150+ essays on literary topics
‘Ideas are easy. Writing is not.’ That is according to the advertisement which the Faber Academy has been running for the last few weeks. Every time I see it, I wonder whether the truth is not the opposite, or at least whether ideas and writing are not equally difficult. I know it’s only an advertising slogan aimed at people who can afford to pay anything up to £4000 to enrol on one of their creative writing courses, but it makes me wonder what Faber’s old management would have thought about a) the slogan and b) the courses. ‘I shall not want capital in heaven,’ as one of them wrote, ‘for I shall meet Sir Alfred Mond. We two shall lie together, lapt in a five per cent exchequer bond.’
There are usually one or two reviews of art exhibitions in the London Review of Books. The last issue of 2013 (Volume 35, Number 24) had two, At the Guggenheim and At Turner Contemporary, each illustrating one of the two modes in which LRB contributors write about art. They either try to explain in words what the artist is trying to say in pictures or they write about themselves. The Guggenheim is showing work by an American artist, Christopher Wool. The reviewer, John-Paul Stonard, explains at the outset that ‘the key to Wool is his use of painting techniques to make original paintings, and the way in which he proposes reproduction itself as the subject matter for abstract painting’. He goes on to elaborate on this both by describing the work (‘Some of the surfaces seem like decorative wrought iron, others might have been taken from a wallpaper pattern book’) and by interpreting it for us (‘In a series of paintings using the innocuous motif of a flower, he layers the images so thickly that the enamel clogs into a black mess, as if to say that the flower is just an expendable trope, a means to an end’) in both of which endeavours he reveals, as he is bound to do, the gulf that exists between words and pictures. Neither can adequately express the other. Stonard adopts what seems to me a sensibly tentative approach, concluding that the exhibition seems ‘to capture the hard, unsentimental energy of New York’ but leaving unanswered his own question: ‘Is Wool’s work any good?’
Anne Enright on the other hand, in her review of an exhibition of work by Dorothy Cross at the Turner Contemporary, writes mainly about herself. Halfway through, as if remembering the nominal subject of her article, she gives a brief account of some of the pieces on show (‘…early works, made out of cow’s udders, were transgressive and Irish, funny and transformative… the long spine and skull of a whale is suspended like a dripping rope over a small, cast-iron bucket…’) but keeps getting distracted by things that remind her of herself (‘It was as a coleen, mind you, that I won my first ever writing prize.’) Her review begins and ends with the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in May 2011, when she and Dorothy Cross were among those ‘locked in the 1937 reading room of Trinity College Dublin for two hours without their mobile phones, before being allowed into the beautiful Long Room of the Old Library to await her arrival. It wasn’t long,’ she goes on, ‘before we were discussing the glass penis that Cross had blown for her in the furnace of the Waterford Crystal factory.’ She ends her review, referring indirectly to one of the pieces in the exhibition, a ‘currach made of shark skin’, with an observation, not about the artist, but about the Queen who, she says, ‘is really very small’ and ‘has very beautiful skin.’ Whether Dorothy Cross’s work is any good is not a question she asks, let alone tries to answer. Her response to the exhibition is closer to what yours or mine might be (unless you happen to be an art critic). She doesn’t tell us what she thinks the work in the exhibition means, but what it left her thinking about.
I picked up a copy of Kilvert’s Diary in a second-hand bookshop a couple of weeks ago and have got as far as 15th May 1870. The young rector’s writing is unpretentious and delightful. On almost every page there are vivid descriptions of the natural beauty he sees around him in his parish, in the flora and fauna and in the parishioners, especially the girls and young women. On Easter Day 1870, he ‘was out soon after six. There had been a frost and the air was rimy with a heavy thick white dew on hedge, bank and turf, but the morning was not cold. There was a heavy white dew with a touch of hoar frost on the meadows, and as I leaned over the wicket gate by the mill pond looking to see if there were any primroses in the banks but not liking to venture into the dripping grass suddenly I heard the cuckoo for the first time this year. He was near Peter’s Pool and he called three times quickly one after another. It is very well to hear the cuckoo for the first time on Easter Sunday morning. I loitered up the lane again gathering primroses.’ A few days later, coming across some girls romping on the grass while their father sleeps, he ‘could not help envying the father his children especially his troop of lithe, lissom, high-spirited, romping girls with their young supple limbs, their white round arms, white shoulders and brows, their rosy flushed cheeks, their dark and fair curls tangled, tossed and blown back by the wind, their bright wild saucy eyes, their red sweet full lips and white laughing teeth, their motions as quick, graceful and active as young antelopes or as fawns, and their clear sweet merry laughing voices, ringing through the woods.’ Kilvert’s writing is somehow effortless, achieving its effects entirely without artifice, perhaps because he wrote only to please himself. He was thirty in the spring of 1870, married in 1879 and died suddenly of peritonitis a month later.
Next week’s essay, due on 22 January, will be about Laurie Lee.
The next entry in my Reader’s Diary will be a week later, on 29 January.
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