Getting Hold of Proust

It’s surprisingly hard to get hold of Proust in the UK. I expect in France he’s everywhere; in station bookstalls and top of every Amazon search – but over here he’s seen as very – ahem! – recherche.

A little in-joke there for those of you who already know that Proust wrote ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ This translates as In Search of Lost Time, though for some reason the first translator chose to go all Shakespeare on him and call it Remembrance of Things Past. I think that counts as cultural appropriation, quite frankly because it’s nowhere near accurate. Anyway, I first read Proust in the 1990’s and it took nearly all of that decade because Proust is not an easy read. His sentences are as long as most paragraphs and his thoughts complex and intertwining. It takes a long time to get into but once you’re there you can’t live without him and you come to realise that in fact Proust is God: there is nothing he doesn’t know.

So I have now successfully ordered Volume 1, ‘Swann’s Way’ (I’ve got all the books but they’re in storage and I can’t wait any longer.) I’ll go into this in greater depth when my book arrives.

Kirk out

It’s Finished! So Now it Begins…

You know how computer programmers say the first 95% takes 95% of the time? And the last 5% also takes 95% of the time? I can so relate to that because that’s exactly how a novel is; the first draft takes 95% of the time – then the rewrites also take 95% of the time. Even so, I have a huge sense of achievement in being able to say that I have finished!!! the first draft of my novel Tapestry (working title) whose chapters are based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.
image removed on request

The idea came from hearing that the Bayeux Tapestry (see above) was about to come to Britain. Around the same time someone lent me a book from a Grayson Perry exhibition, also of tapestries – and the two came together. I don’t know where the Fibonacci idea came in but it just seemed to work on so many levels. So there we are, and 84,000 words later (gulp!) the first draft is done.

The first chapters came easily, being only a thousand words each. After that it got more complicated and when I reached Chapter 21 (21,000 words) I began to set myself a daily word challenge. I would write 700 words a day and then stop. If I was still in the flow after 700 words, that was all to the good, I could pick it up again the next day – if not, it didn’t matter. It was amazing how the sense of slow and steady progress built, week after week; finishing Chapter 21 and starting on the dauntingly lengthy Chapter 34 (34,000 words) but I got there. You’ll be pleased to know that Chapter 55 is deliberately unfinished as the narrator dies (I think a 55,000-word chapter is asking too much of any reader – I’m not Proust.)

So there we have it. This week I shall be mostly… getting stuff ready to send to publishers and winding down ready for August, a month of No Work.

Kirk out

What’s the Time, Mr Proust?

When I read Proust for the first time many years ago, after six volumes of incredibly lengthy sentences discussing ‘lost time’, the last two words of the work were so short that they hit me like a bullet between the eyes.  In time: these words seemed to sum up the entire work.  And having read it I don’t think we spend enough – er, time – thinking about time.

Time is a fascinating thing.  I don’t pretend to understand Einstein’s idea that there is no such thing as simultaneity: for one thing it’d make nonsense of songs such as ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’

The thing is, with ideas like Einstein’s I can get them on an abstract level, but I can’t translate it into my own experience.  What does it mean to say that by the time I get to Phoenix she won’t be rising; that the two events happen separately and are unconnected?  I can’t get my head around it.

Another phenomenon which I’m sure has a scientific explanation, is the way ideas fly away when you look directly at them.  For example.  I had many thoughts this morning of a stimulating (if not simultaneous) and inventive nature, but as soon as I came into the library with a fresh sheet of paper ready to work with them, they all flew away.  I think this is like Alice’s experience in the wool shop (if it was a wool shop) where the shelves seem crowded but as soon as she looks directly at one it’s empty, though all around they are as crowded as ever.

