Anyone with a novel idea?

Anna Wulf is a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I don’t know her very well yet because we only met 78 pages ago and our encounters since have been sporadic. My first impression of her was on board the 46 A bus to Dún Laoghaire and at that time, I considered her pretty self absorbed and possibly lacking the courage of her convictions. She really surprised me today over lunch though. I was eating a re-heated corner piece of brocolli quiche and I had opened the book defiantly, because on my endless weekend ‘to do’ list I had included such boxes to be ticked off as “sleep in and relax”, “check out menu pages for dinner tonight” and “Read The Golden Notebook”.

two of my three-page weekend 'to do' list

What Anna said to me over lunch was: “I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused … I have only one, and the least important, of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity. It is the curiosity of the journalist.”

I think what Anna means is that for her the appeal of art lies in its power to arouse in the intellect and the emotions a sense of novelty. Whether or not there’s anything intrinsically profound in that novelty, it seems reasonable- at least from the perspective of human advancement- to be deeply moved by an idea which one encounters for the frst time. Premieres are pure, and that which is pure does not take long to become tainted and ugly. I have often wondered why we have such an aversion to clichés. To use one myself: “it’s a cliché because it’s true” and surely “beauty is truth”? I remember once as a child feeling immensely satisfied when I suddenly understood what my mum meant when she said (in German) “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree”. I had heard this said before and had stored in my mind an image of one of the apple trees in my Grandmother’s garden dropping its fruit gently onto the grass below. I connected in a flash the image with its import: like mother like daughter; like father like son.

Truths become clichés and clichés in themselves pejorative because of human vanity. We enjoy the novelty of our first flash of understanding and feel our cognitive and moral achievement devalued by widespread use. Anna’s fear is that she lacks original insight and instead indulges in passionless curiousity – which leads not to clichés but instead to a barrage of information with no meaning.

Art is nothing without meaning and even ambiguity in art has its function etched into it etymologically; allowing us to see two things at once. I have written before about how I believe the patron of the arts to be more profound than the artist themselves. I stand by that position, particularly because I have always been confused and lacking in conviction about what’s really ‘good’ in art and in particular in literature. When something has not appealed instinctively to me, beauty has been drawn out for me by inspiring teachers and friends. I have an irational but passionate dislike for the word ‘canon’ because it seems to have been constructed in cultural retrospect rather than based on timeless intellect and emotion. I know that I, like Anna am only interested in books that move me (usually to tears) or change fundamentally the way I think but I know that for many others, the appeal of literature lies elsewhere and that more and more, the commercialisation of fiction has come to be what constitutes it rather than what reveals great truths to the masses.

I think much more about reading and writing than I engage in either activity, and I like Anna yearn to write a novel which is just that. My problem is that I am crude and craftless – I yearn for original insight and would gladly spend my life in its pursuit but I despair at the idea of inventing a plot, characters, voice and setting, in which to couch my eventual clarity. I can’t help but ask myself the very question that Anna poses: “Why a story at all … Why not, simply, the truth?” Readers, please help me out. What does ‘novel’ mean for you?

In bed with Anna after our lunchtime chat

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On Love or “Ode to my LSB”

LSB and me


“The LSB has outdone himself”, was my dad’s verdict. “How wonderful a time he must have had planning it” was my mum’s astute observation.

It’s only right that you judge for yourselves. Here is how the day’s events have unfolded:

1.25 am
I am up late marking tests. The French engineers have grasped in main the location of the apostrophe ‘s’ and I am particularly bemused at some of the creative mistakes they make when turning countries into nationalities – my favourite Charlie Chaplinesque slip morphs the people of Germany into ‘Germanians.’

2.00 am
I check my e-mail before going to sleep and there’s a Valentine e-card in from my LSB! I think: “Aw, what a sweetie”. I open it up only to find a Fine Gael cartoon canvasser tell me that “Labour are red, Fine Gael are blue, we won’t raise your taxes like they want to do”. Then he winks and looks shiftily (seductively?) to the side. I send one to every member of my family signing it Eoghan Murphy xxx, the name of the Fine Gael candidate in my constituency who topped 98 fm’s “hottest election poster boy” poll.

