I was trying to decide what the highlight of my last week was, and managed to cut the possibilities down to very few indeed, all of them to do with books. The postman visited my house three times over the last week, adding to my library with works on Emily Dickinson, the beginnings of Latin Literature, the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and a few fictional works from both English and German authors. It is possible you could have noticed, from my last letter, that I have a slight interest in books, in classical literature, in works which tend not to be on the shelves of your average bookstore. This interest brings two things with it, as far as my bookseller is concerned: the knowledge that they are going to sell several books in one go, rather than have someone browsing through the shelves and then, possibly, deciding either not to buy, or to get a slim paperback for very little cash; and that the books I want are going to have to be ordered specially, with a delivery time in weeks rather than hours. Generally, when someone goes into a bookstore and a title is not in stock, they can order it from the wholesaler and have it delivered by ten o’clock the next morning. This is most certainly not the case with anything that I order: the pleasure and the pain of my bookseller and her assistant is often written right across their faces when I walk in through the door.
For the postman it is completely different; we have little time to chat since he has the whole town in his round, but there is a certain friendliness there, and it is fair to say he knows my name. I only have parcels delivered to the house, all my post goes automatically into a post office box across town, not because I have anything to hide – you see my real address above, so that should be clear – but because it is quicker for me to collect my post, than to have it delivered. Up until now this was also a free service: the post office saves money in delivery costs because I collect. Now that has changed, and the post office not only saves money by not delivering, but lets me pay an annual fee to collect early. If they keep on this way it is possible there could be a profit shown on their financial report this year although, to be honest, no matter how many fees they raise, no matter how many cuts they make, making money is not one of their success stories here. But, as long as the post still comes through, as long as there is still a connection to the world outside, then all is well and we can sleep peacefully in our beds at night.
Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.
I wonder whether Victor Hugo lived up to his words, or whether he, like me, suffered insomnia during the night and an incredible desire to sleep during the hours of daylight. I wonder whether he found it easier to write when all around him were caught in slumber, when only the night watchman patrolled the streets and kept the city safe. Perhaps, instead of writing prose and giving myself fully to the pleasures of letter writing in my old age, I should have been a poet:
A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it going to sleep.
Although I am not sure too many people would agree with Salman Rushdie today, and point out that the art of poetry is even deader than the art of letter writing and hasn’t really been used to cause a stir in society since Alfred Lord Tennyson took the Light Brigade to task for charging into a valley, and certain death, in a battle they knew could not be won. Although…
Poetry does do something for me; not necessarily help me sleep, but certainly create an image in my mind as if I were dreaming, under the right conditions. I recently (re-)discovered Emily Dickinson, as I was rearranging shelves and trying to fit more books into less space. I remember receiving The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Ralph Franklin and published by Belknap back in 1999. At the time I was writing literary reviews for a monthly periodical and could write to publishers asking them to send me new books; absolutely ideal for someone on a limited budget. I’m not sure what it was about Dickinson that attracted me, I hadn’t come across her before even though, I am told, she is renowned as one of the best American poets. Perhaps my sheltered childhood is to blame, the fact that I had to fight to get to read the books I wanted to read or, as it turned out, cheat to get access to them. Reading them now, a couple of decades later, they take on a new meaning and, when coupled with her letters, are almost inspirational. Whereby, the reader has to take plenty of time, even when a verse is a mere ten words long, and let the various meanings sink in first. Poetry is not something you can read like the new Lee Child book; gallop through from one action moment to another.
That’s the reason I’ve included Dickinson in the books I received last week, because she came back out of the dark shadows of a shelf and presented herself anew. It happens sometimes: I find a book I knew I had – knew in the back of my mind – but had forgotten, and then lose myself within the pages once more. So, of course, I wanted to know more about Dickinson and tried ordering her published letters from my local bookstore. It is as with all things here: sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. Two collections of letters sparked my interest, but the book handler could only get one from her wholesaler; I was forced to order the second from Amazon. I don’t like doing that – I have to frequently, but that doesn’t change my dislike. Supporting local businesses is important, and especially when it comes to something like books. I don’t mind waiting the extra week, sometimes.
