Back to the Ek

Waking this morning at six o’clock a thin thought, about the length and width of an adolescent slow worm, winded its way through my sleep-deprived mind. What in heaven’s dear name has happened to Edmund Ek? It has been more than three years since I last reported on his self-imposed exile to a lake-side cabin in Northern Norway. Immediately following his move to the middle-of-nowhere stories of his strange behaviour dominated Scandanavian literary magazines. Every sighting of him, or his cat, fueled new rumours. He was writing a Buddhist manga, said one.  He had changed his name to ‘Edmund the Honest’ said another. Others claimed that he had stopped writing altogether. He was drawing, mostly. Or he was writing a series of erotic sonnets, such as the world has never seen. Then again, maybe he was re-writing his second novel in the first person (or was it his first novel in the third?). Or was he, perhaps, adapting Shakespeare for the banjo?

For the last few months, however, there has been no news of Ek whatsoever. Not a solitary, lonely little bean. I know not whether he is still in the wilderness, or whether he has wound his wilful way back to Oslo.

What I do know, though, is this. About ten years ago Ek came to give a talk at a certain university on the East Coast of America; the same one, as it happens, where I am currently residing. It was early days in his career, and he was still basking in the glow of The Incredible Expletive Shock, for which he had been branded ‘the Norwegian Salinger’. His talk (which took place in the same auditorium my wife is expected to fill in a few months) attracted huge numbers of devoted fans, many of them women. What no one realised at the time, however, was that the man who gave the talk was not Ek at all, but an actor impersonating Ek. The writer himself was seated in the audience, in the fourth row. This arrangement had not been planned, but was sprung upon the hapless organisers only minutes before the event took place. Did Ek have stage fright? No, not at all. He simply loved messing with people.

As it was, he couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his impersonator. During the talk he kept up a running commentary from his seat, frequently shouting out words such as ‘rubbish!’, ‘nonsense!’ and ‘wrong again!’ When it was time for questions he dominated the floor, hauling the poor actor across the coals, and bemusing almost everyone else. At one point he launched a vicious attack on his own book, describing it as a ‘pitiful, poorly written, cry for help, which should never have been published in any language, let alone fourteen’. The more it went on, the more embarrassing it got. Who was this impertinent man in the fourth row, thought the other attendees? And why doesn’t anyone throw him out? The truth, of course, was that the organisers knew exactly who it was, and hadn’t the confidence to throw the writer out of his own event.

Exactly what Ek was trying to prove – if he was trying to prove anything, remains a mystery. Suffice it to say that this will go down as one of those events that annoyed everyone at the time, only to be remembered fondly. As one organiser admitted to me: ‘on the night I wished I’d been someplace else. In retrospect I couldn’t be gladder that I was there’. I, for one, am grateful that I wasn’t.  These young, preening writers are more than I can manage.

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The Crickets

In all parts of this fair world, the industrious writer faces distractions. As I sat down at my desk this afternoon I was more conscious than ever of the sound of crickets. I first noticed their ceaseless chirruping, of course, upon my arrival. I did not remark on it, but registered it nonetheless, marking it down as one of the more notable differences between my old home and my new.  At the same time I presumed I would soon get used to it.

That is almost, but not exactly, the case. The sound is now a familiar one; as familiar as the buzzing of electrical cables, or starlings playing on the roofs. Yet I would hesitate to say that it has become mere background noise. For crickets are never easy to ignore. Their song remains the same, but the tone and volume has a tendency of shifting subtlety. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they move into another gear. The chirping changes. New crickets move into the vicinity and raise the chorus to a new level. The chatter rises and falls, folds and unfolds, rolls and, when you least expect it, relents.

Crickets never really stop: the industrious writer grasps this early on. They keep on humming, day and night. They always have something to say, and it isn’t always nice to hear. On certain days their tune has about it a wistful melancholic air. On others it buzzes vibrantly, like a happy refrigerator. More often than not, however, it drones like the lawnmower of a zealous gardener. You want to shut it out, but you can’t. The only thing to do is to accept that it is there, that it will always be there, and that if you wait long enough, it will probably move into another register: not distinctly different, but never quite the same.

As with the crickets, so with the critics. They will always be with us, muttering and moaning, grousing and grumbling, objecting and opposing. You can’t pretend to drown them out entirely. At the very least, though, you can accept their awkward, eternal presence, and enjoy those brief moments in which their murmur becomes music.

Expectations

Why am I in America? As noted earlier, my wife was invited here by a certain East Coast University to bolster their already burgeoning reputation for the study of Eastern European poetry. She is expected to give three lectures each semester, and to take part in ‘x’ number of symposiums, seminars and champagne soirees. In addition to this she is under orders to be ‘as productive, in a creative sense, as circumstances allow’; which is to say that they expect her to write at least two stonkingly brilliant poems a month. At least one of these poems, they hope, will reflect on her new life in America, with particular reference to one of the following: a. the marvellous eccentricity of campus architecture, b. the stupefying beauty of the surrounding countryside, c. the relationship between ‘family’ and ‘community’. Just after Thanksgiving she will be expected to give a public reading of her 1990 poetic cycle Tightening the Threads Till the Camel Comes. This is expected to sell out the largest University auditorium, named after the only daughter of a mildly successful entrepreneur who died during the Civil War (the entrepreneur that is, not his daughter, who went on to become a highly popular circus performer, and not the scholar her father wished for).

I am expected, merely, to behave. Only time will tell whether this is beyond my capabilities.

