[Overheard in a secondhand bookshop.]

— I must say, I have a bone to pick.
— Oh yes? What’s that?
— Well, you see, I’m looking for your John Le Carré titles and you don’t seem to have a single work! I must say I’m very surprised. Very surprised.
— I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t had any luck finding him. Did you try our general fiction?
— Yes, I did. I tried the general fiction. Nothing.
— And I’m guessing you were looking in our thrillers section?
— I was, I was. He is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. Didn’t you know that? I’m surprised that you don’t have his work on display. Front and centre!
— Yes, well, I’m afraid that when a writer is popular we don’t tend to get many sellers approaching us with their books. They hold on to them. Sometimes they reread them, sometimes they think they are more valuable than they are. We tend to get offers when the author is no longer in the spotlight, strange as it might sound.
— I suppose I could wander into a general bookshop, but I’m poor, you understand. Don’t you have a spy section? An area for spy stories and the like? It’s a very popular genre, you know.
— I’m afraid we don’t have a spy section here.
— Well, that’s an oversight if you ask me. It really is a very popular genre.
— Have you tried looking for Le Carré in the crime section? Perhaps he’s incognito.
— No, I hadn’t thought of that. Let me go and see.

I alight at Waterloo Station and head towards the autumn morning light. Commuters and workmen stand at the entrance, wreathed in smoke. Cranes overhead, still as sculpture. I wait for the colour green at a pedestrian crossing and pass under a railway bridge. Near the South Bank, I see vendors setting up their stalls for the day ahead. It is cold and bright. I ascend a flight of stone steps and encounter a bust of Nelson Mandela outside the Royal Festival Hall. The bronze likeness is set on top of a granite plinth, and bears the inscription “My Struggle Is My Life”. The artist, a political campaigner named Ian Walters, offered the work to the Greater London Council in 1984. It was unveiled in October 1985, and publicly disregarded by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons. When the original was destroyed by fire in an act of racism, a copy was created and unveiled in August 1988. At this time, Nelson Mandela was still serving a life imprisonment sentence for his resistance to South African apartheid, and would not be released until February 1990. I first came to know Nelson Mandela’s name in June 1998, when my grandparents went to see him during his visit to Cardiff; they waited for him outside the Park Hotel on the sixteenth of that month, where he shook their hand and exchanged greetings. My grandmother and grandfather always remembered their encounter fondly, and for years afterwards there was a dogeared copy of his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom, on their living room bookshelf. It is quiet where I stand, and after a few moments looking at the sculpture I walk on.

Today my wife, Jenn, and I moved out of the office we have shared for the last year, and left our jobs at Cardiff University. I first came to Cardiff University in 2003, and have been there as a student or employee ever since (with the exception of a one-year interruption of studies). Jenn first came to Cardiff University in 2004. We met in the Arts and Social Studies Library in 2008, and married a few years later. We have had many happy years studying and teaching at Cardiff, and are excited to see what comes next. We feel grateful for the friends, colleagues, and students who made our time at Cardiff so enjoyable.

Woke early this morning but did not get up straight away. Lay in bed for some time and watched the light move gradually across the wall. A beautiful day. After a light breakfast, Jennifer and I went cycling around Cardiff Bay barrage. We found a bench overlooking the water and talked for awhile. Bright blue cloudless sky.

On returning, I settled down to read a few articles and blog postings. One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

— Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven

Blue sky. The air is calm and cool. Early signs of autumn. Went cycling along the Cardiff Bay barrage and feel better for the effort. Just thirty minutes of exercise resonates for the entire day. After breakfast Jennifer and I headed to our shared office at Cardiff University; we have just over a week remaining on our contracts, so are gradually moving our few belongings back to our apartment. Since we do not own a car, we do it in piecemeal fashion, a few objects at a time.

Currently reading

William Faulkner, Novels 1926-1929 (Library of America)
William Faulkner, Novels 1926-1929 (The Library of America)

On my bedside table is the first volume of the collected novels of William Faulkner, published by The Library of America. Since giving away over two thirds of my book collection, I decided that I would keep only those volumes of lasting value and durability. Since Faulkner has been of interest to me for a long time, I thought I would begin at the beginning and work my way steadily through his entire works. (I have similar plans for Flannery O’Connor, but I will write about that some other day.) One of the benefits of the LOA editions is that they are printed to last a lifetime, and each book includes several novels. I have recently begun Soldiers’ Pay, an energetic debut novel with a clear debt to Joyce, and aim to proceed through Mosquitoes (a satire of 1920s bohemia), Flags in the Dust (a novel that originally appeared in a heavily edited edition under the title Sartoris in 1929), and, wait for it, The Sound and the Fury, which crowns the first volume.

William Faulkner’s Novels 1926-1929 is available from The Library of America.

Other reading

  • Frida Kahlo‘s personal letter to Georgia O’Keeffe
  • Praising David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs‘ Naked Lunch on its 25th anniversary
  • Asymptote publishes excerpts from Walking with Robert Walser

On pursuing a vocation in art, writing, and simple living

The reasons for my decision

Back in June, I attended a cardiology appointment that had a profound impact on me. My meeting with the cardiologist was routine and I did not receive any alarming news, but I became aware of the fragility of my own body in a new way. As an infant I was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, and my life had been saved by the UK’s National Health Service and the surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I have always felt grateful for the life-saving help that I received, and could talk superficially about my condition with friends and loved ones, but now I see that I was also prone to a form of denial. Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood I placed my heart condition to one side as I tried to establish an identity for myself. My routine appointments continued from year to year, but in my conscious mind and my behaviour I aimed to suppress what they represented with denial and distraction. This year marks the first time that I am fully and consciously aware that I have a congenital heart condition. And while there is no reason why I cannot live a full and happy life, I am now awake to the fact that I nearly didn’t survive infancy.

(more…)

Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Spent this afternoon walking around Cardiff Bay barrage with Jennifer and our good friend, Laura. There’s little that beats good conversation at walking pace. I’ve spent much of this week working on an academic manuscript, so it’s refreshing to get outdoors for awhile and see the sunshine.

I have started reading Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, a memoir of the author’s life changing decision to hike America’s Pacific Crest Trial. It’s written in an accessible and compelling style which has literally made me laugh and cry within the first fifty pages. An excellent start, and I’m looking forward to reading more of it this afternoon.

The New Yorker has published a new short story by Don DeLillo, entitled “The Itch” • Geoffrey Rush plays Alberto Giacometti in British film made with close involvement of artist’s estate • Herman Melville‘s Mystery: Was Billy Budd black? • Lauren Elkin on Jeanne Moreau

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909
Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

Restlessness. I finished reading Stephen King‘s Cell last week, and have had difficulty picking up (or concentrating on) anything since. I have works by Marguerite Duras, Robert Seethaler, and a very promising biography of Vincent Van Gogh all waiting in the wings, but none have quite made it onto the bedside table.

Instead, I have been enjoying a number of shorter pieces. Among them, John Banville‘s rather glowing review of Reiner Stach‘s Kafka: The Early Years translated by Shelley Frisch (despite being the first in a three-volume series, it was published last) • The Economist has also published a review of Kafka: The Early Years • Paul Binding on Karl Ove Knausgaard • The Rise of Dystopian FictionThe 1910s-1920s artwork of William FaulknerAnd a new study suggests that immersing oneself in art, music, and nature might increase one’s life expectancy (life expectancy aside, it sounds like a good way to live as far as I’m concerned)