Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

Other posts you may find of interest:

Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

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Post-Interstellar Science Fiction Reading

Interstellar's Bookshelf

The Bookshelf which plays such an important role in Interstellar

Electric Literature recently ran an article titled ‘Science Fiction novels to help with your Interstellar hangover’. It’s a fine list, you should read it, and I definitely agree with the majority of their choices. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle? Yes, absolutely. Carl Sagan’s Contact? Uh-hu! Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Of course! The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness of Joe Haldeman and Kurt Vonnegut? Yep, yep, yep!

But that being as it may, I felt that the list could have benefited from some slightly deeper cuts…

To that end here are some further texts for when you have exhausted Electric Literature’s selection. Note: This post contains what some may deem SPOILERS for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, as well as some minor spoilers for the books in question, but I have tried to keep both to a minimum.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds 

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. There were times during Interstellar when I felt like I was watching a very loose adaptation of Absolution Gap. I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t point out that this 2003 novel is the third part of a trilogy of sorts (one which began with 2000’s Revelation Space and continued with 2002’s Redemption Ark) and is best enjoyed as part of that sequence. All three present ideas with which you will be familiar if you’ve just seen Interstellar (for instance, the effects of time dilation and the rules of relativity play a huge part in how Reynolds constructs his narratives) but in Absolution Gap the author goes further, exploring the concept of gravitational signalling which is so important in Interstellar (and, arguably, does so in a more satisfying fashion than the film’s final act).

Reynolds, who used to work for the European Space Agency, certainly knows his science, yet the similarities between Interstellar and Absolution Gap go beyond an interest in the accurate depiction of physics. Destructive tsunamis? Check. Frozen planets? Check. Children who grow up to be genius saviours? Check. Mysterious beings which may or may not be key to the survival of a human race on the verge of extinction? Yes, you guessed it: Check. And, as in the film, the identity of those beings is one of the novel’s great mysteries; are they advanced aliens or are they perhaps humanity’s own future selves? The clincher, however, is the degree to which love is shown here to be something capable of transcending time and space. In Absolution Gap, love propels characters from star system to star system as much as their desperation to save humanity does, an appreciation of it keeps fingers off of triggers at key moments, and it forges bonds which surpass mere human lifetimes.

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ by Connie Willis

I first read this story in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s quite brilliant anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009), but it was originally published in 1987. Like the Alan Lightman book below, Willis here fictionalises a real life scientist, in this case Karl Schwarzschild who calculated the first accurate solutions to the equations of general relativity. The events of the story are told by a soldier who has intercepted a letter from Einstein to Schwarzschild during World War I, at which time the astronomer was serving with the German Army (and using his knowledge to solve ballistics problems). Willis deliberately muddles time periods and tenses in the story, playing with some beautiful and striking metaphors derived from the mathematical ideas Schwarzschild himself was working on at the time. Though perhaps nothing connects it thematically to Interstellar more than the Willis quote (sourced from an Infinity Plus interview, I believe) with which Kelly and Kessel preface the story in their anthology: ‘The real appeal of the past is that it’s the true forbidden country. Even when you write stories about the Outer Magellanic Cloud or the star pillars in Orion, there’s a chance that we can go there, we know we’ll get to the future eventually, one way or another, but the past you can never go to, not even to correct your mistakes. It’s the place you can’t ever go home to, even to take one last longing look, and yet it’s always with us, every moment.’

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ shows society to be as capable of catastrophic collapse as any star; war to be as all-consuming as any black hole. It’s a magnificent story (devastating in its own way, though that term is thrown around far too freely these days) and, whether or not you pick it up in The Secret History of Science Fiction or in Willis’s own collection Impossible Things (containing further Interstellar appropriate tales of environmental collapse), I highly recommend you give it a read.

Ark by Stephen Baxter

This 2009 novel depicts the journey of a group of survivors (in this case a generational crew) dispatched from an environmentally ruined Earth by NASA remnants working in secret on a last chance mission to set up a colony on a new world. Sound familiar? Yes, there’s a lot here which Interstellar riffs on, which I suppose isn’t surprising given our treatment of the planet. The novel is a sequel to Baxter’s Flood from the year before, a book with an unrelentingly realistic depiction of environmental collapse and rising sea levels. However unlike the Reynolds book above, Ark can definitely be read as a stand-alone novel.

