Holiday for God

I lived in Cuba from 2000 to 2002, and have visited maybe twenty times since then, sometimes spending three or four months of the year there. I lived most of the time with Yamilia; José was a constant friend, as was his girlfriend Celia. Tony was a business partner; he later became more than that, when I ran out of money, but that is another story. Manolo was a translator, Tony’s acquaintance.

Manolo spoke the best English.  He was word perfect, never slipped up, read books in English, could talk about anything.  I didn’t like him much.  He was bitchy and often depressed, unique in Cuba, and he looked down on people.  He was scornful of Yamilia, the ‘she devil’ and considered her stupid.  Lots of people felt the same way.  They thought she was wasting the opportunities she had by being with me. 

‘Why doesn’t she study something?’

‘Why doesn’t she learn to drive?’

‘Your woman is not clever, she wastes everything.’ 

I disagreed, particularly about the driving.  If Yamilia ever got a license no one was safe.  José had good English.  He was educated, could approach the tourists and communicate.  But, in my time in Cuba, I didn’t notice his English improve.  He often mumbled, repeated the same mistakes.  Tony spoke no English.  Celia spoke well, but never in company.  I had good conversations with her, one to one, but in company she always deferred, she observed rather that took part in life.  That was fine, he didn’t need it.  He was top of his tree.  Why should he learn English?  I couldn’t learn Spanish; I could make myself understood, but with so many English speakers around me, I just didn’t progress beyond a pidgin style, although I did understand more than they thought.

Then there was Yamilia.  Everybody, including Yamilia, considered her English poor, basic pidgin, that’s all.  She’d lived in France for a year, spoke some French and often mixed it up together with her Spanish and English.  She wasn’t sneaky.  Some people thought she understood much more than she let on.  She didn’t.  She did have an uncanny ability to pluck complete English sentences out of the air, though.  Often expressing sly humour, big ideas, home spun wisdom or insults.  Whenever she did speak English she pronounced the words clearly, spoke very well when she strung whole sentences together.  She naturally possessed an imperious, melodic, often mocking tone, and this added to the effect.

 

Once at Tony’s house, Tony, Manolo, Jose and I had been drinking, talking politics and generally putting the world to rights.  Yamilia had no interest.  She would listen to music, do her nails, hair or just fall asleep on the sofa.  On this occasion she swanned past us on her way to the kitchen singing, at the top of her voice:

‘We are the world, we are the people,’

She sang in such mocking tones that I stopped and watched her.  She gave me a sly smile.  She would have been around ten years old when a bunch of American multi-millionaire egomaniacs got together and made that record, so as not to be outdone by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid extravaganza.  All the sugary, sentimental, self-righteous hypocrisy of that record came across in her mocking tones.  It was the perfect put down of our self-important conversation, and she just plucked it out of the air.  How?  I thought she possessed a natural wisdom and the courage and sense of fun to puncture pomposity wherever she sensed it.  Cubans wouldn’t notice; it was too subtle.  I’m sure it was unconscious on her part.  I sometimes thought Manolo picked up on it, but he was far too against her to give her any credit.  I never even tried to talk about it to her.  She would have had no idea what I was talking about.  It was just there, sometimes, and it amazed me. 

 

During the longest day we were sitting in Cathedral Square, my favourite place at the time. Very touristy but beautiful and peaceful, no matter what the time of day, no matter if there was music playing, tables full of tourists or just quiet, mostly in the lull between the afternoon trade and the evening pick up when everyone began thinking differently. We would spend hours, sometimes all day there, watching the world go by.  I was in philosophical mood, thinking about the longest day in Cuba, the tropics; not as long as the longest English day, but the longest all the same.  The summer solstice, the day the sun is said to pause.  I liked the idea, something typically Cuban about it, as though the universe paused, took a day off work.  I said as much to Yamilia, explained the summer solstice to her.

            ‘How can the longest day be a holiday for God?’ she said.

She pointed to her head,

 ‘You have problem here.’

 

Exasperated, she turned away and went back to watching the tourists. I hadn’t mentioned God, or holidays.

 

YamiliaPicI thought of this story recently. Yamilia is gone. Permanently? I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for four years, although I am in fairly regular contact. She’s in Ecuador. I’m not sure why. And I’m with someone else, Yuri, as different from Yamilia as it’s possible to be. I will be in Cuba for the whole of August. I remember the days with Yamilia with affection but they are in the past; I am sure I will see her again but the three years we were together are a memory now: unforgettable, amazing but gone. During the month I spend in Havana I will write the second part of the memoir started in 1999. It will include Yamilia and bring the story up to, perhaps, 2010. Although I can never repeat the times of 1999 to 2002 (I not sure I’d want to), the next chapter awaits.

………..

Chris is the author of Caliente, a memoir of escape, love and trouble. Lots of trouble.

