Loving Hermann Hesse

My birthday earlier in the week brought back memories of another birthday, one spent in far less auspicious circumstances. In fact, it could qualify as one of the worst birthdays I’ve ever had. It was my 20th and I spent it on a coach driving down through France for a skiing holiday. For reasons unknown we had some sort of compere up front with a microphone. Bleary and uncomfortable from hours of sleepless travel, I heard my name being called and knew no good would come of it. My attempts to pass incognito did not work, and I was hauled to my feet so that a coachload of indifferent strangers (for the most part) could sing Happy Birthday to me. I daresay there are people who would love the communal cheer of this sort of thing. I was not one of them.

We arrived at our resort, which was like all resorts the world over: not as nice as the photos in the brochure, with that slightly used and tired look of places that see vast quantities of human traffic. I can’t say that I had high hopes for my ability on skis, but I was young and naïve and the man who was to become Mr Litlove had persuaded me that I should try new things. I did not last very long on the slopes. The nursery slopes this late in the season were all ice and slush. The experience of careering down even a gentle incline whilst completely out of control of myself was not my idea of fun, and the tiny tots zipping past with insouciance were somewhat galling. I had been told that the après ski was wonderful, and some people seemed to find it so. We were with a whole lot of other students from UK universities and the resort echoed to the sounds of their drunkenness every night. It was best to visit the loos early in the evening and then hang on until the cleaners had passed through first thing in the morning. ‘You couldn’t have a better holiday than this,’ one of my friends enthused. ‘Exercise out in the fresh air every day. What could be better?’

Well, in all honesty, lying on my bottom bunk bed with a book seemed a vast improvement on the alternative. I was not in the best of moods. I had a sore backside, an overdraft for the first time due to the exhorbitant cost of skiing, and an inferiority complex. I simply could not find pleasure in the things that other people told me were pleasurable. I was not an outdoors, sporty type who liked to fling herself about mountain sides, and most of all I was annoyed with myself because I knew this. And I had allowed myself to be talked into doing something that had not even appealled as an idea because of some ludicrous belief that I could surprise myself. Even at twenty, I knew that lack of self-awareness was not my problem;  it was living with my true nature that was going to be the challenge.

The enormous comfort of that trip was my copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I was reading for the third time. You have to understand that reading a book in German for the third time was a sign of true love. The German language is an extraordinary beast. In its wisdom, it has decreed that after the first verb, which may come in an appropriate place nice and early in the sentence, every other verb has to queue up at the sentence’s end in a tight little logjam. So you have to hang on mentally to every other part of the sentence until you come to those verbs and then reassign them to their appropriate places. Extra fun may be had by complex tenses, especially those including modal verbs and subjunctive voices, ie ‘what should have happened’ or ‘if he had been able’. This must account in some way for the efficiency and acumen of the German people. But for my poor bedazzled brain, it meant that reading slowed down to a crawl. I could read 60 pages an hour in English, 40 in French, and a mere 20 in German. But when it came to Hermann Hesse’s beautiful, flowing German, I scarcely noticed. I just didn’t want it to stop.

Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work. I didn’t realise when I was reading the book at 20 how interested in psychoanalysis Hesse was, although it was already starting to enthrall me as a body of theory. Nor did I know anything about his life, and his extreme sensitivity – ‘like an egg without a shell’ one of his teachers described him, and that’s certainly a simile I could use for myself, at times. Only years later did I read a biography and feel a strong identification with him as a person.

In Steppenwolf, the main protagonist, Harry Haller, is so fed up with his life that he’s decided to commit suicide on his upcoming fiftieth birthday. But then he befriends a young woman, Hermine, his female alter ego, and gets to know the louche company she keeps. She teaches him to dance (not throw himself down a ski slope, note), and then invites him to the mysterious magic theatre for a masked ball. The hippie generation adored Hermann Hesse for inventing the magic theatre, which could read as a hallucinogenic trip. I saw it just as a place of fantastic imagination, a magical exploration of the parts of the mind that we normally visit only in dreams. I expect that the novel feels dated now, but reading in a foreign language (for me, at least) always took that sort of dimension off the language. I read it in a very pure way. It remains in my memory as a very pure book; one in which a man finds reasons not just to keep living, but to believe there can be goodness and magic and hope in life. It contained also a message that it would take me another twenty years to understand: that when there are parts of yourself you do not like, or feel ashamed of, the most helpful reaction is to accept them just as they are, to work with them, rather than hide them away. But at least after that unsatisfying trip, I did have enough sense never to go skiing again.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthMuch as I love words and enjoy arranging them in pretty patterns, I am completely hopeless when it comes to crossword puzzles and anagrams. I just don’t have the kind of mind that can crack a code. So I wondered how I’d get on with The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox, the story of an academic relay race to solve the mystery posed by Linear B, the oldest discovered language on earth. Learning it had made the New York Times Notable Books list spurred me to pick it up (I am so shallow), and I was so glad I did. It’s a fascinating account of three eccentric and gifted individuals who shared a violent obsession and who, between them, proved that the impossible just takes a little longer.

