Book Review: Reading words about writers

By David Hill

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Ted And I
by Gerald Hughes

(Robson Press $39.99)

How To Read a Novelist
by John Freeman

(Text Publishing $37

If its subject were less illustrious, this memoir would probably receive little attention. I don't mean to denigrate it; it's modest, clear, affectionate. But it's not the style or structure that distinguish it; it's the subject. Gerald Hughes' decade-younger brother was Ted Hughes: laureate and perhaps the greatest nature poet of the past 100 years.

Ted Hughes led an eminent public life and an agonised private one. Not only did his first wife, Sylvia Plath, commit suicide, but his subsequent lover, Assia Wevill, aborted their child, then killed herself in the same manner as Plath, taking her little girl, who was probably also Hughes', with her.

Gerald has little to say about such appalling events. He aims to "remember more stories about us", especially stories of the eager, precocious small brother during a childhood when "life proceeded at a pleasant pace".

So we hear how Ted was born as a bright star shone through the bedroom window. We see him trotting along behind his big brother, "very nimble and quite silent, pretending to be a Red Indian hunter, observing everything". We hear how Mam was the prettiest girl in the clothing factory; how Dad played centre-half for the football team.

The brothers went camping. Gerald, who must have been a superb elder sibling, taught Ted shooting and fishing, showed him the corners and creatures that were to underpin those poems standing like rocks on skylines.

That's the first one-third of the book. Gerald then joins the RAF for World War II and subsequently emigrates to Australia, where he's lived ever since. He came back to Britain when he could and Ted visited Australia. But their contact was inevitably intermittent.
Gerald admired, even if you suspect he didn't always fully understand, his younger brother's literary achievements. He rejoiced in his happy second marriage. He never met Plath.

So what does he offer that's new or significant? Some previously unpublished photos of Ted and Sylvia that show what a glorious young couple they were: he dark and brooding; she luminous and precarious. A few new letters from both, including poignantly joyful ones from Sylvia. A short list matching poems with places.

It's in no way a literary analysis. It never claims to be. It's conventional, not very selective, not very adventurous. It seldom gives you any sense of the dark force of Ted's writing.

But it's a narrative full of love and respect from a now-90-year-old who's lived his own good, admirable life. Future critics and biographers may well mine it. Present readers will
recognise its unpretentious honesty.

It's always tempting to read about authors. It lets you postpone reading the authors themselves, but still allows you to hold forth in the Saloon Bar on how Nadine Gordimer, of course, prefers not to discuss her political activism ... Amitav Ghosh, of course, likes to describe attempts to bridge cultures ... Norman Mailer, of course, believes the world is run by God, man and the devil.

You can hold forth on all this and more after reading these mini-essays/interviews on 55 living literary luminaries.

No New Zealanders. No Australians, though Peter Carey and Geraldine Brooks once belonged there. A lot from Asia and both sides of the Atlantic. Some I've never read. Some (cringe, cringe) I've never heard of.

Each piece covers the usual prospects: beginnings, current work, Where You Get Your Ideas From. The interviews on which they're based span nearly a decade, so a few will have changed by now. We hear about trade tricks. Philip Roth submits early drafts to a circle of readers; Louise Erdrich keeps a huge timeline of events for her North Dakota narratives; Alan Hollinghurst recommends not being evasive when writing about sex.

Discoveries? Charles Frazier's modest, moving stories of the American South; My Yan's strong Chinese women.

Revelations? Vikram Chandra on how Bollywood movies cosy up to organised crime; Haruki Murakami on intellectuals and best-sellers; Joyce Carol Oates' six titles in one year.

Freeman summarises his subjects ably and often exuberantly.

On Edmund White: "What exactly does one ask a man who has admitted to lacing up his mother's corsets and picking her blackheads?" (You should know that one of Freeman's own early literary projects was abridging Tarzan Of The Apes for a children's publisher.)

He makes commendable attempts to broaden the range. Crime suprema Donna Leon is here, enthusing about opera. So is neurologist Oliver Sacks, writing astonishingly on people who can't get music out of their heads. Dinky little pen-portraits by W.H. Chong preface each piece. Tom Wolfe is Oscar Wilde in a trilby; Kazuo Ishiguro is the coolest Ninja ever; Kiran Desai is drop-dead gorgeous.

Do we need a whole book of these chats? Well, the result is wide rather than searching. By the time you read No 41 (Richard Powers), you've forgotten most of Nos 31 and 21 (John Updike and Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

But you get a stimulating reading list, plus an equally stimulating motif of books and the writing of books as liberation, subversion, challenge. The author as freedom-fighter: I'll buy that.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

- NZ Herald

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