Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
Magic and The Bell
‘One of Murdoch’s abiding preoccupations,’ A.S. Byatt writes in the introduction to Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, ‘was with the complicated, not wholly describable ‘thinginess’ of the physical and moral world, which could be represented in art in a more complex way than it could be analysed in discourse’ (vii). Reading The Bell really opened up my eyes to a new kind of ‘ideas novel’: an novel that can explore morality and ethics and the condition of being alive in the world without in any way being self-congratulatory or self-consciously clever. On the face of it the book was just a bloody good read, with all the elements that make a novel thoroughly readable — like interesting & thorough psychoanalysis, plot turns, suspense, seeming ‘prophecies’ that the novel has to fulfil, great description, great pace — but underneath all that there’s this wonderful cosmic patterning — a sense that you’re in good hands, that everything is there for a reason and you can be sure that the reason is a good one. Wow! I’m a fan.
The book has a real magic to it that I really found inspiring and hope to draw on in my depiction of the magic of the theatre and the liminal space of the stage, where it really does feel like ‘anything can happen’. The magic of the book is so pervasive that the interwoven legends of the bell and the nuns (there is something so ghostly and tragic about the nuns in this book, especially the postulants who must dress up as brides and enter the abbey at the dead of night, never to return) seem to have a sort of chargedpresence that they would not acquire in a more ordinary book. Some of the scenes really made me feel a bit chilly — the dream sequences in particular seemed to acquire something extra, an additional dimension, as if they were in part my dreams too. Even the quality of the ordinary prose that links all these wonderful incidents itself has a magical quality — ‘Toby, as a Londoner, was not used to moonlight, and marvelled at this light which is no light, which calls up sights like ghosts, and whose strength is seen only in the sharpness of cast shadows.’ Wow! I must read more of her. And I must return to the introduction again and think about the ideas some more. I really like the idea of the twentieth-century novel being ‘either crystalline or journalistic’ but I’m not quite sure as yet what it means. Another memorable line from the novel I jotted down: ‘Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself’.
Economy and Vocabulary in The Girls of Slender Means
On Damien’s recommendation I have discovered Muriel Spark! I first read The Girls of Slender Means, being unable to find Miss Jean Brodie in the university library. I enjoyed it hugely and greatly admired the economy and cleverness of the writing, which seemed to be literate and educated without ever being convoluted or in any way boggy. I was struck by the breadth and scope of Muriel Spark’s vocabulary — in this passage, for example: ‘Selina’s long unsurpassable legs arranged themselves diagonally from the deep chair where she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll. There was something about Selina’s lolling which gave her a queenly eminence’. I think that the vivid and cheerful images here depend so much on the wonderful vocabulary — I like ‘unsurpassable’ and ‘distinct attitude’ and ‘queenly eminence’. I admire the vocabulary in this book a lot. It wasn’t like the author was showing you how clever she was with her breadth of vocabulary, but simply that her knowledge of words and their precise meanings was so vast that every action could be described precisely — kind of like an experienced sailor who would never describe a knot as ‘just a knot’, I got the feeling Muriel Spark would never describe a person as ‘nice’ or ‘good’ — it would be so reductive as to be even technically incorrect.
I also really admired the whimsical note that Muriel Spark seems able to strike so gently and perfectly without dissolving into cuteness or cliché. This passage I found quite pleasantly startling, for example:
‘Really,’ said the voice of the dormitory later on, a twittering outburst, ‘what a wizard sense of humour!’ They were like birds waking up instead of girls going to bed, since ‘Really, what a wizard sense of humour’ would be the approximate collective euphony of the birds in the park five hours later, if anyone was listening.
Peter, Larree and I were talking about vocabulary in the graduate lounge after class this week, especially about how much we are restricted by our vocabulary, and there are words that have become dangerously automatic to us. I feel like I use the word ‘dull’ an awful lot when describing inanimate objects, and definitely I must have used ‘sullen’ upwards of about twenty times already in my manuscript — but I suppose that writing about teenagers means that words like ‘sullen’ invariably crop up a lot. I’ve noticed that this year is the first year in five years that I haven’t been taking some sort of paper that explores the Early Modern period — I’ve found I really miss the reading experience of authors like Shakespeare and Donne who are able to invest words with so much more than I could ever hope to. I flicked through my Shakespeare’s Sonnetsthe other day and it felt like being reminded of a whole raft of individual words that I would never ordinarily think to use — ‘chronicled’, ‘besmeared’, ‘beguiled’, ‘vouchsafe’, ‘presagers’, ‘famoused’, ‘ruinate’.