7.40 am
I’m dashing into work. All around town, clean young men in suits are loitering on streetcorners, handing out Valentine’s Day cards in Irish. I’m accosted in Harcourt Street, on Grafton Street and finally again on O’Connell bridge. They are campaigning against Fine Gael’s proposal to drop Irish as a compulsary subject on the Leaving Certificate by asking people as Gaeilge whether they will be their Valentine. As I am being proposed to and handed card number three, I tell the young gentleman in Irish that I already have my Valentine, i sráid fhearchair. That makes him smile and he says slán leat like he really means it.

8.35 am
I’m waiting for a vacancy at the photocopier; musing. A Valentine’s card from Fine Gael and one to oppose their policies. A working day ahead – I have morning and evening classes to teach and no prospect of a romantic liason with my LSB, who is getting up around about now for a full-day slog in his bookshop. I text him a good morning and wish him a Happy Valentine’s Day. He doesn’t reply so I assume he is rushing about trying not to miss his bus.

10.50 am
The French engineers are describing their “ideal date” to each other. One of them wants to take his wife to eat snails under candlight. I grimace and when I remind him that I’m a vegatarian his eyes bulge and he says “mais zee snails are not zee animals… zay are the …how you say… insects”! He is one of my favourites, along with Mattieu, who has two cats and two rabbits and likes motorcycling.

French snail


11.15
It’s breaktime and I have a quick text from LSB, who is on his 15 minute break: “sorry I didn’t text earlier, I was dashing. Happy Valentine’s Day, Katzi! My lunch is at 2 so if you feel like a phone chat then let me know”

1.55
School’s out! I’m listening to Joe Duffy talking about homophobic attacks on my way down O’Connell Street. My phone rings and it’s LSB:
“How was work?” he asks
“Ah grand, I think”, I reply, “but I’d rather be hanging out with you.
He sighs “I know, Katzi, such a shame we can’t spend the day together..”
“How’s work going for you?”, I ask
“Ah, same old, same old”, he says, “it’s kinda dragging”

The next thing I know the phone goes dead and I’m attacked from behind. Bearing the most beautiful bunch of roses and lillies and wearing a red tie is my LSB, deceitful and delighted.

I am without words.

14.45
Over a delicious aubergine, pepper and celeriac pie in Cornucopia, I am still incredulous. What an absolute ledgecake I’ve landed myself with! “I never said I was working today”, he gloats, delighted and adds, “I hope you like the way I synchronised my texts according to a typical working day though”.

15.25
I’m conscious of the time because I have work later and have to get some preparation done. “Just one more stop, Katzi”, he says.
He takes me to Hodges Figgis where I fight him, in more than a whisper. “I don’t want a present”, I whine. I want to get YOU a present”.
He ignores me, swoops to the Stefan Zweig section and picks up “The Royal Game” and “Selected Stories”. “Which would you like, Katzi?”, he asks. Both are beautiful editions. “I want neither”, I hiss. “This is ridiculous!”
“Bit rude”, he remarks, picking them both up and rushing to the till.

16.00
Despite my ecstacy, I’m determined to end this madness or at least reciprocate in the most paltry of ways. “I’m buying you coffee”, I say, marching into Butler’s with my enormous bunch of flowers under my arm. I curse inwardly because I have no cash on me but I barge to the till and ask, “do you take laser?”. LSB swoops in, wielding a ten euro note and nods to the cashier; “don’t mind her”, he says. She smiles, and looking at me with faux sympathy says “I’m sorry our laser machine is broken”. I could have spat at her.

20.40
On the way out of the staffroom I beam at my colleagues and wish them a “Happy Valentine’s Day”. “Oh shut up”, says one, “some of us don’t do Valentine’s Day”. I walk home, beaming and insufferable.

22.53
I’ve just finished writing an uncharasteristically personal blog entry. All I had really wanted to say, 927 words ago was: LSB, if you’re reading this,thank you. For everything.

Want to succeed in journalism? Photograph yourself with a tree

“Me a financial journalist?”, an Austrian lady with lively eyes exclaimed, tearing into her steak. “I thought; never!”

She was over here two years ago to report on the economic crisis and had stopped by at my house for dinner. It was the first time my parents and I had met her but she had come highly recommended by her Viennese aunt, a friend of my father’s. I was in my third year of college and still under the impression that the world was my oyster.

