Tag Archives: reading

An old man and a determined woman

A young man by the sea, France. Photo: Andreas 1985.

A young boy by the sea, France. Photo: Andreas 1985.

After enjoying Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, I decided to read the book that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 – The Old Man and the Sea. The library had it, not in English, but in Danish as a sound book. A number of cardinal sins already committed right there – a book should be read in the language in which it was written and listening clearly is a different experience from reading.

Santiago is the old man living in Cuba as a fisherman, but he is out of luck. For 85 days he has not caught anything and the boy, Manolin, is no longer allowed to go to sea with him. Santiago goes out on his own and catches a large marlin. He is dragged further out to sea by the large animal and it takes three days before it dies and Santiago can return to Cuba. He ties the fish to the skiff and raises his sail for the passat winds to blow him home, victorious. However, the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks and Santiago fights a brave fight firstly to protect his catch and secondly to protect his own life. He returns to the shore in one piece, but the marlin is reduced to its skeleton.

Much has been written about this story’s meaning – it is a much studied and analysed novella. Hemingway is quoted as saying:
No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.

I was mesmerised by the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing (or perhaps the reader’s voice?) The writing has a certain calm and patient quality. The story is a slow and patient battle between two proud creatures – Santiago and the marlin. While Santiago wins through his perseverance, they are both beaten by the sharks. Santiago’s time waiting on the sea brings with it lots of monologue, reflection and introspection as well as description of the natural environment in almost spiritual tones.

In one sense The Little Mermaid symbolises the helplessness of women Hemingway is proponent of. Except she made her own choice. Edvard Eriksen: Den Lille Havfrue, 1913. Photo: Mick 2015.

In one sense The Little Mermaid symbolises the helplessness of women Hemingway is proponent of. Except she made her own choice fully aware of the dire consequences. Edvard Eriksen: Den Lille Havfrue, 1913. Photo: Mick 2015.

With my friend’s warning that Hemingway was a male chauvinist ringing in my ears, I was struck by a particular view of the sea that Santiago explains. Though others might refer to the sea in male terms, especially when it shows its unrepentant fury, Santiago considers the sea a woman because like a woman the sea cannot help what happens, it just happens. No women – aside from the sea – feature in this novel. However, this way of equating the nature of the sea with the purported helplessness of a woman to determine her own destiny is an inexcusable infantalisation of women.

Perhaps this view is Hemingway’s response to the gradual liberation of women through his lifetime, which may have made his philandering and womanising more difficult. Juxtapose this with my other reading, Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures on Women and Literature she gave in 1928 at Cambridge University. Her basic tenet is that for women to write literature she must have her own money and her own room, quite literally. And that women need access to education. This is at a time when women still largely were property of men, first their fathers, then their husbands and a time when the Oxbridge universities were entirely male dominated and largely closed to women, expect for select faculties. Yet, Woolf reflects, if one only knew women as described by men in literature, one would imagine them to be even greater than men.

A young woman jumping in a lake, Norway. Photo: Lone 1981.

A young woman jumping in a lake, Norway. Photo: Lone 1981.

At the time when Hemingway was developing a writing career in the cafés of Paris, Woolf stood up for women in the halls of Cambridge and called out the reasons why only few women were able to do what he was was.

If through the 20th century all men retained Hemingway’s ossified view of women as helpless creatures unable to determine their own destiny, then gender equality would still be a major battle in the Western world. It still is in some places – even in the Western world – but when girls are given access to education, they excel at traditional male subjects and in 70% of countries exceed the performance of boys. It is only a matter of time before this excellence and excess will show in the centres of power.

In Denmark, it seems the first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Smith, is much maligned  for being a woman, just as Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was. Gillard famously admonished the leader of the opposition in her Misogyny speech – reflecting perhaps that we have some way to go still before women are judged for what they do, rather than their gender.

For the first time, in my home state of Queensland, a woman has taken a party from opposition to victory in a state election. She has also included a record majority of women in the Cabinet room with eight out of 14 ministers being women. Time will tell whether people will judge her on her performance or on her gender. I hope for the first, perhaps against hope?

Learning from the masters

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing - I don't think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing – I don’t think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

As I settle into my reverse expat experience of my home country here in Copenhagen, I picked up Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), written about his time as a young, poor writer in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son.

I have never read a word of Hemingway before and my knowledge of him was quite vague and second hand. But he kept cropping up as someone to read for an example of simple language and so I plunged in. I was not disappointed.

