Ed Frasier one freezing winter day when both of them were Christmas shopping. Now lets be clear on this, my Gordon was not a nice guy, not what you might call an attractive character, not filled with the milk of human kindness. Gordon Brock was an asshole. As Senator David Norris said so hilariously at the launch of the novel “He was a bit of a bollox.” (scan forward in the video to 2.38 min) Absolutely true, but it didn’t matter. I loved him. I loved Gordon Brock, iq 174, his wife Martha Reynolds Brock, his Mom and dad who loved him so, his worst enemy Dr. Ed Fraser (we always need a nemesis to struggle against, I guess), his school teachers, his son Joshua. I was world building, and it was fun. This book was my life for six whole years. I had wanted to write about the impact of childhood bullying and torment for a very long time before, and here, when I found my Gordon in my dreams, there came my chance. I didn’t give a shit about publishing this book. I wanted to keep going forever. Writing was my life my religion, my prayer, my meaning, as Depeche Modewould have itMy own Personal Jesus. It was the most fulfilling thing I could ever do. Naturally I didn’t tell people this. Ones life partner might somehow take umbrage on hearing such madness. Anyway I went on. Sarah went to work. I cooked, cleaned, walked the dogs, and took a shower now and then, went to literary events with great reluctance, and joyfully returned to my desk to return to my own personal virtual reality. And then it all ended and the lights went out and they stayed out. I got sick. I crashed and burned. Everything fell apart, and then things got worse…
Literary style is what you see before you when you open the first page of a book, particularly a literary work. Literary style (or ‘writing style’ or ‘literary voice’ or the ‘writer’s voice’) is the way a writer uses words in sentences.
2. Why do writers employ a literary style?
Style is the fundamental way any writer expresses themselves. In order to express oneself, one has to choose ones words. in choosing certain words over other words one is employing a style. One’s style makes one unique. Style is a literary fingerprint, a verbal DNA. Stlye describes a writer’s individual use of sentences, what words they choose and how they choose to use them. A writer’s style is how their particular choice of words flows in their sentences. It’s pretty easy to see the differing styles in different writers. Choose your favourite writer and look and see whether or not their sentences are on average short or long, whether they use a lot of allusions or metaphors or external historical or scientific data or not, whether they use a lot of local colour, whether their work is filled with precise emotional or external factual data or not, whether their language is complex or not, whether they use a lot of irony or wit or not. Writers make these many word choices in order to tell their individual stories to best effect, to most powerfully depict their characters, to drive their plots on, to inform, challenge, educate, entertain, mystify and impress their readers. Writers strive towards developing their own unique style for several reasons. The most obvious reason might be their desire not to sound like other writers, but the main one is to properly express their own unique voice, what exactly is happening and how exactly it is happening in the lives and minds and hearts of the people in the worlds they are describing and in the stories they are telling. All the other aspects of writing: character, plot, sense of place, time, pacing – all these form the threads that make up the unique fabric of a writer’s style.
3. How important is literary style?
From what we have been talking about it’s clear that style is not some superficial aspect to writing. Style is substance when it comes to writing. It is the most immediate, most accessible part of any book, article, poem, play, or script. It’s what greets you when you start to read. It is that aspect of the writer’s art that takes you through a book of 100 thousand words or an article of 500 words. Thus it’s critically important to develop your style. You cannot write without style. You develop your plot through using literary devices delivered through your style. You describe your characters through style. You hold the reader’s attention by showing that here is a writer like no other, and your individual voice is a voice that the reader wants to listen to as they tell a story in a way that holds their attention through good or bad, through triumph or disaster, through suffering or joy. All of the above is achieved by the use of style.
4. How do I develop my style?
You develop your literary voice by practising and listening to your own inner voice. You also develop your voice, and by this I am speaking of your writing style, by being clear on what you have to say, by developing the story you want to tell, by carefully researching your subject, by making careful notes, by working out plot, characterization, pacing, by making a plan that works and sticking to it. It takes time and it takes patience.
5. Okay, but is there a method for developing style?
Other than a willingness to work at it, and seek to continually to improve your work, working towards perfecting the various aspects of story, plot, finding the right word in the right place and building from there, reading and learning, there is no known methodology for creating one’s own unique style. It can be said that one’s style finds you, rather than the reverse. The only way this can happen is by writing, and, as has been said before, writing is largely rewriting.