‘Yamilia waits in Havana. She is astonishingly beautiful and of volatile temperament. Her enemies, and even some of her friends, think she is unstable, even dangerous. José, Hilton’s closest friend in Havana, agrees, ‘She is a bad woman. Do not stay with her,’ he pleads. Hilton disagrees; he’s in love, he doesn’t see her that way – Yamilia is natural, honest, a force of nature. Like a hurricane. He will create a new life with her in Cuba. What could possibly go wrong?’

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“There are 150 books which contain everything that literature has to offer”

In the film Before Night Falls, about the life of poet Reinaldo Arenas, his poor background and persecution at the hands of security police in Cuba, there is a scene where he visits the library of a wealthy Cuban writer, José Lezama Lima.

Arenas has just come second in a national competition; according to the film he should have won. Limas says to him:

‘People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty, and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counter-revolutionary and so you are counter-revolutionary, Reinaldo Arenas, and do you know why? Because there is a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So, here we are: 400 years of Cuban culture about to become extinct, and everybody applauds.’

‘There are 150 books that contain everything that literature has to offer. Read them and you don’t have to read anything else.’

‘So what will be the first?’

‘The Bible. You have to read the Bible. Just read it like a novel. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you five books. Correction, I’m going to lend you five books. You return them and I’ll give you five more.’

The five books chosen by Lima are Sentimental Education, Flaubert; Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, I have read the Bible, not much, but some and I liked it. But I am not able to judge it either way and am happy to take the word of those who have read it and decided that it is great literature.

Sentimental Education is said to be best novel of the nineteenth century. I’ve read it twice, find it acceptable, but without its reputation I don’t think I would bother with it. There is too much that lacks interest; everybody is too concerned with financial dealings; I couldn’t (even after two readings) keep track of everybody; a revolution was going on while the second half of the main story played out, but I remained as unaffected by it as the author. I know Flaubert was obsessed with finding the mot juste – the perfect word; that he was one of the first authors to ‘show don’t tell’. He once said

‘Around man all is shadow, all is emptiness. The moment I don’t have a book on hand or dream of writing one I could howl with frustration. Life is tolerable to me only if one can conjure it away.’

I didn’t care about Frédéric, about Madame Arnoux or Sénécal; his novel had no effect on me.

Remembrance of Things Past, I’m trying to like, people keep saying you must read this but I don’t like it. I don’t want to go too deeply into why I don’t like these books; perhaps it’s because I see them as anti-life – especially Kafka – just to say here that I do not like them. I have tried three times to get into Proust (I will probably re-try the other authors, but Kafka has probably defeated me). I was just thoroughly bored.

Metamorphosis is difficult. I find all of Kafka unreadable (apart from his letters to his girlfriend). I can barely read one sentence of him. I’ve attempted to read other stuff. I’ve tried The Trial; I appreciate the sentiment, one man caught up in a swirl of bureaucracy, but I can’t read it. I’ve even tried the graphic novel. Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t like Kafka.

I read Moby Dick when I was still at school, then recently tried again. I enjoyed parts of it but they were few and far between. As Clive James said,

‘Melville’s ocean clung like tar. It’s one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading.’

But the filmmakers chose those five. After seeing the film (which is great), I tried to read Lima’s Paradiso. It was the only novel he wrote (he was a poet) and I can see why. Arenas too, was a poet, but he wrote some fiction too, all of which I find unreadable. This is not to say that I am right and the writers or their critics are wrong. It is a matter of opinion.

Treasure Island I’ve only read once (and fairly recently). I liked it, maybe because it was meant to be a children’s story or a tale to be taken at face value, perhaps because it’s a

‘tale [that] sprang, effortlessly, from his pen at the rate of a chapter every morning.’

Perhaps I liked Jim’s sneaky heroics, Long John Silver’s survival instincts or Dr Livesey’s steady, cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t matter why I liked it or why I disliked the others.

They could have chosen five different books for the film, for example, The Wings of the Dove, Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Great Gatsby, to name just five; there are many more I could have chosen. I won’t name them here because I’m sure you have your own choices. I’d like to hear what they are. And Lima chose 150 books; he chose five at random. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that three of the five are my least favourite books, a fourth very close and only the fifth rescued the scene (in my eyes).

There is something life-denying about four of the books, excepting Treasure Island (and the Bible of course). Perhaps it’s an attitude to life; an attitude that life isn’t worth living. I would like to add other authors to the list. My list is very conservative; I wanted to make sure that my writers were literary greats: I think James, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy and Fitzgerald are greats in anyone’s language.

Perhaps story should be king, as it is (I think) with the five writers I have mentioned. Perhaps I am too stupid to ‘getKafka, Melville, Proust and Flaubert. I don’t know. But the scene in the film stayed with me; it’s now seven years since I saw it and I return to it every two years or so.

What do you think?

