I have been reading of late, not writing. Sure I've taken the occasional trip out into the barnyard, stirred the dust, made a few chicken scratches that the wind blurs immediately. But mainly reading.
Behind it all, I have also been thinking about a selected from 50 years of poetry. Not that far away now. Just over three years. It's a conceptual thing, not thought of often but kept on a shelf above my head, brought down, dusted off, brooded over when I doubt my worth. A postscript to a twenty volume suicide note perhaps. Should I last that long.
Perhaps that's why I've been reading. Anything to take my mind away. Age creeps up, the brain atrophies. Dessicates. Add water. But there has been little rain of late.
I have been reading Ian Rankin, the Inspector Rebus books. I'm not a great fan of English crime fiction, too many manors, too many Miss Marples most of the time. Much prefer U.S. or European. English crime fiction, for me, died after Sherlock Holmes had been resurrected & done his golden oldies tour. The only exception I'll make is for the Val McDermid novels which feature Tony Hill & Carol Jordan. Flawed characters. Like Rebus.
But Rebus, like Rankin himself, is Scottish which means I don't have to change my earlier-stated attitude. & the novels are set in a city with barely an oak-lined avenue in sight. I'd seen a couple of TV adaptions, but been slightly turned off them because the actor who played Rebus, John Hannah, had also played the lead in another series, McCallum. I'd enjoyed that short series — another flawed character — but because the transposition of a strong actor across roles tends to bring too many overtones of the earlier character, I kept getting the two confused.
So I hadn't got around to reading any of the books. Yes, it's preconception, prejudice, procrastination, exactly the same reasons why I've never bought, borrowed, or stolen a book by Zukofsky. Still haven't with the latter, but I saw Rankin's latest novel, Fleshmarket Close, on sale, was running out of things to read, thought if I like this that means there are another fifteen novels and two collections of short stories by him which would fill some space up, bought it, liked it, went back and started reading the whole lot chronologically.
I'm currently up to number fourteen, Resurrection Men, the title a play on the name by which Burke & Hare – aka The Bodysnatchers – were known (though Burke & Hare are found as background to the novel before). Some of the books are great, some are flawed like Rebus. But I find flawed a major attribute of any character, real or imagined, that I like. The books are immensely enjoyable, & reading them this way is like reading one enormous novel. Rankin has created a credible landscape, probably more real than imagined, by insinuation, by wrapping it around his characters, &, as you grow to know them, you get to know more about the place itself.
I think this aspect of U.S. crime fiction is why I like it so much. From Chandler & Hammett on, place has always been as critical to the construction as the characters. & for someone like myself, who tends to feel out of place much of the time, having a place to slot in to, even if only temporarily, even if just as an onlooker, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, is something I value immensely.
A remarking of the passing of Norman Mailer
It’s a long time since I read a book by Norman Mailer. Correction. It’s a long time since I finished a book by Norman Mailer. I'm sure that if I went & prowled my library shelves I'd find stuff written by him in the last few decades. Thick books as I recall them, about Egypt, the CIA, the JFK Assassination—books that I read some part of, because I felt I had an obligation to do so, because I'd liked him once…but that was in another country, & besides…
But I did like his writing, especially his journalism; Miami & The Siege of Chicago & Armies of the Night loom large in my memory, as does his book about Foreman & Ali in Zaire. I liked his arrogance, disliked his chauvinism, but that was of the time. His was a studied style that meshed well inside my head with the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson who I was also reading then.
Beyond that, however, is the fact that he had been around since I reached what I would describe as my age of discernment & had continued on up to the present, still putting out, even if I'm not reading it. The continuity. Five decades ballpark; & there aren't many who still fit the bill. I've been trying to think of them. Some painters. No musicians. J.G. Ballard. A handful of poets. Sure, those that are gone live on as the spectres I talk to over lunch; but in the flesh, no matter how fragile, there's now one less. Who will be next, I wonder. How long will my life last now that the signposts are coming down?
Ursula LeGuin, & "juvenile fiction"
I have been thinking about the classification "juvenile fiction" over the past few days. Partially it's because of going to the local secondhand Bookfest, & seeing on the JF table books by Dickens, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Jack London, H.G. Wells et al. Look at any of the myriad homogenous editions of (out of copyright) "Classics", & the presence there of books like Aesop's Fables or Lewis Carroll's two Alices alongside the above authors indicates the market they are aimed at. Though I doubt very much if any of the authors felt they were writing for a juvenile market.
But more particularly my thoughts have been provoked because I've been reading the last two books in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series. They've been sitting on my shelves for a while now, waiting for me to get around to reading them, probably bought in a trawling through a second-hand bookshop where I tend to buy a number of books at once, to be read 'later'. These days I usually only read detective stories immediately I buy them, & buy them new. The paucity of bookshops in this place is one impediment; but the other is I would rapidly drive myself bankrupt if I started buying online, so I stay away from that.
The Wizard of Earthsea, the first in the series, was first published outside the U.S. under a Puffin Books imprint, the juvenile arm of Penguin. The latest, The Other Wind, by Orion Children's Books. But these books are anything but juvenile. The classics mentioned earlier are now probably re-categorised because of certain simplicities; they deal with reasonably clear-cut good vs evil, full of adventure in which good triumphs, full of supposed manly characteristics & male values. Most of them were written by men. & looking around me it would seem as if nothing much has changed – the Hobbits, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Tom Cruise. Even in pop music most of the "strong" women adopt a subservient stance, that of boys' toy – "Fuck me daddy, cos I'm your whore".
LeGuin challenges all this. She challenges the assumed power of men & the role-modelling, the gender stereotypes. Delineations are blurred. (In another LeGuin novel, the brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness, people are latent androgynes, taking on defined sexual characteristics only at estrus.) In LeGuin's Earthsea, the preferred power is something people possess as individuals, that comes from inside them, not from without. She writes about sorcery — without swords — but surrounds it with the universals: seasons, trees, injury, crops, animals, love, respect, dragons, discomfort. (Okay, I concede that real fire-breathing dragons are not everyday items, but the dragon-myth is universal.) She does not write down, & because of that her appeal is across the ages, in all meanings of the phrase.
& if it does get categorised as juvenile fiction, & read by the audience it is supposed to be for, then perhaps there is hope that some that come through will be a little less closed by prejudice, a little more open to change.
Mark Young's most recent books are The Toast, from Luna Bisonte Prods, & The Sasquatch Walks Among Us, from Sandy Press. Songs to Come for the Salamander, Poems 2013-2021, selected & introduced by Thomas Fink, will be published later this year.