It was the wool shop:

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite, empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

This is surely familiar to anyone creative: you have a million ideas all crowding into your mind but as soon as you sit down with pen and paper and try to summon them up, they become terminally shy.  So it was with me this morning: I had several bright ideas and almost wrote them down; however they seemed to suggest that this would be premature, and that they needed to stew a little further, so I left them where they were.  And now that I’m in front of the computer, where are they?  Hiding, that’s where, and refusing to come out.  No doubt they will come out at the most inconvenient moment, say, three in the morning.


Another phenomenon I’ve observed (and I’m really not sure science has caught up with this one) is this.  You may be wrestling with any number of ailments or neuroses; and then you go away on holiday.  It’s as though this fact – the fact of your going away – takes the ailments by surprise; and for once you are able to shake them off and arrive at your holiday destination free and light-hearted.  This continues for a day or two; however, sooner or later the neuroses will wake up.  She’s gone! they say to each other, rousing themselves and packing their bags; then they set off, shading their eyes against the sun to see where you are.  You can spot them, black figures charging up the hill in ones and twos – but if you are on the watch you can pick them off one by one: or at least identify and store them to deal with at a later date.

Kirk out




Ah, Yes – I Remember It Well

I’m writing a memoir at the moment.  It’s not something I ever thought of doing until recently; I don’t know why.  Maybe I thought my life would be dull, I don’t know.  But now I’ve started I’ve found so much to say that it’s already getting up to the requisite 50,000 words – and it’s only Wednesday.

LOL.  I actually started it a few months ago and it’s going in for a Mslexia competition in September.  It was my aim to write 5000 words a week and I’ve surpassed that by quite a bit – just as well as there will be a fair bit of revision to do.

Oh!  We interrupt this broadcast to point out that I am in the Mercury again.  Actually it’s quite hard to spot me as I’m little more than a blur in the background of a picture featuring Kenneth Cranham, Joe Orton’s sister and other people who took part in the Joe Orton day on Sunday.  Here it is:

I’m in the top left hand corner looking fed up (I wasn’t – it was a great day).

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand – we’re back.  The memoir started off as an ironic twist on the whole genre as it was about memory loss.  It’s called ‘I am the Anti-Proust’ as it does the opposite of what Proust did.  Proust remembered everything; I forgot everything, and that’s the story.

I started a new poem this morning which was a sort of opposite of the poem ‘The Sick Rose’.  It’s about a flourishing rose – the one in my garden in fact which has done brilliantly since I pruned it.

What else have I done?  Worked on the novel which is about as far from being finished as it ever was; and then started a review of the Alan Bennett book I bought with my birthday book token.  It’s called ‘Four Stories’ and it features ‘The Clothes they Stood up In’ (originally a play) ‘Father! Father! Burning Bright!’ (also originally a play) and ‘The Lady in the Van’ which is strictly speaking memoir and not fiction.  Still, it’s all good and all worth reading.

And that was today.  I am now awaiting a Sainsbury’s order.

Kirk out

Is This Another Piece of Your Brain?

I’m waiting for the plumber this morning; they were supposed to be here at 8.30 so we got everyone up, used the bathroom, sorted out the kitchen, put water in kettles and jugs, ate breakfast and…. nothing.  It will surprise you not at all to learn that they are now currently half an hour late.  Would it be so difficult to phone and let us know?

So in the meantime, here’s another piece of my brain – or, if you prefer, another instalment of the memoir on forgetting.
I Am The Anti-Proust No. 2

Take this morning. An ordinary day; but before I went out I had to look up a street in this city: this city where I have lived for 30 years, leaving aside a two-year sojourn in Madrid. I have known this city for more than half my life, and I couldn’t remember a street in the centre of it. This upset me because I knew ought to have known where to go: I knew that I knew the way there, but I couldn’t recall it. I remember the facts: I remember that I have lived here for three decades: I remember that I used to know the city centre like the palm of my hand: I remember that I knew the central streets within six months of landing here, and those of my area equally well. I knew which opened onto where and the quickest route from B to A stopping by C and avoiding D and E. I remembered shops and pubs; I could direct strangers like a policeman directing traffic. I was city-omniscient.

