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SIX striking cover-pictures

Published 1960 (swipe for '72)

Published 1972 (both)

Published 1994 (& '95) - originals 1960






I guess the assessments I've written below reveal more about me than the authors and books they're intended to illuminate. All is subjective - even when it seems otherwise. Yet I think most of what I describe tells enough about the subject to offer at least an introduction. Whether this inspires further investigation or merely forms a (hopefully) lucid, if unusual, account of one person's (my) reading experience, is less important, I think, than if it raises issues the contemplation of which have the power to enrich and improve our lives in some way - because isn't that precisely what most if not all the authors cited here were probably attempting to do?

We'd have to be a bit stupid, insular, or arrogant to brush the efforts of these remarkable people aside without a thought. And if we do that, then who loses? There's enough we miss out on anyway - through our failure to unearth stuff or through not being informed - without deliberately perpetuating such deficiencies by avoiding new ideas, new vistas for the mind.

When I reflect on what's been missing for me at crucial times in my life, as touched-on in the first item below regarding one key instance, I feel a bit sad. I've made-up for that since, just a little - as scrolling down this page shows - but there remains a huge list of books I've never even begun to look at: the so-called Classics, Homer, Shakespeare, most of the great philosophers... much fine contemporary work too which may not be so immediately gripping, though contains profound observations on life. It's a hell of a list and life's just too short... this is a problem...

Kafka's solution might seem a bit polarised:

‘Altogether,’ Kafka writes in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak, ‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’

From Alberto Manguel’s ‘A History of Reading’ 1996, p-93.

And up to the word 'painful...' I can see his point - too many books are flabby with pap. In fact, I agree with all Kafka says here, except I would broaden it to include books that are emotive in ANY sense. Why restrict such vicarious experience as books provide to just pain? But already, as we know, this very bias is precisely the problem with literature. Nearly all of it these days is either 'Crime' fiction, which involves pain, or 'Horror', which evokes fear, shock or panic - aspects of pain; and even 'Romance' can stir certain people to painful tears... when the heroine dies, for instance.

So apart from the power, the thrust and punch... if it's ever possible to so load words on a page that the reader will feel them like a brick in the face... I think Kafka's wishes have been largely met. It is precisely this that the masses seem always to demand - to be thrilled, shocked, distracted somehow from the monotony of life they've chosen in favour of risk and adventure - ie, of safe enslavement (as corporate propaganda so subtly sews into young brains). For the few who percxhance avoid or circumvent that insidious net of conformity that keeps for social order, this kind-of 'painful' escape literature probably has few attractions.

As for me, I tend to go for jolts from being hit in the left-brain. I relish the jolt of discovery (or failure to discover): overcoming a technical problem against the odds (or failing to overcome it), the resolution of some weird philosophical impasse (or the failure to resolve it)... and then, so informed, embarking on new quests, and in new directions. But literature that demolishes firmly held beliefs or opinions, is to me the most delightful and valuable of all. That's what I seek and treasure most - to be challenged, to be forced to think, to revise and replace old mistaken or primitive ideas. For some people that would mean intense pain, I know. But literature is about enlightenment.... about being woken-up... having your brain purged of garbage... being psychologically refreshed... sensing the joy of self-evident reasoning... it means homing-in on TRUTH, which can only lead to a closer affinity with the world, reality and with oneself.

True, there's no shortage of dross out there, but there's also an inexhaustible wealth of all kinds of brilliant experience to be gained from books, and below is a little sample of what I've stumbled on over the decades - stuff, quite often, to really make you THINK:



First came Sci-Fi. I was 16. I'd escaped from dreaded compulsory 'education' a couple of years earlier - first as a truant (the halcyon days), then as a factory-dogsbody (sheer horror)... so now I needed a new kind of escape. I'd owned a couple of 'Space' books several years before then - even they were frowned on at school - but crucially they'd got me thinking about the future, space rockets, robots, etc. Then I found Asimov. What a revelation! It was like stumbling into a new universe...