It is an easy read, though sometimes the narrative is fractured, as memoirs can be. From time to time the short book reads like elaborate name dropping. Gertrude Stein here, James Joyce there, a bit of Picasso and a dim view of Scott Fitzgerald, the person, and his mad wife Zelda. He names streets, cafés and hotels and I want to go to Paris to experience the artist community he is part of. This was a time, Hemingway claims, when there was no official uniform for the artist uniform and one could wear what one pleased, when sitting in cafés all day long, bent over a notebook with a pen, nursing a café creme while the waiters swept and cleaned up.

In this novel the gems about establishing a writing practice may be mere wall paper to most readers. But these were the bits that I found most interesting. Hemingway realises that his obsession with winning at the races interferes with his writing practice because to earn a living that way one must know much more about horses and acquiring that knowledge takes time away from creating good writing from which to earn a living. Perhaps my equivalent is the temptation to find a ‘real job’ to supplement our savings (and to be easily able to explain what I do with my days), but this too would take time away from writing. I repeat to myself: I am a writer.

Hemingway’s clearest writing advice is to work until something has been written and stop only when you know what is going to happen next. If stuck, he would remember:
Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. (p12)

By truest sentence he meant a sentence that he knew or had seen or heard someone say – a simple, declaratory sentence. He called elaborate writing scrollwork or ornament that could be discarded.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

At some point Hemingway’s writing practice involved leaving the flat to go to the local café to write, hoping that he would not meet anyone to disturb his flow. His wife would also go out and leave their young son in his crib with the cat, F Pussy. While this would have social workers well concerned in this century, it seemed accepted practice then. Until the flat got too cold for the baby to stay in during winter. Then the family went skiing in the Alps.

Hemingway also advises to stop working and stop thinking about the work between working, so as to let the subconscious work on it. He would then be able to listen to the conversation of other people and to notice things. Using his writerly sense.

For someone so poor, Hemingway consumed an inordinate amount of coffee, meals and wine in the cafés of Paris. But maybe those cafés were affordable and had a different business model to cafés in Copenhagen nearly 100 years later. Daily coffee and lunching in the plentiful cafés in my local neighbourhood would soon deplete our savings. But also, Copenhagen coffee is not that good: I have come to realise how spoilt for good coffee we are in Brisbane. Rather than the smooth drop with well frothed milk and a touch of real chocolate sprinkles that I know from my favourite Brisbane coffee joint, John Mills Himself, a Copenhagen cappuccino is a crass affair with none of the sweetness. And expensive too – about twice the price I pay in Brisbane.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

In my attempts to write, I have tried to establish a writing practice. Sometimes, I leave the flat to write, not because the flat is cold, but because I need to get out. I might sit in the foyer of the Black Diamond, the Royal Library building on the canal front, where I listen to the conversations of students on progress of their thesis, the hearing of their disputation or their new love. If there are other writers and artists around, they are not wearing a recognisable artist uniform.

I also leave the work to do other stuff – my husband and I visit galleries and museums and we walk the streets of Copenhagen, noticing architecture, nature, people and graffiti. With my writerly sense.

But I need more discipline to write enough every day. Or I feel as useless as Hemingway did on an escapade with Scott Fitzgerald – a day wasted not writing.

New year resolutions and reading

Life-long love of reading starts at the earliest of ages. Photo: Mick. 1995.

Life-long love of reading starts at the earliest of ages. Photo: Mick. 1995.

Perhaps it is my insatiable need for order and organisation, perhaps it is an occupational hazard of my year-long work with measurement of performance, and perhaps it is completely counterproductive that my new year’s resolution for 2015 is to read a book a week.

My greatest enemy to establishing a successful writing practice is the allure of the internet. The time-wasting, the frantic social currency of scrolling, the keeping updated, the checking, the FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps me from spending my time on my writing practice. These distractions also prevent me from reading.

To be a writer, you have to read. In short moments of peace, I have been reading Stephen King’s excellent ‘memoir of the craft’: On Writing (a departure gift from a dear – and clever – colleague of mine who shares my passion for writing). King’s advice to read, read and read is both valid and worthwhile. So I decided that I must do better than reading five or six books of fiction in a year: I want to put behind me one book each week in 2015.

On the second day of 2015, I went to the book shop and bought a book. It was the first book I picked up, which happened to be Peter Høeg’s 2014 book, Effekten af Susan (The Susan Effect). Høeg rose to international fame with his 1992 novel, Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), which I read – no, swallowed – in Danish and English at the time.