Perhaps God grew jealous: for one day she came by with her great cosmic rubber and rubbed it all out. She left me with the broad brush-strokes: I still have the Market Cross and the railway station, the Town Hall and the City Park. But everything else has gone. Not only has it gone, but each time I recover it, it goes again; like a snowflake melting in the palm of my hand.

So what should I do? I guess I could write it all down, catch the facts along with the thoughts and record them – and I often do, though I have to remember that I’ve written it down, so that I can read it and then remember. Sometimes – no, let’s be honest; often – I’ve come across notes I wrote to remind myself about an event which I missed because I forgot to look at the reminder. Yes, a calendar is essential, and one hangs on our wall which I consult every day, sometimes many times a day; and there are other reminders, on facebook, on my phone, on emails. In this way the essential things get done. But the rest is – as they say – silence.

Writing is good for me. I write a lot, but perhaps I should do more; like writing reviews of every book I read or every film I see. I already do a fair bit of this on my blog; but it doesn’t make it any more likely that I will recall the film/book/programme without reading the review – so I have to remember that I wrote it – and sometimes even when I do read it, the memories seem ‘alienated’ as if written in someone else’s hand. They don’t trigger any life in me. It’s not I who was there, but someone else: not me but yester-me, as the Beatles used to say. I remember the song, at least.

Still, the worst thing by far is the fear. When I’m talking to someone and I can’t remember if they’re just married or still married (to who?) divorced or, worse, widowed (did I go to the funeral?) or if I can’t remember their name and I know I should, or if the names of their children escape me even though they were close playmates of mine… that’s when the fear grips me. It’s not only a social fear, though that is bad enough: what people will excuse in a septuagenarian looks like pure indifference in a fifty-one year old. But the fear is also about insecurity: feeling that what seemed to be solid ground is in fact a blanket of loose snow and with one false step you’re in it up to your neck.

As with people, so with places. Finding yourself lost in a city you’ve known and lived in for over half your life is not a trivial experience: it’s a deeply frightening one. Suddenly the pavement melts beneath you; suddenly the road you are on disappears in thick fog and you have no idea where you are or where you need to go. I have phoned my husband (happily, I’ve never forgotten him) in a flood of tears because I was lost, ten minutes out from our front door. And even when he told me once more, with the patience of a priest, which way to go, it still triggered no real memory; no ‘ah! of course!’ like there is with a normal, temporary lapse. The whole path still remained dark to me.

True, I have remembered that these things happened. I can even recall where one such incident happened because the strength of the emotion imprinted it on my mind. And Google Earth helps: it really does. I can stand my little virtual woman on virtual Earth and look at virtual places I know and think ‘Ah, yes – that’s where I need to be.’ The last time I had to find my way somewhere new (that is, somewhere old-new; a place I’d often been but had forgotten) Mark showed me on Google Street View and then painted a word-picture for me (‘when you’re standing here and you look across to there and you see the shopping centre and go up the side of that and it’s on your left.’) And I remembered! And the following week I remembered it again! I felt like Dory in her moment of triumph: it worked! And it worked again! – and again! – and it’s kept on working.

Kirk out

It Was the Best of Times – or So They Tell Me…

Since today is prose day, I’m going to give you a blast of some non-fiction I’ve been writing.  At least, it’s intended to be non-fiction, though some of it may be confabulation, because it is that paradoxical thing, a memoir of forgetting.  Yes, folks, as I may have mentioned before, I am the anti-Proust because, whereas Proust remembered everything, I forget everything.  At least, I used to; I’m getting better now I think.  Hence the memoir.  Here’s a blast of it:

The Anti-Proust: a Memoir of Forgetting 

I’ve decided that I am the anti-Proust. Why? Because Proust remembered everything, but I forget everything: like undigested food, it all falls through my mind and out the other end. Not that I think the mind is an anus, exactly, but I believe that thought is in some ways analogous to the digestive process, and my thoughts go in and come straight out again, leaving no trace. Maybe they nourish me for a while, but then they’re gone and I’m back to square one.

