Looking for the truth? Go to the theatre.

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It’s about Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

dulcie

Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

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When life and art collide

I went to see a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival this week. The performer’s name was Alain English and his show was advertised in a slim booklet which listed all the events you could go to free-of-charge.

The three-line blurb mentioned that English had Asperger’s Syndrome and had written a book about his experiences.

As I was entering the little venue at Cowgatehead, a man loitering outside handed me a flyer. It was for the show I was about to see.

“Thanks!” I said. “This is the one I’m here for.”

The man looked sideways past me. It was his face on the flyer.

I took a seat in the third row of the theatre and for a while I was alone. Then a middle-aged couple arrived and sat across from me. They were followed by two men, one of whom was tall with bleached blonde hair and had red-painted fingernails.

image source: myspace

image source: myspace

And that was it. An audience of five.

Alain English, who has a wide forehead and bulbous eyes, entered the room and headed straight for the back corner of the stage, where he turned his back to the audience, raised his shoulders and took a deep, audible breath.

Then he whipped around, charged to the centre of the stage and began to shout poetically. Mostly about what it felt like to be overwhelmed by conversations. They were like blisters bursting in his brain, he said.

Then he cut off his poetry and began talking conversationally. It was still scripted but the effect was almost off-the-cuff. He said that as a child he lived entirely in his imagination, where he resided as a superhero. When he started school he categorised his male classmates as either heroes or villains. The little girls became princesses or damsels in distress. He was – he admitted- both bullied and a bully himself. He just didn’t quite get the world. Or maybe it didn’t get him.

Then he launched back into poetic language.

English continued the show like this – performing dramatic bursts of poetry punctuated by what was essentially his own biography.

Alain the awkward child grew into Alain the frustrated, isolated adolescent. But he had a solicitous mother who – having seen her son transformed while playing a role in an amateur dramatic production- enrolled him in theatre school.

There he met his teacher and long-time mentor, Annie Inglis, who believed in him. At theatre school he felt free, yet outside he remained constrained and unhappy.

Receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome changed little and he was amazed to find that his beloved Annie Inglis knew about it before he did. I’m a professional, dear she said simply.

Alain dreamt of achieving fame and fortune as an actor. But people advised him to study something useful at university. Something he could “fall back on.”

So he did – and performed in plays in his spare time. But things still weren’t right. He discovered alcohol, then depression. On the closing night of one of his performances, he got drunk, came on to another actor’s girlfriend, almost got into a fight and spent the rest of the evening crying in the toilet.

He worked in boring temp jobs and kept getting fired for being odd.

He went on the dole but had to fight to keep his benefits. His father retired and with it went Alain’s financial back-up.

Then his beloved Annie Inglis died and the hole in his life became yet bigger.

Life, he seemed to be telling the five of us who had now been with him for an hour, was rather disappointing.

And he was running out of things to fall back on.

But then he began to roar again. And this time it was poetry.

“There’s this myth about being an artist created by the media. It’s that either you are famous or you are nothing. That unless you’re a celebrity, you don’t count for anything.”

“That’s a fallacy, a distortion,” he spat.

I shifted in my chair.

“This is the truth of a real artist’s situation. It’s not the fame but the process of artistic creation. That’s the real reason we do what we do. This is how we connect with the world around us. THIS is how we live.”

The tiny theatre was suddenly electric.

“Fall FORWARD on your failures, as well as your successes .. Fall forward on your own terms and no one else’s!””

“Don’t fall back, fall FORWARD. …” he yelled at the five of us.

Silence. And then we clapped like mad.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming,” he said. “I, er, don’t have a hat to pass around. But I am selling some of my CDs with my poetry.”

The man with the red-painted fingernails was first out the door to buy the CD and have a chat.

I was still inside the theatre as I heard him say, “That was the best show I’ve seen at the Fringe.”

“WHAT?!” Alain roared from outside the door.

The couple across from me and I exchanged a smile.

“I’m serious mate, you made me cry,” said the red-nailed man.

Alain may not be the best poet in the world but that day, he sold five CDs to an audience that had been treated to something rarely authentic.

Books in Berlin: Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatharina.

