On the Passing of a Great Writer

At the time of writing this, I have read scores of tributes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of them as tweets. In other words, I have read nothing so far in mature media, (an expression that identifies me as a culturally bewildered old fart).

Great writers will have their say in traditional media.
Thus far the twitterers. Now me.

I was intrigued as I read these tweets. They poured, a growing stream of tributes, pausing at intervals, I suppose, to gather electronic breath, then flowing again. The process seemed as alive, as dynamic, as the flowing of a swift rivulet that paused on reaching rocks, only to cascade over and around them and plunge downstream in a Gabriel Garcia Marquezswelling spate. I felt excited by the energy I witnessed. I felt I heard the whisperings of legion one-hundred-and-thirty-character authors, everyone of them sounding forty years younger, forty years more at home here than I. Their twittering grew and grew to a chorus.
The energy was mildly thrilling as it gathered strength. It could frighten me if (forget “if”; think ‘\’when!”) it becomes a mob. I remember, too well I remember the cries at Cronulla; the cries of the mob as Dreyfus is cashiered (“Death to the Jew!”).
But I digress. Or do I digress? Only if the medium is not the message.

And what did I hear, what sense as the tweeting reached crescendo?
I heard love. I heard grateful appreciation. Marquez became a beloved writer. And his writing was the antithesis of the tweet. Substantial, considered, it paced itself with the uneven gait of the human.

I was impressed by the way tweeters reached for language worthy. None found his writing “awesome”; no-one said Marquez was “amazing”. No-one buried him in dead language.
Instead they offered back beloved lines. I record the four most quoted in ascending order of popularity:

Fourth: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.

Third: Nothing in this world was more difficult than love.

Second: Nobody deserves your tears, but whoever deserves them will never make you cry.

First: What matters in life is not what happens to you but what your remember and how you remember it.

Of these the first three are switches planted onto the pages of Marquez’ writing that light up a remembered feeling, an emotion recognised by the grateful reader.
The lines on memory appear more elusive than allusive. Subtle, demanding a pause, requiring meditation, the memory quote speaks to all who are mortal of what might remain, of the immortal.

What is my own response to Garcia Marquez’ writing? People call it magic realism. I recognise something older. I hear the thrust of story in the bud, bursting into flower. I hear the pulsing of the “Thousand Nights and One Night”. I hear storytelling.

 

The Boringest Cliché

1510472_366538920155302_968766595_nWe have all seen too many movies, read too many stories and attended too many plays where some person (always male), his hair thinning, his relationship failing, struggles endlessly to start his novel. Or to get over his writer’s block. Or to complete the bloody thing. Or to get it published.

 

Great writers have whinged greatly on this theme. Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Nam Le (The Boat) have fretted memorably. The world has now read, seen and heard enough on the theme.

 

Yet, four and a half years of my (how much?) remaining time have disappeared in the creation of my own novel, “Carrots and Jaffas”. I watched and saw the sands of my time trickle profitlessly as through an hourglass. I wrote a masterpiece each morning and re-read lines, dead and drear, each evening. I took six months off work ‘to finish the novel’. Those months passed and a further draft joined the previous six in my waste paper basket.

 

For the past four and a half years I have lived that cliché. My wife and family have experienced that neglect.

 

Now Carrots and Jaffas poke their red heads (slab-shaped due to their premature arrival, ironically polar to the postmaturity of their story) out from the beautiful, bright covers that bear their names and Hybrid Publishers commissioned for them. The twins’ struggles to survive, their unnatural/supernatural/utterly natural intimacy, their delayed individuation, their painful discovery of separated self – all these have lived within me; and now Carrots and Jaffas face the world naked and without.

 

They tremble before you.

Where Else But Alice?

Where else but Alice Springs can you run through Honeymoon Gap (part of the Macdonell Ranges, not part of the body) and see the world ablaze as the sun rises, greeting a file of self-selected marathoners with silent fanfare?
Where else than Alice can such a mediocre runner place fifteenth in a marathon? (There were only seventeen starters that year).
Where else than Alice do the volunteers – endlessly cheering us, feeding us, hydrating us – outnumber the runners?
Where else in the running world can you run through air as pure as crystal and finish your marathon in the mild golden glow of mid-morning?

Alice has the best kept secret in the world of marathon running. I’ve done Boston (four times), New York (thrice), Traralgon (ten times), Melbourne (15 times) – and Alice just as often. I come back for every third Sunday in August. My wife is suspicious: she should be: Alice Marathon is my secret love.

So Foul and Fair a Day

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

When I solicited funds as a charity runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon I promised to write a report on the race and my donors’ ‘investment.’ The moment the race started I started to compose my report. The mood was light, the crowd a united force of love, the events and sights all affirming a shared humanity. This would be a report of smiles. The serious counterpoint would be the 26.2 long miles.

At 2.07pm the mood changed. After that the playful response would feel profane. But I did promise a race report.

I slept on the matter. The evil was great and real, certainly. Real too was the goodness. Both demand to be written.

