The Toolbox

One afternoon I was watching the Oprah Winfrey show on TV. One of Oprah’s sidekicks is Dr Phil McGraw, a balding clinical psychologist with a moustache, who offers no nonsense advice with a southern twang. He accepts very few excuses from people for their bad lives, bad marriages or simply, bad attitude.


Towards the end of his segment Dr Phil turned to camera and offered up this wonderful combination of nutritionism and Zen Bhuddism. Suggesting that the audience, like him, have eaten apple after apple their whole lives without giving it a second thought, (although a glance at his studio bound audience indicates it might not just have been apples) Dr Phil offered an alternative method. He recommended giving the apple your undivided attention;


Just concentrate on the apple and don’t think of anything else. Most importantly be still. Being focused and slowing down will allow you to truly savour the qualities the apple offers: its sweetness, aroma, freshness, juiciness and crispness.


He went on to suggest an intense way of looking at the apple;


What kind of apple is it? What colour is it? How does it feel in your hand? What does it smell like?


This flirtation with the apple is to be accomplished before you go in for the kill;


Then, give the apple a smile and slowly, mindfully take a bite and chew it, savouring the taste of the apple and its nourishment. Immerse yourself in the process 100% and you become fully aware of the present moment, you experience what the apple offers you, and you become more alive.


To a degree this technique, (which I’ve never tried, preferring to pulverize apples in a blender), depends on the quality of the apple. It does, however, put its finger on a reverence for the moment that has useful applications. For many, the delight of barbeque season is the opportunity to prepare and eat food outside like our earliest ancestors, with the summer promise of how much the weather enhances the cooking and flavour of the food.


This same sublime intensity was noticeable in the sessions with Hiroshi Ishikawa. Whilst alien and testing at first, and shot through with my anxiety over what exactly it was that we were doing, our time together was occasionally lit up when I glanced over at the expression of delight on his face as we delved deeper into a book which obviously fascinated him. Never having had the opportunity to repeat our scheme with anyone else I’m unable to tell whether a similar approach to a favourite novel would benefit others, and it has to be said that Hiroshi brought his own peculiar sensibilities to bear on Rowling, rather than the other way round. I vividly recall the hidden reserves of patience I unearthed but also how much I learned myself. One of the unacknowledged bi-products of teaching is how much the teacher discovers at the point of explanation and I’m grateful to Hiroshi for a formula that seems to have served him well whilst working with several different teachers.


The precision with which he approached the work, not to say his timekeeping and the gentle exhalation of breath that was the tea-ritual, created an environment of anticipation and low-level excitement; a hard-working laboratory dedicated to ‘the work’. Hiroshi’s almost clerical love of ritual, his sense of spiritual drama, his attentive, detailed, systematic reading was, I would say, highly skilled. Recently I was asked to give a talk on my most successful learning experience as part of a workshop on teaching adults at Lewisham College. I mentioned that I was intrigued, after working with Hiroshi, by how Discipline, Intensity and Ritual could be applied to teaching. I wrote the three words in big capital letters on the white board. Perhaps I’m over sensitive, but I gathered from the faces of the audience, who were mostly students, that I had transgressed some hidden dimension to the Victorian era, as if I were standing there wearing a mortar board and waving a pointed stick. These words are deeply unfashionable and there was polite skepticism over whether enough people ‘learn that way’ to make it useful. I could only say that, amidst all the talk of different learning styles, that I had learned more by applying those three words than I ever did taking notes at university.


So, what if this technique was tweaked to make it less specific to a Japanese accountant and extended to a workshop approach? The texts (the word must suffice until we come up with an alternative) could be grouped by theme, for example, ‘the sea’ and ‘the mountain’, ‘broken’ or even ‘lions in the jungle’. It remains to be seen if some sort of thematic resonance will emerge from a carefully selected set of books and poems about cars or trees or whether these categories can ever really be divorced from their political context and re-engaged with their metaphorical clout, I’m quite prepared to admit that there might be little difference between a course on ‘horses in literature’ and one on ‘Women in Post-War Literature’. Alternatively, one text could be investigated in depth. There is more than enough in a work like Anna Karenina and the modern Ulysses to play with for months. For those who think in terms of categories, these sessions could be classified as Creative Reading.


Given the workshop format there would be no need for postulations from the person up the front because, a form that takes for a pedagogue various works of literature, needs nothing more than a facilitator, and as we would anticipate individual and personal reactions to the texts, a group dynamic in which to foster and then collate those effects should maintain momentum, with direction gently guided by the facilitator.