At last literature that was readable, palatable, instead of the dreary establishment mush we all got dished up with in those days of tedium and intellectual deprivation - from teachers, radio, TV, even the library - here was a whole new realm of existence, a whole new angle on life.

It's hard to believe in 2012, but 1950s (and early 60s) TV was solid with turgid highbrow, conventional humbug and drudge... or else tripe for numbskulls, (or, to be fair, infants), 'The Woodentops'. This flat, lifeless monochrome two-channel window on predictable pap was about as gripping as a wet banana skin. Since no-one in the adult world around me was going to reveal such 'subversive' gold as Asimov provided - either it was alien to them or they regarded it as harmful nonsense, like jazz or rock... would anyone believe, these days, that such weird views could ever be held by anyone?... since that could never be a source, to unearth this amazing new literature from Asimov off my own bat was a monumental breakthrough: you think you're the only person on the planet who's disillusioned with everything around you: the drab, boring, pointless, absurd, irrelevant... the ordering and conforming and discipline (spurious and irrational, frequently involving violent assault), solid with traditional dogma and all in the guise of 'education' (how could ANYONE believe such 'Upside Down' propaganda?) - then suddenly you discover a chink of light, dazzling at first, but coming into focus... a kindred soul out there with imagination, with a mind (though far superior) like yours! And this guy wasn't just some amateur hack feebly attempting to create improbable futures; his work was reasoned, finely crafted and calculated, philosophical and technical, was wide-ranging and inspiring. It examined issues which (to me) had never been tackled before. This 'new' literature involved intellectual digging and enquiry by its readers; it had depth and relevance: we were, after all, moving towards the mysterious futures it portrayed. Above all, it was fresh like nothing else.

That writers like Asimov - and musicians like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley - were dismissed and rejected by traditionalists, the establishment: teachers and so called 'intellectuals' (who in fact were anything but: these days the word 'thikos' would be more appropriate), just boosted tenfold their attraction. Anyone with more than half-a-brain was in no doubt that these innovators were geniuses, while the staid old pricks who condemned them, and who were in charge, belonged (at best) in the nut-house.

I'll never be free of the venom I have for those years - the '50s especially - when, consigned to a straightjacket of enforced ignorance, and at such a crucial time of maximum brain potential, being prevented from developing.... and then to hit on Asimov around '65... age 16: too late then, the brain is pretty-well formed by 16. It was like someone bursting with energy, for years itching to leap and run, but all the time being chained to an immovable rock. How cruel is that?

But the key issue this page is supposed to be about.... is those green-flagged Sci-Fi tomes, which I discuss on a dedicated page: ASIMOV... So I won't continue on Sci Fi here - except to note that around the time I discovered Asimov, someone working in the TV industry must have discovered something similar (or maybe for them it was several years earlier). Suddenly, from the USA, our screens were ablaze with 'Lost in Space' and 'The Twilight Zone'. Then, presumably nudged by these major successes, the Beeb launched its own Sci -Fi productions with 'Out of the Unknown' and 'The Outer Limits'....

At long last the world was waking-up. The staid old pricks were dying off and a new breed of literature, drama, music... etc., was elbowing into the limelight, for instance 'The Beatles' in '63... and soon, people couldn't get enough... a new era of enlightenment was being inaugurated... Henry Miller's marvellous books were published... homosexuality ceased to be illegal... (can anyone imagine anything more ridiculous or intrusive than outlawing same-gender relationships? What kind of irrational retards were they who made the laws in those dark, backward days of ignorance and prejudice?)... pocket radios were less than a fiver.... TV converted to colour... it was all happening, and I was in it.... YOWWWEEEE....

The late 60s was certainly exhilarating. And looking back in 2012, , the optimism wasn't entirely misplaced... yet somehow, although technology advances, taboos fall away and certain absurd restrictions are lifted (less by legislation, than by progressive and intelligent social acceptance), cruelly managed capitalism - which is merely another term for 'legalised corruption' - continues to be an overriding curse, and even increases in vigour.

