First Love and Other Stories, Ivan Turgenev

Joseph Conrad said ‘Art should carry its justification in every line’ and if that’s good enough for Joe I think Chico Chica should do the same. Let’s aim high and make sure every word and note means something. One way of finding the inspiration to reach for the highest standards is to read Turgenev. If Chico Chica were ever to write a novel, I’d like it to be like one of his.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one character was reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook. I took this as a recommendation so I read it too. That was ten years ago and I can still remember the stories, the characters and the atmosphere. So when I picked up First Love and Other Stories, I knew I was reaching for a trusted brand. The book confirmed how good a writer Turgenev is. He seems to know me, so I feel it’s a really personal connection despite my being from a different nationality, milieu and century.

Chico Chica now have eighteen songs ready to record. These are the songs that constitute the band’s current set. Eleven of those are about love so that is, in the context of popular songs, quite a low proportion. But a few are comedic in tone and comedy songs are more likely to be about other things. In First Love and Other Stories all the stories have love as their central theme except the first, Diary of a Superfluous Man. This was the most striking in effect. The diarist saw his life as utterly superfluous. He assumed the world would not miss him in the slightest if he stopped living. He found human relationships very hard especially those with women. But instead of looking at his life as a tragedy, he took a detached view and saw it as a comedy. It was a strange combination of possessing a profound insights and being utterly clueless.

The subsequent stories were just as good. With Turgenev, I feel in safe hands. You can come and feel the safety of Chico Chica’s hands at:

St. Anthony’s Club The Red House 13 Upton Avenue (Corner of Upton Lane) Forest Gate London E7 9PJ. 8pm Wednesday 21st May 2014.

https://www.facebook.com/events/636394773108310/

 

The Comedians, Graham Greene

‘Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never. One is the imperfection of charity, the other the perfection of egoism.’

When Chico Chica did our recent UK tour I became aware of how important PR and marketing is. But doing it throws up a big dilemma. I have to boast how good we are so there’s a danger I will be like one of those boring show-offs you try to avoid at parties. People are attracted to ordinariness but expect the extraordinary in art. If I’m trying to sell tickets and CDs, is it better to be admired or liked?

Most musicians (including me) have at least at one time, tended to make the work they do sound a little bit more glamorous than it actually is and are prone to name-dropping. But affecting modesty while paying a publicist to boast on one’s behalf, or writing about oneself in the third person, looks like cheating. Now if I were a paper clip manufacturer I could extol the virtues of my paper clips and then go on to continue my anonymous life. But I’m a performer. I’m selling the product of my imagination. It’s personal.

In Graham Greene’s The Comedians, there are three main characters one of whom is Jones, a likeable boaster. The story is set in the early ‘60s so they are part of the post World War II generation. In those days many men must have been tempted to big up their contribution to the war effort, and without Google, they could easily get away with it. The idea of being found out for telling a lie would, for most people, be too much to bear so it takes courage to boast. Some people starting off in business talk of the ‘future truth’: telling a lie which isn’t really a lie because it will be true in the future. The trouble is, the future may take its time to catch up and verify the story. In The Comedians, Jones’s stories are believed by rebel soldiers, fighting to overthrow the regime of Papa Doc Chevalier and his sunglass-wearing henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes.

I hate preachiness in a story -  when it becomes so obvious the reader is supposed to feel a certain way on an issue. But I do like a story to convey ideas. It’s a hard trick for a writer to pull off. Graham Green does so by putting ideas on the lips of flawed characters.

The book has lit an interest in me for Haiti and I’ve been looking up background information including on the Chevaliers and Aristide and how it came to be the nightmare republic. That’s the great thing about good fiction, it doesn’t make you intelligent, it does something better, it makes you curious.

My previous book was set in the neighbouring island of Cuba but that’s a coincidence. I wasn’t  trying to make this a Caribbean-themed reading thread but now I feel tempted. I may well push Greene’s The Honoury Consul and Our Man Havana  up my list as well as Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never been fishing. The idea of sitting still on a riverbank in wellies on a Saturday afternoon just doesn’t do it for me. But Hemingway’s kind of fishing was different. For him it was skiffs off the coast of Cuba in the warm sea, going out till dusk and being led back by the glow of Havana.

The Old Man and The Sea is about an old man’s fishing trip. He catches a fish which is way too big so he has to tie it to the side of his boat. Now this is the bit I don’t understand. Why did he not chop it up there and then? The last book I read about fishing was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In that I learnt that the first thing whalers do after a kill is get the whale chopped up and on board as soon as possible or the sharks will have it first. But this  old man, with a long life of fishing experience, seemed to be surprised that he had company for his journey home.