There are indeed pitfalls to all this high seriousness (as Jean Des Esseintes discovered) and given some of the terminology I have used we could easily call this approach a ‘technique’. The usefulness of this word is that it builds a distance from academia (although some may say that there is no danger of these explorations ever being mistaken for academia), but also that it positions us alongside practices like the Alexander Technique and Gurdjieff’s ‘work’[1] as systems that promote well-being; techniques that give us new ways of looking at the world, and harness different elements of our interior life. Intensity relies on the level of application demonstrated by the participants, but as well as being hard work, my sessions with Hiroshi were playful and fun, though perhaps only fun on the level a Radio 4 panel game is fun. This group mentality would also preserve the work from its direct antithesis, literary theory, although I’m very much aware this could merely be my attempt to make the solitary acts of reading and writing more sociable, more adrenalized. Adrenalin has always struck me as dangerous during the writing process, whereas, by comparison, I have often witnessed actors’ performances come alive because of it.


The tools I am about to outline are ways of looking at literature. None of them are entirely new, some borrow from other art forms, and others are a change of emphasis from standard models of studying literature. They have in common a desire to mimic the act of discovery that makes reading a great writer or a great novel so exciting. Could a course be taught that takes out of the text as much as literary theory puts in? And in nominating this course, what would be the aim; thesis, performance, a sharpening of writing skills, or indeed something less tangible, something that provokes the senses? A search as capricious as a crossword.


Lectio Divina and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola

In constant combinations of reading and writing the student is improved as a wave breaks against the shore. Just as a great conversationalist provokes us to wittier and more various talk and the good footballer is elevated by playing with a great team, we have all been prompted by others to approach a book in new ways. Many people report certain novels that accompany them their whole lives and with each periodic reading a new layer is unearthed as the advancement in their own age uncovers what was once hidden. Conversely, it is often the case that when we return to a work we once loved it feels very ordinary and has none of the effect it had previously. How much of this is due to the ideas and effects of the book having become part of the reader? Has the reader simply worked the novel into their life without realizing and so feels only disappointment when the revelations that were once so vivid now seem so underwhelming?


By contrast, I always found literary theory drained me of any desire to see the book ever again. But whereas the French theorists demanded that no text be read without one eye on its context, the toolbox that I suggest, under the umbrella heading of contagious fiction, only generates afresh.


These techniques are there to be developed, and I propose a variety of approaches, the first of which focuses on an intense reading. For all the pedantry Hiroshi brought to Rowling, I found myself wondering if, just as an actor after a performance will ask an audience member who has come to chat, not whether they liked the Play butwhat they liked about it and which parts specifically; is the writer on a quest for the hyper-attentive reader? Surely no novelist who has put in the hours, would ever be comfortable with their work read so very, very cursorily?


There are precedents for this almost devotional relationship with the text. They are to be found, unsurprisingly, not within the disciplines of Literature, or within academic institutions, but in several obscure practices within history of the Christian Church.


It was in the 12th Century that Lectio Divino was formalized into a 4 step system, prior to that St Ambrose had taught it to St. Augustine, a man with a wide-screen sense of the proportions of life. The Benedictines defined the process of scriptural reading, appreciating the capacity of the Bible, as the Word of God, to offer an opportunity to know Him through his writing. Importantly, the four movements were not a theological analysis – it seems that even in the 12th Century there was an acknowledgement of the limits of man’s abilities to interpret the words of others. These movements were;


·         Read

·         Meditate

·         Pray

·         Contemplate


The scriptures were ‘performed’ (if this is the right word) as sacrament, as, because the Word is incarnate in scripture, it can thus touch and then teach its readers and hearers. Once a calm and tranquil state of mind has been achieved, there follows a slow reading of a particular passage. This is done deliberately, and some might say ponderously and can be repeated several times. Having achieved this, the meditation process then involves listening for the word of God in what has just been read, the illumination that His voice will bring and the consequent impact of it upon the passage. This is followed by a prayer which may take the form of a two way conversation. The last movement is contemplation, which seals the union with God.


In another metaphysical analogy, Lectio Divina has been compared to feasting on the word of God, with the four movements resembling the biting, the chewing, the savouring, and the digestion of the word of God, an ecclesiastical approximation of Dr. Phil’s approach to eating an apple.