Suspense and Tension in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
After I enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means so much I had to seek out The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — I found it by chance actually, in Smith’s bookshop on Manchester Street in Christchurch — the spine had faded completely and I was pulling it out half in irritation to see what was the book next to it. I could see immediately why Damien recommended it to me — I almost felt disappointed actually, reading the first few chapters and thinking ‘Oh no, somebody’s done it before’. But soon my disappointment gave way to admiration.
Tension is economically but effectively built up in the book as we begin to wonder who of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’ will eventually betray her. The betrayal is persistently referred to, and then on page 101 I was surprised to read this passage:
it always seemed afterwards to Sandy that where there was a choice of various courses, the most economical was the best, and that the course to be taken was the most expedient and most suitable at the time for all the objects in hand. She acted on this principle when the time came for her to betray Miss Brodie.
Damien mentioned something to this effect last week in class — he mentioned Muriel Spark’s idea that real suspense is created not by the author retaining the story’s ‘bombshell’ and withholding information, but by giving the answer outright and then slowly filling in the gaps. In this book I found that the suspense was masterfully choreographed. I loved it!
(Added several months later: I’ve just finished In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and the same technique of suspense was used: at the book’s outset he declares that a murder will take place, then he takes his sweet time following first the victims, and then the killers, but he takes up with the killers after they have murdered the Clutter family and we don’t find out until about three-quarters through the book exactly how (or even why) the multiple murder was executed — that is, we don’t find out until the detectives find out, when the captured Perry Smith finally confesses and describes the fateful night in detail. As with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I thought this technique of ‘giving away the story, but withholding all the details and releasing them slowly and carefully’ worked really well. Seems to be a technique used quite a lot in contemporary film, especially thrillers, which often seem to start with the final scene and then jump back in time.)
Muriel Spark’s method of ‘revealing the ending’ can also have the effect of shocking or startling the reader, for example in these two sections where the ‘reveal’ functions at the end of the scene as a sort of brutal reining-in, forcing the reader almost cruelly to reinvest the scene with a newer and bleaker understanding:
…at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils.
‘Who has spilled ink on the floor — was it you, Mary?’
‘I don’t know, Miss Brodie.’
‘I dare say it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you do.’
These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.
And then a few pages later: ‘‘Sandy won’t talk to me,’ said Mary who later, in that hotel fire, ran hither and thither until she died’.
I admired these effects hugely.
Some passages in this book really made me laugh as well. I especially liked ‘Everyone likes to visit a nun, it provides a spiritual sensation, a catharsis to go home with, especially if the nun clutches the bars of the grille.’
The Virgin Suicides
This was another book on Damien’s recommendation and I devoured it pretty quickly once I’d started reading it. Unfortunately I’d already seen the movie so my impression was skewed a bit, but overall I really enjoyed and admired the book. The use of a multiple first-person narrator was interesting, and in a way seemed fuelled by a similar thematic intent to parts of my novel, where many characters are played by one person. The effect was vastly different, though: the sort of ‘chorus’ effect of The Virgin Suicidesseemed to me to have almost a ghostly effect, even though it was narrated by the neighbourhood boys, still living, not the girls who died. Their enshrining and cherishing of their memories of the girls had the effect of something like a litany I guess. Anyway I enjoyed the book heaps. It made me think though of how different my high school experience was, and how much the American high-school experience is just so different and alien to what I experienced growing up. That made me feel good. I realised that I had a story to tell as well. Sometimes it seems like there’s so much wonderful stuff in the world already, and I think, what can I possibly add?
Towards A Poor Theatre
I found this manifesto by Jerzy Grotowski in the University of Canterbury Bookshop while down in Christchurch (I’ve never been able to find a better bookshop anywhere — I’ve bought Johnny’s birthday presents there for years and years and still I’m always finding things that don’t become available anywhere else for months!). I really enjoyed the manifesto and took heaps of notes to use in the Institute section of my book, especially the exercises Grotowski suggests for first-time actors in his programme. I’ve started thinking this week about how much or to what extent theatrical training can constitute a sort of psychological abuse. Dad says I should read Plato. I’m still building up to it.
