Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Quick Read

A Quick Read

These summer days I enjoy a quick read.  It does not matter what genre it is – be it novel, short stories, autobiography, prose, say a book on philosophy, psychology or one of the myriads on self-help.  As long as it is written well, and with grace and style, then I am happy.  In the last few days I have been lucky to read a little gem by Laurie Lee called A Moment of War.  And what a gem it is – every word leaps from the page and sings a heartfelt song, to mix metaphors rather clumsily.

The blurb on the back cover informs us that this is the third and magnificent conclusion to Laurie Lee’s autobiographical trilogy.  The other two in this sequence are:  Cider With Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.  Needless to say, I have not read these two, but I certainly will.  Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1914.  At the age of 19 he walked to London and then travelled on foot through Spain, where he was trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War.  A Moment of War recounts his experiences of this sad internecine war.

What captivates me about this little book is its objectivity, total lack of self-pity, its delightful humour even in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the lack of fear shown by the author, his authenticity, and to borrow a word from psychotherapy (from Carl R. Rogers, to be precise), his sheer congruence with his own feelings when encountering others along the way, and indeed, when encountering us, his readers.  We feel that the writer is recounting his story to his best friend.  This is what makes this book a little gem.

Next his style is pure and inevitable.  There is not a spare word lying about.  They are all weighed out with great deliberateness.  There is a haunting scene early in the book where Laurie and another prisoner, a deserter from the Republican army are locked in a veritable hole in the ground.  They are both awaiting their probable execution.  The other man, Dino, was the only one of the two who was executed.  Notice in the following words the sheer objectivity and sensitivity and sheer lyricism of this description:


“Strange being huddled so close and for so long to another human being whose face one was unable to see.  I knew him to be young by his voice and breath and the chance touch of his hand when sharing food or wine.  He also had a fresh wild smell about him, a mixture of pine and olives.  I remember we slept a good deal, prey to an extraordinary lassitude, and in the intervals we talked.  He was a deserter, he said; and seemed quite cheerful about it, laughing at the looking-glass differences between us.  I was trying to get into the war, and he was trying to get out of it, and here we were, stuffed into the same black hole.”   (Penguin edition, 1992, pp 14-15)

The above quotation reminds me of a similar episode described in All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, though in the latter the hero or antihero, finds himself in a shell crater with a dead French soldier -  a similar, though somewhat different experience.  All Quiet is another one of my all time favourite books.  I shall be posting a review of it here also in these posts at a later time.

I cannot finish this post without recounting how Laurie’s companion was eventually executed.  Relish with pity and sympathy these marvellously lyrical words:

When it came, it came suddenly, with us both half-asleep, the iron trap-door above raised with a swift muted action, and a low voice calling the young deserter’s name, giving us just time enough for a quick fumbling handshake.  As they raised Dino towards the opening he lifted his arms, and I saw his face in a brief glimmer of moonlight.  It was thin and hollow, his eyes huge and glowing, his long pointed countenance like an El Greco saint ascending.  Finally two dark shapes pulled him through the narrow entrance, and the manhole was lowered again.  I heard the clink of glasses, some moments of casual chatter, Dino’s short laugh, then a pistol shot…” (Penguin edition, 1992, pp 15-16)

One could almost pray these beautiful words.  In fact they are prayer-like or mantra-like or like a spiritual and objective reflection which though objective is still so sensitive and moving.   How beautiful are these moving words, especially those several: “like an El Greco saint ascending”.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Goldsmith Country

Goldsmith Country

Yesterday my brother Pat and I travelled up to Pallas, County Longford.  Pallas is or was the birthplace of the famous Irish writer, Oliver Goldsmith.  The reason for our journey there was that I had been highly commended for two poems which I had entered in The Goldsmith International Literary Festival Competition, 2006.  It was very well organised and luckily, the whole proceedings were bathed in warm summer sunlight – it was around 25 degrees Centigrade.

This post complements those several posts which I wrote on style before this one.  Why? The answer is all too obvious, for Oliver Goldsmith was a master of style.  His epitaph, by Johnson, includes the famous line: “Nullum quod tetigit non ornavit” (“He touched nothing that he did not adorn”).  What a marvellously insighful comment on Goldsmith’s style.  This praise from one of the literary greats of English literature is praise indeed.  I take heart also that Johnson was one of Oliver’s best friends.  I also take great heart from the fact that poor old Oliver was often awkward in movement and ungainly in appearance.  Although he earned a great deal of money in his lifetime, Goldsmith’s extravagance kept him poor. Boswell depicted him as a ridiculous, blundering, but also a tenderhearted and generous creature.  All biographies of Goldsmith portray him as 'a good natured man' who was envied for his literary talents but pitied for his lack of worldly wisdom.

Something in me makes me cringe at this mock epitaph, written by an actor-friend: It was the actor David Garrick who wrote his mock epitaph:
"Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, For shortness call'd Noll, Who wrote like an angel, But talk'd like poor Poll"
Yet, this awkward man could write like a nightingale. If style be the man, then Goldsmith was a man of great style in being so true to himself, in being honest, witty, tenderhearted and generous.  When you read his great poem The Deserted Village or his novel The Vicar of Wakefield one can only marvel at the clarity and richness and precision of his expression, the passion of his writing and the sheer sincerity and honesty of style.  The Poor Poll in every creature can mask, often, the song of a nightingale, the purity of a soul that can sing itself eloquent in lines that continue to entrance.  Oliver was born in Pallas, Co. Longford on 10th November 1728.  Oliver Goldsmith died of fever at forty-five years of age, on 4th April 1774, and was greatly mourned by his friends and many admirers.
The portrait of Oliver Goldsmith I have inserted above left is the famous one by Sir Joshua Reynolds.