Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Muse and The Bitch

I’ve done a bit of reading over the holidays.

I read most of Hotel Hawaii, by Paul Theroux, and a wonderful Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard rules. Both books were fiction, and both, I’m happy to say, contained colons. There are colons in fiction, period.

I read a book on Gauguin and van Gogh in the yellow house. They believed that painting could make the word a better place, and maybe theirs did in a small way. It made me look a little more at the colours of False Bay and the mountains. Every evening there were ten minutes at sunset when the sky was a canvas and God did some brisk experimentation with hue.

I read a biography of Mao which reminded me to beware the middle class intellectual who is hungry for power. Some time in the eighties I gained some impression of Mao and heroism on the Long March. Well, the man only got included in the Long March by lying and cheating. He would send twenty thousand men to their deaths on a strategic whim whose aim was to get him onto the right committee. He hated the poor and used them as counters to buy the bomb from Stalin. He was a warlord when it suited him, and if you voted against him he accused you of “ultra-democracy” and had you purged. Communism was an excuse to appropriate the goods of those more well off. To push home your moral superiority you had them humiliated and tortured and killed. He was, to use his own kind of terminology, an I’ll-kill-you-because-I-can-ist. One grows up thinking Hitler was the greatest evil. Then you read about Stalin. Mao was worse, if only because he had more lives at his disposal than his competitors.

I got for Xmas, Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki. Who is revealed to be… a middle class intellectual which grave reservations about the poor. A Leninist who advances his cause by strategically getting his people onto the right committees. A skill recently learnt by his enemies in the Jacob Zuma camp. God have mercy on South Africa. At the moment the best lack all conviction, and the worst…

There are some nice details in the book about the genuine warmth and kindness of Soviet Russia. I learnt that Mbeki was a fan of Brecht’s line about the ever present danger of fascism, “the bitch is in heat again.” The book is, sentence by sentence, well written. I’m not finished yet, but I suspect that Gevisser has been led astray. His publishers wanted a big book, and his “muse demanded it,” but his subject gave him only a six hour interview. His subject is, like a good revolutionary, secretive. So the book is unbalanced. For every plum of insightful fact about Mbeki (his family was part of the Mfengu who collaborated with the British and became middle class by incorporating European culture while the rest of the AmaXhosa were still at war for their land or engaged in a millennial national suicide) …for every little plum of fact there is a pound of icing by way of the author’s theorizing. One needs more cake, but the cake has been locked away in the offices of the secretariat.

Then I got the first of the books I ordered from Amazon (no sign of the Bufflehead Sisters yet), The Spooky Art, Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer. And it’s full of gems:

“I learnt to write by writing… the ability to put words on a page comes through years of experience and… bears resemblance to the sophisticated instinct of fingers that have been playing scales for a decade…”

“Writing a best-seller with conscious intent to do it is, after all, a state of mind that is not without comparison to the act of marrying for money only to discover that the absence of love is more onerous than anticipated.”

“The ideal, and as you get older you do try to get closer to the ideal, is to write only what interests you… If you try to steer your way into success, you shouldn’t be a serous writer. Rather, you will do well to study the tricks of consistent best seller authors while being certain to stay away from anything that’s well written. Reading good books could poison your satisfaction at having pulled off a best-seller. I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table.”

“It’s counter productive to think, I’m going to put this in because it will sell copies. Usually that doesn’t work. There is an integrity to best-sellerdom – it is the best book that the author is capable of writing at that time. He or she believes in the book. …Stephen King was a desperately clumsy and repetitive writer when he started, but best-seller book readers responded to his sincerity. That was present on every badly written page. The popularity of bad writing is analogous to the enjoyment of fast food…”

(Paul Theroux, incidentally was also a little sour about Mr King’s success. Mailer does go on to say that King’s style has improved.)

“If I were in the Tarot deck, I’d be the Fool. I used to try to keep a stern separation between the public legend and myself, but you know, you get older, and after a while, you can feel at times like an old gink in Miami with slits in his sneakers. At that juncture, it’s pointless to fight the legend. The legend had become a lotion for your toes.”

Gevisser says that his muse demanded a big book. Mailer has, not a muse, but “the bitch goddess”. “Only poets and writers of short stories have a muse.” And just as the specifics of sex reveal character, so…

“A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel. Anything in him which is lazy, or meretricious, or unthought-out, complacent, fearful, overambitious, or terrified by the ultimate logic of his exploration will be revealed in his book.”

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