We live in a jungle; dinosaurs rule. No fiction here - these are facts: solid detestable facts. And the dinosaurs have never been more ravenous and driven. Fathoming where this might lead presents a rich arena for the Sci Fi genre as well as documentary speculation: technological advance alongside social decadence is a contrast that's spurred (at least parts of) several great stories/films: Spielberg's 'AI' for one. See too my own feeble (so far) attempt... well, it's a start.



I found Heinrich Boll only quite recently, around 1995, while fumbling around one of several dusty chaotic secondhand bookshops in Hastings Old Town. I'd read a couple of his short stories, partly because they were in books I had, and partly on account of him being a Nobel laureate. Then I bought his autobiographical 'What's to Become of the Boy'. Mostly about his childhood, it reveals the kind of tough existence he had during the Nazi era, and how, regardless of consequent hardships, he was never tempted to cave-in to the propaganda or other pressures. The image I had of him as a very fine human being was enhanced when I read his 'Irish Journal'. His fiction is what he's famous for, though, because of its subtle angle and observations on the Nazi regime which he survived against the odds. He writes lucidly, though in my view not grippingly - yet is well worth a look, I think.



Paul Bowles has written some fine essays and other work. An American living in Tangier, he produced one magnificent book.

'The Sheltering Sky' 1949, was many years later made into an excellent film (in which Bowles appears briefly, wizened old man that he was by then). Was it just the skill of the narrative, or that the director shared precisely my own imaginative range? Either way, watching the film was a bit like déjà vu.

The quality of this book is not simply its compelling style and its sense of authenticity, but more than anything it is the way it reveals the underlying frailty of human values and what we like to call 'civilisation'. By contrasting Western and Eastern perspectives on how we live, it addresses the question of how much our lives and minds are formed and bound by the culture we come from. It forces the reader to contemplate the bare bones of what is human, what is existence. Mostly taking place in a desert, stripped of flora (both real and symbolic), losing grip on one's very sense of autonomy to the extent that the concept itself becomes lost, even meaningless and irrelevant, what is there left to cling to? The conditions in the story are bleak and desperate, yet resonate with these fundamental questions: who or what really are we inside, how much are our perspectives governed by the society we grow-up in, and how would we handle, if we could, having this soft comforting rug of culture suddenly pulled from under us?

You, a lone Earthling, crash-land your spacecraft on a planet populated by aliens whose society is about as foreign to you as you can possibly imagine. The aliens regard you either with abject indifference or as an object to exploit. This is the metaphorical essence of this deeply philosophical treatise - of self-examination, of seeing your and other cultures in a new objective light. The more I reflect on it, the more brilliant and unsettling this book is.



Ray Bradbury is fairly prolific - and although not particularly lucid or articulate, somehow, through creative leaps I guess, manages to lure one along in his work. His famous 'Fahrenheit 451' - a title emulated by Mike Moore in the film 'Fahrenheit 9/11' - placed his name firmly on the list of literary immortals. His short stories can be worth reading, a few are superb, and he has a perceptive view on many intriguing Sci-Fi issues. He has some excellent, if not outstanding, presentations on youtube - from his home and the lecture theatre. His little book on writing which I've flagged green is a minor masterpiece - highly recommended.



Bukowsky is like a feral beast that steps, now and then - just to give us his perspective - into the irrational world of culture and conformity with which most of us are so familiar. His work is fresh, plain and down to earth like that of few, if any, other authors. He's a natural rebel, and his writing emanates a freedom one rarely finds. An intellectual vagrant who exhibits a candour and uninhibited openness, a lack of shame or remorse, like no one else, Bukowski has a sharply practical approach to life, bawdy and basic, yet often uplifting and optimistic. He has no ambition, no avarice, few scruples. Living somewhat simplistically in the moment.... observing, a bit like a Buddhist, events around him, letting what doesn't affect him directly take care of itself... and just writing out the grit of it, harsh experience.... with a fine yet obscured sense of humour. At least, that's how I read it, especially the short essays/stories in 'Tales of Ordinary Madness', which are obviously autobiographical, and quite probably without fabrication. But why am I writing this when I've already created a dedicated page: BUKOWSKI ?



