Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift (Random House of Canada, 2009) 401pp.: ill.

I clearly remember first coming across Graham Swift: it was a Montreal Bookshop, early 1984, a damp winter day. A stack of books at my feet as if brought in by the tide and I were at the seaside, and on top, Waterland (Heinemann, 1983). The dustwrapper cover image was very striking and certainly made me pick it up, while the back panel of the dustwrapper was an expanse of black water-beaded mystery. The picture on the rear flap revealed a young author seemingly with an expression of having seen someone in the distance and wondering whether to proceed or change direction. I read, with a slight feeling of frustration of not having heard of him, that it was not his first book, but his fourth.

The confidence of the plain back panel was impressive.

After reading the flap cover, the first lines, and glancing here and there, I bought the book--without a blurb in sight. As I hurried to the metro station where no doubt Bowie's Let's Dance or The Police's Every Breath You Take penned by Sting, emanated from the little shops trying to catch commuters as they passed, I was fueled with that sense of excitement of having come across a new author, a new voice; and each time a new book by Graham Swift was issued, that initial sense of excitement was recalled like the scent of sand and salt water. And so it did when I heard that Graham Swift had a new book out, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, a collection of non-fiction pieces.

There is an alternating flow, or tidal rhythm within the structure of this collection. The tide is out, and the book opens with childhood memories, then moves on to the story of his becoming a writer while in Greece ostensibly working on his graduate degree. Then the tide rolls in and we are provided with memories of good literary friends and occasions in the public domain: there is the Booker Prize evening; an interview by Patrick McGrath concerning Waterland; Swift's interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, and with Caryl Phillips; an interesting long piece about seeking out Jiri Wolf in Prague; and then his experiences of the filming of Waterland where a good writer friend of his who had experience in the film business told him he liked movie people, "They stab you in the front." The tide shifts out and we are back in the very personal with a memoir of his father which gives the title to the collection; then a selection of his poetry and an interesting insight before we find the tide coming in and we have his short piece about Salman Rushdie coming to visit, followed by a short piece of journalism about reading aloud, and a longer lecture on the spirit of place in fiction, specifically the Fens (Waterland), the West Country (Ever After) and the Garden of England, Kent (Last Orders). There is a poignant memoir of fly fishing with Ted Hughes, his piscatorial acquaintance on the Torridge River in Devon, and then another piece about film, this time Fred Schepisi and his take on Last Orders. The tide shifts out again and we have an unusual essay concerning the local history of Wandsworth and an interview with himself concerning his methods of writing. It is rounded off by his introduction to a collection of essays of Montaigne, a favourite of Swift and appropriate, for after finishing Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, I have a greater sense of the man, the writer, and his world.

All things Graham Swift at the Guardian.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Geography of Discipline: Murakami on Running, Writing, Living

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami (Vintage Canada, 2009) viii, 180pp.

The geography of discipline found in these reminiscences is perhaps both complex and simple. In talking about running, Murakami talks about writing. In talking about writing, he talks about running. In talking about living Murakami naturally talks about running and writing. This book is a very revealing glimpse of an individual, an introvert in many ways, who, with a strongly developed direction in life, has exercised his talents with composure, self-assurance and a confidence in hard work.

His style is casual, matter of fact. Everyday phrases, idioms and occasional clichés make reading this memoir feel like you are having an easy going dinner with the author, and he has started to answer your question of how he got into running after all. The reference to Raymond Carver in the title is a telling homage.

The memoir provides a peek into his past, his having run a jazz club for many years, and the day, while watching a baseball game, the thought of writing books took hold of him and never let him go. We also have his day to day existence: travel, business meetings, lectures abroad, apartment problems, which is the colourful backcloth to his more central routines and foci of this book, running and writing. He travels a fair deal, often for marathons or triathlons. Japan, Greece, Hawaii, New York and Boston all important locations for these tests of physical endurance, and also, for everyday life, for he lives in many of these locations. His description of how he developed as a runner is accompanied by his description of how he became an efficient swimmer and bicyclist, skills required for his new interest in taking part in triathlons. We learn of his training for big races and here we can find some good practical techniques from an experienced runner. He discusses the qualities necessary for a good writer and these qualities apply to running as well. In fact, they probably apply to most things. We discover why he runs, the fond memories involved and what he finds in the actual pain of such physical expression.

And of course there are references to music.

An enjoyable read and one that any reader of Murakami's novels will want to have nestled up against his works of fiction on their Murakami shelf.