Where Flood was a genuinely frightening tale of environmental collapse, Ark excels as one of the most depressing depictions of spaceflight which I’ve ever read, with the characters spending decades trapped in what is essentially a tin can. Perhaps not the most ringing endorsement, but Baxter accomplishes this bleakness with great skill (it’s really a terrific novel!), and it does speak to the hopelessness frequently apparent in Interstellar. The characters in Ark know they are humanity’s last hope and yet they are too often unable to overcome their own petty desires and disputes. They keep secrets. They lie. They come to blows (and often much more violent exchanges). Like Interstellar too, the novel splits its narrative between the space mission and humanity’s ongoing, losing battle for survival on Earth. It’s a grim book, yes, often quite sad but also often thrilling.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Is it a novel or is it a carefully structured collection of short stories? Like Interstellar, this book never quite decides what it wants to be (though it is typically understood to be, and marketed as, a novel), but let that not be an impediment to your enjoyment. Similar to Reynolds in his former career, Lightman is a scientist as well as a writer. His research has focused on areas very relevant to the plot of Interstellar such as relativistic gravitation theory and the development of accretion disks around black holes. Yet this short volume takes an altogether more imaginative approach to such professional interests.

The book presents the reader with a fictionalized Albert Einstein, a young scientist working on his theory of relativity in 1905. Each chapter details a dream which Einstein has during this period and each involves a different conception of time: time as a circle (hello, True Detective fans), time as a flow of water, time passing more slowly the farther one is from the centre of the Earth, people living just one day but that day being an eternity, time as a line which terminates at the present, and so on. It’s a rather wonderful conceit and, through it, Lightman (what a brilliant name for a physicist!) explores exaggerations of real science related to relativity as well as phenomena which are entirely fantastical in nature. Much like Interstellar, Einstein’s Dreams concerns itself with the relationship of human beings to time and to the physical laws underpinning the universe. It’s a wonderful read and, for all its physics, probably the most mainstream of the texts on this list.

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

In contrast to Lightman’s volume, The Algebraist is the closest book here to the traditional conception of Space Opera. Banks may not have been as scientifically rigorous as, say, Reynolds, but he could write hugely entertaining widescreen Science Fiction like few others. This 2004 novel is about the search for the coordinates of a series of hidden wormholes which can provide instantaneous travel across the galaxy. Its hero Fassin Taak spends the novel searching not just for this list but also for the mathematics needed to unlock the precise location of the wormhole portals. Until he does so, his solar system is cut off from the rest of the Galaxy.

As a stand-alone novel, The Algebraist is a good taster for those who haven’t read Banks’s SF work or who might be wary of committing to his Culture series (though, with one or two exceptions, those books can be read in any order). The novel displays a time-sensitive thirst for knowledge which will strike a chord with anyone who has seen Interstellar but, in the same way the film undercuts the dourness of its characters with the comedy stylings of robots TARS and CASE, the serious nature of Taak’s mission in The Algebraist (aggressive marauders are bearing down on his home system) is frequently derailed by the absurdities of the Dwellers, the long-lived alien race which resides inside the novel’s gas giant. They are ridiculous but incredibly knowledgeable creatures, and a lot of fun to read about. Indeed, the “sailing race” enjoyed by these aliens in the middle of the story is an absolute highlight and worth the cost of the book alone.

Honourable mentions

It’s not a Science Fiction novel, but I want to at least nod towards John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) considering that the first act of Interstellar is basically a dustbowl story.

The real honourable mention, however, relates to the space habitat at the very end of the film, a station which clearly draws on so-called O’Neill Cylinders. If you want to learn more about this idea then you could do worse than go direct to the source and read The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O’Neill.

Yes, it’s a bit dated (it was published in 1976 after all) but it remains an engaging overview of how such massive space colonies could actually be constructed and how they might function. Moreover, much of it is written in a voice which could easily be that of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar. Just opening it to a random page, I find: “Our Earth is rich in plants and animals, but as industry and human population crowd environments it is not as rich as once it was…” More than a touch of McConaughey’s ‘This planet is a treasure but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now’ in that.