The Madness of Moving

It is as I suspected. I have left my memoirs back in Britain. In the madness of moving, several boxes were misplaced, one of which included my hand-written copy of Conversations with Speyer, only half of which has been typed up onto the computer. This is not a tragedy, but as readers of the introduction will appreciate, it is rather ironic. Hopefully I can persuade Jean-Pierre Sertin to leave his shady corner at The Crippled Bee one afternoon and steal over to my house to retrieve the guilty boxes. Till then, we are stranded at the end of Chapter Six, Part Three.

In other news I have, as you can probably surmise, officially left the country. Once an Old Englander, I can now claim to be a New Englander. This wholesale relocation ought to have brought with it a torrent of new impressions, ideas and anecdotes. In one sense it has. Yet it has also brought with it a certain mental numbness. Or to put it another way: it has worn me down. I have been stimulated, yes, but the fruits of this stimulation have yet to ripen.

When they do so, suffice it to say that you, my dear readers, will be first in line to take a bite from the juicy peaches of my new found wisdom.

Road Rage

I like to think that this blog has, over the past five years, canoed its merry way across a vast ocean of curious subjects, from the psychedelic properties of pineapple juice to the presence of economic facts in fiction. There is one topic, however, which I cannot claim to have covered in any shape or form. This is motoring.

Why have I never steered my worthy vessel in this particular direction? The reason is, as all good reasons are, rather simple. I know absolutely nothing about it. Show me a car, a lorry or a tram, and all I see is an assemblage of painted metal and plastic: a cramped, angular sculpture in which humans willingly trap themselves for hours on end in bare-faced denial of the existence of legs.

It is probably fair to say that I have more interest in the molecular structure of sparrow faeces, or the mass production of plastic figurines in Southern China, than I do in motoring. To me, this is no bad thing. It does, however, it put me at a grave disadvantage when it comes to conversing with other human beings. Having nothing to say on the subject of motoring is, in many circles, tantamount to lacking the basic language skills. People simply don’t know how to deal with you.

Granted, in literary circles (or any literary shape, for that matter) motoring is not brought up with as much frequency as it is in other walks, or motorways, of life. To say that it is absent as a topic would nevertheless be a lie. Many are the soirees I have attended that have been dominated by talk of turbo engines, fuel consumptions and the relative merits of various global positioning systems. Sometimes I wish I knew what all of these things are; most often I’m glad that I don’t. It is enough to shuffle my feet nervously and request directions to the nearest bathroom, wherein I can whip out a copy of Don Quixote and imagine a world in which gear sticks did not exist.

What is it about motoring that excites people so? Roads have never done much for me. I care not if the A76 meets the M42 just outside Doncaster, or if the driving style of most Americans suggests a repressed suicide drive. Cars, to me, as are stimulating as car-park architecture. We could be chatting about Tosca Calbirro, the Bulgarian Farm Poets, or the latest issue of Gdansk Haunting. So why are we discussing the quickest route from Exeter to Stockport? From exhaust pipes to windscreen wipers, hub-caps to road maps, motoring must be one of the most tedious subjects I have ever encountered. It drives me mad.

Missing Memoirs

In the first part of my mildly acclaimed memoir Conversations with Speyer, I write of how an early version of this text was lost forever. In a rather exacerbating twist to this tale, it turns out that the same fate may have befallen the handwritten final draft, only half of which has been typed up. I dare not cry the word ‘Lost!’ just yet; a simple ‘Mislaid!’ will do for now. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the notebooks in question are very much not ‘to hand’: hence the interruption in publishing further installments.

Call it a crisis, call it chaos, call it complicated: call it what you will. Needless to say, it is not unrelated to the important changes mentioned in a recent post. The move I will be making next week has required a certain amount of ‘temporary down-scaling’; i.e. throwing handfuls of books and clothes (in that order) into boxes and leaving the vast majority of our possessions to molder in storage like jars of old grain. One tries, of course, to take the task of moving seriously; to project one’s dear self into the misty future and imagine just which books and clothes one will need most when one is Over There. But one invariably fails. I shall no doubt find, upon arriving in Those United States, that I have brought with me the books I am least inclined to read, and the clothes I am least inclined to wear.

The Perfect Library (3)

You take the damp book with you and move towards the building, tiptoeing around the selection of books strewn across the ground. Every now and again you stop to examine one. You do not put it back where you found it.

Much the same rules apply inside as they did outside. There are books aplenty, though not in their usual places. One or two sit on a shelf –  a nod to olden days  – but they are very much in a minority. No point throwing out tradition wholesale, nor is there much to be said for clinging onto it. The Perfect Library seeks to keep readers on their toes.

There are books hanging like winter coats from hooks on the wall, or like light-bulbs from the ceiling. There are books piled up on the floor: leaning towers of literature which readers are encouraged to topple and reform. No disrespect is intended. Visitors are not encouraged to mistreat book; simply to put aside preciousness. ‘Muck in’ reads a sign on one wall. ‘Get involved’ reads another.

You jump up high, to see if you can catch one of the hanging books. You get nowhere from a stationary position, but with a short run you succeed in pulling down a hefty novel. You feel as though you have just caught a large fish. Hunting for books: you like this.

The Perfect Library makes you work – but work has rarely been this fun. Up the stairs you find a series of rooms in which books are subjected to ‘experimental treatment’. In one room they have been lined up in troughs of dried lavender. In another they have been partially submerged in warm, dungy compost.

Coming out of one room you see a book nailed to the door-frame. You pull out the nail, releasing the text. You’ll take this one back with you too. When you bring it back, one or two weeks later, you’ll find for it a new place. Maybe it can go in the garden. Up a tree, perhaps. You save the nail. It can go through another book next time.