And that’s my life, day after day; has been for the last five years. Like someone trying to catch falling snow I am constantly grabbing thoughts and recording them before they hit the ground and dissolve. But writing them down is the best way to record them, and so everywhere I go – on the bus, in the shops, in my room, in the pub – I take a notebook. So far so good. But there comes a time when I have to sleep – and that’s when I forget.

Then sometimes I wake in the night with a stonking, stupendous thought. I know I should write it down because it’ll be gone in the morning – but then I’d have to sit up and turn on the light and it’s cold and I don’t want to wake my sleeping partner; so I repeat the phrase over and over in my mind, teaching my brain to remember.

But by morning it’s gone.

This also happens in the bath; but the bath is more hopeful: I’m awake in the bath and I’m going to get out after a while, so provided I remember to write the thoughts down as soon as I’m dry, I can catch them before they are lost. This morning I caught three: a good haul.

Then there’s the issue of what to do with thoughts once they’re caught. So first they have to be classified: are they ‘pondering thoughts’ or ‘back-burner simmering’ thoughts – or are they ‘immediate action’ thoughts? Do they demand at once to be made into a poem or to seed a short story? Will they form part of a talk or a blog-post? Can I use them in discussion? All these decisions need to be made post-haste before it starts snowing again and I have to catch a whole new bunch of ideas.

And this is not easy because, although each of these thoughts is a world unto itself (just like a snowflake) none of them is an island. They are mostly archipelagoes; or sets of ice-floes connected under the surface; or peninsulas attached to huge land-masses. They are networks extending in a hundred directions, or ends of string which keep on unravelling.

And yet memory is not like this: memory is a thread that continually breaks. Memory snaps when I pull it: memory is the short straw. When I try to follow memory I come to a dead-end; a dark alleyway: a blind passage where a gang is waiting to beat me up.

(c) Liz Gray, 2013

Do you have any similar stories?  Let me know.

And to continue the ‘snow’ theme, here is some falling snow for you to enjoy as well…

Kirk out

Is this the Five-Minute Fiction or the Full Half-hour?

Yes, we in the twenty-first century are the anti-Victorians in so many ways; and not the least of these is in our inability to sit through anything longer than about 4 minutes (or a thousand words) – or to give a novel an even break.  You cannot afford, these days, a leisurely, scene-setting start to a novel: you must plunge right into the action.  All hell must break loose within first few pages or else the reader will simply give up.  You can give us a page or so of scene-setting if you must, but no more – and in a short story it’d better be at most a paragraph before you cut to the chase.  Even that expression, cut to the chase, has gained a currency in almost every situation.  Leave out the waffle! people cry all over the world.  Cut the crap!  Elbow the descriptions and just tell us what happens!

The result of this is that literature has become very plot-based.  Now, I know that the most popular of Victorian writers, Charles Dickens, was nothing if not plot-based – and yet he had the time and space for a leisurely walk around Chatham Docks or the London slums; he could spend time painting a room or delineating a character or eavesdropping on a conversation.

But nowadays?  Nowadays we can’t do any of that.  And why? – because at our back we always hear/ time’s winged chariot hurrying near.


Consider two of the most popular writers of the last decade or so: Ian Rankin and J K Rowling.  Neither of them are slouches when it comes to character or description or dialogue – and yet the outstanding, the leading feature in their work is plot.  Plot, plot, plot, you can almost hear them saying – in the same way as Blair once said Education, education, education.  The result is that a plot-wimp like me has to read each of their books several times before I even know what’s happened.  This is especially true of Rankin.  Reading a Rebus novel is like having very sudden sex in the morning before you’re properly awake: loads of fun but you don’t quite know what hit you.