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What good are the artists? Or, for that matter, the critics?

Here’s a recent review I wrote  for the Irish Examiner

Oxford Life in BooksThe Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books

John Carey

Faber; £18.99

Review: Val Nolan

It is no surprise to find that this memoir by Britain’s leading literary critic is full of symbols: A shallow-bottomed canoe which goes to places other boats dare not; a Bakelite radio that picks up nothing but static from the universe beyond the written word; the Crystal Palace in flames as the era of empires draws to a close. Yet John Carey’s earliest memory is the oddest of all: an elephant on a London street. Of the many totems in The Unexpected Professor, this great beast – mighty in reputation but charming in person – is perhaps the one which most resembles the author.

An academic, biographer, and a longstanding presence in the British press, (particularly in the Sunday Times, for which he has written since 1975), the eighty year old Carey is now an emeritus professor at Oxford where he taught English literature for four decades. He has chaired the Booker prize, authored volumes about Donne, Thackeray, and William Golding, and, famously, has proven to be an uncompromising critic. It is therefore a revelation to meet him as a child reading the kind of Biggles adventures which taught that “courage matters more than understanding poetry”.

No doubt it does, depending on the courage required or the poetry in question, however the double-take such a comment elicits is typical of Carey’s irreverent and entertaining journey to the top of the ivory tower. At no point is he beyond mining the streak of the ridiculous which runs through mid-century British life and, indeed, once he undertakes his National Service he discovers that, far from Biggles, the army “turned out to consist, to an unexpectedly large extent, of dressing and undressing very quickly and often”.

The armed forces also exhibited a slavish devotion to the English class system and, in that way at least, the pantomime of soldiery suitably prepared Carey for the “infectious snobbishness” of Oxford. The undergraduate years he describes were an unreal life of book-littered rooms, servants (or “scouts” in the local parlance), and luxurious meals even as the rest of Britain struggled with post-war austerity. Carey, the proud but then self-conscious product of a grammar school education, learned to pretend “to be like any other St. John’s freshman”. Nowadays he supposes that “a lot of them were pretending too”.

Servants aside, the opulence might leave some contemporary students jealous, but Carey himself wisely refused to buy into Oxford’s elitism and social division. His move from St. John’s to the leftist and tolerant Balliol College, a “civilised place where disagreement could resolve itself in laughter, not anger,” suited him well. Within its walls he found his ideal Oxford, an institution “full of brilliant minds” where class distinctions “counted for nothing”.

It is here too that the real meat of The Unexpected Professor reveals itself. The book is a time capsule from a just-past age when universities regarded their Humanities departments as engines of intellectual and creative energy, not a hindrance to league table mobility or national economic goals. The shift from then to now is all the more remarkable when one considers the titanic, if idiosyncratic, talent to emerge from the system Carey encountered: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden… none of whom could have functioned within the pharaonic third level culture of today, a maze of branding, quotas, bloated bureaucracy, and strategic visions.

“I heard,” Carey writes, “that one of my ex-students, when he was appointed to a lectureship at a provincial university, innocently proposed that they should give the same amount of time to teaching as I had. He was laughed at, on the grounds that their staff-to-student ratio made it impossible. All the same, I think he had a point, and the current abandonment of regular tutor-student contact in many English universities seems to me a disgrace”.

Not that the author claims all was ideal in his day. For one thing “women were segregated in five heavily fortified colleges on the outskirts of town”. For another, “the Oxford English syllabus in the 1950s was a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour. Its cut-off point was 1832 – that is, it omitted all Victorian and twentieth century literature”. Equally, the glimpse into the Bodleian Library’s catalogue room, “virtually the same as it had been throughout the nineteenth century,” is delightfully kooky in a Harry Potter fashion, but today’s option of searching its holdings online instead is unquestionably a positive achievement of the Internet Age.

Of course, part of the pleasure of The Unexpected Professor is being allowed to peruse Carey’s own lifelong library. “Literature,” he says, “trains you in ways of thought outside your own place and time”. Here he offers asides on great books from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, “the world’s first science-fiction novel,” to how the treatment of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote “reeked of injustice and class discrimination”. George Eliot “is great because she is serious and rational. Dickens is great because he is not. He is an anarchic comic genius, and critics who treated him as a moralist seemed to me way off course”.