“Tap, tap, tap,” went the bookseller with big eyes and black skin, patting her spoon on the rim of a wineglass. “Let’s all gather inside.”

Rupert, Georgia and I got up and made our way through the glass doors of the balcony. Georgia found a seat at the far side of the room. Rupert and I were too slow. We had to stand.

“Sure we’ve been sitting all evening anyway,” whispered Rupert.

The bookseller and the author sat on two seats in the middle of the room. The sun was setting. A glorious red shone through the penthouse.

“I can’t stop gushing about this book,” said the bookseller. “It’s my favourite of the year.”

She talked for some time about The Apartment and a little bit about Greg Baxter.

He maintained the kind of blank expression that is necessary when you are naturally modest and somebody is praising you in front of others.

The bookseller had an organic enthusiasm, completely free of pretension. As she talked to Greg, she seemed to forget that there was a room full of people watching. They talked about art and America; about writing and reading.

“I like Chekhov but not for the reasons that most do,” said Greg. “Chekhov gives no answers. There is no resolution. We don’t know why or how. That’s what life is like. We don’t have neat explanations. That’s why I hate psychology. It always tries to categorise everything. She is this. He is that. It’s not real.”

Later on, when the conversation was drawing to a close, Greg said “I just realised I haven’t said a single interesting thing. You are all so bored.”

He was wrong.

I had been listening intently to everything that he had said and he had made me think.

But I had also used the opportunity to scan the room to see if I could guess who the editor who had invited me might be.

My eyes alighted on a man wearing a patterned shirt and a cartoonish countenance.

I had seen him before, at the launch of a wonderful book written by Molly McCloskey, who ran a creative writing course I took at college.

I knew they were friends.

I shuffled over. Approach behaviour is not my strong-point. I am part shy-and-retiring, part outrageous-and-cheeky but when it comes to imposing my presence upon the unknowing, I am stubbornly reluctant.

I asked him whether he was who he was.

“Yes,” he said.

He was friendly and introduced me to some other guests.

“Kate, have you met Greg?” he asked.

“No!” I said.

Greg was smoking on the balcony, like a deep-thinking author should. I considered whether to take up the habit for the sake of my career.

“This is Kate!”

“Hello Kate,” said Greg.

We talked a little.

“So you’re a journalist?” Greg asked.

“Erm, aspiring at best,” I said.

“I’m jealous that you’re bilingual,” Greg said.

It’s nothing compared with writing a book, I thought.

“We should meet for a coffee sometime,” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

The editor was feeling a little awkward. “There’s a restaurant booked,” he said. “But I’m not sure for how many people…”

“Oh, dear me,” I said. “I’ve no intention of staying. I have to go to work tomorrow!”

I slid away to buy the book.

Greg signed it. “Oh no!” he said as a drop of his red wine fell onto the cover page.

“It adds character” I said, which is a phrase I have borrowed from LSB.

I was introduced to some embassy people. One lady said “Here, let me give you my card.”

I thought I had made it in life.

By now it was dark. Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatahrina:cinematic and surreal.

I made my leave and walked down the hill. It was quiet now, and cooler. Droplets of rain began to fall.

The underground station was empty and silent but for the slow shuffle of a man dragging his bag along the platform.

Books in Berlin: “How do you meet men?”

Image source: salon.com

He had fine bone structure and an English accent. I put him a little short of his 40th birthday.
He waved a pair of sunglasses from his pocket.
“I’m so sorry to be rude,” he said, putting them on and obscuring half of his face, “but the sun is blinding me.”
“Not at all.” I said.

He was an IT teacher, a former diving instructor and the partner of a Swiss diplomat. Now he was learning German at a language school. It was difficult. He was a science and maths person.

We talked about teaching and travelling. He had a boyish wonder about him, a kind of naivety. He was softly spoken. He was kind. He had seen me alone and sat down beside me.

A lady came up to us. “Rupert!” she said. “I was trying to call you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
He turned to me. “Apologies, I don’t know your name.”
“Kate.”
“Kate, this is Georgia,” he said.

Georgia was dark, attractive, with black curly hair. Later, she told us that she was 43.