But there’s another phenomenon, too, in modern fiction – one which is particularly relevant to writers – and that is the prevalence of ever-shorter forms.  So, from the short story (most outlets want 3000 words or less, which is about 7 or 8 pages) we progress to flash fiction (1,000 at most and sometimes as few words as 300) and then the ‘short-short’ story which is barely more than a paragraph – and now in the age of Twitter we have the story told in tweet-form.  And barely a week goes by without the Facebook forum ‘’ urging me ‘Quick!  give us 2 words to describe how an astronaut feels on re-entry!’ – or something similar.  I could give them two words to describe how I feel about their ideas – but I doubt they’d publish them.

Yes, I know there’s a lot of skill in telling a story in just a few words, but there are limits; and to ask for a story in a paragraph suggests a readership that just can’t be bothered.

So there we are: and here I am, an ideas-driven writer stuck in an age of plot.  I should have been born in 19th century France, then like Proust I could have written 600 pages describing that moment between sleeping and waking….


Au revoir, mes petits.  A demain.

Kirk out

Hoddadda-daddadda! Eddie Izzard for Pope!

Well, I was thinking this morning in my Proustian way, half-asleep as you do, about carpet sweepers.  Is there anything in the whole of creation more useless than a carpet-sweeper?  Eddie Izzard has a brilliant routine about them which expresses everything I feel:

That man is a genius: he can talk about anything and make it funny.  And speaking of funny, apparently it’s been a record-breaking year for Comic Relief, which is excellent.  I’m thinking next year I might try to organise a comic poet-a-thon.

They should have chosen Eddie Izzard for Pope.  I mean, as a cross-dresser he’s already half-way there; plus he’d get everyone in the world laughing: what more could you ask?  I don’t quite know what to think about the trannie they’ve actually chosen: on the one hand he seems very conservative and has been accused of failing to help Jesuit priests imprisoned for helping the poor: on the other hand he does seem extremely personable.  Watching the Vatican channel live yesterday, I was reminded of no-one so much as Gorbachev.  The architect of Glasnost succeeded a long line of dour, grey conservatives with not a human characteristic among them: Francisco I succeeds a similarly long line of grey, unsmiling traditionalists; so I can’t help wondering whether he will turn out to be the Gorbachev of the church.  God knows, they could use a little glasnost.

A busy day yesterday – well, busy-ish; domestic stuff in the morning followed by going to Peter’s and thence to Jan and Yvan’s in the evening for a party.  We were a bit pathetic, having forgotten both the reason for the party (Jan’s 60th) and the dress code (1960’s clobber) and compounded these sins by leaving early as we were both knackered.  Still, it was good to see them both as it’s been a while.

I shall leave you with a brilliant quotation on life which I discovered this morning (by which I mean that I discovered the quotation, not that I discovered life.  That would be disturbing):

“The world lasts for two days, one day its against you, another day its with you. The day that its against you, have patience. The day that its with you, be humble.”
Imam Ali (peace be upon him)

Thanks to Christopher Zang Starbuck for that one.

And finally, best wishes and sympathy to Dave Fegent who is spending his birthday in hospital awaiting a pacemaker.  Get better soon, Dave!

Kirk out

I am the Anti-Proust

I couldn’t remember what I was going to blog about this morning – and guess what it was?  Yes, our old friend STML.  No, this is not a weird version of HTML; it stands for Short-term Memory Loss.  Now, as you all know, I have been suffering from this for a very long time and I am now officially Fed Up.  I keep thinking it will pass, but it doesn’t seem to be passing – and frankly, I am not prepared to spend the rest of my life in some kind of Dory-esque, senile fog.

So I have done something I should have done a long time ago: I have started taking some medicine.

