A Creative Manifesto

 

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ABC: Always Be Creating

Like most writers at some point do, I’ve been thinking about the publicity side of writing. For Generation, I was delighted to do the events the publisher lined up leading up to and around publication, and a few others. It was fun meeting readers and other authors and talking shop. But – there it is – I quickly realised that going to events takes up a lot of time, time which might well be better spent writing, or ruminating, or cleaning the house, or building things with lego. It’s also exciting, in the sense of stirring one up, which is not, in my experience, conducive to reflective work.

How much time and effort does an author need to put in to publicity? Sometimes a book is so heavily promoted that it just turns me off. Or, I succumb, only to discover that it doesn’t nearly live up to the hype, which makes me resentful, and I don’t want my books to fall into this category. But I’m too new at this game to know whether it’s ok to sit back from all that busy self-promotion, or not. How much difference does it make to book sales? Does it help one’s author profile, whatever that is, and does it matter, and to whom? Is it just an ego thing – I’m on a stage, look at me, listen to me? Or, does it make all the difference to the public’s perception of the book? I’ve signed up for a Promoting Your Book day at the Irish Writers’ Centre because I want to hear others’ thoughts on these questions.

What I do know is that book promotion is not the most important aspect of writing. I haven’t read read James Kelman (I plan to start with his new one, Dirt Road, once I get over my pique for not being the one who came up with the idea of writing about immigrants in the American South featuring Zydeco music), but I’ll give him the last word on the subject:

Balancing this, his young central character Murdo performs music as a collaborative act. Never competing for applause or chasing monetary reward. Might this be his (Kelman’s) own creative manifesto? “Well that’s a good way of putting it, as a creative manifesto.” Then he tells a story. “There’s a great quotation by a Texas musician. He’s asked why he’s never made any dough – and he’s a good name, this guy – his response to the question of why he’s still scrabbling around, he said what he’d come to realise was, ‘I want to live my life doing this.’” There is a pause. “That’s how it equates for myself.”’ (From Alan Bett’s The Skinny interview)

 

 

Florence Residency

imgres-1“By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” E.M. Forster

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My big news is that I’ll be off to Florence in October as Irish Writers’ Centre/St. Mark’s writer in residence, and I am absolutely thrilled, and hugely looking forward to meeting the Florence Writers.

I’ve had a thing about Florence for a long time, as Mr. Neil Hegarty astutely sniffed out. . .

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That innocent-abroad ship sailed a long time ago, but the eternal yes never quite left me, so, like Charlotte Bartlett, I’ll be packing up my mackintosh squares and taking myself to Florence, to a view I’ve yet to experience, but what a room!

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Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery

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Free but ticketed to allow the organisers ‘to keep numbers at a safe and comfortable level’, one could be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally stumbled into bookings for Rio 2016, but this is a selection of ten of Leonardo da Vinci drawings, on tour from the Royal Collection to galleries across the UK, and for the first time, the National Gallery, Ireland.

The ten drawings have been selected from the 600-odd in the Collection to reflect the diversity of Leonardo’s interests, including painting and sculpture, but also engineering, anatomy, cartography, geology, and botany. Studies for casting an equestrian monument; and Further casting studies, and lines of poetry present Leonardo’s detailed and carefully annotated engineering solutions to the problem of casting, in a pre-machine age, a seven-meter high bronze horse. Studies of an infant’s limbs reflects the Renaissance’s interest in life drawing, and its preferance for chubby-to-the-point-of-obese Christ-Childs.

The heart compared to a seed and The vessels of the liver, spleen and kidneys fill two sides of the same sheet of paper. These are the notes and drawings he made following his dissection of the corpse of a 100-year old man (one of 30 dissections he performed), ‘to see the cause of so sweet a death’. He resolves a medical connundrum in the former drawing as to which organ was the more vital, heart or liver. It is bitter-sweet to learn that most of his findings remained unknown to his contemporaries and successors. The beautifully produced and highly informative catalogue tells us that his notebooks were not published until the late 19th Century, and much research on them has been done only in the last few decades.

imgresThe Madonna and Child with St Anne occupied Leonardo intermittently for a remarkable two decades, and A study for the head of St Anne is probably the best known of the drawings on display. It is unexpectedly small (18.8x13cm), drawn in ‘black chalk, wetted in places’, on the rag-pulp paper which gives it the strength and stability credited with keeping the drawings so wonderfully preserved. St Anne’s face emits a radiance that feels impossible for a 550 year old artefact, and one so humble as a study.

A personal favourite is Blackberry and bird’s-foot trefoil, drawn in red chalk on orange-red prepared paper, which forefronts a simple sprig of briar weighed down with its berry clusters. It’s nice to think that Leonardo probably popped one of those berries into his mouth when he had finished drawing, and that it would have tasted the same to him as it does to us today.

Leonardo da Vinci saw connections between seeming disconnected areas, and his learning in one field inspired his exploration of another; the process and discoveries were of as much interest to him as the finished product, which sometimes resulted in less than comfortable living circumstances. It is extraordinary to contemplate the extent of his creativity, and above all, this exhibition serves to illustrate his openness and curiosity, about everything.