In regards to the moral or personal implications of theatrical training and teaching, I was struck particularly by this passage:
His growth is attended by observation, astonishment, and desire to help; my growth is projected onto him, or, rather, is found in him — and our common growth becomes revelation. This is not instruction of a pupil but utter opening to another person, in which the phenomenon of ‘shared or double birth’ becomes possible. The actor is reborn — not only as an actor but as a man — and with him, I am reborn. It is a clumsy way of expressing it, but what is achieved is a total acceptance of one human being by another.
This also struck me as an interesting idea, especially with regard to aspects of my project which try to deny an objective truth:
There is no objective Hamlet. The work is too great for that. The strength of great works really consists in their catalystic effect: they open doors for us, set in motion the machinery of our self-awareness.
I’ve taken lots of notes. This book was a good buy.
V for Vendetta
I opened Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta while waiting for Johnny at his flat last week and five hours later I was still reading it. Wow! What an experience! It was especially fun for me to read my first graphic novel because I’m playing around so much with performance and reality and stage-effects in my novel that reading a completely new way of telling a story really opened up my mind to new options — the graphic artist’s instinctive knowledge of when to use a close-up, when to pan back, when to take up a whole page with a drawing and when to divide the page into thin strips — I guess comic books grew up alongside film so the conventions of each influenced the other, but it’s interesting to look at the techniques with a novelist’s eyes. I found that quite a few of the instinctive movements in terms of focus and pace in V for Vendetta were things that I could translate to my own work, and understand in that way.
The Lost Girls
Following my enjoyment of V for Vendetta: At the University of Canterbury Bookshop (of course!) I found to my extreme delight a single copy of Alan Moore’s pornographic epic The Lost Girls, a three-volume graphic novel that took fifteen years to design and draw. I seized it at once and brought it back up to Wellington for Johnny — we had seen a copy at a friend’s house that had been ordered in at great expense from the States, but it hadn’t made it to any bookstores yet as far as I could tell. I can’t believe I found it! (Months later: I just saw it Unity Books for $250! Rip off!) I spent the weekend reading it and marvelled at how many inventive methods of storytelling the graphic novel employed. The story follows Dorothy Gale, Wendy Darling, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, recasting each of their classic stories in terms of sexual awakening — Dorothy’s as a staggered self-discovery as she finds different sexual partners in the workers on her aunt and uncle’s farm (the Scarecrow, Tin Man etc), Wendy’s as a relationship with young boy Peter and a voyeuristic pedophile with arthritis (Hook), and Alice’s as an illicit enslavement to a sadistic Victorian sex addict (The Queen of Hearts). The work is quite pornographic and that took a while to get used to but in the end I think that the ideas justify the explicitness — ‘the consolation of the form’ I guess. Some of the ideas were just stunning and the work was so imaginative and well-written. I’d recommend it…but not to everybody I guess.
I’ve described a few scenes here that struck me as particularly inventive and impressive, and gave me really good ideas for my own work in terms of ‘layering’ the story in a theatrical way.
One scene follows Wendy and her grown-up husband as they talk about mundane things and get ready for bed, but the scene is choreographed so that the shadows that the two of them are casting onto the wall tells quite a different story. The shadows seem to suggest that the two of them are having (quite graphic and very comic) sex in various positions all over the room. The emphasis on shadows recalls Wendy’s story in Peter Pan, with all the unruly and mischievous shadows that defy their ‘owners’ and have to be sewn back on to the human figure.
In Book I an entire scene is pictorially duplicated, but in the duplication the speech bubbles are all given to the characters who were not speaking in the first version, so effectively the scene is retold from another point of view. This technique worked really well for this particular scene, which was set at a restaurant where often three or four tables were visible in each drawing. I’m really attracted to this idea of retelling an entire scene from another point of view — it would work especially well with what I’m writing about, I think, especially in the sense that it’s able to emphasise how utterly subjective and partial a ‘point of view’ can be.
Another scene that I really liked: in Book II of The Lost Girls there is a seven-page conversation between Wendy and Alice that moves through all of the seven deadly sins. The sins are all personified as women and drawn into the scene as the conversation progresses from one vice to another. Although the psychological movement was in some places a little forced, I admired the pictorial ambition of the sequence. It seems that that is something that a non-pictorial novel would be hard pressed to pull off: inserting another element, another way of reading the scene, that is placed alongside the story but doesn’t interrupt or stall the movement of the plot in any way.