But it’s a good story. Thanks to Hemingway’s artful telling, I really wanted to know if the old man was going to bring home a big fish or a long skeleton. It’s obvious Hemingway knew what he was talking about. He’d lived the life and I began to envy him. I’d like to do that kind of fishing.

 Moby Dick is a  strange combination of essays, story, asides and long passages of poetry without the return key, in other words, disguised as prose.  By contrast, The Old Man and The Sea never wavers from its course. And, as is always the case with Hemingway, there is something about the writing which draws the reader into the story. He was knowledgeable without being encyclopedic, for example he called a dolphin a fish which Melville would never have done.

Here are two members of Chico Chica crossing the Irish Sea after shows in Northern Ireland – note the absence of rods. DSCN1735Chico Chica may be doing some work in the south of France this summer. If it comes about, I just might enquire into the possibility of a fishing trip when I’m down there. At least there are no sharks in the Med.

Chico Chica will be performing at  the White Hart, Mile End Road, London E1 4TP, 8pm Sunday 30th March.

https://www.facebook.com/events/487917774645781/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

The Trial, Franz Kafka

I read The Trial during Chico Chica’s UK tour. I read it in the back seat of a car on the way to a show at The Fringe in Bristol, a city on flood alert. The weather was absolutely appalling. Valentine’s Night was spent at Bertie’s, Cowes where we had to abandon the show when water starting to lap inside the venue. I read it during the railway journeys to Edinburgh and Glasgow and the ferries to and from Belfast but generally, two prerequisites for a reading habit, solitude and early nights, were in short supply.

We busied ourselves with rehearsing a new song called I’m a Playgirl. I really wanted it included in the later shows. We played it once at Bennigan’s, Derry but it the heady atmosphere of the night, the song got counted in too fast and went a bit mad. We haven’t played it again but I hope to do so at the next show which is at The White Hart, Mile End Road, London 1 Mile End Road London E1 4TP, 8pm, Sunday 30th March.

https://www.facebook.com/events/487917774645781/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

The tour culminated with a show at St James Theatre, London and I finished The Trial at about the same time. The book sounds as if it’s a courtroom drama. It isn’t. In fact there is no crime and, as in a dream, there is no coherent logic. The courtroom is not as you would imagine, an ornate building in the city centre. It’s at the top floor of a block of suburban tenement flats. And it’s open on a Sunday. Everything is wrong and  meaningless. Characters don’t act in the way you would expect them to. It all made me wonder how this book was deemed a classic. Who makes these decisions? The Trial is not even a complete novel, some of the chapters were left unfinished and some critics argue about which order they were supposed to be in. The very fact that such an argument occurs doesn’t suggest the book has a great narrative flow. Kafka’s work was never published in his lifetime and he ordered his friend to burn all his work. There’s a lot to be said for obedience.

The novel seems to suit the pre-occupations of academia, I just feel sorry for the poor bastards who have to write essays about it and go on about ‘cultural discourse….blah….human condition….blah’.

Reader, my advice is to visit Foyles, on Charing Cross Road. Go to the fiction section on the ground floor, where you will find a yard of books by Phillip Roth. If you’re lucky, you will also find one or two by Joseph Roth. He, like Kafka, was a product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was writing during its final years. Roth is a much, much better writer.

Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell

My teenage daughter expressed an interest in philosophy so I borrowed Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays from my Chico Chica colleague, Barbara Snow. Before I returned the it I decided to read it myself. So this is a book which fate somehow placed in my hands. I read the book in the period just prior to the Chico Chica UK tour. It was a busy period of rehearsing, doing some last minute PR and worrying about how the atrocious storms would effect the tour’s travel arrangements and ticket sales. The book’s essay format made it easy to read in short snatches.

My decision to read Unpopular Essays was influenced by my memories of reading another collection of Russell’s essays when I was eighteen years of age. I was at the crossroads of my life and I was attracted by the book’s title: In Praise Of Idleness. In hindsight, it may well have had a profound influence on forming my attitudes which governed my subsequent adult life. I have never been attracted to philosophy as a genre but I remember being struck by Russell’s simple language and how clearly he expressed his ideas.

Reading Russell again, nearly forty years later, I was less impressed. Even, I, without any grounding in the subject, could spot fallacies. I thought the whole point of philosophy was to inspect every step in logic to make sure it was fallacy-free. He rightly says that people become quarrelsome over things they are unsure about. He offered the example of a religious heretic being burnt at the stake whereas someone who insisted 2+2=5 was left unmolested. But challenging a king’s divine right to rule is treasonous in a way that faulty arithmetic is not.

At one point he tells us how a thinker should think for all time and avoid looking dated a few years later. But he fails his own test my a peculiar obsession with the Soviet Union and  something no-one ever talks about today: world government. Russell Brand, Bob Geldof and others, including members of my family, are in favour of ditching capitalism, the nation state and democracy in order to save the environment and Bertrand Russell, though sincerely appreciative of parliamentary democracy, thought it best suspend it for a few hundred years to try out this world government thingy.