“How has the recession had an impact on you?” she asked between bites.
I thought. “Wealthy parents no longer want me to teach their children Irish”, I mused “and as a result I’m more conscious of the price of coffee. Coffee is my main source of expenditure”. She scribbled this down in her notebook.

I was about to explain to her that Insomnia’s €3 coffee and mufffin deal (do you remember?) was topping my list of recession busters but that were the food not so disgusting, the “Weekly Madness” deal in Londis would have come out tops, when she asked “What would you like to be?”

“I would like to write feature articles for newspapers” I said.

She poured herself some juice and sat back. “You need to be open”, she said, “and you need to stand out. I never saw myself writing about economics.. I mean, me and finance come on”..

“You need to send good photographs to editors”, she continued. “Not boring ones. Ideally you should be out in nature. The photograph I used to get this job was of me with a tree. It’s important that you be different from the crowd”.

In the days, weeks and months that followed that conversation, I considered setting the self-timer of my camera and wrapping myself originally around one of the sycamore trees in my garden, but weather and the proximity of my neighbour’s back window to my creative space did not permit.

I did however take on board her advice, and the photograph that I use in the “Who Am I” section of this blog features me with a Slovenian tree which I accosted on the shores of Lake Bled during an interrail adventure with my LSB two summers ago. Though I have been a hard-working teacher for a week now, I’m keeping the old literary passion alive and my big toe in the door by accepting the position of editor of a new literary website: www.writing.ie, which launched last night after months of hard work by a small group of driven and creative people from whom I am learning to multitask. For the “about us” section of the site, I have chosen to feature a photograph of myself beside a large sunflower, as my sycamore tree wouldn’t fit on the photograph. Who would have thought that a financial journalist could inspire such a circuitous plug. I guess her editor would agree with me that she is one hundred percent natural…

“Face of Ireland” Contest makes Farce of Ireland

Today Waterstone’s Bookshop announced the closure of its two Dublin branches and the Sunday Tribune newspaper went into receivership. I spent the day in my bear onesie; having spent an unfortunate night vomiting. The news about the Waterstone’s closure reached me via text message from my dismayed, book-selling LSB who had just finished work. Nursing a saline medicinal solution and rather cosy in bed, at the moment my phone beeped, I had just finished reading Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl; a story of cultural and ideological tragedy that depicts the epic and transformative power of money.

With these thoughts at the back of my mind, I got around to researching the “Face of Ireland” beauty competition, which a friend of mine told me that she had entered last week. The contest, which I had not heard of before is now in its fourth year and promises the successful candidate “a year of glitz and glamour”.

But both come at a price. If I have understood the terms and conditions of this dubious divafest correctly, I calculate that all candidates that reach the grand finalé will have forked out €750 for the privilege. The website stipulates that: All candidates who are selected for interview will have to pay a small fee for the upkeep of the competition. I know from my friend that this “small fee” happens to be €150, a sum with which you could procure at least ten great works of literature from Waterstone’s bookshop. In an uncanny commercial coincidence it just happened that every girl selected for interview also got through to the next round. My friend opted out at this point and in an indignant text message which I sent her from Penneys in O’Connell Street I ensured her that she had done the right thing.

Should she have progressed further through the competition, she would have been required, in accordance with the terms and conditions, to sell at least 10 Tickets at a costing of €60 each for the semifinal show. This year’s Face of Ireland, Louise from Donegal blogged happily of the night of the grand finalé that Between cat walking, interesting questions and a few unexpected party pieces an entertaining night seemed to be over in a blink! I know it’s a cliché but to have made it that far, every single one of us was a winner!.

I suppose with a loose interpretation of winner, any achievement is possible. In a society which has lost its money, its bookshops and its most educated people the success of this kind of vacuous endeavour makes a farce of us all. I have a lovely memory of sitting upstairs in the coffee shop of Waterstone’s on a spring afternoon during my first year of university. Our tutor had taken us there to discuss Structuralism over a cup of hot chocolate. Soon enough the Deconstruction will begin at that site and the future Faces of Ireland and their fans will stand proud, pouting over it all.