She was intelligent, expressive, sharp. She watched people carefully as she spoke to them.

The conversation meandered.

And came to sperm donation.

“You know, there was a story in The Spiegel a while ago about a Dutch serial sperm donator,” said Rupert.

“I edited it,” I said.

“You did? How funny!” said Georgia.

The man in question had fathered eighty-two children and ten more were on their way.

He didn’t just deliver his sperm in a container. He catered for women who wanted to conceive the natural way. He visited them, they made him dinner and paid for his transport and then they went to it. There were good and bad experiences. But really, he just wanted to make them happy.

“He wasn’t a looker,” said Rupert, “but by the sounds of it, he was at least of average intelligence.”

“Ha!” said Georgia.

“I have so many beautiful, successful friends in their late thirties,” Rupert went on. “And they’re all single.”

“But where do you meet men?” asked Georgia. “I mean… I’ve been with my husband for twenty years so it’s been a while since I’ve dated, but isn’t it hard to meet people?”

She turned to me.

“What’s your situation? I mean, are you single?”

“No,” I said. “but for me it was very simple really. I met my boyfriend in the university library.”

“Yeah, that’s easy,” she said.

Then Rupert told us the story about how he had met his partner.

“I was a diving instructor in Crete. And I know what you’re thinking… She was not my student.”

She was on holiday with her girlfriends. But what she didn’t know was that this was a “singles holiday.” She had brought a pile of books to read, but her friends said there were more important matters to investigate.

She talked to Rupert, who was used to being flirted with. It came with the job of diving instructor.

But she made him nervous.

“That’s how I knew,” he said.

They travelled around the island together. And now they move around the world, wherever her job takes her.

The story was winding to a close. Somebody started tapping on a wine glass.

Is your plumber a “drainage artist”?

Oscar Wilde, who made a pretty living out of making subversive, witty and astute social observations said, “All art is entirely useless”. After all, he was one to know. Having written a handful of droll plays and a novel about a portrait taking over the life of its sitter, he was still bound by the tedium of life’s practical problems. His dirty dishes didn’t disappear when he flung a leather-bound poetry anthology at them, nor did the flat tyre of his carriage auto-inflate to the sound of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Oscar Wilde


Wilde’s facetiousness would have been reviled by Stephen Dedalus, the 22 year-old hero of Joyce’s Portrait and later of Ulysses.

Young Stephen takes art extremely seriously as did the many ‘greats’ before him. In the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses he’s strolling down Sandymount Strand and decides to close his eyes as he walks to see how far he can get in the ‘dark’. He takes a few steps but just before he opens his eyes again a suitably verbose thought strikes him: “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? … Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”
Stephen, self-absorbed and brilliant wants to know if the world continues to exist when he stops seeing it. Unfortunately of course, he will never find out because he can’t have his eyes open and closed at once.

Me being ridiculous on Sandymount Strand


Wilde’s idea that art was –in practical terms – absolutely useless and Stephen’s anxiety about the relationship of his senses to the outside world make for nice discussion points about the purpose and perception of art.

These days it’s not difficult to be classed as an artist. I’ve heard pedagogues described as “teaching artists” and people that roll dough as “pastry artists”. I’m all for it. The idea that there’s such a thing as an “artist” who exists on a plane of perception loftier than that of mere mortals is archaic and implausible. While the indiscriminate use of the term “artist” might be democratising and flattering to the individual, in effect it has now become a pleasant synonym for “skilled”.

Since it’s now acceptable to use the term “art” to refer to general skill rather than individual genius, Wilde – were he still here-would have to admit that “art” in its broadest understanding has become very useful indeed. I’m sure he would have delighted in calling in a “drainage artist” to unblock his toilet.

There’s something deeply unsatisfying about sealing off the definition of art as coterminous with “skill” though. To be skilled may be considered a favourable, functional quality leading generally to better prospects but doesn’t being an artist require something more than just know-how? A particular kind of sensibility perhaps? What happened to the image of the melancholic artist living in a hut penning poetry about his unrequited love? What about the assumption that pure art is “divinely” inspired?

