Countless lists of ‘Books of the Year’ have been printed in recent weeks, and I am shocked to see my soon-to-be-completed memoir, Conversations with Speyer, appears on only two of them. Max Doczek of the Prague Times describes the book as ‘memorable, in its own peculiar way’, whilst Julie der Pritzinger of the St Helena Quarterly Book Club Gazette as ‘a law unto itself’. She adds: ‘I have only read two autobiographical works this year, and the other one was by Morrissey. On this basis, Riecke wins the gong for best memoir’. I know not of this Morrissey character, but I will take this as a compliment.
In other news, a literary magazine based in Haapsalu, Estonia, has awarded me the title of ‘Most Improved Critic of 2013’. Considering that I produced almost no criticism this last year, this also comes as something of a surprise.
You may not be shocked to hear that our conversation was at this moment interrupted by the arrival of a cat, which Speyer treated warmly, and addressed (to my surprise) as ‘Madame Hanska’. This was the first time I had ever heard Speyer refer to one of the cats by name. No matter that it was, by all appearances, the wrong one (a tag around the cat’s neck, I later noted, read ‘Gabriella’). The very fact that he was admitting the animal’s presence was impressive. Perhaps some of the festival spirit had rubbed off on him after all?
Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Nine, Part Three
And in the meantime, season’s greetings to you all. May your holly be decked with snowflakes etc.
At certain points in his life he confessed to having an ‘unhealthy obsession with the minutiae of writing’. To put it another way, all he saw was the details. ‘I could let the ideas drift,’ he said, ‘so long as the commas were exactly in the right place. I was in the grips of what an old friend once called “punctuation fever”. I would even dream about punctuation. I once dreamed that I was tied to a post in a large white room. Into the room came columns of commas, semi-colons, and full-stops. They formed circles around me and began to dance to some terrible thumping music. Midway through their dance their ranks were swollen by a phalanx of question marks, exclamation marks and brackets. Last but not least came a frightening row of dashes. Oh it was unbearable!
Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Nine, Part Two
Within a few pages, however, we begin to enter darker waters. The reader, no matter how conscientious, feels his or herself drifting away from an increasingly inhospitable writer. There are no life jackets, there are no rafts, and there are no goggles. Large waves of largely indecipherable prose crash against us. A thick mist of muddled opinions falls upon us. A fine sleet of ambivalence sweeps over us. The chaos and anxiety is relentless. If ever a book has lost its moorings, this book is it. The further one gets into it, the choppier the water gets. By the end of it, you’d be excused for feeling sick. One can see why it was Speyer’s last book.
Speyer’s book may have lost its moorings, but my memoir certainly hasn’t. No: this boat is watertight – as you can see for yourself, in the latest chapter.
Not enough thought went into either reading or writing, of that he was sure. People churned out words like endless pats of butter, or snakes of sausage meat – and other people swallowed these words without chewing, or thinking twice about the flavour. ‘We need to slow down’ he noted, ‘or better than that, stop entirely. For a week, for a month, maybe even for a year, we should put down our pens. We need to take stock of everything that has been written already. To re-read what has gone before. To rethink our very attitude to the process of creating and consuming. Writing is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but we are in danger of losing sight of what it means, and of what it can do. We need to stop, in short, in order to start again’.
Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Eight
(Read the whole memoir here)
“Johannes is a deep and thoughtful man; eccentric, yes, but hardly wild. That year, however, the irresponsible teenager in him emerged. And yet it was irresponsibility fueled by what seemed, to me at least, to be genuine passion. He was gloriously excitable, almost deliriously so. He was boiling over with ideas, each more impractical than the last. Like I said, I tried to discourage him, but it was never easy. For the first time, we properly argued. I refused to help him set one up of his experiments. It was great to see him so fired up, if you’ll excuse the phrase, but it was also a concern. I was something of a coward, you see. Too cowardly to be involved for a start; more importantly, though, I was too cowardly to stop him once he’d started..”
Chapter Seven comes to a fiery conclusion.
‘One day we climbed up a mountain in search of a tarn, just so Johannes could say he’d read in a tarn. Only it turns out that this tarn wasn’t the tarn he was looking for. So we went up another mountain, books stuffed under our arms, in search of another. Once we reached that, he did his reading, whilst I paddled about in the reeds. Then back down the mountain we went. He was never satisfied. Always on the move in those days; always looking for the next opportunity. Did you ever see one of those paintings of St. Jerome in the desert, sitting in a cave, surrounded by books? Yes? Well, we were a couple of regular St. Jeromes, wandering about the wilderness with a portable library…’
Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Seven, Part Three