Writing is difficult, but its also something so basic to who we are as intelligent beings, that despite its difficulty, its something literally anyone and everyone can grasp. Art happens when the writer expresses something unique that emerges from the self and says something more than the contents and the tropes and methods learned from the craft. A craft on the other hand is a series of techniques to efficiently and easily perform a task, in this case the ancient art of writing. This being said, it is imperative that any aspiring writer learn the craft of writing. Just as potential martial artist must learn their craft in a dojo, or a potential musician study their instrument of choice and learn from mistresses and masters of the art, so too a potential writer needs to learn about how to write in order to write well. This tiny primer will help one take the first steps.
What is Creative Writing?
Creative Writing has its origins in our ancient practise of storytelling and poetry recitation. Creative Writing communicates what it means to live in the world in all varieties and forms. Creative writing helps us understand the world and it helps us describe our own and others experiences of living in the world. Its useful and life enhancing and good for us all.
2. Writing is for everyone.
Writing and storytelling is an art and a craft that has been practised for millennia. It can be practised by anyone who wants to be a writer. Writing is both an art and a craft. In other words, if you are interested in getting to know the world of writing a little better and try it out, there are certain skills one can learn and develop that will help one to express oneself more clearly and easily. Developing these skills takes time and practise, like any craft. From the craft of writing we can then work at developing our artistic gifts.
3. Find your space.
Have some place where you can write in peace and quiet. It’s difficult to work in a place with lots of distractions. Once you find your space, work out a schedule you can live with, and stick to it.
4. Schedule time.
Writing takes time and effort. Writing is often re-writing. Because it takes time and patience to grow your art, it’s important to schedule quality time outside our busy lives to make time for ourselves to be creative.
5. Get a Notebook.
Bring your notebook everywhere. What we write is a record of our lives, our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams, and starting with a notebook we can build these stories. A notebook is the indispensable tool for every writer. Write down thoughts, impressions, dreams, useful facts, memories, ideas for stories, poems, screenplays, theatre pieces. Remember that your notebook is your own and keep it private.
6. Go to open-mics, gigs, and writing groups.
Meet and associate with other writers and artists. Don’t isolate. You learn quickly from the example of others, also there are many courses and regular readings out there to test your work and see how it is received by an audience. Take your time and go to a few, and when you feel ready go up and read a poem or a short piece of fiction in front of a group.
Every great writer is a great reader. Use your local library. Read often and for long periods. Familiarize yourself with as many writers, thinkers, muses, as you can. This experience will deepen your knowledge not only of the world (which is important for your writing) but will show you how other writers approached various subjects, and help you avoid pitfalls.
8. Keep a healthy work life-balance.
If you take to writing, it can be a fascinating, fulfilling, and a demanding occupation. Remember to keep a good balance between your social and private life. Stay healthy, sleep lots, eat well, and avoid unhealthy lifestyles.
9. Write a certain amount you have already decided upon each day, and then stop.
It’s best to stop each day at a high point. Make a note of where you stopped, date it and continue from that point the next day, or when you decide to.
10. Take regular breaks from your writing.
It’s healthy and good for your work to take a break. Then, after the break, go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, and, most importantly, a refreshed brain and body.
11. Take Writing Courses.
It’s a good idea to do writing courses; many are excellent and helpful. The important thing to always remember is to develop your own style. The only way to develop your own style is to write, and keep writing, and not give up.
12. Have fun.
Writing is probably one of the most
fulfilling, delightful, mysterious, fascinating, and educational of
occupations. Never stop enjoying it.
When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’
They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.
I don’t buy this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.
Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.
Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.
So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the
question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:
Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.
By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. Imagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.
My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.
Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’. It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language or smoking weed out the back garden. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse. This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. Depression has certainly a marked chemical or genetic component, but it also has a societal aspect, a marked societal aspect. Our pain is framed by our world. If this pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.
So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.
So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.
But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.
Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.
“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”
(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.