In Cold Blood
While down in Christchurch for the mid-semester break I read In Cold Blood. All alone in my parents’ middle-of-nowhere house, getting up every half-hour to stoke the coal range and add logs the fire, waking up each morning to an empty house, a half-inch of frost all around and Mt Oxford capped white out the living-room window — this was not the cleverest book to read. The solitude and surroundings of the house belonging to the murdered Clutter family seemed so similar to where I was. I remembered all over again how deathly quiet the country is. I was so frightened after about the first hundred pages that when a pair of horses passed suddenly out on the road outside the house I almost wept. Mum just laughed. I really enjoyed the book though — much more than I thought I would, actually. It made me think a lot about truth-telling and how much just the simple act of recording a story, selecting which images to use and which not to use, is itself always a distortion in some way.
I read Milan Kundera’s seven-part essay about the history and function of the novel this week and really enjoyed it. I really admire Kundera’s gentle style & find him incredibly easy to read. I didn’t get as much out of the book as perhaps somebody who had read much more European literature might — I’m woefully ignorant about Tolstoy and Cervantes and even Kafka and Sartre and he talked in depth about all of those authors. I really enjoyed his defence of the novel though, and I really liked the intelligence with which he applied himself to defending the idea that there are really things that only the novel can say. The novel seems to get a bit of a bad rep sometimes and I liked to read his ideas about why it is a decent and worthy artform in its own right, not just a diluted padded form of poetry or the bastard child of the lost art of epic or something. I hope to use some sections from his work in my reading programme next week.
Twentieth-Century Actor Training
I got this book out from the University Library to see if I could find descriptions of some actor-training exercises that I could use in the Institute section of my novel as the basis for individual scenes.
Below are the questions which the director and acting teacher Michael Chaikin forces his students to ask each other when they begin to explore a new character in a play. I liked the thoroughness of the question sequence and thought it would be a good series of questions for anybody to ask themselves. I especially liked the third question.
Whom do you see when you look at me?
Whom do you think I see when I look at you?
Who or what is it that you think cannot be seen by anyone — is it still you?
What bits of information would be used to publicly describe you?
Does each piece of information have a value attached to it?
What system of perceiving and assessing determines that value?
Would you say that there are parts of yourself which have not lived yet?
What would bring forth the life of those parts?
Ian McKellen’s King Lear
On Saturday Johnny and I went to see the sold-out performance of McKellen’s King Lear, which was truly amazing. I was disappointed to see that it got an unfavourable review in the Dominion Post — I thought it was the second most amazing and inspiring thing I’d ever seen in my life, after the 5-hour French-Canadian play The Dragon’s Trilogy that came to the International Arts Festival last year. Ian McKellen’s performance was just breathtaking. He really played up the insanity of Lear and the deterioration of his mind, and many times it made me feel (especially when he stripped his clothes off) the sort of helpless embarrassed pity that you get when you witness a very elderly person shame themselves without realising what they are doing. He made me feel like he might have been my Granddad and after all he was was just ‘a very foolish, fond old man’ who simply needed some looking after. That seems reductive to put it like that but I guess I’m trying to articulate how human and touching the performance was — I know the play quite well from university but I had never before seen it as something that was really incredibly sad — it always just seemed like another wonderful Shakespeare play, high-flown and glittering and impenetrably genius. Wow! What a night. We were in the grand circle in the front row, which was brilliant because quite a lot of the play was very deliberately choreographed and we could see down as well as across. I didn’t think much of Cordelia (she was a bit boring and holy) but the woman who played Regan was just brilliant, and I liked Edmund and Kent and Gloucester and the Fool — especially the Fool. They hanged the Fool at the end of the first act and when the lights came up for intermission he was still hanging, from his neck, looking thoroughly dead. He must have been rigged by a special harness at the back of his collar but all the while they were rigging him up I was thinking of the Theatre of Cruelty section of my novel and even getting a bit frightened, thinking ‘No! Don’t do it! Don’t kill him!’