World famed Nobel winner. His best work in my view was written in his 20s - lyrical essays on personal experience and reflections on life and the harsh yet idylic conditions in Algeria where he grew up. He was a masterful humanitarian philosopher too - articulating and analysing in his work the key elements of any true civilisation, and those that can so easily destroy such an entity or concept: ie, "It's the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners." His essay 'The Myth of Sisyphus' is a profound recognition of the human predicament and the personal choices we are ultimately presented with. Again, though, I've made a dedicated page: CAMUS.



And once more, there's a devoted page, though it's somewhat wayward and discusses less Capote than other issues. I don't intend to correct that here, except to address the work I've flagged green and which alerted the world to this new outstanding writer: 'Other Voices, Other Rooms'. The reader is plunged immediately into the atmosphere in the first paragraph. Although the story becomes increasingly surreal and mysterious, the prose remains supremely articulate and easy to read, and is consistently gripping to the end. A brilliant first novel that took two years to write - I believe - which recreates a world Capote would have known as a kid living free in America's deep south during the '20s & '30s. Also, it addresses an angle on life that at the time in the West (and up till the '70s or '80s) was sidelined and taboo: ie, the protagonist, a boy of ~13 or 14, is gay (though implied from the start, this is not made explicit till the end), a detail that was directly relevant to Capote.

Curiously, his contemporary of about the same age (early 20s), Gore Vidal, was at around this time writing his own version of the same issue in 'The City and The Pillar' - which also turned out to be a masterpiece, and made Vidal famous too, though he (unlike Capote) was born into great wealth and the status of the American (political) upper-class. So Vidal began with a big advantage - yet by publishing this novel he precluded any chance, so it seemed at the time, of a career in politics.

These two intellectual geniuses were later to become rivals who, in an attempt to discredit each other, fenced with publicly-made derogatory statements - often of great wit and humour. Maybe someone will write a book on the conflict one day - if they haven't already? It would certainly make great reading.



Dip into any of Carver's little stories and you'll be trapped, compelled to keep reading to the end. As if the plainest prose is the most gripping, he holds you gripped by what appears on the surface as everyday domestic trivia. It looks so simple, yet I've still to fathom how he does it. Pure magic.



There can't be many who don't appreciate Chekhov on one level or another. Some of his simplest and apparently most banal (though still compelling) stories are his best and demonstrate most clearly his immense skill as a writer. For instance, within just nine brief pages in 'At Home' or 'Home', he demolishes any justification for the irrational horror the mere act of smoking by a kid evokes in many adults: a lawyer, presented with this choice, soon yields to his innate wisdom rather than to the pernicious trap of the status quo as voiced by the governess. Gently, humanely he reasons and finally fails to effectively reprimand his 9-year-old son for stealing and smoking his cigarettes. Part of Chekhov's skill is that instead of offending a detracting reader he educates them.

'A Doctor's Visit' is another work of 'political' brilliance; see an excerpt on my page Slacking. Most of his work stands out from several angles - such as those flagged green. It's revealing to find how his 'The Lady with the Dog' resembles in essence that famous old film 'Brief Encounter' (written after Chekhov's story) AND ends with the opposite conclusion. Like Saki, Saroyan and others, Chekhov consistently opposed a moralising status quo, though did so in a style that enlightens and liberates, so that perhaps his readers will learn to approach the world in a more mature, progressive and intelligent way than before. And it's this, especially, I think: to perceive his philosophy, often woven between the lines rather than starkly explicit, that presents the reader with a challenge to look deeper, which enhances the pleasure of reading - as if every story contains a riddle that offers an authentic glimpse into the mind of its creator.