I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
Ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own I knew I wanted nothing more than a quiet room of my own, a stipend or wage of sorts, and enough time and space to write, or more properly to think. All that seems a little crazy on paper, but it was where I was at back then. Decades later it hasn’t changed. In fact, having seen what fame and money has done to writers and artists of various stripes and persuasions, success in that sense is a fate I fear as equally as my ego and insecurities desperately long for it. So today, with these concerns buzzing away in my mind, I went over to University of Limerick to do an interview for a month long course in CELTA or the certificate for English language teaching (I am not really sure what the ‘A’ stands for) but its a qualification enabling me to teach English in pretty much any country in the world. There is naturally a downside to doing this expensive course, that is, if I pass the interview. Its is more than full time. I was warned by my interviewers that I will spend hours each night doing course work, along with the regular nine to five schedule, along with Saturdays and early morning meetings. This means I have to forego this book I am working on, which is a big worry. Will I lose the ‘gist’ or thread of ideas I am drawing from while I am engaged in working for this qualification? Will I write differently after all this linguistic analysis? I often think of what Ozzy Osbourne said when asked why he never learned to read or write music. He said that after a while he took the advice of friends never to learn, as the music he was involved in making might actually be ruined by learning the formal rules and procedures of music writing. It sounds rather counter intuitive. But now I know what he means. Time till tell.
Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.
This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”
I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You” But what is the matrix?
In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake. He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.
Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.
The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.
Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.
It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.
Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons. We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.
The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.
Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.
There are few extraordinarily gifted people people out there who can also be described as really good people. They exist of course, but Marcel Proust, a true artistic genius, was one of them. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful to a fault, a good and faithful friend and an extraordinarily generous man with his time and money, Marcel Proust deserves the title of being ‘extremely cool’. And his books have few peers in sheer scale of writing and breath of vision. They are extremely long, indeed an enormous committment, but the rewards far out weigh the effort in time and patience spent in reading these wonderful books. Forgive me if I sound as if an assumption is made here about prospective readers of Proust. As so much of contemporary culture is about instant rather than long term reward, I am advocating something somewhat counter cultural here. hence my caveat.
Marcel and Marcel – A life poured into a Novel
Marcel Proust poured his life into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, or, as in the original French, A La Recherché du Temps Perdu. From his life he composed so many unforgettable characters, living breathing people filled with ambivalent, sometimes clashing ambitions and sexualities, contradictory longings and sometimes devastating losses. These lives lurk within those famous long lyrical beautiful tortured sentences. There is the erudite eccentric homosexual Baron De Charlus, quoter of Balzac with a fixation for sado masochistic practices in male brothels. De Charlus pursues the gifted musician Morel, who eventually betrays him. Then there is Baron de Charlus’ nephew, Robert de saint Loup who though homosexual, courts and eventually marries Gilberte. Gilberte, with whom Marcel himself was once in love, is daughter to the coquette Odette. Odette is wife of the aesthete socialite, the fascinating and tragic Charles Swann, who risked exclusion from society for Odette, the woman he loved. Marcel, the “I” of the novel, the complex neurotic gifted sickly self-doubting central fictional narrator, has his own share of tragic love affairs. He falls passionately for the bisexual Albertine, whom Marcel jealously tries to control and possess completely. Albertine flees her captivity and dies tragically, something Marcel could never get past. There are other people too: the Guermantes family, the Verduins, Marcels parents, and the brilliant artist Elestir, among many others.
These characters are composites from Marcel Proust’s own life. In detailing their lives, Proust draws from the content of his consciousness, mixes compassion with irony, beauty with pathos, wit with savagery. This style and vision makes his novel addictive reading. It is surprising that there haven’t been more movies about the novel as Proust writes cinematographically. I know of two myself: Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, and Time Regained with Emmanuele Beart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Vincent Perez. Both are fine movies.