There are several methods but most suggest that the text to be studied is chosen carefully and that the reader finds a comfortable position and allow themselves to become silent. The passage can be long or short, but is often merely a word and the reader is advised to focus on their breathing and to enjoy the silence. The text is to be read and the reader is warned not to expect anything too profound immediately and not attempt to reach for something that is not there, but rather wait for the substance to reach for the reader;


Take the word or phrase into yourself allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. Your own memories and thoughts are part of this process.


It is certainly true for me that I often switch off whilst reading a novel and begin to contemplate some detail in my life or recollection from the past, all the while continuing to read without taking anything in. This dual process can continue for up to a page (It is rare to actually turn the page in this state). When I finally catch myself I have to double back and re-read. Often these digressions have been prompted by the text (equally often they are symptoms of a distracted mind). To be generous, it is almost as if some novels, the great ones, have a surplus of material poured into a vessel that cannot contain it, and our periphery thoughts are other books that will never be written, or thoughts that will never be spoken. Whatever they are, these thoughts are a response, a suggestion that reading is never passive.


The practice of Lectio Divina expects a dialogue with God the author, an interaction with the text. This approach was developed to incubate an understanding of a living Word, but then, I cannot corroborate this, not having attempted the technique I am unsure of the exact nature of the supernatural transaction. My own reading, on the other hand, is now mostly confined to public transport and to be more specific, it is an activity that takes place as I glide along rails, the jerky stop/start rhythm of buses and cars making reading nauseously impossible. The solitary practice of reading in a public arena has strange side-effects. I recall finishing an incredible novel on a rush hour commuter train and literally having to fight the impulse to applaud, so vivid was the novel’s conclusion. In a theatre or at a concert no one would think twice about reacting so spontaneously.


In modern times the practice of Lectio Divina has enjoyed resurgence as a group activity with the endorsement of Pope Benedict. Passages are read aloud and often repeated with a different focus, their meaning gently considered from a different angle. Advocates of the technique talk of acquiring a rhythm which they then take into daily life and how often their concerns, relationships, hopes and aspirations naturally intertwine with their meditations on the scriptures.


There seems little history of using religious techniques as a means of acquiring greater understanding in the secular world, despite the language used bearing a notional similarity to some in the field of education. We talk about the teachings of Christ and of how prayer can deepen spiritual understanding, but there has been scant study of the techniques used. This is perhaps due to the different taxonomies. Today, teaching is increasingly viewed as a science, the focus of educational research.


The spiritual exercises of St Ignatious of Loyola

Amongst Jesuits in Spain, St Ignatius developed his spiritual exercises in the 16thCentury, an attempt to provide a precise scheme to the reading of the Bible. The course was to be completed over 30 days and broken up into 4 week sections. As with Lectio Divina the work was designed to be completed in retreat and includes many deprivations and sacrifices that have no bearing on our subject (although they perhaps illuminate the reference to Ernest Hemingway in Paris in the next chapter). What is interesting, however, is the approach that the spiritual exercises take in week one to visualization;


By an effort of memory, I will recall the first sin, next I will use my reason to think about it, then my will, striving to remember and think about all this, in order to develop a sense of utter shame, as I compare myself with the angels’ one sin.


The retreatant is then advised to visualize the sin of anyone who has gone to hell and commit it to memory, ‘recalling the gravity and monstrous nature of the sin committed by man’. Of course, this doesn’t sound a lot of fun and I’m certainly not advocating anything similarly grueling, only possible applications of the imaginative facility to a work of fiction.


The meditations form part of a month-long course with detailed notes and directions for each day’s work. A typical day will start with a meditation or a preparatory prayer and end with a discussion; which, in the Thomas Corbishley translation of St Ignatious’s instructions he calls a colloquy;


The colloquy is really the kind of talk friends have with one another, or perhaps the way a servant speaks to his master.


In between the retreatent is given the job of imagining, and tasked with visualizing the setting for a variety of Biblical episodes;


·    Christ hanging on a cross. Seeing the state Christ is in, nailed to a cross, let me dwell on such thoughts as present themselves.

·    The place of nativity. Is the cave spacious or cramped? Low or high? How is it furnished?

·    Look at the persons, Our Lady, St Joseph, the servant girl and after He is born, the infant Jesus. I must see myself as an impoverished attendant, not fit to be there, but watching and studying them, looking after all their wants as if I were actually present, in the spirit of complete and respectful subservience. Then I should think of myself to derive some benefit.


