Three treats

The LuminariesI’m afraid I can’t write about a book today. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I’m thoroughly entrenched in The Luminaries. I had thought I might read a thin little book on the side when on the tube etc., but Eleanor Catton’s writing is too engrossing to be left at home, so I’m afraid I’m stuck with it and so stuck for something to say. Secondly, I think I’m on the final push with the novel, and so for now must put every ounce of energy into that.

Fear not, however, for here are three short treats instead.

William Blake on Autumn:

To Autumn

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
`The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

‘The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.’
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

The first three hundred words of my novel-in-progress:

Let’s begin with what happened to Anna at twenty-past-six on Kingsland Road. That was when she met Roger – she would take to calling him ‘Jolly Roger’, and then, later, ‘Dodgy Roger’ – nodding off at a bus stop.

Anna was in a shuffling, bulging line of people trying to cram themselves, bleep by Oyster-card bleep, on to a busy 149. It wasn’t long before the bus driver shook his head and the doors slid closed, blowing a sigh of frustration through the huddle left behind on the pavement. Anna, not in any particular hurry, slipped out of the scrum and sat down on the hard, thin, red bench in the bus shelter. It was like a giant piece of Lego, she thought, not sure whether to be more impressed that a seat could be designed to be quite so uncomfortable, or that a man had managed to fall asleep on it.

He was asleep, wasn’t he? He wasn’t dead? Anna dismissed this flash of worry when a noise, somewhere between a grunt and a snore, came out of his mouth.

The squashed bloom of a turquoise silk handkerchief protruded from his corduroy jacket pocket and cornflower swirls of a paisley shirt danced brightly beneath, lending him an air of dishevelled splendour, as though he ought to be cushioned by crushed velvet, rather than slumped against the toughened glass of a bus shelter.

‘That wasn’t your bus, was it?’ she asked, instinctively pitying the vulnerability conferred on him by sleep.

Roger didn’t answer. Through the dullness of slumber he was dimly aware of a noise – sharp, new, clear – near his ear, but he hadn’t realised that a young, pretty, slip of a woman had spoken to him.

Encouraging feedback gratefully received.

Last night, I had dinner with the wonderful folk from the fantastic book blog Don’t Read too Fast. They have an inspiring series called ‘Why Read‘, to which I contributed a few months ago:

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Those who remain curious can find many more reasons to read on their blog, here.

Why all the threes, you may well ask… Suffice to say that on Friday I shall turn the big three oh. Indeed. Oh.

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4 Responses to “Three treats”

  1. Emmanuel Grodzinski Says:

    Hi Emily,

    I am very taken with the opening of your new novel. I particularly like the imagery of “people trying to cram themselves, bleep by Oyster-card bleep ……….” And “blowing a sigh of frustration through the huddle left behind.”. When can we expect more –or, indeed, the finished novel?

    I don’t often recommend books but wonder whether you have come across Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves? (Psychiatrist and his painter patient, and the three women in his patient’s life: ex-wife; girlfriend and Victorian Impressionist). I thought that your walking book club might like it. One downside. At nearly 600 pages, it is rather long).

    Best wishes,


    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Emmanuel – very kind of you to say so. The finished novel? Well, soonish I hope. I’ve not read The Swan Thieves, thank you for the recommendation – it sounds fascinating and now I think of it, I remember hearing other good things about it. We’ll see if I’m able to read anything longer than 3 lines after the colossal mass of The Luminaries…

  2. Alaina Says:

    I though that your first three hundred words were very nicely done. The scene was very vividly described– perhaps vividly is not the word I am looking for, but I could easily picture the scene. I especially liked the bit about the jacket and the handkerchief and that the man Roger should have reclined on velvet instead of the (equally well-described) bench.
    I fear that I am waxing lyrical (sorry) but after perusing blog upon blog of people who like to write, it is refreshing to finally stumble upon (via Persephone Books, by the way) a piece of writing that I very much want to keep on reading. More, please?

    Have you ever read any P. G. Wodehouse?

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hi Alaina – thank you for such incredibly kind and encouraging words. They are really appreciated.

      I have indeed read some PG Wodehouse, and also spent rather a large part of my childhood watching Jeeves and Wooster. Aren’t they brilliant!


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