Reading When Writing ... and finding Saul Bellow

15th April 2004

The choice of what to read when writing makes my reading more moody than ever. I'm in our place in France at the moment so the choice of reading matter is reduced to what lies waiting on the single set of shelves, but even so I pace between the books and my armchair starting books and putting them down again.

I brought a couple of dystopian books to help spur the writing of my own, but they've failed the task. Burgess might as well have written A Clockwork Orange from the grave, it smacks so little of the vibrant youth it is meant to be the story of. Some day I'll root amongst the arcane words in an academic fashion, but I don't expect it ever to inspire. Aldous Huxley's Island may grab me some day, but not this week.

So how about my popular reading for this trip, bought at the airport; Henning Mankell's The White Lioness? Mankell's meant to be the new star of the detective novel firmament, and maybe it took a touch of class to make it out of Sweden onto the world stage? Well maybe, but the writing is dry. On page 71 I closed the book, not wanting to have to deal with telling a husband the details of his dear wife's death. Who needs to invite the downbeat into their lives? But in putting the book down I entered a space with my own novel, and in sitting still unknotted some of the emotional threads that were miring my own plot. Maybe Mankell's very matter-0f-factness was what I needed.

Next up was Harlan Coben's Drop Shot, another book about chasing down a killer but I liked the sassy tone of this one, the upbeat voice and manner of the sports agent turned detective. The plot was duff - I spotted the twists and the outcome from very early on and wasn't disabused - but that cheery narrative voice against the odds was what I needed that book to feed me, as I read my own.

I realize I don't need to finish a book to get something out of it. Patricia Highsmith is an old favourite that helps me retain my voice when I'm writing; her prose is menacing when even without dramatic incident and is as clean as a whistle. Just a few chapters of Deep Water sufficed this time around, though. I liked the narrative voice, but didn't want to keep company with the characters any more. Similarly I dipped back into Donald Rawley's The Night Bird Cantata, appreciating the poetry of his alternative perceptions, then slipping away for want of a narrative drive. Tom Sharpe's The Great Pursuit cheered me for a few chapters, happy to revisit his wry take on the publishing industry

Shots of different writing voices come from the poets; old faithful James Broughton on this trip, and some Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, and Thom Gunn. For a blissful late afternoon I am caught in the narrative drive of Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy, ostensibly a children's book. It can be a hard job enticing children to stay the course of such a book, it builds up so gradually, but sitting in the sunshine with the river running below me I rushed on through till the end. This was reading like it used to be, voracious stuff.

I'm just back indoors from another book, finished even though the cloud has snatched the sun away and an early chill is washing down from the mountains. This was Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. Written in the same year I was born, the book is a gem. As a writer, I can read it for its mastery. Sentences delight in themselves, the narrative technique of dipping into the thoughts of characters for the alternative take on what is show is sublimely achieved. Characters are pinned down in their details even as they take their own extravagant flights in dialogue. The book is a case study in human despair with no let-off yet the book is spiritually rounded - held there I suspect not by Bellow's overt spirituality, which he allows through only in glimpses, but by his compassion. It's not a black comedy, it's a tragedy, yet I laughed for this is how life is with all its thrusting intense petty and devastating dramas yet seldom so keenly observed from os many angles at once. It's like cramming the events and effects of a day inside a crystal ball, all resonant and perfect and unchangeable in its way though disastrous, all open to view, seemingly distorted by the spherical glass but that's simply more of life's quirks bulging into view.

Saul Bellow does not make me want to put down his book and pick up my own pen. He makes me want to sit a while. Take a walk. Cook a fine meal, uncork a good wine, let it breathe. He isn't someone for a writer to learn tricks from. He just reminds you of the quality of life. He is what a writer can be.

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