Christopher Witcombe, Professor of Art History at Sweet Briar College, Virginia traces the emergence of the modern understanding of the artist back to the sixteenth century. He argues that during that period, “A work of art was believed to contain an extra indefinable spiritual essence”. This “divine” inspiration was impossible to explain and so the Italians referred to it as “un non so che” (I don’t know what), which was later taken up by the French, who called it the “je- ne-sais-quoi”.

People naturally became fascinated with the mysterious, god-like figures who created celestial masterpieces. Theories about their personalities and temperaments emerged and thinkers came to the consensus that the quality, which predestined an individual to become an artistic genius, was melancholia. It wasn’t a new idea; Aristotle had thought it before, and Hippocrates guessed that it occurred as a result of a build-up of black bile in the body.

Not much has changed. We’re still fascinated with the idea of “artists” today. And no, I’m not talking about the ones that teach our kids, roll our pastries and fix our toilets. Language is constantly changing, but no matter how loose the term “artist” has become, we still differentiate in our own way between those possessing a skill and those with an innate “genius” quality.

Present-day admirers, like their Renaissance counterparts, continue to elevate their artist heroes to deity status. One of the many adoring comments under a youtube video featuring the actress Natalie Portman claims “if you don’t like Natalie Portman you don’t like God”.

One of my students, a middle-aged French lady, once said that she considered Lady Gaga an artist in the “true sense”. I’m not sure how she justified it, but she reinforced the widespread assumption that ‘pure’ artistry actually exists.

Is Lady Gaga a "true" artist?


Luckily, we’re living in an era of relentless scientific inquiry and rather than accepting that true artists are born god-like to inspire us with awe, we can test the theory by removing some of the potential confounders.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post set out to do just that in 2007. He asked world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell to help him conduct an experiment to determine whether people would recognise the intrinsic value of art in the absence of relevant context. Bell was an ideal specimen for such an experiment. His playing had been famously described by Interview Magazine as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

Weingarten asked Bell to pick up his violin, dress up in jeans and a cap and perform for 45 minutes at a Washington metro stop during rush hour. Just days before, he’d sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets $100 a piece.

During Bell’s performance, 1070 people hurried by without stopping, 27 gave money, and seven paused to listen for at least a minute. At no point did a crowd gather. One lady recognised the performer and gave him $20, which amounted to a significant portion of the total $32 and change he made that day.

So context matters. When people are in a rush, they’re not primed to recognise brilliance, or even as many describe Bell, genius. They’re not used to train stations playing host to maestros and anyway, they’re not really in the mood for “art”. The kids need to be picked up, and the laundrette closes at 2.

Knowledge matters too. The difference between a virtuoso violinist and an amateur is easy to identify if you’re a classical music enthusiast, or if you play yourself. Not so if you’ve never consciously listened to anything like it before.

Unless of course, a truly essential or “divine” quality really does exist, in which case, we should be able to identify it without prior knowledge or relevant context.

Which brings us right back to Sandymount Strand, where Stephen Dedalus, himself a wannabe artist is testing his own perception against the idea of an objective reality.
It’s a futile attempt because it’s impossible to escape the bounds of his own perception. Stephen can’t ‘see’ with his eyes closed and he can never be sure of what happens to the world when he shuts it out with darkness.

When I was at school, I found it strange that entire groups of friends seemed to like the same music. It confused me and sometimes it made me unsure of what I really liked and what I thought I should like. Was artistic appreciation a prerequisite for forming bonds? Or did people simply like the music their friends liked, because they were primed to see its value? It’s impossible to know really. Teenage sensibilities seemed to be invested heavily in film and music, and less so in visual art and writing. I couldn’t imagine lunchtime conversations featuring encyclopaedic knowledge and endless speculation about the direction of Irish sculpting or the American short story back then.

One of the most appealing attributes of art is that it evades definition. Is a well-placed mahogany chair “art”? What about a stickman figure Picasso may have penned when he was drunk? We delight in arguing about these questions because deep inside us, the idea of “art” as something pure and divinely inspired hasn’t vanished. We talk about skill, because it’s measurable: This genius savant has an IQ of ‘200’ and that performer could play the trickiest passages from Chopin at the age of seven.

