23 February 2013
I am reading too many books at the same time. Midge Gillies The Barbed Wire University, Maria Serena Balestracci’s The Arandora Star (only started this) and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They all, rather depressingly, deal with man’s inhumanity to man, and almost exclusively the ‘man’ dealing the inhumanity equals men. The receivers can be either men or women. The first two are non-fiction and everything within them is well-researched and as true as the author’s can make it. Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller is fiction, but there is no doubt that the gross crimes he depicts happen, though probably in a less sensational manner.
As a human I am weary of the failure over historical time to reduce, never mind eliminate, the appalling things people do to each other. I also, admire the constant thread of of decent, courageous men and women whose lives and actions throughout these stories.
As a writer I am fascinated.
The Gillies book, is rather solid, scholastic reading. All the mundane detail of how men tried to survive prison life in Europe and the Far East in WWII are gathered together and laid out with methodical and humane clarity. This is not always exciting, but it is psychologically telling. We have voracious brains, we cannot cope with doing nothing (see Daniel Bor’s The Ravenous Brain). Except when reduced to dying skeletons, men and women compulsively seek to feed their brains by some means or other. Even the dying skeletons appreciated being read to as they lay rotting on bug-ridden bamboo slats in unimaginable heat and pain.
I am curious that music played such an important part in men’s survival (see Daniel Levitin’s Your Brain on Music). In every forces prison camp (Gillies book does not deal with the Concentration Camps) in WWII in both Europe and the Far East men cobbled together musical instruments and sang, even in the worst of times. Both Guards and men listened to music.
The Larsson book has a lot of lessons for a writer. The dry journalistic style makes every word sound so true. The content is also often mundane e.g. all the contents of a bookshelf methodically listed, but the hanging threads of the stories and the sensationalistic content of some of the protagonists’s behaviour, make it a heart-beating, un-put-downable read. It is also an emphatically male style of writing. The good guys (and girls) have sex on tap without any strings attached, mostly initiated by the women. The girl with the dragon tattoo has skills beyond any normal human – she can masquerade as anyone, with any accent, obtain any document, or crack any computer. I don’t quite buy her, but all is fair in fiction.
My own writing, in contrast, comes across as mild and optimistic. I abhor cruelty and violence and detest aggressive people. I don’t really enjoy reading books which cause my heart to beat at double speed, or make me feel sick. I think the mostly decent people I write about exist and are as real as the people in Gillies or Larsson’s book. I think there is immense courage needed in, say, caring long-term for a sick person or living with a mental illness. I think making music or art that makes individuals feels better about life is as worthwhile as, say, chasing and catching criminals.