The story begins in 1900 when the Victorian archaeologist, Arthur Evans, broke ground at Knossos in the wild northern reaches of Crete. He came looking for a bronze age settlement, unpersuaded by current thinking that the magnificent race of the Ancient Greeks had sprung into being as fully formed as one of their own Gods. And he was amazingly lucky. Before the week was out, his workmen had hit upon huge building blocks of gypsum, the walls of a vast prehistoric building that predated the earliest recorded Greek settlement by a thousand years. Evans believed he had found the palace of Minos, famous for its labyrinth and the Minotaur that lurked in its depths. The building had contained hundreds of rooms, linked by a complex mass of passages; surely the literal foundation on which the legend would grow.

What was certain was that the excavation had hit the administrative centre of a sophisticated civilization. The fire that had destroyed it had served to bake hard and preserve its records, over two thousand clay tablets inscribed in an unknown language. The find was of immense proportions, the kind of discovery that would see an archaeologist through to the end of his life. Arthur Evans then did what any ambitious academic would do – he sat on his laurels, not allowing anyone else to view his finds, determined to crack the language as the prime achievement of his career. But he was a busy man, and an unknown language in an unknown script offers a fairly daunting obstacle. He published a little, revealing pictures of two hundred or so of the tablets, and made very little progress in decipherment before his death at the ripe old age of 90.

Now I would have absolutely no idea where you would begin with such a task, but it turns out that languages come in a limited range of sizes and varieties. Essentially they are either logographic (little pictures), syllabic (symbols for each different syllable) or alphabet based, as English is. You can tell quite quickly which you are dealing with because of the number of symbols encountered. If every word requires its own picture, then you end up with thousands of symbols. When it comes to syllables, you’ll need 80 or so, and an alphabet is the most economic with symbols, our own a mere 26. Linear B as the language was called, was syllabic, with a few hieroglyphs thrown in for good measure. These were pretty helpful in recognising basic words like man and woman, horse, goblet, cauldron, your average Bronze Age necessities. Arthur Evans also figured out that a mark like a straight comma was used to separate words, and that the script read from left to right.

The meagre publications Arthur Evans made unleashed a coterie of impassioned linguists and classicists onto the problem. But this was the middle of the twentieth century, telecommunications networks were in their infancy and two world wars had left nations poor in resources. Scholars were forced to work in isolation. This was one of the reasons why the middlewoman in the chain of decipherment, the woman who did all the hard graft, has received no recognition for it before Margalit Fox’s book, being somewhat lost to history. Alice Kobel, a hardworking classics teacher in Brooklyn, painstakingly wrote out every word from the 200 or so tablets in the public domain on the few scraps of paper she could get her hands on – the backs of greeting cards, hymn sheets, checkout receipts (wartime rationing left everyone in this era short on paper), then she filed them in boxes made out of the cardboard from cigarette cartons. She noted all the patterns she could find and punched holes in her index cards appropriately, so that when lined up, matches could be found. It was, in essence, an early database. Kober’s approach was rigorous and scientific – no fun guessing at what the language could be. She would work purely with its form alone, teasing grammatical rules out of it, and eventually plotting syllables on a grid, rather like an enormous sudoko puzzle.

It was this painstaking work that left the way open for a British architect, Michael Ventris, who was something of a linguistic genius on the side, to eventually crack the code. Kober and Ventris were both doomed individuals, people who did amazing things and who seemed to have to pay a price for that. Polite and helpful Alice Kober, out of a pure love for scholarship and an absence of competitive spirit, ended up appallingly abused by the male scholars she admired (that bit made my blood boil), and the reader is reminded, once again, that even those who should know better mistake fervent belief for knowledge. This was a surprisingly compelling book, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that when humans overreach themselves the results are always hypnotic. And it’s fairly mindblowing to consider a literate civilization in existence some three thousand years ago. If you know a fan of cryptic crosswords, thrust this one into their hands, and for even the most anagramatically-challenged (like myself) it’s a wonderful story.