Who’s Your Muse?

the_MusesIn my last blog, Write or Type, I quoted John Steinbeck, who always wrote longhand, discussing his pencils, where, almost incidentally, he said that

“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”

That ‘kind of unconsciousness’ has mystified artists for thousands of years; even the Greeks, where muses originated, could not agree on what muses are. Many writers acknowledge a debt to muses, the mysterious source of inspiration; muses are an attractive idea (to men anyway), beautiful goddesses bestowing wisdom on mere mortals at their whim, possessing all the world’s secrets but giving only small snippets to those who wish to tell truthful stories of human existence.

Do you need inspiration to work, or at least produce work that satisfies you? Or do you believe that everything is about technique, planning and hard work, that the muses are just a pleasant fantasy, adding mystery to what is a job like any other, that can be learned and mastered?

Not all writers have faith in the muse. Flaubert distrusted them. William Golding thought the idea of inspiration ridiculous. On being asked about DH Lawrence’s statement

“Never trust the artist, trust the tale”

he replied

“Oh, that’s absolute nonsense. The man who tells the tale, if he has a tale worth telling will know exactly what he is about, and this business of the artist as a sort of starry-eyed, inspired creature, dancing along with his feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prints he’s leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth.”

While I agree with much of what Golding says – the successful ‘starry eyed’ artist is rare – he does ignore the fact that the man who knows ‘exactly what he is about’ can still receive help from a source he does not know ‘exactly’, help from the unconscious, from the muse. Was Golding a writer who used his intelligence and ability only, always aware of exactly what he was doing, planning meticulously and never changing direction due to flashes of inspiration? Are writers divided between those who believe that they are sole creators and those who admit to outside help?

Gerard Manley Hopkins thought inspiration

“a great, abnormal mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive.”

I haven’t found much on what women think about muses, if they think in those terms at all, although Anais Nin believed that

“this dangerous alchemy called creation, or fiction, has become as dangerous for me as the machine.”

I’ll try to discover what women think about this subject (I’m sure the information is available), but would also like to hear from women writers about their belief, or lack of it, in muses and inspiration.

I do believe that good writing is the result of hard work, but also that during that hard work, inspiration can take over, providing mysterious insight, its origins not fully understood. It can change the direction of stories, give characters a life of their own, produce tales that were not consciously planned. I do like to think of the muse as female (mostly) but my sources of inspiration can vary according to mood, a bit like belief in an unidentifiable God – something is always there, you have faith in it, but you don’t know what it is.

The nine Greek muses were female: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Clio (History), Erato (Love Poetry), Euterpe (Music), Melpomene (Tragedy), Polyhymnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance) Thalia (Comedy), and Urania (Astronomy). calliopeThere was no muse for novelists at that time due to them not existing, so I suppose Calliope represented the muse that would most likely provide inspiration for writers today. Calliope was a superior muse. She kept the company of kings and princes in order to impose justice and serenity, was the protector of heroic poems and rhetoric art. According to myth, Homer asked Calliope to inspire him while writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Stephen King has both experience and success. He possesses a fantastic imagination, and the ability to translate it into wonderful stories that appeal to millions of readers.  Although he is not a starry-eyed dreamer, far from it, he nevertheless gives credit to outside assistance. While his muse may not have the allure of scantily clad Greek beauties or Calliope’s obvious brilliance, there is no doubting King’s belief in its existence

“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well. There is a muse. Traditionally, muses were women, but mine’s a guy. He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

King typically stresses the relationship between hard work and the support of his muse. The fact that hard work is essential is stressed repeatedly in King’s excellent On Writing. Another straight talker, Steven Pressman, also puts it succinctly

“Sometimes we baulk at embarking on an enterprise because we are afraid of being alone. We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.”

Pressman quoted Somerset Maugham

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Maugham, said Pressman, recognised a deeper truth

“that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting his work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronised her watch with his.”

Pressman adds

“The muse favours working stiffs. She hates prima donnas.”

John Lennon, while not identifying his help, or recommending hard work, said

“So I’m lying around and this thing comes as a whole piece, you know, words and music, and I think well, you know, can I say I wrote it? I don’t know who the hell wrote it.”

The comedian John Cleese, on being asked where he got his ideas, said

“A little man in Swindon gives them to me, but I don’t know where he gets them from.”

Despite writers’ strange and diverse beliefs: Cleese’s little man in Swindon, King’s cigar smoking slob or Anais Nin’sdangerous’ alchemy – one thing is certain – whomever or whatever your muse is, they will not come and they won’t help until you have put in the work. They will sit idly by, holding back your secrets, your tales yet to be told, secure in their ability to pluck wisdom, genius or just a good story out of the air and, when you have worked and suffered and you’re close to giving up, they might, just might, if they like what you’re doing, give you a little help.

Who’s your muse?

 

 

Note:

If you choose only two books to help you to write, not only to write, but perhaps more importantly to develop a system of work that, providing you have sufficient talent, will give you a fair chance of success, then I recommend Steven King’s On Writing and Steven Pressman’s The War Of Art. Both books give brutally honest advice and I strongly recommend them to any aspiring writer.