Reading Marcel Proust’s Novel
Reading Proust is looking into the mind of a writer/narrator with a fetish for exactitude, an eye for emotional and physical detail that borders on obsessive compulsive. And this is why any at attempt at summarising A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to subtract story from style, which is to miss out on one of the most unforgettable reading experiences one could have, no small loss in any lifetime. For Proust style is integral to substance, and the substance of the story is time, each moment of consciousness and identity being abolished by the next, time as death and rebirth captured and recalled and reborn in the truth of art. His work is filled with hilariously comic scenes of French society at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peppered with devastating ironies, depicting moments of extraordinary beauty and pathos and savagery. It has all the grasp of humanity, all the clarity and vision and beauty that only a mature artist can bring to a work at the height of their powers. It’s also in seven parts, and is three thousand pages long.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) came to write A la Recherché only after an equally long journey of self-discovery. It is this journey which is the novels subject. Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial catholic descent, and Jeanne Weil, of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family, born in Auteil, in France. He attended the Lycee Concordet (1882-89), which happily afforded a more relaxed regime than some of the scholarly Schools of the Quartier Latin, which served this sensitive person well. His school reports and essays and letters all speak of someone who loved reading and conversation, who avoided discord at all costs, who sought the companionship of his schoolmates and wrote for class magazines. His early childhood memories were recreated in A La Recherché in parallel with an intricate portrait of society life. One of his earliest memories forms the opening sequence of the novel, that of falling asleep at night. He speaks of dreaming, shifting consciousness, like a teleportation device taking one to other times and places. And yet he longs for the comfort of his mother’s goodnight kiss, his shield against night terrors. In parallel to his own private world, he draws in society too in the person of a family friend, Charles Swann, and later on in life hearing of Swann’s desperate pursuit filled courtship and eventual unhappy marriage to the unfaithful courtesan Odette de Creacy. Swann had met Odette years before at the Verduin salon, filled as it was with countless tiny torturous rubrics and rituals of propriety and nasty controlling gossip. Swann was based on the real life Charles Haas. He, Haas, was born approx. 1833 and was also a habitué of literary salons and artists’ studios. Haas, like Swann, was a Jewish dilettante who was well received in French high society. But Swann, unlike Haas risked his status and reputation for Odette de Creacy. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one. Proust did not intend to use Haas at all in the novel and actually gave Swann a very different personality than that of Haas. He said he found that Haas “was present at the conception of my Swann” (Corr vol XII p.387)
People like Haas, whom Proust met superficially or intimately, attached themselves to his memory and imagination, clinging like marker buoys to deeply submerged fragments of memory of his past life. These fictional people play out the tragicomedy of their lives as Marcel strives to find himself within this world of French high society.
What actually happens – the story of the novel
The subject of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu is Marcel’s own evolution from sickly little boy to the artist who succeeds in his ambition to write a great work. The moment which gave the narrator Marcel the inspiration to begin the work is depicted at the end of the book. Here Marcel, now approaching middle age, is late for a musical soiree and is asked to wait in the library of the fictional Princess de Guermantes. The butler brings tea and cake. Marcel has at this stage in his life achieved the highest social acceptance. As he sits waiting, dipping his madeleine cake in tea, he unexpectedly has a climatic moment of realisation. He has a moment of involuntary memory. Memories of childhood wash over him. Suddenly he realises what he must do. He has found the great work he must write. The work is himself, his own journey. Edmund White in his fine book on Proust comments that perhaps “the strangest drama in Proust’s life is the transformation of little Marcel – the dandy and partygoer, the time waster who at thirty- four had managed to do little more than write a slim volume of short stories and two translation of Ruskin – into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time.” (Proust p.82) And now because of his crippling health problems, his ambition to succeed is also a race to against time to write, a race against death.