Short-term memory loss is not merely inconvenient.  It can be highly embarrassing: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to people, ‘Nice to meet you’, only to be told that I’d met them several times before – or ‘I don’t know when we last saw each other’, only for them to say, ‘you spoke to me at so-and-so’s party last week.’  For some reason, telling them I suffer from STML doesn’t seem to make things any better: usually when I tell people that, a clouded look comes into their eyes and they edge away.  I don’t know if they think I’m bullshitting them, or if memory loss is close to mental illness in their eyes – and therefore scary – but I could really do without the whole scene.  I’ve had enough now – and so I’m going to try whatever I can to get over it.

STML is not funny.  Sometimes it’s more disturbing than embarrassing – I have phoned Mark in tears on more than one occasion because I’ve been on my way somewhere in Leicester – a city I have inhabited for more than 20 years – and I just can’t remember how to get there.  It’s not that the place looks unfamiliar, it’s that the connections in my brain are broken, so that I can’t remember how to get from one part of town to another.  Similarly, the links between days are broken, so that I can’t recall on one day what I did on the previous day.

And today I noticed another interesting feature of this phenomenon: that my sense of smell has gone AWOL.  It was a real DUH! moment because obviously memory and smell are closely intertwined – and it just hadn’t occurred to me that my sense of smell might have disappeared at the same time as my memory.  So clearly I am the anti-Proust, because instead of remembering stuff and writing it down, like he did, I forget stuff and then write it down.

But hang on, that’s not right – because the stuff Proust was remembering was not recent; it was in the distant past.  And sometimes we have to let go of the recent past in order to recall earlier events.  So perhaps all this stuff is about me remembering my madeleines – or in my case, the planes going over the garden and the shadow of the church spire in which I grew up.

Reading this blog is a good way to try to remember what I’ve been up to.

So I shall be off now to catch up with myself.

Kirk out

War Horse

We got this along with ‘Made in Dagenham’ from the library.  It’s an unusual film for these days in that it doesn’t have a strong narrative or ‘big parts’ for stars; there’s not even much in the way of stunning scenery, though they do the trenches well – it’s just that the focus is off the humans and on the horse.  It’s hard to say why this film is so compelling; it just draws you in somehow.  At the start, Holly pronounced it ‘soppy’ (she’s never slow to offer an opinion, rather like her father) and after a while I almost agreed with her, but then the story changed and I began to be hooked.  It’s a picaresque story – moving from one situation to another with a central character, rather like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as the horse moves from one ‘owner’ to another.  I say ‘owner’ in inverted commas because I kept being reminded of ‘The Horse and his Boy’ where the boy is told more than once that the horse is not ‘his’ any more than he is the horse’s boy.

It’s as though the horse in ‘War Horse’ owns all the humans too – people take a back seat in the filming while the horse is centre-stage, though without any inappropriate anthropomorphism or sentimentality.  The climactic scene where the horse is caught in no-man’s-land in some barbed wire and a German soldier comes out to help a British Tommy to free him is one of the most brilliantly understated cinematic climaxes I’ve seen.

Go watch.  Watch it now.

Interestingly, I found it is scripted by Richard Curtis, which explains the almost-soppiness and perhaps also why I kept being reminded of ‘Blackadder 4)

And so to bed.  And now, this morning, the question is…

Can We Panic Yet?

Yes, it’s time to panic NOW!!! Because if you didn’t already know, the world is going to end on Friday, December 21st.  This is according to the Mayan Calendar* which runs out on that date and therefore…zzzzzzzzzzz  oh, hell I can’t be bothered with the rest.  You can look it up yourselves.  I can only assure you, in the tart manner of Professor McGonagall responding to a prophecy of Sibyl Trelawney, that if the world ends you need not read this blog.

Meanwhile, today I shall be mostly… beginning to re-read Proust.  Sadly we are all out of madeleines.  But we do have Beer and Carols tonight, at the Western.

So come along if you’re around.

Kirk out

* PS in an interesting footnote, ‘maya’ in yoga means ‘illusion’…