So, The Writing Course

For all the uncertainties I had at the start, I am very glad that I did the writing course. There is nothing like being forced outside of your comfort zone to make you pay attention and learn new things. Plus, for fatally curious people like me, there’s always an intriguing narrative to be uncovered when a bunch of strangers get together. On this occasion, what made the course a pleasant experience – a group of quiet, polite and well-mannered participants – reduced the potential for good anecdotes afterwards. Out of a group of 12 there was only one person by the end who I really didn’t like and only one person who semi-dropped out. I thought that was pretty good going.

We were trying our hands at three different techniques. The first was braiding two or more lines of narrative. This was by far and away the technique I found most difficult and my first attempt at it was frankly a mess. I had a look around the internet and came across an extremely useful piece of advice. Take each line of narrative separately, this author suggests, write each story out individually and only then combine the two and tweak from there to make them speak to each other. This made all the difference to me. I rewrote the piece almost entirely, and found it worked much better. Call me sick, but I really enjoyed the process of getting this wrong and then figuring out how to make it right. It reminded me how inordinately satisfying it is to learn, if you can give yourself plenty of licence to make mistakes. Plus I’d gone into the course uncertain whether I’d be able to write anything at all, so the sheer relief of completing an assignment gave me a boost.

The second technique was incorporating research. I felt that this one ought to be a doddle for me as it’s generally what I do. So I thought it might be the moment to pick more challenging content and decided to write about the experience of chronic fatigue. Well, by the time I’d reached the end of the first draft, I realised that fifteen years of experience could not be fitted into 3,500 words. You might think I’d have figured this out beforehand, right? Well, I already knew that writing is like taking a pencil torch into a windowless cellar. The thin beam illuminates a contour here, a detail there, the shadowy mass of an object in the far corner, but a full picture of the entire room is out of the question. The first draft is like putting a burning torch in a wall bracket, but you never really get to see everything. I never expected to write the entire cellar, but I’d believed I could pack in more than I could. To swap metaphors a moment, I thought I might be able to write the piece like skimming a stone, glancing off the biggest ripples across that sea of time. But no. Once again I had a 3,500 word mess on my hands.

The answer was to go smaller and more detailed. I figured I’d only be able to write half of an essay at best with so few words at my disposal. So I spent a lot of time trawling the past in my mind, trying to find the scenes where the material was full of the ineffable. I’d been a bit unsure about tackling this subject in the first place, but my fellow participants and the instructor had assured me that writing lends distance and emotional liberation, and putting it down in words is a way of saying goodbye. I sort of agree, but it works best when an episode in life is over and finished. And whilst I am sure I’m in the end game of chronic fatigue here, I don’t think it’s exactly the end. Writing the theoretical parts was, by contrast, a delight. Unfortunately, I did them too quickly. I finished the assignment, and it was okay, and I submitted it. But was it a coincidence that shortly afterwards, I must have trapped the nerve in my neck that led to my bruised nerve in my gum and my sore arm? ‘Those nerves must be really irritated,’ the osteopath said to me (and they still are troublesome). And what was the feedback? Less theory and more you! my readers cried. I gulped and decided not to finish the essay during the course, on the grounds that so much emotional liberation might kill me.

By the time I was in any sort of state to write my third and final essay, I had five days left before the deadline and still had a jangling tooth, a sore arm and no idea what to write. The course participant I did not care for had annoyed me by leaving a highly critical comment of the reading we’d been assigned. It had not been to her taste, and so therefore she declared it bad, and demanded to know why we had been given it to read at all. My nerves were already irritated and so I was not impressed by such an attack of solipcism. Around that time I read a phrase on a blog that really struck me: empathy is the job of the reader. How I wish I remember where I read it! That phrase saved me. The assignment was to write an essay that moved about freely in time and I decided to write about the experience of extreme empathy, both as a reader and as a mother. I knew I had one shot at getting it right, wrote a steady 700 words a day and produced my best essay of the course. Isn’t that ironic? I thought that if, as I had often suspected, I did my best work up a corner with everything stacked against me, it was time to retrain as a plumber. That was not a deal with destiny I was willing to make.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that you can say a great deal less in 3,500 words than you think you can, thus the skill is in knowing what to leave out. I learned that a good scene can do an immense amount of work for you. I learned that the past is stored in more detail and intensity than we think, but that looking back over it is never easy. I learned that I can write more to order than I feared I could (I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it at all). And I learned that other people’s problems are far more entertaining to me to write about than my own. The best part of the course was an experience that I wasn’t expecting. The emphasis throughout was on slowing down and taking the time to figure out what we really wanted to write about. The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.