It is this ironic circular movement, this beginning and end, whereby Marcel in discovering his calling as an artist has to leave society, that make A La Recherché du Temps Perdu so memorable. He has to leave his life, or what he thought to be his life, and recreate the true life. He has to rejuvenate impressions suppressed by time, to recompose life and bring him back to his self, his boyhood and the love and companionship as he originally knew them. For Proust one creates fiction to recreate the truth, to resurrect it from the tomb of time where all things die. The work of the artist is the discovery of life hidden beneath self-love and intellect and habit, the underworld of life unseen because of the mundane and the ritualised. Ironically enough, the Guermantes salon where Marcel has his library insight is initially shown as a place of intelligence and poetry and high art. It is the initially the perfect circle for the fictional Marcel to revolve within. Moreover Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes, but gets over it when he meets her in society after a trip to meet Saint Loup in his garrison town. Gradually Marcel’s disillusionment at the hollowness and vanity of Guermantes’ society surfaces. This fictional experience parallels Prousts deepening adult disenchantment with society, something that grew as became ever more upwardly mobile in society. As a boy he had suffered his first asthma bouts, a condition that was to debilitate him for the rest of his life. His childhood holidays (1880-89) were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside Normandy resorts with his grandmother. These childhood holiday scenes later became the Combray holiday scenes of the novel. During this time, as he played along the Champs-Elysees, he meets and falls in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky, just as in the novel the fictional Marcel meets and falls in love with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles and Odette. It is through Marie and other such children whose parents were society hostesses that Proust became as he grew older a habitué of some of the most exclusive drawing rooms of French society. Despite his chronic and recurrent ill health, Proust spent a year in the army (1889 to 1890), studied and took licences in law in 1893, and literature in 1895 at the School of Political Sciences. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs at les Jours (Pleasures and Days), a selection of poignant stories already published in such magazines as Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. Already he had begun to write the somewhat disjointed but brilliant novel Jean Santeuil (published eventually in 1955), which coincided with his increasing ill health, his gradual withdrawal from a society he could not tolerate.
The Dreyfus Affair and Withdrawal from the World
This world weariness reached a high point with his involvement in the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer unjustly imprisoned in Devil’s Island for spying. The affair was highly controversial, and spilt France into two highly contentious factions. It also alienated Proust from his father. Proust assisted Dreyfus’ lawyer and organized petitions on his behalf. Again his sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, which probably lent itself to his extraordinary graciousness and wit and skills at mimicry, came to the fore. Though Proust was not blackballed in society because of the Dreyfus affair, he did lose friends and was subjected to snide remarks because of being half Jewish, though he protested himself to be catholic. In reality he was agnostic. More than anything it was the bigotry and anti-Semitism of French society which led to his final withdrawal from it. This need to find oneself in the world of society, to find acceptance in it, and consequent failure and retreat and disillusionment, rises and disappears in cycles throughout A La Recherché. Indeed Proust, now that he had no salon world to comfortably retreat into (aside from the very occasional sortie), truly feared his own destiny as a writer. He feared rightly that in beginning the great work he so longed to write it might take everything he had in life. Consequently it would have been easier to dither. Then he might at least continue to live, be among the beautiful creatures of desire that populated high society, write brilliant pastiches of Balzac and Falubert, translate the art critic Ruskin’s works as he had in younger days, and have something akin to a life. But he didn’t. He took the plunge and wrote on. The first volume, Swann’s Way was rejected by the highbrow publishing house, Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of Andre Gide, who thought that a snob like Proust could contribute little worthwhile to literature. Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, thought that the manuscript had not even been unwrapped, let alone read. Gide was later to apologise, and radically changed his views after actually reading the manuscript. After the initial rejection by the NRF, the courageous publisher Grasset published Swann’s Way in 1913. Further negotiations between Grasset, Proust and the NRF led to a simultaneous volume being brought out, Within a Budding Grove, for which Proust won the Prix Goncourt in December 1919. Three more volumes came out during Prousts lifetime: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le Côté De Guermantes II – Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922). The NRF in collaboration with Robert Proust, Marcels younger brother, published the final volumes – La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine Disparue (1925) and Le Temps Retrouvé (1927).