From a quite young age Chekhov was charged with the necessity to help take care of his family, so hardly experienced childhood. Yet he retained an intimate understanding of children, how they thought and what it was like to be a kid. This is evident in much of his work, 'The Steppe' is a supreme example. At the same time, unlike most people, he was highly rational, competent and composed. Like other Russian writers, he also liked to delve - though in his case tangentially - into the fundamental aspects of life, what REALLY counts, what motivates us, what do we REALLY seek? 'The Bet' is a fine analysis of profound philosophical questions about life. He forces his readers to think hard on these issues: of childhood, how they should treat children, what direction their life is taking, how corrupt and wasteful we are.... how we fail to appreciate the crucial details that make life so worthwhile.

'On the Way' is an eavesdrop on two people expressing the passions that make us who we are. Confined in the parlour of a remote forest inn during a violent snow-storm two people unfold their lives to one another in explicit detail. This kind of situation has happened to me several times when travelling... I even attempted (pathetically, I should add) to show an example of it in my story 'Travelling'. Even a very fine writer/philosopher could scarcely compete with Chekhov. But how warming it is to realise that - although they don't all shine like those mentioned here - there are more than 200 stories from this giant of literature and theatrical drama.



Talking of giants.... but here once again I've made a special page for this unique genius. Dostoyevsky , PLUS a page containing Dostoyesky's amazing account of the drama that inaugurated his first publication 'Poor Folk' back in 1845.



This is about Fitzgerald's key work 'The Great Gatsby'. There are many fine short stories too, which I'd recommend, but 'Gatsby' is the masterpiece. His other interesting work 'The Crack-up' - an autobiographical account of a nervous breakdown - is revealing of the consequences of his lifestyle, I think...

What especially impressed me about the Gatsby book was the tone and style of the writing and the intellect of the narrator who somehow manages to remain above the profligacy and dissolution of the characters and social events he witnesses. So to me, it wasn't so much what the story was about: the underlying decadence in 20s 'high society' America with the stock market boom and untold wealth and the vast consequent arrogance and waste of the time... the entire myth, in fact, of the so-called 'American Dream'... it wasn't so much that, as the way the story was told.

In truth, neither the subject nor history interest me in the least. But the way Fitzgerald grips you right from the first paragraph, and doesn't let go for a moment, keeps you there for more than 160-pages, is no less than brilliant. He never achieved anything approaching it again.

And most of the books I discuss here in this list, you may notice, have this same quality: of drawing the reader in right from the first line, and then keeping them there. It doesn't have to be dramatic or startling or shocking.... often these kind of openings can be ultra-dull, like a cliché. It's a quality that's hard to define, and is so variable that it can - and I'd wager, frequently does - happen by chance. Apparently, my story 'Fired' has this quality - so I'm told!



Basically non-fiction, 'Upside Down' illustrates in anecdote or parable form the gamut of circumstances in modern society where the logic, the situation, the design, whatever, is precisely 180° out of phase with how it should be ideally or rationally. In other words, it shows us where things are Upside Down - usually on purpose due to ulterior motives, hidden agendas, etc., (which Galeano relishes in maximally exposing to us), but frequently too due to sheer wanton ignorance, blatant stupidity or recklessness.

This is probably the most recent title in the entire list here. For some reason, most contemporary work, especially fiction, strikes me as dull, tedious, mundane, trite, everyday or else inauthentic and sensationalist.... I pick up many books in the library, especially on the 'For Sale' table, and am unable to get through a first paragraph, from the first page or dipping-in either randomly or at the start of another chapter. Yet this is definitely not the case with the books I've flagged green in my list.



Reading 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' was like falling into a weird amazing dream. Full of magic, poetic mystery and political intrigue - as well as complex domestic and social relationships and arrangements.... and all within a compelling, dreamlike fantasy-land, written in a form of language that could have derived from some alien yet beautiful realm of ancient art, this epic tale relates 100-years of events in a remote, isolated community deep in the Amazon jungle (or some such location). It is hard to describe precisely - one just has to read it to feel the atmosphere, the depth...