Despite the twenty-minute timed slots and a midweek, midmorning visit, the two viewing rooms were uncomfortably busy, begging the question of why we crowd to see famous artworks. John Berger, in his seminal Ways of Seeing (1972), says rather bleakly that ‘the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction’. In other words, because it is famous, we can see Leonardo’s Head of St Anne on mugs, tea-towels, magnets, or nowadays, online, but we still want to belong to that collective who can claim to have seen the famous original.

No doubt there is an element of truth to this. But there are other reasons to visit exhibitions like this one, even if it does mean some conspicuous hovering and occasional sighing from those impatient for their turn. When we encounter a picture which reaches across five and a half centuries, an untranslatable exchange occurs between the viewer and the work of art. Time can seem both to fall away and to compress, and we are confronted with the Rennaissance in a real and visceral way that no academic description, or no fridge-magnet reproduction, can recreate.

Until July 17th.

Review: Gods & Angels by David Park

Gods & Angels by David Park (Bloomsbury UK, 2016)

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The gold curlicued lettering and blue-black gothic-inspired cover of Gods & Angels seems better suited to a YA apocalyptic fantasy, and it gives no hint that this is a book of short stories. But these are minor quibbles when the writer is David Park, whose nine previous books include IMPAC-shortlisted The Light of Amsterdam, The Truth Commissioner, and The Poets’ Wives.

Gods & Angels takes its title from Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech, and it aptly encompasses the book’s dominant theme of masculinity. In ‘The Bloggers’, the separated husband protagonist — there are several – dedicates his new blog, Spartacus, to “men’s issues”, gently mocking them. The issues are varied, but fear, inadequacy, and isolation hover just beneath the surface for most of the predominately male protagonists.

In the opening story, a lecturer learning to swim also learns to navigate a relationship with a very different social group of men. He worries that his lack of football knowledge, or his English accent, or his soft hands will diminish him in their eyes. In ‘Gecko’, a teacher nearing retirement travels to see the Northern Lights with his wife for their 25th anniversary, but the experience is marred by his secret failing. In ‘Skype’, a man lives out his retirement on the island he moved to as part of a young couple, limited by his dual identities of retired master, and deserted husband. In ‘The Painted Cave’, a small-time hustler hides in a cave from his pursuers until, aided by the ancient cave paintings, he hallucinates away the murder of the girlfriend he abandoned to her fate.

One of the most affecting stories, ‘Man Overboard’, follows a group of men who have reluctantly included their depressed friend on their weekend away. They struggle to express emotions, and the narrator notices that they always revert to stories from their shared past, rather than discuss their current lives. Yet somehow, when their friend breaks down, they find a way to reach him. They may not have the words they think they should, but in the hands of Park, this can be ok too.

Short story collections inevitably invite comparisons between stories, and the least successful here is ‘The Strong, Silent Type’, whose protagonist is a shop mannequin borrowed by a teenage girl to make a statement at her school ball. It is commendable that Park is prepared to step outside his usual realism, but the narrative voice never quite stabilises, and the mannequin feels gimicky, a vehicle on which to hang man-talk and comments about “real men”, and does not convince.

Park successfully transends the real, however, in the incredibly moving final story, ‘Crossing the River’, which is dedicated to the memory of his mother, Isabel Park. The narrator is a licenced ferryman who transports the dead from one world to the other. But he is also the author of this and other stories in which he transports his characters from starting point to denouement. He wants to tell one frightened young woman that he knows the currents, that he’s never yet lost a passenger. But his professionalism comes as close as it ever has to compromise when he has to transport his own mother — Park’s own mother — from this life, which was taken gradually by dementia, to the next. This is as good a short story as you will read anywhere.

Park is a consummate stylist, and Gods & Angels flows and startles by turn, its language ever attuned to the requirements of the given moment. Sometimes these moments can seem hopeless, but for all the failings of its protagonists, the stories in this collection ultimately offer plenty of reasons for optimism.

Thoughts on The Countenance Divine

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Note: the author and I share a publisher and an editor, so I was always going to be well-disposed towards this novel; the gorgeous gold cover helps too. Note two: I acquired a proof completely accidentally, and no one has asked me to review it; I wanted to because I enjoyed it so much.

The Countenance Divine opens with Chris, a computer programmer who is working to fix the Millennium Bug. The prose in this section is somewhat monotonous, corresponding to Chris’s nerdy character, but the unfolding story is intriguing. In Chapter Two, we meet another narrator, who writes letters of murders and dismemberment ‘from hell’ in an entirely different register. Wisely, his grisly, phonetically-spelt contributions are kept brief, and we are soon on to the next narrator, William Blake, who is in some sort of communication with John Milton. Finally, we meet an acquaintance of Milton himself.

Hughes is completely in charge of voice, his other occupation of actor perhaps giving him an edge in this department. The plot moves back and forth between 1999, 1888, 1777, and 1666, and the reader is whisked along, aided by formatting signposts such as ‘from hell’, or numbered sections, or simply by stating the year, so that it is never confusing. This weaving of voices and time-periods has echoes of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and there is also a touch of Harry Potter’s fantastic struggle between good and evil, but strictly for grown-ups who like poetry, and don’t mind disembowelments.