Througout A La Recherché the narrator Marcel continually has the ambition to write a great work ever drawing him on. This desire remains despite his misgivings over his talent, and even though ironically his ambitions in society if not in love, are continually satisfied. In real time, for Proust it was the death of his parents, his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 that ironically set him free both emotionally and financially to write. Proust lived within a cycle of dependency, especially with his mother. Just after his mothers death Proust wrote to the Comte de Montesquiou (the basis for Proust’s Baron De Charlus character) saying that with his mother’s death “My life has now forever lost its only purpose, it’s only sweetness, it’s only consolation. I have lost her whose unceasing vigilance brought me in peace and tenderness the only honey of my life” (Selected Letters 2:208). He sought that peace and tenderness in many forms, in the character of Albertine, the thinly disguised feminisation of Albert Agnoscelli, Prousts secretary and great passionate unfulfilled love. Albertine is first depicted as the leader of a group of girls running on the beach led by Albertine. Like Albertine in the novel, Agnostelli was held captive by Proust, fled from his possessive love and dies tragically. Albert Agnostelli died in a plane crash in 1914 during a time when Marcel saw that millions were about “to be massacred in a war of the worlds comparable to that of Wells” (Corr. Vol XIII, p 283). The death of Albert occurring at the outset of war, led Proust to the second great shipwreck of his life after the death of his parents. For him this death, like his mother’s death, represented the loss of love, loss of everything. It was a desperate passion, an unspeakable unfulfilled desire that Proust projected onto his secretary. With Albert dead as in the novel, he felt himself to be a spent force. His passion and desire and jealousy of Albert were thwarted, as it was always thwarted in life, this time by death. Beauty is lost as love is lost, and though Proust was at the height of his powers as a writer, he stopped writing for a time to heal from such a devastating shock. Just as it was Prousts discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism back in 1899 that led him to abandon Jean Santeuil, so too during this terrible crisis, it was the spiritual discovery that there was no region of the soul that could not be penetrated with the clear light of art that led Proust to return to work. Proust depicted these scenes of irrevocable loss in the latter part of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, echoed as they were by other irrevocable losses through the novel of other characters as part of the inescapable truths of life, the emptiness of love and friendship, the ambivalence of desire and sexual attraction, that snobbery and cruelty are as common as beauty and kindness. The only champion against the ravages of time lie in the memories of loved ones and places and interactions stored in involuntary memory. There, outside time, life remains inviolate, beauty and truth becomes sustainable whereas in time it disintegrates. From the first pages of the novel, where through the eyes of the fictional Marcel one relives his childhood longings for his mothers goodnight kiss which was his shield against the terror of abandonment, we experience a hypersensitivity, a sense of dread and abandonment which never left him. It returned in later life as lovers left him, or friends and relatives died, whether naturally or as part of the thirty six million casualties of the First World War. But one of the novels deepest truths is the emptiness of friendship and love, as Beckett writes “Friendship according to Proust, is the negation of that irredeemable solitude to which every human being is condemned” (Proust p. 63) Ironically though, Proust both in life and in the composite fictional Marcel remained a faithful friend, and betrayed no one.
Towards the end of the novel after Albertine’s flight and death and Marcel having spent some time in a sanatorium, he meets Baron de Charlus, now physically ruined by his sexual inclinations, betrayed by his beloved Morel and by the Verduins, his friends. Charlus begins to enumerate all the dead they both once knew: “Continuing to speak to me about the past, no doubt to prove to me that he had not lost his memory, he evoked it now… by reciting an endless list of all the people belonging to his family or his world who were no longer alive…with satisfaction at having survived them” (A La Recherché Vol. 6 p.211). This incident forms an initial link to a chain of events of memory that makes Marcel realize that the beauty and truth of the past still lives, and he begins the work of writing A La Recherché du Temps Perdu.
The novel has Prousts own homosexuality projected onto it, something that conspired along with his disillusionment and half Jewishness to producing a work written from the perspective of the outsider who ironically, is still fully accepted in society. It is precisely because of Marcel’s sense of otherness that allows him such a lucid deeply sensitised view of the society he grew up in. His fair minded exploration of all aspects of human nature, the beautiful and the bestial, broadened the range of his work, making A La Recherché du Temps Perdu into one of the greatest novels in all aspects of sexual love and of human nature. It is filled with brilliant insights into the nature and vanities of human love and sexuality, and profoundly influenced novelists and artists from Samuel Beckett to Virginia Woolf.
Proust died on Saturday November 18 1922 of complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia. He died feted as a man of letters, still helping his friends and fretting over the as yet unpublished sections of his novel. He died a fulfilled person after years of apparent failure and anonymity. He died with a reputation that was to expand to astral proportions. He had succeeded in his ambition to write a great work, the sheer originality of it, along with his celebration of the extraordinary nature of everydayness, makes A La Recherché du Temps Perdu a true classic, a truly universal novel.
(Or: footnotes to ‘A Room of Ones Own’ by V Woolf.)