Reading this book made me realise just how influential he is and how he helped lay the foundations of current mainstream thinking especially regarding war, marriage, religion and human rights. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on finding ways to stop people being cruel to each other.  Those people who met Russell always attest he was a kind and  agreeable man but I found his writing lacking humour and his outlook unduly pessimistic. When he looks back at history he sees only cruelty and ignores the other bits. History books, like newspapers of full of instances of cruelty but don’t tell the whole story. Russell was a progressive so felt he had to exaggerate how bad the past was just as conservatives exaggerate how good it was.

Ludicrous sentences:

‘It is also now generally known by those who have taken the trouble to look into the matter that only an international government can prevent war.’  Who are these people who have gone to so much trouble? Russell doesn’t say. But if they’d gone to just a little bit more trouble they may have come up with the idea of asymmetrical warfare – but they didn’t.

‘Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of these possibilities will have been realised. These three are:

  1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
  2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
  3. A unification of the world under a single government.’

The idea that humanity might just muddle along didn’t occur to him because I believe, deep down, he doesn’t like or trust people.

Pickwick Papers

Reading The Dead is a phrase I got from Martin Amis and anyone who regularly reads my posts (I hope such people exist), will know that I use Judge Time to help me decide which book I should read next. So it’s a phrase which would make a good title of this blog, except I often write about the travails and exploits of my band Chico Chica.

I have just finished reading Pickwick Papers by (do I need to say this?) Charles Dickens. Reading dead authors usually means reading long books. Pickwick Papers is over 1,000 pages. I remember once when I borrowed a long 19th century novel, the librarian asked me how I find the time to read such a long book. I explained reading long books doesn’t mean I read more, it’s just that I change books less often. My reading Pickwick Papers took two months. It coincided with a period of intensive pre-tour rehearsing as well as the very time-consuming activity of memorising words.

The novel lends itself well to intermittent reading because it is essentially a series of light-hearted short stories which were a series Dickens wrote for a monthly periodical. The character I especially liked was Pickwick’s servant, Sam Weller. The contemporary readers also liked him so Dickens responded by giving Sam a greater role in later chapters. He was making it up as he went along. Sam Weller almost invented the ‘said the actress to the bishop’ joke but, being the 1830s, without the sexual innuendo – a much harder trick to pull off.

One of the reasons I chose the Pickwick Papers was GK Chesterton’s recommendation. GK rated it as his favourite novel. It’s easy to see how he was influenced by the light-hearted style. Chesterton was hardly a modernist so he was unlikely to be bothered by the usual complaints about Dickens such as sentimentality, fainting females and that he never produced the truly great novel which, as we all know, only foreigners can do.

Towards the end, as the Chico Chica rehearsing became more demanding of my time, the reading became more sporadic and to add to that, I suffered a bout of flu. I started to lose the flow and had to refer to online synopses to maintain interest. I prefer the later novels: Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Bleak House so I was pleased to get to the end.

I have a fascination with coincidences particularly when they relate to numbers. Reader, if you find this kind of thing dull, stop reading now. Pickwick Papers has 57 chapters, I finished it in the same week as my 57th birthday and I was born in 1957. I was tempted to celebrate with a can of Heinz baked beans.

The Books I Read in 2013

Cousin Bette, Honoré de Balzac

The Radetsky March, Joseph Roth

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth

Dancing at the Edge, Graham Leicester

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

The Lighthouse Stevensons, Bella Bathurst

War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy

Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy

Lucia’s Progress EF Benson

Mapp and Lucia, EF Benson

Trouble For Lucia, EF Benson

The Art of Memory,  Frances Yates

 

I have already posted on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Joseph Roth’s two novels set during the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. EF Benson’s books were new to me. I started reading them on the same weekend Chico Chica played at the Rye International Jazz Festival. I later learnt that these stories were set in Rye (renamed Tilling in the books) and that Benson was at one time the town’s mayor. War and Peace had been on my To Read list for decades. The novel about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was how I imagined it to be but it is so well known that I can’t think of anything to say other than I found it compelling from beginning to end. 

There was some non-fiction too: Bella Bathurst’s telling of the story of how one Scottish family went about building lighthouses. This book was given to me when Chico Chica were playing some gigs in Scotland in 2012.  Otherwise I would not have read it, after all lighthouses is not something I think about much.  Then there was Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory. I had been dipping into this book in 2012 as well so I merely finished it in 2013. It’s a huge topic and this is a very scholarly work which is why I couldn’t take it in one go. As a performer, memory is something that interests me enormously. I hope to write about this in another post.

 

 

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