Thursday, 11 October 2007

Staring at the Coalface

There was a time when novels were written predominantly for those with sufficient time on their hands to read them. Tolstoy might have been an emancipator in spirit, but do you think War and Peace was read by even one of the 80% of Russians who ploughed out their existence in the serf-and-peasant-ry? Alright, maybe one. But not many. And as literacy started to climb, so more and more novels were written in instalments, in a generous acknowledgement that the idle rich were thinning out and the not-so-idle middle-classes who formed your boom market didn't have time to gobble down all eight hundred pages of Bleak House in one sitting.

When did that start to change? When did it become de rigeur to deliver your novel all neatly packaged between conclusive covers, as if we can be trusted to read responsibly and not let it interfere with our other responsibilities? There's a point, maybe a hundred or two hundred pages into a really good novel, when the world of that novel permeates the real world utterly, and the only way to resolve or collapse the resulting confusion is to get the damn thing finished. This is fine when the novel's only three or four hundred pages, you can usually knock it on the head on a Sunday, but when it's War and Peace you're saying goodbye to anything constructive being achieved for the best part of a month, assuming you're still obliged to clock in and out and can't just plant yourself on the sofa and guzzle it down like Mr Creosote. Instalments, like rationing, would keep everything under control if, like me, you can't be trusted to behave responsibly when caught in the magnetic field of a good book.

Aside: just because The West Wing was released in weekly instalments doesn't mean that I haven't lost weekends - weeks! - tearing through the DVD box sets of seasons I didn't see the first time round.

I'm currently devouring John Banville's The Sea which, though short, has the added problem of being the sort of book whose sentences you frequently want to read again. It has no chapter breaks. Putting it down is almost impossible, so giddy are the pleasures it affords. I succeed in manfully tearing myself away to do some work, write 500 words or so, then find I'm stuck in a terrain determined by Banville, attempting to write a thesis on his terms, when who knows, he may never have read any Brecht and certainly has little interest in clowns. So I've come here instead to get some of it off my chest.

The range of temptations the modern world offers to put dents in one's productivity are endless. I'm in the midst of endless games of scrabble on Facebook and have somehow also got embroiled in three games of chess, a game I've no taste for. I regularly check some twenty or so blogs on theatre and politics, not to mention actively participating in the Runner's World forum.

I've written about productivity before, and I suppose by most external measures I count as a fairly productive person. Inventory: I just had two new shows on in Edinburgh, both of which I produced as well as directed. I'm currently running projects in Oldham, Sheffield and York, alongside various one-off freelance engagements in Leeds, York and elsewhere. I'm writing two plays and a PhD thesis, I'm going to Newcastle this weekend for meetings and to see two shows and I'm moving house next weekend. Meanwhile I'm trying to get and stay fit and yet today I'm sitting around reading novels and writing a blog on the internet for the benefit of a readership the majority of whom I'll never even meet. What am I playing at?

I have a fantasy life in which, yes, I'm creatively busy and fulfilled, making work in various media as and when it takes my fancy, but in which I am perfectly able to keep up with my reading. The defining question of each day is "what do you want to do today?", not "what must be done today?" Yes, my life's ambition, as a chippy working-class boy from Teesside, is to be a gentleman of leisure.

I also notice that I've been more positively productive and taken more pleasure in my work in the last couple of weeks than for much of the past couple of years. Sure, I've done work in that period and some of that work has been good, but the pleasure of it has been drowned out by the grind. A brief look at the balance sheet quickly reveals what's been missing for the last couple of years: regular running. And the reason I feel a slowdown this week is because a knee twinge prevents me from pounding the trail of a morning. There's nothing like flushing the system with oxygen before getting on with one's work, there really isn't. The resultant rise in energy levels and productivity is astonishing. I haven't been out since Sunday, no wonder I'm languishing.

Go running, people. It's the only way to create time to read more novels.


Andrew Haydon said...

This is some sort of trick and I'm not buying it. I remember what happened last time I had to break out of a walk to catch a bus. More of that, and voluntarily and to no purpose, would result in my hacking up a lung.

danbye said...

Judging by Andrew Field's latest post, there are people who would pay to see that. Would you like to perform my adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (for solo performer and treadmill)?

punshon said...

do it andrew do it!

Lake said...

Is The Sea actually any good? I read the first few pages and thought they must be some sort of a joke. Are they? Or does it pick up?

danbye said...

Well if you've read the post you've answered you won't be surprised to learn that I rated it pretty highly. But I'll grant you that the first few pages lay it on pretty thick.

Coming up (on the list of promised posts that never seem to be delivered, just below the one about the relationship between theatre and the academy): a post about why John Banville's good because he has a talent for picking precisely the wrong word.

Davis Wateracre said...

I remember what happened last time I had to break out of a walk to catch a bus. More of that, and voluntarily and to no purpose, would result in my hacking up a lung.

You could quit smoking?

alexf said...

You could quit smoking?

That would be the cowards way out. I wanna see this lung!