Probably the greatest obstacle to creative output in Ireland is money. To eat one earns, but one cannot live happily in the service of ones stomach. This is pretty ironic since the Irish economy is doing well and we have a very high standard of living. The irony comes from the fact that much of our wealth, and by this I mean disposable income goes towards paying for the one thing we all need and cannot do without: housing. Rental accomodation especially is reaching extortionate levels and those of us who can afford to actually rent somewhere spend a huge proportion of our income on paying for a roof over our heads. Add to this the kinds of treatment many of us recieve from Landlords, and you have a picture of a market driven greed where Landlords and banks, despite the kinds of new legal constraints put upon them, are pushing the market to a near breaking point where people are actually telling me it would be cheaper to go on the dole and get rent allowance than spend most of their day earning money that they will hand over to their landlord or bank. This state of affairs is particulary challenging for artists who expend huge amounts of time and personal resources on creative outputs that may take years to reach fruition. Its impossible to do anything long term if you are exhausted after a long day earning money to sustain ones body. Its beyond frustrating if one has a family, loved ones and dependents the idea of writing a novel or a screenplay or whatever is incredibly challenging indeed.
There is a rather radical solution to this problem, one that requires sacrifice of ego and of course a willingness to embrace a lifestyle that is very much against the modern notion of the atomised sophisticated urban dweller hooked online and working in the kinds of office envoirnments that require almost unlimited availability and a three hundred and sixty five degree visibility. As I am somewhat out of touch with this lifestyle myself I am speculating, but I do see the effects of this working envoirnment on people I know and care about, and I see that we now live in a world where, yes, one does have a job, a place to work where one earns a wage, but that for more people, the job has them. Its a byproduct of connectivity, an online availability, a world where monitoring of all aspects of our lives has become commonplace, accepted, and this consequent loss of privacy has eroded the very space where artistic output has its source.
The notion of an artistic community, one with a constitution and laws and codes of conduct, a place where artists live for whatever length of time they need, has been of course tried before and has failed mainly because of its over idealized image of just what it should be like for people living together. Look at history: We need laws to prevent us from hurting each other. We need to be policed. We need to deal with all our problems and addictions and our jealousies and infidelities. In other words, we are human. But more than anything those of us who are artists need a place where we can go to work long term where we pay a moderate level of rent, where we are free from the constraints and pressures of a work world that drains us of the energy and resources and even the desire to pick up a pen, type something into a computer that resembles a story or a novel, begin another painting, or write another screenplay. Indeed money makes the world go around. Isnt it strange that money can also make the world stop going round, especially if you work in an industry that the world looks upon as less than? Of course the are many grants available and artistic retreats and houses one can go to for short periods of time, but the availaibility of such grants is limited and though writers and artists apply frequently for such funds, they are more often than not refused and a tiny proportion accepted. Something radical is needed. Artists need to take back their power and do it for themselves.
Artists, the really good ones I know, are quite rightly obsessed with money. They have been stiffed so many times by so many people. They are expected to work for nothing, live like quasi paupers, are treated as a joke or a disappointment by their family, their well to do friends, or indeed by the general public. Its not good how artists are looked down upon by people in general. How many times have I heard the following exchange:
“What does Jane do?”
“Oh, Jane? Well, you know, she’s an ARTIST you see…her family pays for so much, you see…”
One can only imagine how Jane feels on hearing these kinds of remarks.
Artists are particularly prone to a panoply of depressive illness, addictions, psychiatric disorders and a general feeling of self loathing and anger and bitterness at a world that refuses to take them seriously simply because they do not produce a paycheck. This is especially true as they get older. Their worth as artists is measured not in the incredibly valuable output so many of them produce, but in the monetary value of what they produce. In many ways this too is incredibly ironic, as the wealthy commercial artists (who are as talented btw) more often than not suffer a guilt that they have somehow sold out and envy the less commercially successful artists who are out here on the cutting edge of things making great breakthroughs and producing beautiful new work.
So yes, an artistic community where artists can live together would solve many of these problems, while of course bringing their own difficulties and challenges to the table. We need right now more than ever to protect one of our great natrual resources: our small Island with so many incredibly gifted brilliant people. We also need to be truly open and international. We need to attract more artists, welcome new blood from all over the world, and create a network of self sustaining artistic communities to build a great gifted future for Ireland. Lets make this happen, the sooner the better.