Sunday, November 29, 2009

Alfred Schnittke


And so the South Bank for the last of their Alfred Schnittke Festival. Hiw widow was there beforehand, in magnificently long flights of Russian that the translator remembered bravely, plus the cellist Alexander Ivashkin and conductor Vladimir Jurowsky. It does seem that Schnittke was one of the century's beautiful lives. Three strokes saw him clinically dead for a while, that life after death aspect filtering into his music. Music wasn't hard for him after these strokes, his widow told us. His life was music, so while he lived music must come from him. His right hand paralyzed, he wrote with his left, and musicians would then decipher it.
My new novel has an elderly cellist / composer as its central figure, so Schnittke's 2nd cellos concerto served as research as I edge toward more writing time. Being there, seeing Ivashkin playing away fortissimo in the final movement, pursuing his own journey in the high register while the fullest of orchestras drowns him out totally, was quite moving. It needed the visual, the loner continuing his story, his music, his arms sweeping, his body pumping, despite the forces gathered around him. He spoke in his programme notes, and from the platform, about the orchestra deliberately 'killing' the soloist but that's not so - his tune emerges at the close, still going, quite sweet.

Rostropovic learned the 2nd concerto, an astoundingly complex work, in just two weeks, performing the premiere without the score. Perhaps he simply made up all the places where his playing would be drowned out, but it was fun (and modest, for he used the score himself) for Ivashkin to give us that memory of Rostropovic's genius.

Pete Doherty & Rupert Everett, between the covers


I skipped through the morning's Observer, once it dried from my dash from the paper shop in an icy torrent. My team Leicester City shipped a goal in the final minute of play, and the mandarins of Whitehall have their gimlet eye focused on spearing Blair for all his manipulations of truth in taking us to war in Iraq. I read those items and skipped to the magazines.
They're normally a quick flick-though - but I paused and read twice today.
Peter Doherty gives a splendid mini autobiography, snippets of life seen through records that influenced him. I've watched him ghost through the tabloids, presumed him to be interesting without ever really checking in, but this guy can write. Brief little vignettes with a pacy hold on language and drama.
I see a book of his writings, The Books of Albion, is out. He mentions, in these today's grand music squibs, writing a novel. Well go back to it Pete. I could look forward to that one.
I went on to the interview with Rupert Everett. I like the bravura of his writing, but tend to wilt at book length at the 'stiff upper quip' element, the finding shelter in some joke. The rawness and perception of him in interview would be something good if channelled into a book. It's better to be out than closetted, he tells us, but there's no chance of being a gay star in Hollywood. They'll shoot you down at the first whiff of failure. And Madomnna's never forgiven him for the holds-barred portrait of her in his biography. That's writers for you, scraping off the veneer. He's specializing on dead people next time, because the dead can't sue.
My own last approach to write a biography of someone living (James Purdy) brought heavy legal threats just because of the way I had punctuated a short story of his. upert Everett lives a social life. I'm not sure how easily that sits with writing. Pete Doherty's prison slots are more like it, life at the raw edge with time to reflect.

An exotic in the north


Early morning in Golders Hill Park, Hampstead, and the egrets are tucked inside their wings like statues of themselves.
My last kookaburras were seen from train windows crossing New South Wales in June. We saw one in a cage in the zoo at Sydney - and, movingly, its companion was on the outside, free but for the bond with its mate, fetching food from the trees and feeding it into its partnerts beak through the mesh.
This kookaburra was on its aviary perch in Hampstead, puzzled at bad luck and limited opportunity on a cold November morning.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Susan Richards & David Szalay - The Russian evening


Wednesday saw the latest in our visiting writers' series at The Philip Larkin Centre. This was our first with two speakers sharing an 'in conversation' platform. Susan Richards has hit the road for more than two decades in what is an ongoing pilgrimage into the lives and soul of Russia, recorded in her latest book Lost and Found in Russia. David Szalay gave himself a real challenge for his novel The Innocent, researching his way into the heart and mind of an MGB officer in the Soviet system, a historical novel set in the Russia of 1948 and 1972.
This was branching out from standard fare for the Centre, which has majored on poetry readings in the past. Creative writing reaches across all subject areas in a university, and I want to reflect that wide spread of interests - stimulating ideas matched with great narrative delivery. Both books achieve that. I selected them from a run of fine reviews this summer, thinking it would be interesting to see how fiction and nonfiction covered the same territory. It was encouraging to read both books and see how well they sat together.
It would have bee possible to focus on the political aspects of both books (Susan edits open democracy Russia - pending the podcast of our own evening you can listen to her discussing the book there). Indeed it would have been possible for me to just sit back and see where David and Susan chose to take the conversation, so articulate and engaged were they. My own interests showed through though - the intriguing mystical quest that grows ever stronger in Susan's account, and the moral questioning of western values in David's novel.
I'm loving these opportunities to meet terrific writers and share them with an audience (and with you when our podcasts become available). I'm surprised how keyed up they leave me though ... asleep around 12.30, popping awake three hours later.
Next up is Hilary Mantel, and then we hit the road in January for our first 'Larkin About' event - a celebration of the novelist Francis King and his new novel Cold Snap, at the London Review Bookshop on January 21st.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Writers and displacement