It took me exactly one week to read this novel. It is a political conspiracy thriller set in a world vulnerable to climate catastrophes and chaos. The political ‘solution’ to this problem is elaborately plotted and jealously guarded by those in power. This creates a  tension between them and the main character, Susan who keeps digging to join the dots.

Peter Høeg: Effekten af Susan, 2014.

Peter Høeg: Effekten af Susan, 2014.

Susan is 43 years old and a successful scientist with a dysfunctional upbringing and traumatic early experiences. She finds peace in the laws of physics and science in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Juxtaposed against Susan’s scientific world view is her inexplicable skill to make people open up and confess their inner-most secrets and feelings. This juxtaposition exposes the importance of human relations through the cracks of what is explicable through scientific inquiry.

In three parts, Susan and her family slowly uncover what is going on. I enjoyed thoroughly reading Høeg’s exquisite writing and the elaborate plot development, even if the book felt some 100 pages too long.

However, I found Susan barely believable and not particularly likable. Portrayed as a superwoman, her inner dialogue reveals the cost of her scientific worldview to her relationships. Early in the novel, her mentor says: Your problem is that you don’t really believe people like you. I found it hard to believe that anyone actually does like Susan. I do not particularly want to meet her or make her my friend: she seems to have her own agenda with everyone she meets – and vice versa. I also found the myriad of smaller characters underdeveloped and difficult to distinguish, even when they were important to the plot. Perhaps this is my weakness: I also struggle to follow spy movies because I cannot distinguish the characters in their black suits and shady agendas.

It reveals something about me that the notes I have taken about the book are mainly about human relations, not the conspiracy. To me Høeg’s human insights are much more interesting and convincing than his climate catastrophe plot. Though well-developed in the thriller genre, the conspiracy seems merely the framework within which unquantifiable ‘truths’ about human relations are hung.

Helle Helle: Rester, 1996.

Helle Helle: Rester, 1996.

During the second week I read Danish author Helle Helle’s Rester – ‘leftovers’ (1996). Helle writes about not much: her stories are not action packed and what happens is limited to what passes between humans as the smooth surface of their relationships cracks in a confrontation where all that remains are leftovers. I enjoy Helle’s simple and direct writing. Rester is a book of very short situation stories – sometimes the book seems just like leftover ideas that have not fitted into longer works. Yet this book was Helle’s breakthrough work and perhaps it was more a taste of what was to come. Helle’s writing cleverly leaves me with a sense of recognition of the situation, the characters and the feelings. And discomfort with what is left behind.

Peter Fogtdal: Letmælksprofeten, 1991.

Peter Fogtdal: Letmælksprofeten, 1991.

Then I read Peter Fogtdal’s breakthrough novel Letmælksprofeten (1991) – ‘the profet of trim milk’. It is a self-referential novel about the life of Gregers. Born in 1956 he grows up to be an actor and then an astrologer with broken relationships. Gregers rises to fame when foresees the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of Ceaușescu in Romania in 1991. Set in Copenhagen and North Sealand, Fogtdal’s book appears to be a portrait of the times and describes a world of astrology, healing and mystique. And megalomania – Gregers gradually looses his grip and starts believing he is God.

1991 was the year I left Denmark for Australia and therefore my Danish experiences coincide with the era of this book. The new age  world Fogtdal describes is not at all one I recognise from my formative years in Midtjylland during the 1970s and 80s. Apart from unquestioning belief in the Lutheran god, the local culture was to dismiss these new age trends as hocus pocus: we kept our feet firmly planted in the sandy soils that nurtured us. New age flight of fancy may be been everyday fare for cosmopolitan young people living in Copenhagen, but did not take root in the provinces or in the country. At the time, critics labelled the book as a farce. Read as such its lack of credibility may make much more sense.

Three books in two weeks is a good start. My performance is already over target 🙂

What books are you reading in 2015?

On blogging

Since I started blogging in April 2014 I have published 34 posts, which have been viewed 1800 times in 42 countries. My posts got 100 likes in 2014. Thank you to everyone of my readers – I hope you enjoy the blog as much as I do.

Today is the beginning of 2015 and the beginning of my reverse migrant experience to get a foot on the ground in Copenhagen. My resolution for 2015 is to write – and read – much more.

Happy new year to you all.

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Click here to see the complete stats report on my first year of blogging.