The Circus and Some Thoughts about Honesty
Johnny and I went to see the Australian ‘Circus Oz’ at the St James last night, with our friend and film buddy Tane. The house was not entirely full but there were children everywhere, screaming and laughing and talking back to the performers on the stage, which really lifted the mood of the whole experience and made everything so much more fun. I watched the show a bit greedily, harvesting the images and stunts and short skits for elements that I could possibly use in the Institute section of my novel. There were some truly talented people and some really amazing acts — rope work, trapeze, juggling, a strongwoman, playing with fire — as Johnny said in the interval, ‘this is what you get when you devote years and years just to the perfection of a single skill.’ Walking home back down Cuba St I thought about how honest the whole show had been — there was no trickery, not like theatre or contemporary film where everything you see is in some way a form of deceit — special effects, makeup, studio lighting, sets — and editing, especially. We were not being tricked last night. I was thinking especially of this one act where a man made four glass balls travel around his palm, up his arm, across his collarbone, and down his other arm into his other palm — it was totally mesmerising, like watching a snake being charmed out of the ground. In a film they wouldn’t have bothered getting a person who truly knew how to do it. They would have digitally imposed four glass balls onto the image afterwards, and when they were shooting they would have just told the man to wiggle.
This thought about the honesty and purity of the circus surprised me — I guess because if I’d been asked I would have said the opposite, that the circus was all about sleight of hand and hype, the ringleaders ‘talking up’ the acts so they appear much grander and greater and more unique than they actually were.
I had an interesting talk with Dad this morning about ego. Dad’s idea was that the reason why he was so slow to publish in his working academic life was that his ego was too secure: he reckoned that to really be a person who ‘gets things done’ you need to have an ego that’s to some degree insecure, ie that your sense of self-worth is determined by whether or not you are successful in your working life. He made the example of my mum, who is comparatively a lot less secure in her ego than he is, but who is almost formidable in her work ethic and her ability to be an absolute workhorse in all aspects of her professional life. I thought that this was really interesting — that you have to have ‘the fear’ to be able to really truly follow through with something — you have to fear that if you don’t do it, your self-esteem or sense of self-worth will somehow plummet. I think I feel that way about what I’m writing — I have the fear. I spoke about the idea to my sister Floss to see if she agreed with Dad, and she remarked that her biggest fear and insecurity is that she’s going to be a terrible mother, which motivates her to work really hard at it. I think she’s a wonderful mum but it’s true that there is that insecurity there — the worst possible way to hurt her feelings would be to prove in some way that she wasn’t any good as a mother — that would really hurt her. She also said that the point when she stopped caring about the marks she got at university was when she met and fell in love with her future husband at about age 22 — about the time when she sort of settled into herself as a person and lost ‘the fear’ of being nobody and ending up with no-one. I also thought about Johnny, and his work ethic — he’s incredibly dedicated to building his arsenal of skills as a sculptor and illustrator, but driving that is this incredible insecurity, this terrible fear that after all his hard work he might come to nothing after all.
My Father’s Family and the Devil
Also in my conversation with Dad we talked about his three brothers, and how the naming of each brother ended up being a sort of prophecy (or curse) foretelling what they would one day become: the eldest was named Stephen Lewis, taking Nana’s maiden name as his middle name, and he ended up being the brother most interested in family history and archiving. Dad was named Philip Ellery, his middle name a masculinised form of ‘Hillary’ to mark Ed Hillary’s summiting Mt Everest the month before his birth, and Dad ended up leaving the United States and coming to New Zealand. The third brother was named Theodore Randolph because Nana thought it would be a good name for a writer, and Ted did become a writer in later life (of history). And my youngest uncle was named Jonathan Muir after an American activist and naturalist that my grandparents admired, and he ended up taking a job as a conservationist at Yellowstone National Park. ‘All this,’ Dad said, ‘only goes to show the massive influence of parental expectation in my family.’ I kind of liked the idea of a prophecy or curse. Then Dad told me how he had gone to see the 1970s film ‘The Omen’ when it was first released and, sitting in the dark in the movie theatre, he realised to his considerable alarm that his name, Philip Ellery Catton, was three words each of six letters long–666. Then he laughed and laughed and went out to chop some wood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanor Catton was enrolled in Damien Wilkins’ 2007 MA class at the IIML, where she worked on a novel exploring themes of performance and performativity. In 2007 she won the Sunday Star-Times short-story competition for her entry Necropolis. She lives in Wellington with her partner, sculptor Johnny Fraser-Allen, with whom she is currently working on a mixed-media illustrated novel for children.