Publishing, A Writer’s Biggest Headache

Unsurprisingly, the issues surrounding publishing and our sense of ourselves as writers have provoked the longest discussion of the whole writing course. It seems to me that at no point in the past has publishing ever been such a problem to writers. If you were mad – or educated – enough to want to write, then publication was something that eventually happened down the line. It strikes me (and I may be wrong) that writers were a much more self-selecting band, and publishers were a much more adventurous bunch.

Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out. Rather than simply accept these barriers to self-expression, those Darwinian technology types gave us the digital world. And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?

It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near. You say the ‘P’ word in authorial company and suddenly everyone is rushing to declare their practised speeches, composed during the small hours of the afternoon when writing is hard and recognition distant and somehow morale must be maintained. The other basic problem is that many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomenon – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.

Most of my publishing experience has been academic. I’ve published four books and about 20 articles and chapters, and I did this over the space of about 12 years. Which strikes me as quite a lot in hindsight, throwing my son and chronic fatigue into the mix. I rarely got paid for it (£200 was the only advance I was ever given), and my writings disappeared with the tiniest splash into the great ocean of academic tracts. Academics only read for what they’re researching – you don’t go and read someone’s book about Rabelais just because it’s supposed to be good – which to my mind is why academic writing has become so insular and unattractive to general readers. Everyone writes to be clever. Not everyone writes to be stylish, although the field of academic research even in my small literary corner is vast, and it makes no sense to either celebrate or condemn it. It has been formed by the forces of necessity and good intention.

So why did I take it upon myself to add to the trillions of words? It clearly wasn’t for fame or fortune. I didn’t do it ‘for myself’, whatever that really means. When the boxes of advance copies arrived I felt pleased for about two minutes, and then I found the immediate issues of the day more pressing. No, I did it because it was, for me, the root of my work as a literary critic. Everything grew out of that quiet moment when I thought about a book and shaped those thoughts into words. That was the beating heart of my discipline. How could I teach students about essay writing if I weren’t engaged with that process myself? How could I put good lectures together unless I had thought long and hard about the books I was discussing? I had to write about the book to get to the bottom of my reaction to it. And once I had written down to my satisfaction an interpretation of a book, I wanted to share it with my community, to contribute to the ongoing discussion and because (rightly or wrongly) I felt I had something to say.

It was always important for me to know whom I was writing for, not least because I could then be assured of saying something that might feasibly be useful. Essentially, the reason I write at all is to get my message across. I want to make people think about things they generally try to avoid thinking about. So I have to strategise a lot with regard to the audience if I have any hope of achieving that goal. What I learned pretty fast through teaching (and living) is that human beings make dreadful listeners. On the whole they hear only what they want to hear, or what they are afraid they will hear. It’s always seemed to me the most intriguing challenge to get readers to put their prejudices, their hopes, their anxieties aside and hear instead what I want them to.

So I have never been someone who writes ‘for myself’. I do not want, as one of my classmates brilliantly put it, to be engaged in nothing more than a monologue. I want to be talking to someone and not as a party bore who has importuned them in a corner, but as a voice saying something they might find illuminating to hear. Our course instructor said that he found the whole publishing malarkey much easier when he thought of his writing as a gift that he bestowed regularly on the world, without expectation of reward. This sounds to me like a convenient solution to a knotty problem, and one that makes us all look pretty. It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? This idea of the author writing in an isolated cell, then sending her work out into the world with never a glance to see where it lands, indifferent to its fate. Yeah, well, dream on. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t long for praise and popularity. And I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t hurt by rejection. Writers do what they do because they feel close to the human predicament – we can’t suddenly turn around and become angels or saints. It’s better to face up to the large and ugly emotions that are part of the process.

I think the consolatory fantasy of self-fulfillment has risen in proportion to the difficulties encountered in actually getting published. Because so few of us are ever likely to have the bonus of an audience for our writing, we have to work our way around that emotionally. And whether we publish traditionally or independently, an audience remains the most elusive commodity. As I said, it’s only once you’ve published and realised that it does not suddenly make your work desirable and praiseworthy, that you live in cold, hard clarity. I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this muddle and I’m not sure there are any. I think perhaps writers have to accept they are a kind of modern-day Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock to the top of the mountain and watch it fall back down again, but enraged when it does so and longing every time for that rock finally to stay in place and become a monument to endeavour.