A keen eye and a sharp wit eventually brought Carey out of the academy’s cloistered halls and into the realm of mainstream book reviewing. For one of his first assignments he was sent Seamus Heaney’s early pamphlet Eleven Poems (1965) which he devoured with “mounting astonishment” and decided that, if this was the kind of work available, then writing for the papers was a “job to hang on to”.

Reviewers, he says, “can make enemies,” which is true if you are doing it right, but he nonetheless believes in the value and vitality of broadsheet criticism while also admitting that, though it is guided by knowledge and experience, such work is always subjective. Anyone who has read his infamous What Good Are the Arts? (2005) knows that Carey believes some readers will just like a book and some readers won’t. Which is about as accurate a description of reviewing as this critic has come across, and a salve, perhaps, for those writers who feel slighted.

Certainly Carey himself has been attacked in the past however this new volume is unlikely to provoke the same ire as, for instance, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992). A minor but enjoyable work by a major figure, The Unexpected Professor is accessible, welcoming, and lively. Or, if you prefer, the exact opposite of most academic writing. Whether he be dining with Robert Graves or feeling “shamed by the nobility” of Ted Hughes, John Carey’s palpable joy at literature and learning jumps off the page. If he is immodest at times (and he is), well, he has earned that right. This warm and engaging record of books read and book written only proves as much.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches literature at NUI Galway. His story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ has been selected for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Volume Eight) to be published by Solaris in May.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 April 2014 (Weekend, pp.34-35).

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The Wisdom of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

Like many today, I was saddened to hear of the death of Ray Bradbury, one of the giants of Fantasy and Science Fiction literature, and – for that matter – literature full stop.

Perusing the tributes on Twitter this evening I was struck not just by the warmth expressed towards him from readers all around the world, but also by the man’s great wisdom, the brief nuggets of truth he had cause to gift us in his life and which are being shared in people’s tweets tonight.

I’ve been jotting down these quotations as I go along and, while Mr. Bradbury’s immortality is already assured, his short, sharp observations are so joyful, so relevant to all of our lives that there can be few better ways to remember him than by taking a moment to appreciate the world the way that he did…

Ray  Bradbury on Reading:

  • “Love what you love.”
  • “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money.”
  • “Libraries raised me. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
  • “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Ray  Bradbury on Writing:

  • “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”
  • “Thinking is the enemy of creativity… You can’t try to do things, you simply must do things.”
  • “You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
  • “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
  • “Some new thing is always exploding in me; and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it.”
  • “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”
  • “First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.”
  • “We save up a tension for tears. So I as a writer come along and try to help you to cry.”
  • “Don’t just talk about it… Write.”

 Ray  Bradbury on Living:

  • “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”
  • “We belong only by doing, and we own only by doing, and we love only by doing and knowing”
  • “If you don’t like what you’re doing, then don’t do it.”
  • “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”
  • “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  • “We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
  • “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
  • “Looking back over a lifetime, you see love was the answer to everything.”
  • “Get out of here tonight and ask yourself: ‘Am I being joyful?’
  • “Fall in love, stay in love. Find something you love and love it for a lifetime.”

Retro Review: The Letters of Ted Hughes

My Anglo-American literature course ‘The Poetry of Violence 1902-2002’ is something of a holdover from when I was more interested in poetry than I am now, but it’s a course I enjoy teaching a lot and one which I look forward to returning to each year. Having already looked at World War I poetry, TS Eliot, and a representative selection of verse from World War II, I’m now approaching the point where the Third Years and I discuss the work of the divisive English poet Ted Hughes. Not a bad time so to revisit this piece I wrote for the Sunday Business Post a little over four years ago (which, like a lot of my SBP journalism, seems to have vanished from their website).

Letters of Ted HughesLetters of Ted Hughes

Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid

Faber

Review by Val Nolan

Arguably the greatest English-language poet since Yeats, Ted Hughes never conformed to the stereotype of the weedy, introverted writer. A vigorous, rugged outdoorsman, a fisher of pike, salmon and women, Hughes was an obsessive letter-writer and this 740 page selection represents only a quarter of his extant correspondence. But what an astonishing quarter it is.