A curiosity of mine is the extent writers need to travel from home before writing kicks in. I used to think it was a peculiarly English phenomenon, because that's what I am and it's a dominant model, but in fact I think it's something endemic to writers. Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Muriel Spark, J.G.Ballard, Anthony Burgess, R.L.Stevenson, John Fowles, James Baldwin, Paul Bowles, Kathleen Mansfield, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, James Purdy, James Joyce, D.H.Lawrence (my personal best-fit model ... it amused me to find my own peripatetic life dancing in his shadows so often, from Nottinghamshire through northern Italy to New Mexico). I could roll on and on ... in fact I find it hard to come up with anybody who stayed put.
Possibly it's something as simple as not being able to see your own society till you have gained a perspective on it. Move somebody out of their culture and the one way they have of bringing their past along with them is to tell stories. Stories place us in context.
I spoke with two writers last week. Jill Dawson came up to be a delightful guest at the Philip Larkin Centre's visiting writers' series in Hull. Her novel The Great Lover deals with the life of Rupert Brooke, and ultimately his journey out to Tahiti to discover his true self. Did Jill share this history of having moved out of the country in order to find herself as a writer? Well it seems so. Her early reading was of African and African-American women writers, and she spent formative years studying in the States.
Graham Swift was a guest speaker at last weekend's NAWE conference so I took the opportunity to ask this question of him. He had never connected with writing until he met with a book by Isaac Babel which 'exploded' in him. And where did this happen? in Thessaloniki, at the end of a stay in Greece. Where did he start writing, penning chapters in his first attempt at a novel? During a second, prolonged stay in Greece.
He spoke of himself as an 'indigenous' writer, not one who likes wandering. In fact he has remained loyal, and local to a particular patch of London. And yet, on reflection, he had to admit that his writing was triggered by his having been displaced.
Travelling broadens the mind, I'm sure, but it also adds an intriguing perspective. In the days of boat trains out of England I used to find new writing triggered before the white cliffs were out of sight ... and felt possibilities cramp a little on return.
Now, of course, I live in England but I'm managing the displacement trick in reverse. My books are set elsewhere.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Phyllida Law at the Philip Larkin Centre


The new mode of meet the author 'in conversation' events kicked off at The Philip Larkin Centre here at the University of Hull last night, with a visit by Phyllida Law.
For me, it was a heart-warming evening of my two worlds drawing together. Phyllida lives on the same street as me in London. The morning drew us together, me sitting in a studio in Radio Humberside, talking with the host in her studio in Grimsby, while Phyllida was on the line from her living room before taking the Hull train.
Phyllida's book Notes to my Mother-in Law was launched at The Ivy last month. For her speech, Phyllida lifted a glass and raised a toast my way. It was very touching, the whole evening a delightful culmination of a project we had been working on together in secret for over a year, initially producing a surprise birthday book for her daughter Emma Thompson before I ferried the manuscript on to an agent and a bidding war began.
The book, composed of notes left for her increasingly deaf mother-in-law to keep her in touch with family life, is light, funny, and poignant. It has that actor's ear for dialogue and eye for detail, curiosity for the human condition, and sense of timing that you also find in Alan Bennett.
It was Phyllida's first live audience event with the book - which has been well aired on national radio and TV. It was fun to feel the warmth she engendered, and hear the laughter of response. A car whisked her away into the night, and an early-morning call for a film role in Newcastle. Then she will be on the night train back to London, set to be whisked the next day to film an episode of Poirot in Hatfield House. The writing life suits her hermit self, she told us, but she surely does the out-in-the-world stuff magnificently well.

The photo is of Phyllida and part of the creative support team at the University, Maria Fletcher and Jane Ellison. Photo by James Booth.