Reading to Write --- Peter Leyland
Reading to Write
When the green book containing my INSTED article “The Companionship of Books”, dropped onto the doormat, I was over the moon as the expression goes. I wanted to play my favourite records at full volume; I wanted to take my wife out for a slap-up dinner. I felt so inordinately pleased with myself that I gave our cat Monty some extra Dreamies. Recognition is such a wonderful thing for us writers.
As most writers do I love reading as well as writing, and recently, before we went on our wedding anniversary trip to Corfu, I bought two of the books that have featured on Authors Electric and which had intrigued me as a reader. These were, Life in Art and Practice by Mari Howard and Sex Pro! by Reb McGrath. The following comments are not reviews but my thoughts on the books, how I read them and what they made me think about, answering for myself the important question of, 'Why we read?' - something I had looked at in the article referred to above.
So I packed them both in the hand luggage for our flight. Luckily, they were slim and would not incur any overloading charges as might have happened with Some Other Rainbow, the enormous tome referred to in my blog, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part”, in Author's Electric last month. The first one, Life in Art and Practice by Mari Howard is a collection of short stories; the second, Sex Pro! By Dave Cotter is the story of Sextus Propertius, a Roman poet from 27BC.
Life in Art and Practice or Stories from my Younger Self, as stated on the cover by Mari was an intriguing idea. I read it on the return journey from Paxos to Corfu Town, which was lengthened because of a steering problem on the boat. A spare part was eventually located and finally we got on our way but the space in time generated enabled me to read the stories.
Mari tells us in her Author’s Note, by way of a preface, that when she wrote them the world was a different place: she was studying for a Certificate in Social and Political Science and working both in a hospital setting and as an artist. The stories arose as she puts it from ‘the dynamics of human relationships and the wider society’s influence on our lives’.
Life in Art and Practice struck me initially as being about the messiness of life in which suicide seemed to be a chosen way out for some of the characters. There is a particularly gruesome one, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, about Megan and the story of her past. Megan has lived a particularly narrow life looking after her bedridden mother, and when that mother dies she has nothing really to live for, certainly not her job as a chiropodist’s receptionist. Her doctor, Alex Henderson, tries to help her with tranquilizers and counselling but neither method is successful, and she goes on to take her own life in a very violent manner which is not for the fainthearted. She is identified later in the morgue by the doctor who had recommended her to a counsellor, a rather uninspiring woman in a tweed skirt and green jumper who clearly didn’t have much success.
Another story, Sociologists don't paint nice cosy Christmas cards, although beginning with a suicide, is not so macabre. Jo, after the death of her husband, meets Will who is a very committed doctor with a son. Eventually she moves in with him and during one Christmas Eve a couple in a travellers' van decide to park outside their house which does bed and breakfast for student doctors. Although the woman is pregnant, there is no room at the inn for them that evening which is particularly cold. In the middle of the night Jo wakes to find her husband attending the birth of the baby and there is a happy ending. The story is well told and avoids the shmaltzy feel one might expect from such a theme.
Perhaps the most interesting one is Zodiac, which seems at first to be about a meeting between two ex-lovers - Janey, the female narrator and Andre, an artist whom she had a relationship with some years ago. The meet-up takes place at Andre's house, and they discuss his art and his recovery from addiction. Although she is now married, Janey finds that the magic is still there, and they become lovers again.
The denouement, however, turns on the gift of a zodiac ring which Andre had given her which has been lost and found again much as the relationship between the lovers seems to have been in that past. He asks if he can draw her naked and Janey agrees only to immediately regret her decision, refuse his offer of the ring, and flee the house. This part is extremely effective and needs to be reread because it is not the real life that we are seeing but the life as it might have been. The meeting has never actually taken place because we learn from Janey that Andre is long dead from a drug overdose and buried in the dusty soil of Turkey.
Reb McGrath's book, Sex Pro! is of a different order, being the story of Sextus Propertius, a once well-known poet of Ancient Rome. It is ostensibly a translation from the Latin by D.F. Cotter, Reb’s alter ego, or is that the other way round? It’s not clear as I found with much of the book itself at first. However, I then co-incidentally read some of Ezra Pound’s poems and in them came upon references to Propertius and made the link with Reb's book.
I think Dave Cotter’s intention is to have fun with Latin while sticking to a story script and the book is nothing if not learned. Reb, I mean Dave, wants to remind us that Latin was ‘alive, read and heard by real people’ at one time and it certainly works. I myself read and listened to others reading Latin when a schoolboy. ‘Non nobis solum, sed toti mundo nati’ was our school motto.
Sex Pro! is the story of a young man arriving in Rome looking for success in writing and in love, or should we say sexcess, and he is looking for a patron. He meets Cynthia who causes him all sorts of problems and he eventually calls upon Maecenas, the Harvey Weinstein of the time, who likes boys as well as girls as Propertius discovers when Maecenas propositions him, kissing his neck. I was vaguely reminded here, from my Aeneid of Virgil IX, about the death of Nisus whom his friend Euraylus finds slain with his neck collapsed and his head lying on his shoulder. I also thought about ‘necking’, an expression once used for what Propertius was getting up to with Cynthia.
Eventually Maecenas dies at the same time as Horace and is replaced by Augustus. The story ends with Propertius giving up his writing and listening to his old juke box records while his wife cooks and the children play. If that sounds strange, you will have to read it for the author threads the work through with reference to translations, critics, and other Latin poetry. He has done a tremendous amount of research and clearly loves Latin. The book is wonderfully produced with an impressive cover.
I wrote about 'reading' in my INSTED article, showing by amassing a body of evidence, that the reading of books can have a beneficial effect on us, not just in terms of entertainment or escapism, but in terms of our general mental health. Through the auspices of “autoethnography”, I argued for George Eliot’s maxim that “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”.
A book by an Authors Electric writer which I think does this, although the author has left the group now, is Not Here Not Us, short stories of Syria, by Bronwen Griffiths. Her book was my introduction to Flash Fiction which is now becoming an increasingly popular genre. It is a collection of flash pieces, poems and stories about the war in Syria: This war scars us all. Even if we turn away from it, it is always there, says the author on the cover.
I am at present reading Nobel Prizewinner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives and am astonished about the things I didn’t know regarding colonialism in Africa which affects us so profoundly today in terms of issues like immigration and belonging. We read fiction to amplify experience and increase our contact with ‘the other’ as I say in my article, echoing George Eliot's comment on art. This can be related to race, gender, nationality, disability, illness or any situation in life. As I write now ideas are coming thick and fast for another excursion into my bibliotherapy studies and the wait for the next hopeful thud upon the front-door mat.
INSTED: Interdisciplinary Studies in Education & Society Vol. 23. No.2(90). 2021
Life in Art and Practice (2022) by Mari Howard
Sex Pro! (2022) by D.F. Cotter
Afterlives (2020) by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Not Here Not Us (2016) by Bronwen Griffiths