Among its many tantalising insights, his devotion to Sylvia Plath – his first wife – will surprise many. His earliest letter to her begins: ‘that night was nothing but getting to know how smooth your body is. The memory of it goes through me like brandy.’ The notes which follow are stupefied with longing: ‘Love love love love love love, from your Ted,’ he writes constantly.

Yet Plath’s suicide in 1963, followed six years later by that of Hughes’s partner Assia Wevill, who also killed their child, was adopted as a cause célèbre by the developing women’s movement. Hughes was demonised, publicly, and the story of ‘the mysterious role in my life that her posthumous life has played’ is now well known. ‘I was the only person who could have helped her,’ he says, ‘and the only person so jaded by her states and demands that I could not recognize when she really needed it’. Despondent, Hughes turned his grief into one of the most staggering poetic oeuvres of the Twentieth Century and, as a result, became one of literature’s best known and most controversial figures.

Writing about a Faber party in 1960, he brings to life the famous ‘Pride of Poets’ photograph which saw him in the company of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Auden, says Hughes, has a face ‘like a Viking seaman’ while ‘MacNeice was drunk and talked like a quick-fire car salesman’. Spender was also drunk, ‘silly-giddy like Mabel Brown at her 9 year old birthday party,’ but Eliot, meanwhile, ‘has been ill’.

Other poets, such as Philip Larkin, were the subject of generous and fanciful dispatches which Hughes himself described as ‘fan’ letters. ‘What a remarkable map of the heavens you’ve been carrying around,’ says Hughes, enclosing the hand-drawn horoscope he cast for Larkin. And this to a man who wrote, in his own letters to Faber: ‘No, of course Ted’s no good at all. Not a single solitary bit of good.’

In accepting the position of Poet Laureate in 1984 – which many believed would go to Larkin – Hughes found a wider readership. He revitalized the role, particularly through his work with children (or ‘younger readers’, as he liked to think of them), but critics found his Laureate verses to be trying, particularly their deliberate imperialistic overtures and their tendency towards flattery of the Royal Family. Looking back though, Hughes’s enduring attachment to the idea of the Monarchy makes his Laureateship less surprising. More amusing is his domestic depiction of life with the Royals: ‘Visited the Queen on Thursday,’ he wrote to his brother. ‘Had a nice talk.’

More formal in his poetry, Hughes utilised Lions and crowns to represent the ‘twin totems’ of British identity (consciously British now, where earlier his concern had been with the English): ‘The Lion, for me, can be nostalgic pageantry but the crown quite real,’ he writes. ‘Incomprehension of the Lion,’ as expressed by critics, ‘is a sign that the country’s falling to bits.’

In discussing his work throughout this volume, Hughes is wry and engaging. One long letter provides a wonderful close-reading – destined to be pillaged, wholesale, by literature students – of a poem from his first masterpiece, Crow, while a long letter discusses how his early nature poems evolved into the visceral iterations of sex and violence which comprise the great sequences of Cave Birds and Gaudete. Only our sexuality, he declares, ‘carries the seeds of humanity and joy’. For all of this, however, Hughes was clear: ‘I would prefer to know as little as possible about what is written about my writing.’ He had been burned before, of course, by the invasive interest of antagonistic Plath scholars.

Even posthumously, the poet’s personal life remains closely guarded. One of the few failures of this volume is the absence of letters to Carol Orchard, the farmer’s daughter he married in 1970. Still, there are hints of his tenderness in letters to others. ‘My wife is a wonder,’ he says. ‘After 18 years of marriage I’d do anything to marry her again tomorrow.’

As a poet and critic, Hughes was utterly unique. The correspondence here, touching astrology, shamanism, Shakespeare, politics, farming, fishing, and every conceivable subject between, is more varied and more alive than the best work of most other writers.  The letters of others, Plath and Larkin included, look drab by comparison.

  • Val Nolan teaches Twentieth Century literature at NUI Galway.

This article originally published as ‘Letters of Pain and Pleasure’ in the Sunday Business Post, 2nd December 2007, Agenda supplement, p. 24.

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