Tag Archives: julian barnes

A Word

Today I learned a new word. It’s on the second page of a novel I started reading on a rainy day. The library wants it back and, although it is by one of my favourite authors, I have only just picked it up. There are 18 reservations waiting. My hand is forced.

I spend most days encouraging girls to read. Most are reluctant. Their attention is turned elsewhere. Those that struggle the most, find writing even harder. It’s not just the unfamiliar words, or the challenges of dyslexia, girls who do not read lack the confidence to write. They can make lists. They can copy and paste. But the magic that exists beyond the surface of words is obscure and arcane.

That said, I am opening their eyes. Writing a poem is not hard. It is fun. See? Poetry means play. Forget the slog, play with words. Not sure what a word means? Don’t peep through the blinkered funnel of your phone. Use a dictionary. Here’s how it works. Flick through the pages. You never know what you’ll discover.

Engaging with the unfamiliar is daunting. Scary. Most students I work with prefer to engage with things tailored to their perceived interests. They have been avatar-ed by multinationals into discreet bubbles of attention that define their hopes and fears better than anyone.

The result is a loss of curiosity. A belligerent ignorance that defiantly meets anything not reflected back at them from their device. Why should I pay attention if it’s not on my feed? If I haven’t heard of it, it’s not worth knowing.

Their phones are an extension of the curated self; they define identity. You see it in resulting anxiety and aggression at the thought of separation.

Reading books leads you places you don’t expect. It fills you with things you don’t know you’re learning. Cadences, musicality and meaning. Empathy. You get to look through the eyes of people who are not you.

Books do not watch you and turn you into a package to be sold off.

They do not demand your attention, unless they are good.

This book, Elizabeth Finch, is good. It is about a middle-aged lecturer. I suspect nothing exciting will happen. It is the voice, the quality of writing, that has me hooked.

On page 1 she talks to the students for the first time. On page 2 she is described by a student.

Her clothes. Let’s start at ground level.

We move up from her brogues, reaching the unfamiliar word halfway down the page.

Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent.

I read for two more pages before I had to look that word up. I didn’t want to leave the story, but my mind was fizzing with all I have just written.

A good song makes you want to sing. Good writing makes you want to write.

It’s a long time since I’ve written anything. What’s the point? Why add to the stultifying pile of unseen words in a world suffocating under unread words.

The tower of babble casts a long shadow. But there is light beyond the darkness. It is the spark I found on the page.

Refulgent means resplendent, shining; casting a bright light. Elizabeth Finch occasionally wears a discreet brooch that shines beyond its size.

I doubt I will drop this unfamiliar word into any casual conversation. It would land with a dull clang instead of the appropriate radiance.

The Means of Escape

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It is never a good idea to open with a declaration of love. Never. But, wow, Penelope Fitzgerald. She so good… I go goo-goo eyes reading her.

I first heard of her in a Julian Barnes collection of essays about writers called Through the Window. She sounded very cool.

She didn’t start writing till she was 63 (very appealing to someone starting writing later in life), and seemed quite the eccentric character given his anecdote about being on a writers’ panel and riding the Tube with her.

And she wasn’t short of ideas or limited in scope. All the novels he talked about were interesting and diverse, ranging across the world and time. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, and The Blue Flower, set in 18th century Prussia, was ‘the most-loved novel of 1995’. I so wanted to read it.

But, somehow, she was absent from my local library. How could this be? She seemed great. Indeed, The Times had her in the top 50 British novelists since 1945 and The Observer placed The Blue Flower in the top 10 historical novels of all time.

There was, however, her posthumous collection of short stories The Means of Escape available. I hadn’t read a collection of short stories in quite a number of years (a bit shameful, but I’m clearly not alone given the poor sales of collections).

But I wanted a taste.

And, wow.

It’s such a lovely, slim object crafted with care (the books and the stories). Like her novels, they take place all over the world (including New Zealand!) and go back as far as the 1600s.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

I must say that I finished most of the stories going ‘what happened just then?’ but it wasn’t due to obscurity…she’s just so good she lulls you into a complacency where the real story can slip by. I read several stories more than once.

I want this book. I want to hold it and look at it, to re-engage and delve deeper into her world. I want to read these stories again and again.

To underscore how smitten I am, I read a couple of Julian Barnes short stories after I finished Fitzgerald’s collection and boy were they unsatisfying, which is significant because I’m a HUGE fan of his novels and essays.

So…what to do? TradeMe has the books new (but The Means of Escape ships from Oz). Amazon has them much cheaper, but it seems nuts getting them from across the Pacific.

Sigh.

It’s hard to be patient when you’re in love. But a hasty heart is always disappointed.

If I get through the day without buying these two books I’ll be surprised.

This love will not wait.