New York Times columnist David Brooks
argues that the possibility to become an artistic genius lies in all of us. All it takes, he feels, is diligent practice, single-focus and proper mentorship. He reminds us that the brain is plastic, and that we “construct ourselves through behaviour”.

The Irish Times recently reported on a study that found that when subjects gazed at artwork they found particularly beautiful, they experienced a surge of Dopamine, (known as the “reward” neurotransmitter) through the brain at levels equivalent to gazing at a loved one.

In this experiment, the brain simply responds to a visual stimulus, which it has already categorised as beautiful. The Irish Times conclusion that “these findings have significant implications for Government policy” is a leap too far however. The study tested subjects with pre-existing notions of beauty. It did not explore other potential pleasure-stimuli, like a beautiful view, the smile from a stranger, a spontaneous meeting or the feeling of soft sand under your feet.

Dopamine pathways aren’t just activated by a masterpiece. They also play a key role in the progress of addiction as well as during eating and sex.

Society shouldn’t formalise art. It should encourage us to look more deeply at the world around us and to be creative in what we class beautiful. If you’ve lived all your life in a high-rise block of council flats littered with crisp bags and dirty runners, you might not be flooded with dopamine when you visit an art gallery. Maybe though, when you look outside your window and see a flower popping its head out of the box you planted it in, you will feel a rush of pleasure.

Oscar Wilde, who had “nothing to declare” but his own “genius”, fell victim to a society, which classified art into moral highs and lows. His love- surely the highest of all art forms-for another man landed him in prison in Paris, where he died a pauper’s death. Maybe it was this world of narrow definitions, which Stephen Dedalus was shutting out when he walked in darkness along Sandymount Strand.

High Art and Low Art don’t exist. Every one of us can experience moments of intense pleasure and awe. It can be at the taste of your first Lindt bunny after Lent, at the birth of your first child, or in the look in the eyes of your grandmother as she knits you a Christmas sweater. It can be in the middle of traffic in an ugly part of town or in the vast expanse of a city’s art gallery. It’s all around us.

Lindt Bunny Joy

American Diary Part 2 – Make poetry not paper hats!

In a shop on the banks of the Delaware river in Philadelphia I picked up a book with the title “Newspaper Blackout” by Austin Kleon. I thought it would be about the decline of print media but it wasn’t. It was a book of poems.

In 2008 Kleon was just out of college and living with his girlfriend. He was trying desperately to make it as a short story writer but he had writer’s block. His girlfriend had stacks of the New York Times at home and Kleon, struggling to find any of his own words, resorted to the papers, which had millions. Armed with a permanent marker, he began to read and to draw lines through the words he didn’t need. He was left with the realisation that although he’d “never wanted to be a poet, .. dang if they weren’t poems”.

He posted some of his poems on his blog. Over time, they began to get attention and it wasn’t long before his work was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Kleon says “writing should be fun. Everyone can do it”. It something that I have to remind me of sometimes when I’m staring at a blank computer screen late at night.

I was teaching an advanced English class today and decided to give “newspaper blacking out” a go. There were only three students in the class: a girl from Saudi Arabia and two boys from Japan and Switzerland. We read a few of Kleon’s poems first and then I gave them each a chunky board marker so they could try their own.

I’d picked up three metroheralds on the way to work. We chose to work on the cover story – the guilty verdict in the Jackson doctor case. I gave them about five minutes to complete their poems. Three completely different pieces materialised: three unique ideas jumped from the same article.

I tried my own when I got home today. Not sure I’d really call them “poems” but it was fun to eliminate words at will. See if you can read them here:

What I like most about Kleon’s poems is that you feel part of the craft of writing. You have the sense that these words were chosen actively, by eliminating others. I wonder if this kind of crafting is at odds with the processes of writing creatively. One of the biggest differences is making newspaper blackout poems is that you’re not bound by the structure of the sentence, which usually ensnares you as you begin to write. This kind of writing allows you to draw pictures and to bounce ideas abound without worrying whether your sentence is grammatically and aesthetically pleasing.

Check out Kleon’s Work at http://www.austinkleon.com

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