I didn’t just find enlightening entries in her letters – although there was a great deal of that too, especially since one of the books concentrated on her correspondence with another woman for much of her life – but also a great deal of amusement. Just opening one of the books of letters at random, which is how I often find my quotes and then craft my letters, I read:
The next time you aren’t going to write to me, I’d thank you to let me know – this kind of protracted insult is what no man can bear. Fight with me like a man – let me have fair shot, and you are caput mortuum et cap-a-pie, and that ends the business!
which is amusing: fortunately it is addressed to her brother Austin, so there is no need to imagine anything really serious going on there. I was thinking of keeping it to one side and then, perhaps, sending it to a government official one day, one who is not so keen on answering letters, petitions or pleas. Although, to be honest, I am not so sure having a sense of humour is necessarily required of mandarins and functionaries, and someone could take offence. She was twenty-two at the time, and preparing for a life of writing and seclusion, building up a name as a strange, highly intelligent, highly-strung recluse. How times change.
I don’t sleep because there are so many thoughts going through my head all the time, which would be good if they were of any use to man or beast. I envisage new stories and articles, talks and subjects for debate and discussion, work my way through them until dawn begins to break behind my house, and then lose them in a short slumber before breakfast. Some of my best ideas have not come in the shower, as they seem to do for others, but in the middle of the night when all good souls are sleeping. Sometimes I am lucky enough that the ideas come, and stay, while I am sitting in front of my computer and can use them but, then, sometimes so fast that my fingers cannot keep up the pace. In my stories I ramble just as much as in my letters: find a path and follow it to the next junction; turn, take a chance, see where we end up.
Sometimes, very rarely, I am lucky enough to find a letter writing correspondent willing, and able, to match. I spar with them, through words, across the ocean and through the long periods of silence between letters. It is a challenge to stay on the ball, to keep going, not to give in and just vent everything in one long missive.
The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.
So Marc Chagall. Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we lose that admiration, that sense of awe at the world around us as we grow out of childhood? At what point have we seen and done everything, so that something new brings a mere shrug of the shoulders, a resigned look, a bored sigh? For me, being able to express myself through written words – or the spoken word now and then – helps bring this wonder at the world, at everything around us, all creation – whatever the source may be – to the fore. Dickinson had it in her letters and poems, few other poets seem to have managed to hold this childlike fascination with the smallest details in their minds, fewer still can put it into words. And yet it is the words of the poet, the words of the writer – even the letter writer – which hold our times alive for future generations or, equally good, for those who cannot experience what we are seeing, what we are living right now, for whatever reason. I wouldn’t necessarily wish to experience Margaret Roper pickling her father’s head – as I mentioned in my last letter – but having the idea of such an act, and seeing the reasoning behind it through the memories of someone else, someone long since dead and in dust, fascinates.
If you recall the artist work of Chagall, you’ll remember that he managed to bring this almost childlike fascination for what he saw and experienced across in many of his works. The bright colours, the sometimes heavy lines and almost juvenile results are like dreams expressed through the eyes of a six or seven year old with artistic talent. Images which can be entrancing, almost hypnotic, as they portray a world we would imagine in the depths of the night, with strange figures and monsters, lovers flying hand-in-hand, unicorns, and women with two faces, deep shades and deeper thoughts.
But I am not a visual artist: I love to look and I love to experience, but I would never be able to put my thoughts down on paper in the manner of a Chagall, a Constable or even a cave painter from 40,000 BCE. I also find such visual interpretations limiting: words can give so much more in that they allow the lookers, the watcher, the passerby to experience their own feelings, to convert the words according to their own experiences and surroundings. No two people can read a work in the same manner and come out with the same mental images. Perhaps this is why I prefer reading books to listening to the same works being read out loud. I cannot hear a book while travelling; experiencing a story when the author reads a small portion of it is something else, but a complete work in the voice of an actor ruins it for me. I see the characters, the personalities differently. No two people, standing side by side and looking in the same direction, experience what their counterpart has experienced. Imagine how difficult it must be, then for people continents apart to experience the same sensations, no matter how good, no matter how erudite the description.
I have let myself wander off the beaten path once more; gone into areas of discussion which might, perhaps, have better been left until we know each other better, but this is the way that I write. I enjoy diving deep into a letter, into a wealth of thoughts and propositions from the very beginning; plunging in at the deep end in order to learn how to swim. Foolish, perhaps; a challenge, most certainly. We are, however, of an age where there has been much in our lives, we are filled with the memories of experience and a desire – at least on my side, perhaps also on yours – to keep on going for as long as possible, and that can entail a sudden gush, or a constant flow. I haven’t lost my childlike fascination for life yet, and I sincerely hope that you’ve not lost it either, and that we can still explore, from our different standpoints, in our different worlds, and come to a conclusion. Perhaps not a final conclusion, but at least an understanding.