An excerpt from “Walking With Ghosts” by Gabriel Byrne | A Memoir

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written. I have a feeling I’ll be posting more than one excerpt. Here, he is talking about going to dances long ago. The sixties – he’s the same vintage as myself!

“Crowds streaming out of the pubs, some walking or on bicycles; hard chaws in their fathers’ cars leaning out windows with cigarettes, like they were in a film, combing oiled hair into Elvis quiffs and whistling at the girls click-clacking by in short dresses.

On the stage the spangle-suited band, brass flashing, guitars twanging beneath revolving globes that scattered shards of light over the dancers.

Wallflowers looked out with shy, uncertain eyes.

How long had they spent in front of the mirror getting ready and here they sat unwanted, with thumping hearts, yet hopeful they might be chosen, having to look unconcerned when they were not.

I understood them, afraid of being rejected, as I was shoved towards them in a herd of Brut aftershave and Guinness.”

Another excerpt from “Walking With Ghosts” by Gabriel Byrne | A Memoir

What his mother told him about meeting his father, and about his birth.

“It was our fate to meet like that because of the rain and the matches and the Metropole and the doorway, and if it hadn’t happened like that you might not be here now. Isn’t that a strange thing to think? The way we all come into the world.

You gave the fight not to come, but out you landed in the end. And you didn’t like it one bit. The red puss on you, and the baldy head, not a lick of hair; upside down and a slap on the arse to set you roaring. O the bawls of you! The whole country kept wide awake. Three o’clock in the morning in the Rotunda Hospital there beside the Gate Theatre. Lying on my shoulder, eyes shut tight, sleeping like a kitten. O, but a cranky lump if you didn’t get a sup of the breast.”

Isn’t that marvelous? The red puss on you, and the baldy head. Love it!

Quotes from “Coming Up for Air” by George Orwell

“I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.”

There is so much more to Orwell than Animal Farm and 1984 and I love this book – Coming Up for Air. It’s the story of a man on a day out, searching for scenes of his childhood. It’s so very readable and engrossing. I read several passages over and over again. But I’ll just add one more here.

“I bent down to pick up a primrose. Couldn’t reach it – too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them. If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.”

There, that’s enough. Has anyone else read this? Or other Orwells?

A Review of “Life for Sale” by Yukio Mishima

I was interested to read “Life for Sale” as I am not familiar with Japanese writers – except for Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up, and lives, in Britain.

The protagonist, Hanio Yamada, fails to commit suicide and decides to put his life up for sale, hoping that someone else will do the job for him. There follows a series of adventures as different buyers turn up with a proposition but no situation works out as planned and he remains alive, becoming wealthy as each sale brings in a lot of money – and a few dead bodies.

The book is well paced and so quotable! (I had to choose among so many.) It is a surreal tale with impossible scenarios, including one with a vampire:

“There was a lustrous quality, for sure, but it was the lustre of a corpse. The faint boniness of her arms betrayed her extreme thinness. And yet her breasts were full and firm, while her stomach was soft and white like a vessel brimming with an abundance of rich milk.”

And I did laugh out loud a few times:

“A dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky. If you drop the bottle and it cracks, what’s inside pours out. It’s only natural.”

“Tall, and probably rather snooty, the steward had clearly just spent a lot of effort squeezing blackheads. “

Eventually Hanio has to re-think his life and his decisions.

“How fearless, utterly fearless he had felt when he first put his life up for sale! But now, a warm furry fear clung to his chest, digging its claws right in.”

I don’t think I’ll re-read this book but I did really enjoy it. It’s the sort of book where you jump in and see where it takes you. You immerse yourself in the strange world of Hanio and that way you get the best out of it. I will definitely try this author again.

A Review of “French Exit” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s latest book, his fourth, published in 2018 and it certainly lives up to the standard of the other ones. Ablutions, the first, The Sisters Brothers next, and Undermajordomo Minor – I love them all. It is impossible to categorize them as they are all completely different.

So, French Exit – as the title implies is mostly set in France although the first quarter of the book is set in New York. It is a wonderful romp of a book – you’d pick it up with a smile of anticipation. The main characters are the wealthy Frances Price and her son, Malcolm. Frances is beautiful and elegant and totally irresponsible. Malcolm is vague and pleasant. He is engaged to Susan, a girl he professes to love but can’t quite commit to.