***

Does any runner sleep well the night before a marathon? I don’t. To prevent dehydration on race day I drink plenty through the previous day and every cupful demands its exit through the night. I am excited, nervous, a kid before his birthday party. Boston, after all, is to marathoners as Wimbledon is to tennis players. An enormous privilege, unearned by any effort of my legs, paid for in thousands of donated dollars.

The playful mind must be carried by legs that are 67 years old. Some prudence surfaces. The sixty-seven year old prepares methodically. The experience of forty past marathons insists I vaseline my second toes (which always blister), my armpits (which chafe), my nipples (which bleed) and my private bits (none of your business).
To prevent my shoelaces untying over the distance I double knot them: a trivial detail? No, not in Boston, for it was at the start line of one Boston Marathon back in the seventies that the favourite, noting his arch rival’s single-knotted shoes, bent down and double-tied them.

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Two Writers Wrote My Novel

One of the two, a good bloke, would get up too early in the morning, charge himself with caffeine, and – sparking with imagination and creative drive – write passages of prose that really excited me. I liked that bloke. The second, born on the same day as the first, was much older. A sour individual, crepuscular and nocturnal in habit, he’d cast a jaundiced eye over the other bloke’s matutinal erections and scorn them into impotence. He’s scratch out every virtuoso phrase, he’d cut through digression and elaboration. Mean as catshit, he believed less was more, and least was most. I found him unpleasantly convincing. I hated the bastard.

Both antagonists worked on Carrots and Jaffas from start to finish. They managed to draw out a six-month project to four and a half years. By the time the book was printed I was nearing sixty-eight and I resolved I was done with the novel: how many more fifty-four month projects did I have left? Bugger the novel, I decided. I’d read them still, I just wouldn’t write any more.

Three months later I had finished my second novel. Titled “A Threefold Cord”, it is a novel for shared reading between an adult and a child of eight to twelve. And it is a cracker. The book comprises sixty-seven chapters of action, suspense, hilarity, and the unremitting contest between good and evil. In addition there is sufficient reference to bodily functions to delight and liberate a well brought up child.

As the book raced towards Chapter Sixty I informed my oldest grandson I would end it after the sixty-seventh. “Why, Saba?”
“Because I am sixty-seven.”
“But what if it’s not finished?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll just stop.”
“But you can’t!”
“Yes I can. I’m the boss of this book.”
“But…” The notion of such a summary ending outraged him.
I relented: “I might just start a second book where this one finishes…”
Grandson’s 10-year old face blazed with a happy prospect: “Wow! A series!”
Where were the antagonists of “Carrots and Jaffas” during the writing of “Cord”? I sacked them. I simply wrote for my five oldest grandchildren, aged eight to ten years. No virtuoso passages, no miserly pinching, “Cord” was a conversation with five kids who knew my voice, five kids whose tastes I knew: tastes I had helped to create.
My older daughter, a combined Regan and Goneril in her criticism towards my writerly Lear, assures me no child will tolerate a book with such a title as dull as “A Threefold Cord”.

I know she is wrong. Grade Four at a primary school near Shepparton served as unwitting testers when their teacher resolved to read aloud a daily chapter. Ordinarily, she informs me, the wrigglers would wriggle, the whisperers would whisper and the autists would be up and away. But when she read a Threefold Cord all sat, transfixed. The teacher got through five chapters on the first day.
Since then the children and grandchildren of selected Australian literary figures have read Cord and approved it mightily. From time to time over coming weeks I’ll post the odd sample chapter and you’ll see I am right: “A Threefold Cord” is, as I remarked earlier, a cracker.

Collins Street in the Rain

Grey day. Not cold, just damp, a case of Melbourne having weather instead of a climate. Striding along Collins Street to keep an appointment, I sight ahead of me in the gloom a lone figure sawing away at a violin. The sounds, initially thin, fill and broaden as I near the performer, a slender young woman. Closer now, and the sound is rich and spacious under the leaden canopy of wet cloud.

The violinist stands alone in her parallelogram of space as Melbourne’s skulkers scuttle to shelter.

I chuck a coin into her empty violin case, thanking her for beautifying this unbeautiful day.

 

Further down Collins Street, I stand in the drizzle awaiting my appointed meetee. A thin man approaches, veers towards me and slows: “Wanna buy a diamond ring?”

Sixty-eight year old ears don’t pick up such fine print.

Did he ask for money? He looks like he could go a feed.

My hand locates the ten dollar note in my pocket.

Uncertain, I ask: “What did you say?”

“Do you want to buy a diamond ring?”

The thin man flashes a thin silvery band before clenching his hand around the ring.

“What? No thanks. I don’t need a ring. Thank you.”

The man peers at me

He is shorter than I am. He sights my kippah.

“Are you a Jew?”

“I am.”

Credit: Gutenberg Images

Credit: Gutenberg Images.

“That’s good”, he says. Reassuring me. “You wouldn’t have a spare dollar…?”

My ready hand finds the ready note and produces it. The man palms the note, opens and considers it, then says, “You wouldn’t have another ten, would you?”

“Piss off!” Smiling.

The man extends a skinny arm. His paw pats my shoulder -

“Thanks sir” – then slopes away up Collins Street.