The first story I read of Gogol's was 'Diary of a Madman' (and other stories - of which 'The Overcoat' was the most outstanding). Later, after reading 'Dead Souls', I was in no doubt that Gogol was a true master of literature who shone above even his idol Pushkin. Of all the writers in my list I think Gogol displays the greatest sense of humour, as well as insight into social justice - maybe Bukowski comes a close second. 'Dead Souls' leaves you with a sense of having traversed the whole of Russia, the expansive steppe and plains... and tasted a strange yet mouth-watering selection of foods on the way, met numerous eccentric characters: farmers, serfs (souls), the landowning idle classes at their most incompetent and absurd (and who relied on their serfs for everything from putting their boots on to growing crops), and encountered a few curious events and conversations too. The protagonist, Chichkov, with his two fabulous servants, charge around that vast country visiting the various Excellencies who own the most serfs.... journeys that involve all the everyday detail of resting, eating, etc., being entertained, failing to be understood, getting stuck in mud... its a hilarious jaunt and a profound social comment in one epic and breathtaking sweep.



I haven't read a lot of Gorky, only 'dipped-in' here and there in various works - esp his 'Fragments from My Diary' which is highly entertaining in places, when he meets Tolstoy, for instance, and his first-hand account of Chekhov, and the numerous amusing anecdotes. Some of his autobiographical 'Childhood' is less gripping, though his sequel 'My Apprenticeship' starts nicely:

So here I am - an apprentice. I am the "boy" in a "stylish footwear" shop on the main street of the town. My master is a round little creature with a bleary face, greenish teeth, and bilge-water eyes. It seems to me that he is blind, and I make faces at him in the hope of confirming this. "Don't screw up your mug." he says to me quietly, but firmly.

It continues in the same vein... becoming even sillier, and in a tone and manner that I find compelling, and moreover which Nabokov had too, and Gogol, and even Tolstoy in some of his shorter works. It seems to be unique to Russia, this style, and captures (like no other authors I've read) those seemingly insignificant yet telling everyday trivialities that provide instant recognition - that is, on an intuitive level. And the way these details are expressed are frequently, and unintentionally so it seems, hilarious: 'The ball's gone under Grandma's commode.' in the first pages of Nabokov's 'The Gift', or from Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilych':

As he sat down on the pouffe Piotr Ivanovich remembered how Ivan Ilyich had arranged this drawing-room and had consulted him about this very pink cretonne with the green leaves. The whole room was full of knicknacks and furniture, and on her way to the sofa the widow caught the lace of her black fichu on the carved edge of the table. Piotr Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the pouffe, released from his weight, bobbed up and bumped him. The widow began detaching the lace herself, and Piotr Ivanovich sat down again, suppressing the mutinous springs of the pouffe under him. But the widow could not quite free herself and Piotr Ivanovich rose again, and again the pouffe rebelled and popped up with a positive snap...

These Russian authors, apparently, have uniquely inherited this skill. It is most extravagantly demonstrated in Vaslav Nijinsky's famous diary, which he wrote (I believe) purely for his own eyes - possibly for one other person too. Yet there it is, this remarkable natural feature in its most touchingly childlike form, scattered throughout. This style of description, in Nijinsky's case, is as sad as it is amusing - so a sensitive reader might find themselves laughing and crying simultaneously. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, doesn't quite seem to manage it - though it's not for the want of trying. In several of his works; 'The Double', for instance, and even his impressive 'Notes From Underground' and 'The Gambler' you can see him striving for it, brushing it. It's an attractive feature, though, which I'd love to be able to emulate... and it looks so simple, like those masterful Picasso sketches! Ah, for the want of a more pliant brain....!



Most of Gurdjieff's writing is said to be 'difficult', and I take other people's word for that - I guess they're right. But his 'Meetings With Remarkable Men' is both lucid and compelling, and contains some intriguing thoughts and events. Gurdjieff was one truly authentic and hard-nosed eccentric. His extrovert manner increased as he aged - nothing was done 'by-halves'. What has been written about him and his teachings (especially by Ouspensky) is gripping enough in itself. Some of the latter is thought provoking and deep, but much is extremely weird and esoteric.... to the extent that you might wonder if he was relating his experiences of some alien planet, or else was a highly articulate lunatic whose brain was operating at the margins of normal comprehension.