The last example demonstrates a novelist’s awareness of characterization and offers a general encouragement to go and create. The exercises don’t make clear the extent of the free hand that the retreatent has in creating the image of the nativity, and presumably the compilers of St Ignatious’s exercises come from a base position that God is guiding the retreatent’s imagination throughout the process. As such it is difficult to measure the true creative force that may or may not be at work. It is, however, interesting that the exercises suggest a practical benefit from a stock skill of the writer’s craft – that is, the power to imagine a scene and then substantiate it.


What are we left with? Free from doctrinal niceties what remains is an intense book group of attentive readers. Perhaps what remains beyond that, after all the cultural baggage is removed from the waiting room, is in fact, only the quality of our listening.


However, without the fervor of religious discovery, our intense investigations lack a focus. It is hard to develop a reading intensity when your day to day reading tends to be recreational. The daily bubble of life’s routine is enough for most people and a good book is the chance to invert life’s daily characteristics and switch off and relax. This is entirely justifiable. The scheme I’m attempting to come up with here, though, is for those who want a greater engagement with literature, and this requires a greater effort. Perhaps we can examine the motivations of those who read books as part of a degree course. What is the goal that channels the mind of a literature student? For some, it is undoubtedly the qualification that lies in store for them after three years of providing essays at regular intervals and a final year dissertation. These minor publication events are the feedback of the degree, several thousand words on an aspect of the course by a certain deadline and the necessity to collate material over a range of texts. Often a theory is proposed which must then be discussed, but often the essay is an attempt to answer a question.


The Question

Having just let go of a whole series of religious analogies we can pause, somewhat inelegantly, to observe another one. Zen Buddhism uses questions as part of its meditation techniques; queries such as “When are you?” and “What happens next?” By focusing on these puzzles the questioner, ideally, pushes back certain assumptions about experience and moves towards a pure cognition. That’s the theory.


The question drives people, it is the question that moves people toward any religion, it prompts philosophers to think and explorers to travel and similarly, what pushes a reader to continue reading is the puzzle of the book. These puzzles range from common or garden murder mysteries to rosebud-style origin laments; who really raped Justine in Lawrence Durrell’s quartet, to more existential enquiries; will Henderson, in Saul Bellow’s novel ever satisfy the needs of his spirit? We have already discussed that Alice, playing proxy for the reader investigates the rabbit hole (as she falls; ‘do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats?) The university course will apply a question to the text, but will do so from outside of the text, promoting value judgments and treating the events and the characters as fiction;


·    ‘Identify places where Marlow expresses distance from his reader in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. What parts of his experience does he think they will be unable to relate to and why?’


Never, will such a course ask questions from the perspective of the characters.


·    What impression of Mr. Kurtz develops in Marlow’s mind as he travels upriver?


Mortimer Adler in his guide to intelligent reading ‘How to read a book’ says that the reader of a work of fiction ‘has not grasped the whole story until they can summarize its plot in brief narration.’ He regards this as evidence of the unity of a novel. He is right in so much as it is via plot that a world is rendered. The machinations of the characters take place against a background of a craftily created world and we take pleasure in successful worlds, but roll our eyes at the odd dud – clunky exposition, or implausible narrative twists. By contrast, certain readers find it easy to inhabit created worlds. Perhaps they measure the escape that reading famously offers by how much they enjoy living in a specific literary landscape. By this measure, pose them an essay question from the perspective of an inhabitant of this world and they may have no problem answering it. They may even have fun answering it – completing a type of literary jigsaw puzzle. This is an approach to fiction that has already been embraced by computer games. Elaborate worlds are concocted and players are invited in to make their own histories, their own fictions amidst the furniture and ornaments of a pixilated world.


Adler’s book, written in 1940 is a very useful approach to reading non-fiction. (Adler once admitted he would only watch television with a pencil and paper in hand, taking notes as he went.) By his own admission, his ideas cannot be so readily applied to fiction. His book, however, is full of examples of how the didactic properties of novels can be harnessed in ways that are utterly un-academic. Aware that an act of communication is going on, he recommends an entire scheme for the reader to best understand it; from defining the exact meaning of certain words, to ‘x-raying’ it by coming to terms with its structural integrity – skim reading initially, studying the contents and index pages, underlining key words and continually summarizing its arguments. Adler suggests that the purchasing of the book is only the prelude to ownership of it, that the reader must take full possession of the book, filling it with marginalia, thus making it part of themselves.


