CONTENT WARNING: swearing
E.M. Forster, my fave writer, my pal, was once in a supervision at Cambridge. His tutor suggested to him, in the most informal way, ‘I really don’t see why you shouldn’t write.’ Forster, appearing like a rather charming mole, reflects in a 1958 BBC talk: “And I, being very diffident, was delighted with this remark, and I thought well after all why shouldn’t I write, and I did”. Gwon lad. Why shouldn’t you.
I don’t see why I shouldn’t write either, but Forster has already said many of the things I would like to say, which is how he prompted that ’yes, yes!’ feeling in me when reading his novels.
But there is hope, reader, for no one has said all the things my favourite people have said at once. I recently found a quote by Amanda Gorman, which says “you might think everything has been said before, but it has not been said by you.”
Here are all the people who’ve already said the things I want to say. You’ll find that this list is effectively my Desert Island book Discs (shelf). I am a DJ and they commingle in my head, because time is no line in Book World.
Life of Pi: This absolute banger by Martel convinced me so effectively that this was a biographical book about an actual tiger that I googled ‘Piscine Molitor life’ like a twat, and was baffled to find that he did not have a Wikipedia page and IS NOT A REAL MAN. This could have made me feel like a muppet, but, instead of despairing over my own ignorance, I was left full of AWE and WONDER at Martel’s DELICIOUS crafting. I particularly love the way he makes Pi conscious of shaping his own ‘story’ into narrative so that I, book-eater, world-viewer, am left GAGGED at fiction’s relentless sense-making.
His Dark Materials: Having read the acknowledgements of The Subtle Knife, I have learned that Pullman is also a blasé, intertextual THIEF, largely nicking his premise from a) an obscure German essay from 1810 (‘On the Marionette Theatre’ by Heinrich von Kleist), b) all of Paradise Lost, and c) all of Blake’s work, an enabling confession which I respect. He admits “I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read” and says his principle in researching a novel is “read like a butterfly, write like a bee” as though he were scavenging to survive, not, I assume, sitting in trousers eating Werther’s Originals. I bloody read his trilogy like a bee. It was TERRIFIC. Much better than when I had to read it for gifted and talented in Year 6 and abandoned ship when he started talking about slicing through a roundabout and arriving in Italy. His trilogy is well worth nicking from. However I explain why I like it, my description will not do my awe and respect justice. I like the books I like because I feel they’ve actually happened or have the potential to happen – not just because they’ve been written. This trilogy seems very bothered about its own potentials or fixed destiny. Has it happened? Will it happen? Are these silly questions?
A Room With a View: Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Is not a quote from this book but from Forster’s next novel, Howard’s End (1910). It also includes Forster’s characteristic and demonised conscientious abstainers from life: priests, dandies, people who refuse to play tennis with careless abandon – but its phrase does describe Lucy’s experience of love for George. ‘Love’ here feels reductive, unless you understand it as Forster does, as MEANING, PEACE, HONESTY, CONNECTION, CLARITY. The honest acknowledgement of it and the belief in it with all your being will move you from existing in ‘muddle’ in the Dark Ages to light, self-knowledge and consequent silliness. Zadie Smith summarised the feeling A Room With a View shoots into you so frankly: “I felt it was very good and that the reading of it had done me some good.” Smith says serious people don’t talk about novels like that, but I bet they do, on their days off from being serious, after eating pudding.
The Other Side of the Hedge: EVEN MORE FORSTER. This time, a short story, but again about ways of seeing. It reminds me quite literally of when you see a cat go through a hedge, and there’s that small moment where only the cat’s bottom is visible, before their tail whips through. A liminal space for cats; a boundary impermeable to me. I like it when you can’t see the hedge’s Other Side, which, in the case of this story, is Heaven.
Midnight’s Children: “o eternal contradiction of inside and outside!” is my favourite quote from this very large book. It was marvellous. However, I must admit that it was one of those books that’s better after you’ve read it, when you’ve had time to think about what it’s done, and how it’s done it. The last chapter, where Saleem lives with Padma in the pickle factory, boils (literally) his whole life-book into jars, re-seeing his whole life as chopped and reduced and sweetened into chapters. Each chapter-jar is a physical container for narrative, dictated by Saleem to Padma who writes and simultaneously creates one pickle jar per chapter. I love the Rushdie books I’ve read – they’re dense AND flavourful.
The Matrix: Literally NOT A BOOK and now unfortunately associated with misogyny. I should have seen that coming, given that it is the film version of Plato’s cave allegory with Christian allusion (a ship called Nebuchadnezzar? girl), meaning it can be hijacked by every second fucker who wants to illustrate that the world as you see it MIGHT NOT BE HOW IT ACTUALLY IS. This was deeply appealing to a girl of Christian upbringing who had just read eight pages of Plato’s Republic and learned about blik theory. It’s so malleable! It can mean anything! Speaking less intellectually, it is also appealing because both Neo and Trinity are deeply hot. The bit with all the fighting in the third film is boring, but THEN! O marvel. It conveys not only VISION without SEEING in a way I had only read of, but BELIEF IN IT – possibly because, to quote J Smith-Cameron, “film is a more elaborate pretence that is easier to believe”. Basically, Neo is blind and ONLY SEES LIGHT. It’s brill.
Caitlin Moran: Anything she’s ever written, even her shopping lists. My friend once said that if she could, she’d read her favourite author’s shopping list. I thought this was odd, because I am deeply unbothered about E.M. Forster’s shopping list. I think it would say:
- Lamb chop
- Kiwi shoe polish dark brown
But Caitlin Moran’s has much greater potential to say exciting, self-affirming things like:
- Enquire about cream for shiny wee???
- Biography of Eve
Her writing has such relentless energy that it transfers energy to MY writing. It seems so honest and shameless that I feel no part of me or my head is off paper-limits. One day I will write a column, invoking Caitlin Moran, about when I ate five sharing packs of Tesco knock-off Frazzles.
In conclusion: it is said that the anecdotal conversationalist will never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I think that this drizzling of my personal canon, ta biblia if you will, got both in – truth and story. In some cases, they are the same thing.