Colin Wilson's biography 'The War Against Sleep' paints a sober tribute to this inspiring genius who had a curious psychological grip on those around him, not necessarily of persuasion, but in the mere awe of his presence, his lofty expectations, outlandish discipline, frequently bizarre behaviour that kept everyone 'on their toes'. "In his presence you always felt utterly alive - like a mountain climber at a precarious point on a rockface."



Of the authors listed here, Hemingway is one who I wouldn't have chosen to meet - yet, he was said to be highly sociable, tolerant and friendly with those he didn't see eye-to-eye with. One has the impression, though, of someone impulsive, aggressively competitive, a bit obsessed - merely the stark plain tone of his groundbreaking and masterful 'Farewell to Arms' gives the sense of a hard-nosed writer, fitted to the life of a soldier. His close friend Fitzgerald (while in Paris in the 20s), on the other hand - though one might have an image of someone aloof - gives an entirely different impression. Yet there they were, together with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound.... who else? It doesn't matter, because Hemingway's best work - so far as I'm concerned - was 'A Moveable Feast', his autobiographical account of his years in Paris with those fellow writers, all struggling to create that elusive seminal 'Great American Novel'. Only Fitzgerald achieved it - brilliantly, and remarkably concisely with 'The Great Gatsby'. While Hemingway, though not exactly producing the quintessential masterpiece, still hit records that a few decades later earned him the Nobel Prize.



I know nothing about Herrigel, except that his world famous book 'Zen in the Art of Archery' introduced me to a completely new way of observing and approaching life. I've never even attempted archery - in the proper sense of the term - as a professional might. But this doesn't matter. The particular activity, to which Herrigel's philosophy and approach applies, is really irrelevant. It's maybe three or four decades since I read this little book - which can be devoured in one sitting (and contemplated for a lifetime) - but its key feature, as I recall, is that you are taken right into the very nub of the action... you focus down into the minutest detail of only what is immediate. And even then, it's not a question of concentration - but rather about poise, being relaxed, natural, at one with 'what is'. At the point of the arrow's release, the archer doesn't even consider the target - which might seem absurd. Yet there's an invaluable lesson here. It's a lesson about observing, about becoming like plasticine, allowing your mind to shape around the situation, to exactly fit 'what is': the 'true reality' in every sense and at that very instant. An analogy might be the way you let your eyes relax so they can find their own focus on those 3D computer pictures that are otherwise an unintelligible mass of repeating coloured patterns. I was convinced that as a philosophy Herrigel had cracked a great secret. And I'm reminded of the Zen story 'Is That So?' in which, instead of resisting or attempting to fight as anyone normally might, the Zen master Hakuin knows better: he flexes and moves with the wind, the conditions, deflecting and adjusting... one moment this... next moment that... unhesitatingly according with circumstances... precisely as illustrated by Alan Watts in 'The Watercourse Way' and D T Suzuki in his 'Studies in Zen'.

Unfortunately - like so much else in life unless one makes a great effort to embrace a thing - the practice of Zen is not something I've done very much. The times when it's been especially useful is at moments of impasse. Then, poised and focused, a new perspective appears which can be immensely illuminating... 'lateral thinking', I've found, becomes immediate and automatic, and everything falls into place as best it possibly could, or so it seems: as though decisions/actions are optimised.

A recent radio programme explained how people who suffer depression experinece an excess of continual and unquenchable brain activity: (ie, random chatter). This can apparently be reduced by electro-therapy - which is a help to most, though not all, sufferers. Perhaps, instead, one could try deliberate poise and then focus as described above - ideally to focus on nothing, though a candle or any simple object or even a mantra could be used.

This phenomenon was touched-on - perhaps, in fact, much more than merely touched-on - in a Theosophy Course I attended some years ago. See also Meditation.