I remember an English teacher at school who was similarly enthusiastic about damaging his copies of the set text. (He had been a jobbing actor before giving it all up to become an English teacher. His first choice for us, when we were thirteen was Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Equus’, full of swearing and bestiality. He would gush authoritatively on the subject of stagecraft and rush around the school buildings with his scarf flowing. He quickly became known as ‘The Actor’). The Actor insisted on pupils writing notes in the book margins and would proudly demonstrate his own copy, with post-it notes marking pages, whole chapters folded and dog-eared, and half the front cover ripped off. He often seemed on the verge of hurling it against the wall, so delighted was he by the malleable properties of his book. I can’t imagine what he would have made of the Kindle.


Reciprocal reading

It is established that the purchaser has property rights over a book, but rarely is it acknowledged the extent of involvement the purchaser-turned-reader may have over the content of the book. I would suggest that the ability to enjoy a novel is less an innate skill born out of the reader’s gift of perception coinciding with the author’s gift of description; but is in actual fact a reciprocal skill. The author and the reader are working together, in various combinations, and at times it is possible for them to meet as much as halfway. At its heart reading a novel is collaboration. Consider this example;


We turn our attention to the left-hand characteristics. They were flatness as regards the river, verticality as regards the wall behind it, and darkness as regards both. These features made up the mass. If anything could be darker than the sky it was the river underneath. The indistinct summit of the facade was notched and pronged by chimneys here and there, and upon its face were faintly signified the oblong shapes of windows, though only in the upper part. Below, down to the water’s edge the flat was unbroken by hole or projection.

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ Thomas Hardy.


Hardy saw himself primarily as a poet. Whilst his novels included many examples of his poetic gift, the description above seems exacting and demonstrates a preoccupation with the geometry of dark shapes. Hardy takes up a promontory that includes us, the readers, and his style appears as clipped and workmanlike as that of an architect embarking on an initial assessment of a building project.


But for all his attention to detail there is so much we don’t know about the scene;


·    Chimneys placed here and there. Where? How far apart were they? What type of chimney? A contemporary design? Were they in good shape or a state of disrepair?


·    Does the scene come from a perspective? If this is the potential view of a person standing at the location, what is the scene behind them? If they switched their point of view a degree would the optical effects that Hardy describes vanish?


·    The river is described as flat? How flat? Surely a lake has more a capacity for flatness than a river? So, was it gurgling, trickling or flowing? Surely never stagnant.


Before we have a chance to ponder these possibilities, and perhaps before we even have chance to take in the limited scope of Hardy’s description, he has Sergeant Troy throwing snowballs at one of the windows (‘Morsels of snow’), all this nature is abandoned and it is now human characteristics under the microscope. The reader continues filling in the gaps, their imagination placing a tree here, or the sound of a church bell there, fleshing out the scene.


Thomas Hardy was chosen as an example because it was his express desire to depict the County of Wessex (a fictional amalgam of various West Country counties) before industrialization changed it forever. His rural tales, sometimes criticized for sentimentalizing their characters and settings, (in the 1895 preface to Far from the Madding Crowd he described Wessex as ‘a merely realistic dream country’) were, in part, an act of preservation, and this is palpable in long, descriptive passages in which he discusses agricultural machinery or peculiarities of local dialect. ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ contains an interminable exchange between a group of cider drinking farm workers, in which the writer seems to be enjoying transcribing their speech idioms in detail.


So, if Thomas Hardy requires help from the reader to provide a specification of a scene, how much more help will a writer need who has less concern with preservation through depiction? My suggestion is that within reading lies a process. This process continues throughout the reading of a novel until the reader becomes in tune with the writer. It is a form of reciprocal reading.


So where does the process start? Educational research has gone to enormous lengths to illuminate learning processes and modern Linguistics provides a scientific rationale of language. Both disciplines have a tremendous amount to say about how our brains develop. My interest, however, is in what happens when our synapses have reached the level of maturation (one might even say sophistication), where reading a complicated, multi-faceted novel becomes an engaging experience. So, having begun at an early age with the narrative arc of a lost cat or a muddled duck, we now recognize, seemingly innately, the tricks of the writer’s trade, and our duties as a reader – the point at which we have developed a willingness to go about the busy business of reading without fuss because we have built up an apparatus that has been assembled specifically to glean all we can from a novel. This is the apparatus we are already in possession of before we start reading the novel. We refine it over the course of a lifetime, but it is always there, to greater or lesser effect. I believe, though, there is secondary process that takes place whilst we are reading a novel. The style of the writer will gradually infiltrate the apparatus of the reader. Depending on the individual writer (and to an extent the individual reader) the infiltration may be instantaneous (some styles are utterly contagious -a generation of American males spent their lives pretending to be Hemingway) or it may take place gradually over the course of the novel. For some people the contagion will continue after the novel has been completed, they may take it into their own work or it may form part of their being in a more subtle way – poetry, for example, often lives inside people in ways that are barely perceptible.