The story takes off when Frances realises she has spent all her money and is completely broke. The pair decide to go and live in France when a friend offers them an apartment in Paris. They sell everything they have left, jewellry, pictures and furniture and take  all the cash with them. They also bring their cat, Small Frank, so called because Frances believes him to be a reincarnation of her husband, Franklin.

To give a small flavour of the text:

‘Frances sniffed the flowers and asked, “Who has died, and what was their purpose, and did they fulfill their potential?” The doorman didn’t hazard a response. Frances made him uneasy; he believed there was something quite wrong with her.’

‘Frances suddenly became aware of the chair’s dimensions. It was an exciting thing to know and she was happy she’d been told about it. “What did he choke on?” she asked. “Ah, lamb.” “And have you eaten lamb since?” “No. But, you know, I never liked lamb much in the first place.”‘

‘Tom’s foremost characteristic was his handsomeness; his second was his normality; his third was his absolute lack of humour; his fourth, his inability to be embarrassed.’

In France they pick up an entourage of hangers-on, impossible to describe. I have looked for quotes to illustrate them but it’s impossible to take them out of context.

The book is very funny but all along it has a darkness to it. It is perfectly shaped and paced and I can only recommend that you read it.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

Quotes from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.

I first read this book when I was in my forties. It was hard going but I persevered. It was written in 1946, seventy odd years ago, and there will have been many, many changes in thinking since then. But as it’s the early philosophers that interest me, that doesn’t matter too much. Some of the sentences seem peculiar to me but I will leave them as they are.

I am beginning with a quote from Thales who lived, approximately, in 585 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He believed that everything was made of water.

“According to Aristotle, he thought that water was the original substance, out of which all others were formed; and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Aristotle also says of him that he said the magnet has a soul in it, because it moves the iron; further, that all things are full of Gods.

The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago (1926), the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds water. The Greeks were rash in their hypotheses, but the Milesian school, at least, was prepared to test them empirically . . .

There are many legends about him, but I do not think more is known than the few facts I have mentioned.

The history of Sparta I found much more interesting, not least because of the movies made about it.

“When a child was born, the father brought him before the elders of his family to be examined: if he was healthy, he was given back to the father to be reared: if not, he was thrown into a deep pit of water. Children, from the first, were subjected to a severe hardening process, in some respects good – for example, they were not put in swaddling clothes (why is that good?). At the age of seven, boys were taken away from home and put in a boarding school, where they were divided into companies, each under the orders of one of their number, chosen for sense and courage.

. . . for the rest of their time they spent in learning how to obey, to away with pain, to endure labour, to overcome still in fight. They played naked together most of the time; after twelve years old, they wore no coats; they were always nasty and sluttish, and they never bathed except on certain days in the year. They slept on beds of straw, which in winter they mixed with thistle. They were taught to steal, and were punished if they were caught – not for stealing, but for stupidity.

Homosexual love, male if not female, was a recognized custom in Sparta, and had an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys.

There was little liberty at any stage in the life of a Spartan.”

There is no mention of women in these chapters. Were Spartan girls kept at home to cook and sew? I will try to find out, and I’ll have a look at Plato and Aristotle next.

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

Percy Bysshe Shelley | Ode to the West wind

Every year at this time I quote this poem to anyone who will listen to me. I learned it off by heart at school when I was sixteen and still remember most of it. And this is my old school book – A Pageant of English Verse. The poem is quite perfect. I’ll just quote a few verses here, to give you a flavour of it – it’s very long in its entirety.

O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multudes – O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds . . .

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Endings . . .

Many books have very disappointing endings, especially thrillers. The last few chapters are boring dreary things with the detective/policeman/woman explaining in tedious detail how she/he unraveled the plot. With other genres it’s as if the writer flounders a bit and doesn’t know quite where to finish the tale. But then there are wonderful books with wonderful endings and here are a couple of them:

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burke’s house. A wedding present from the bride’s father . . . Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fires, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“I will try to be happy, you think, and your heart and chest feel a plummeting, as in the case of the hurtling rollercoaster, and your heart wants to cry and sob, but you, not wanting to cry, hit yourself hard in the center of your chest and it hurts so much but you drive on, your face dry and remaining dry, though it had been a close call, after all. Time passes and you shake your head. Work will drive you crazy if you let it, you say. You do not speak for a long time after this.”

I can read these books any number of times. Every word is in the right place, the last sentence as important as the first.