Yet a nother genius on whom I've created a special page: HESSE



A major voice in 'The Theatre of the Absurd'. More playwright than standard writer, I nevertheless find his prose especially unusually gripping. He did write one intriguing little novel 'The Hermit', but his most powerful writings are autobiographical: reflections on his thoughts as a child above all, but on his work as a playwright and how early experience influenced the direction of his thoughts, his most profound thoughts on issues that affect us all yet most of us prefer to avoid: essentially the bleakness and isolation we inevitably endure as individuals, our knowledge of our inevitable death... He probes more deeply and extensively than Camus did in his lyrical essays, and doesn't cheat - ie, the supernatural/religion/afterlife are not in his arena - so he examines aspects like nostalgia! This can be of immense value (as Dostoyevsky has mentioned: how some minor event as a kid can be of crucial importance in later years). Merely how we remember and the various unique and crucial associations of memory - while realising that we are only our memories - reveals angles we scarcely if ever notice or realise. If we suddenly forgot everything, we'd be no different to a slug.....

A minor example: when as a 3 or 4-year-old walking along a road I was given a cheese biscuit just as a fire-engine with its alarm going rushed past. For many years afterwards, whenever I tasted one of those cheese biscuits, images of a fire-engine would loom in my mind. The power of associations like this can be huge. They affect how we react to all kinds of issues, and without realising why. The scope for investigation here is endless.

See also Ionesco's quote (in italics) at the end of my page 'The Death Zone', ie:

'His plays can be seen as a way to liberation, for as he said: "To attack the absurdity (of the human condition) is a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity... For where else would there be a point of reference?... Nothing makes me more pessimistic than the obligation not to be pessimistic. I feel that every message of despair is the statement of a situation from which everybody must freely try to find a way out." '



Yet another with a whole page devoted to his work: KAFKA.



And another: KEROUAC.



Laurie Lee is, like Hemingway, also someone I wouldn't have been especially keen to meet. Although I liked his other books, the one I've flagged green is exceptional. You can follow this guy in the (mostly) downs, but some nice ups too, of his trip around Spain way back in the 1930s - as if you're there with him, suffering the same (often self-induced) hardships and enjoying the same delights. After the first few pages you completely forget you're reading and can merge with him, share his experiences as though in the here and now. One impressive aspect of this book is that it could so easily have been deadly boring, but for the incredible skill of its author to render the most mundane situations (which most of us can easily relate to) in fascinating or attractive ways without mawkish or flowery prose.



I first learned of the existence of David Lindsay and his remarkable fantasy 'A Voyage to Arcturus' from Colin Wilson's superb book 'The Craft of the Novel' - which introduced me to quite a range of new literature I'd have otherwise not found.... Anyone reading '...Arcturus' should realise they need to wade through the first 30 or so pages before the real adventure begins. At which point the story takes off with a vengeance, and in a way that - if one wishes to make a comparison - renders the recent film 'Avatar' (2011) like a pathetic amateur forerunner. Lindsay's imagination exceeds anything so far the 21st C has coughed-up... probably, the writer(s) of 'Avatar' took some ideas from Lindsay's great work, except the film falls massively short.



Henry Miller - what a guy.... I reckon this little portrait of an acquaintance of Millers from back in his days in Paris, tells more about Miller than the acquaintance, and more than could be gleaned from his work, which is essentially autobiographical, yet much more than that.... for instance. Nearly all Miller's work is solid with reflections and assessments of all kinds of aspects of life and circumstances. His views on the work of other authors are exclusively positive and sometimes - in my (inexperienced) opinion - seem overrated, misplaced (though maybe they are justified?): Giono, for instance, and Cendrars - the latter I do like, but neither are especially compelling to me.

But Miller is definitely a guy I'd like to have known and associated with. He was a closet Buddhist, an enlightened man, a man who saw reality and respected it, moulded to it, enjoyed it. He may have had his moods (don't we all?) as perhaps over-dramatised in the superb cult film 'Henry & June' on his period in Paris in the 1930s.- but he'd have been great company anytime. If only I could know people like that now.... it's as if my life is wastefully ebbing away in the absence of such company.... or am I being sentimental, self-pitying... obtuse? See: from 'C of M'