My contention is, however, that a writer needs the reciprocal skills of a reader. No writer can cover everything. They are bound by words, bound by their selection of content and perspective and, in order to fill in the gaps, the generous reciprocity of the reader is essential. This is something we do gladly if we are enjoying the book. Quid Pro Quo. I would like to explore this transaction in more detail in a later chapter.


What are the practical implications of this? The first is to acknowledge our facility for creative reading and perhaps record, in some way, our contributions, as reader, to a novel. The second might be to treat these contributions themselves as a viable ‘product’. There is an exercise I have done with 9 and 10 year olds that is based on a descriptive passage from a Mark Twain short story. It describes a man haunted by movements from upstairs. The passage is quite long so here is an excerpt;


…I heard the clanking of chains faintly, in remote passages, and listened while the clanking grew nearer – while it wearily climbed the stairways, marking each move by the loose surplus of chain that fell with accented rattle upon each succeeding step as the goblin that bore it advanced. I heard muttered sentences; half-uttered screams that seemed smothered violently; and the swish of invisible garments, the rush of invisible wings. I heard sighs and breathings about my bed, and mysterious whisperings…

From ‘A Ghost Story’ by Mark Twain.


The passage continues in this vain for what seems an eternity, but the vaguely overwritten prose style is ripe for stripping; meat and drink for a close reading. We discuss the allusions, the metaphors, the details listed about the room, the reaction of the protagonist. We place ourselves in the room; would we react differently? We re-write the odd simile, turn sentences inside out, dramatizing moments by turning objects in our room to objects in Twain’s room. We switch verbs to synonyms, change the narrative from first to third person, imagine the scene from the perspective of the ghost, replay the scene in 2014, turn the tables on the ghost by walking up behind him and shouting ‘boo!’, all the while recording our findings in our exercise book.


The Book of the Book

We must work on the assumption that the writer has created as complete a novel as they are capable of at the point of printing, and that the drafting and redrafting is finished and the structure of the book fits its content with a happy, if not exquisite knack. The novel you are reading subsists in its own right and the fact that you hold it in your hand is testament to its existence. It has been created for the express purpose of you, and people like you, to read it.


So where does that leave our mental marginalia? Much of it deserves to be forgotten; (‘I must call David.’ ‘I’ll just finish this chapter and then sleep.’ ‘That’s a great comeback line – I’ll use that one!’), but it is possible to create a receptacle for the rest. In response to Biblical reading some Catholics compile a Lectio Journal and actors are known to fill notebooks with details from a Play, both seen and unseen, in preparation for a rehearsal and a run.


Book reviews and student crib sheets like the York Notes series borrow heavily from the object of their examination, elucidating, criticizing or even going so far as organizing the material of another writer. In his book about the Andrei Tarkovsky film ‘Stalker’, ‘Zona – a book about a film about a journey to a room’, Geoff Dyer struggles with a definition of the book he is in the process of writing. He simply doesn’t know how to categorize it, convinced his book is more than a synopsis but falls short of being a commentary;


In my defence I would say that ‘Stalker’ is a film that can be summarized in about two sentences. So if a summary means reducing to a synopsis, then this is the opposite of a summary; it’s amplification and expansion…the exercise is, or course, its own purpose, an end in itself. Whether it will amount to anything – whether it will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might become a work of art in its own right – is still unclear.


Dyer’s book acknowledges that description is interpretation and whilst pursuing the chronology of the Tarkovsky film he offers us many, many asides. The footnotes in the book are epic, his asterisk announced comments take up the bottom of many successive pages.[2] The effect is similar to that of being taken on a bus trip through the hometown of a garrulous and kindly friend who illuminates certain landmarks by telling you what they mean to him. However, instead of travelling, you are accompanying the writer in ‘a read’ of another author’s work. (In this case the second author is a film-maker, but you take my point. To add to the confusion, one of the characters in the film is called Writer.)


In one passage Dyer pauses to compare the depiction of the Zone in the film to his childhood memory of an abandoned railway station in Cheltenham. This is an entirely subjective analogy, but an example of the type of personal association which must be replicated across the arts. How many momentary and entirely individual approximations do we make when viewing a painting, listening to music or watching a film? Figure 1 was one such example, mined from within the contours of my own brain. One Saturday morning, fairly early (there was no one about) I was walking down a path by the railway tracks in Lewisham when the passageway in front of me called to mind the reproduction of the Monet painting ‘The Sheltered Path’. I knew the painting, primarily, from the front cover of the Penguin edition of Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’. Aware that this kind of simulacrum happened fairly regularly, I had my phone’s camera at the ready. The picture, of course, cannot capture the mixture of elements that made the analogy real – the odd descriptions of the Guermantes Way that young Marcel had described so well, the smell of the early morning dew on the leaves that brought nineteenth century France to Lewisham. All lived within me for a brief but sensual second, and killed at the point of capture, the outline of a vague similarity all that remains in a photograph.


If I recall the morning that my university lecturer told me that ‘The Woman in White’ was about group sex I would now counter; that was her personal response, as real for her as the industrial wastelands of the Zone were for Geoff Dyer. If we accept that these responses are amplifications (and even the most self-effacing university lecturer would admit to no less) then the practical benefit of subjective assertions about a novel are contingent on the quality of the speaker, and perhaps renowned lecturers like W.S.Leavis or C.P Snow[3] might have pulled off that special quality in education; touch and teach. But they are few in number, and regardless, all that really matters is that the amplification is personal.


Of course there are many who are as willing to develop a hierarchy of insight into literature as they are to establish a hierarchy within literature itself. Shakespeare sits impregnable atop of drama, but outgoing National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner feels commentary on Shakespeare could be more egalitarian;


Simon Russell Beale is fond of describing acting as three-dimensional literary criticism. And in my personal experience, the most mind-expanding insights into Shakespeare have come from actors in the rehearsal room.


There is logic in this as regards to drama. A Play is not regarded as being ‘finished’ by some Playwrights until it has completed its opening night. A script, like sheet music, needs players. This is something more openly acknowledged than is a novel’s requirements of the reciprocal skills of a reader – the reader of novels is regarded rather more like a consumer of goods, a customer, if you will.


The actors ‘process’ in getting a part ready for performance is both individual and collaborative and includes not only the period of rehearsal of the Play, but also fine tuning during the nightly run of shows as well as often sharp deviations in the energy and focus of the Play whilst it is being performed. This can often be measured by buying a ticket for both an early and late performance within the run of a Play but is possibly more tangible in, say, a 3 month repetition rather than the year long runs that often provide diminishing returns to scale. Having said that, performance after performance, month after month, does allow a character to ‘bed in’.


An actor might explore a character’s development in a notebook, as individual to themselves as lecture notes are to a student, and often as legible. The aim is to take the character off the script and bring them to life and this often involves creating details that are not mentioned by the playwright. These details need not end up being directly utilized in the production, but they give the player a sense of the depths of their character. A whole history can be created; actors quiz each other about moments from a character’s back story. The part can be broken down into single code words that hold significance for the actor.



Animal: Magpie

Element: Gravel

She is; watchful, wary, alert, manipulative, covetous, and implacable.

Note: everyone is playing a game.




Various personal positions in relation to the other characters are solidified;



What I say about myself

Sometimes I walk to the sea, there aren’t many people, and it’s a long beach.

What I say about others

She is dark, she was a thief

What others say about me

She used to queue all night for the ballet – a charming companion, delightful to live with.


The actor in rehearsal or performance can experiment with their character; dropping the intonation at the end of a line may provoke a different emotional reaction in the other actors with whom he or she shares the stage. It is hardly worth mentioning that different actors treat the same work with a different emphasis; so, David Tennant’s was a sardonic Hamlet, Jamie Ballard was disturbed and Angela Winkler’s Hamlet, was not least feminine but also candid. Only nominally were these the same plays – they contained the standard words but they were very much different pieces. The same is true, by extension, of a reading of a novel; the reader bringing their sensibilities to bear and the writer provoking certain interpretations, but always collaborating. Perhaps it is also true that male and female readerships emphasize different characteristics.


A second book, on top of the first one (or indeed under it or beside it) would act as a repository for the displaced material of the first book. Would that we could all collate our personal responses in a book – the book of the book. It would make an excellent end-product to a short course, the non-academic version of a dissertation.


A second book might be the most appropriate container for superfluous literary material but there are more interesting ancillary models.


Spatial Index Grids

Modern received wisdom is that within every good novel is the potential for a great film. This is something that is taken as a given both artistically and commercially: if there is an audience for one it follows there must be an audience for the other. These possibilities often filter down to the reader in the act of reading; I can’t be the only person who maps out a possible feature film in the contours of the book I’m reading, casting well-known actors and hunting for locations amongst places I once visited. On the other hand I have never once sat in a cinema and felt the impulse to mentally translate the action in front of me into a densely plotted novel. It is something in the nature of reading that one’s thoughts drift and by comparison with the narrow focus that a film requires, a good novel offers an engagement that is perhaps more authorial on the part of the reader. At the very least the he or she can control the time period in which the plot or characters unfold, the narrative arc is dropped and picked up again whenever the reader feels like it.


This act of translation or perhaps transliteration is also evident in non-fiction. The contents page provides a super-structure, perhaps indicating natural resting places for the reader and the indexing system at the back of the book provides an alphabetical arrangement of the contents by subject title. So, for example, it is possible to see in an autobiography the rate of impact made by a cast of characters on the subject.[4] The novel is not thought to require an alphabetical index, perhaps because it is designed to be read from start to finish, and its pages are never traditionally viewed as success stories in their own right. However, applying standard indexing practices to a great novel might perhaps result in entries like the following for Anna Karenina;

Vronsky, Count Alexei Kirillovich, jealousy, p107,345-347


For those wanting a greater engagement with a novel beyond a mere reading of it, (and I am prepared to believe this is a small but significant clique!) there are perhaps ways to locate and tessellate the essence of a novel, or rather its very own novel-ness rather than its novelty. Of course the beauty of the novel lies in its completed state and the unwritten contract between writer and reader is one in which the structural integrity is seldom breached. (There are exceptions to this, several famous examples of explicit and ironic authorial voice.) I remain convinced that some novels come alive through the occasional abstract reading, or even that some readers can be revitalized by dipping into the works of certain writers. In his book review of his own autobiography, Vladimir Nabokov, appraising himself, writes; ‘The real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to; ‘windows giving upon a contiguous world… a rolling corollary, a shadow of a train of thought.” Would it be vulgar to reduce Nabokov’s works to their unrefined form? To distill their essence?


Our units of aggregation could very well include metaphors and similes or perhaps a character’s inner monologue. It could log sensual descriptions of sound, light or colour, or baldly, the physical descriptions of characters at various junctures. These fields could then be more easily placed in relation to each other – a grid-like arrangement which would act as an alternative to the super-structure of the novel. In a way this is what every Literature student started doing at GCSE level, arranging the themes in ‘Of Mice and Men’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ into neatly colour-coded tables. To an extent this mirrors the architecture of the construction of the novel, but a full grid might prove useful in uncovering patterns unbeknown even to the author. The novel is displaced into the grid as a precursor to… well, anything; analysis, mapping, presentation. There is a danger that this sort of deconstruction meets, full circle, the deracination I found so unhappy in Literary Theory so, importantly, this indexing is only useful if it allows the reader to breathe life into the spaces between the units. I would personally not be interested in arranging the innards of the animal into an attractive pattern and displaying it on the wall with the rest of the hunting trophies! Indexing is just another tool in the toolbox.

Figure 3 demonstrates an example tessellation. The units are taken from ‘Snowdrops’, a Booker Prize nominated novel by A.D.Miller, a novel which, to borrow the macho-existentialist style of the writer, promises more than it delivers.

[1] University courses make no references to the transformative powers of literature, never mind certain health benefits!

[2] One starts; ‘As I child I loved quicksand…’

[3] Leavis’s almost spiritual approach to literature was moral in character, a refusal to separate art and life.

[4] In Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries 1939-60, W.H. Auden has 48 entries in the index, including ‘character’ and ‘smoking’; Don Bachardy, who replaced Auden in Isherwood’s affections earns 115 including ‘Haemerroids’ and ‘outbursts and resentfulness’

Figure 1 is the title image of this website.

Figure 2 is a sample page of actors’ notes

Figure 3 is the sample grid index. It is not possible to reproduce this with current website software.

* The final tool in the toolbox is ‘Writing Prompts’. Essentially this is what ‘Apocryphile’ deals with.