Wasting one’s life

One tries to make sense of life either when one is very young or when one is very old. Being neither an adolescent nor a geriatric, I do not really qualify. But I do tend to think about Life at times, the one with the capital ‘L’. Don’t you?

Why are we called human beings, for example? Why the humble & lowly present participle? There are human has-beens, of course, which is present perfect though the individuals in question were far from ‘perfect’ even in the past. Then there are the would-be humans, that’s future conjunctive – just watch the hooligans at the next Euro football championships and you’ll know that evolution is far from complete. And what about the (gramatically) imperfect ‘used-to-be-humans’? I could name any number of polticians past & present who’d fit into that category. All in all, except in the narrow biological/anthropological sense, shouldn’t most of us be called human becomings instead of human beings?

It seems to me that just as the child grows into an adult, the human becoming has the possibility of metamorphosing into a human being – but only the possibility, not a guarantee. Most of us remain half-hatched & half-baked. God’s poultry or pottery will have to close down one of these millennia if it goes on like this.

Okay, so we know that waste is a principle of Nature. I was standing with a forester friend of mine among fifty metre tall beech trees in a grove on one of the slopes of Siebengebirge, the Seven Hills of Bonn. The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves and tiny seedlings, each with a stem and a pair of leaves. Some of those seedlings were already in the process of turning into saplings. My forester friend asked me if I knew what kind of plants they were, which I did not. Those seedlings were all children of the mighty beech trees whose smooth, elephantine trunks rose like waterspouts all around us – my friend said, cocking his hat. Each of those seedlings carried the potential of turning into a majestic arboreal monolith, given a hundred years or so. As for the rest of the seedlings, they’d go waste, or most of them. The rest would make up the beech grove of the future.

I once saw a whole bunch of apple-cheeked tiny tots spilling out of a kindergarten and thought, there goes the humankind of the future. I greet every baby in a pram as a future taxpayer and hence a future contributor to my pension fund. That baby is my future reader as well as Shakespeare’s. Without that baby or such babies Michelangelo’s David is an oblong, funnily carved piece of stone with nobody to look at it.

Waste? I’m absolutely convinced that unless there are millions of us trying to paint and failing miserably, you do not get a Monet or a van Gogh. Do we really want to know how many John Lennons and Paul McCartneys ended up as garbage collectors in the Liverpool of the ’sixties? Genius is like a human lottery, a human jackpot, with the whole of the human race as the winner. Think of the number of suckers who go empty for someone to win the lottery. And yet there wouldn’t be any lottery winners without us suckers. In every race and every competition, think of the number of losers for that one winner – and I say ‘one’ advisedly. I was the runner-up, a pretty girl told me once, while marrying a handsome friend of mine.

So have I wasted my time, worse, have I wasted my life in trying to – ahem – ‘write’? It was Bulwer-Lytton of The Last Days of Pompeii fame who coined the phrase The Great Unwashed for the lower classes. I belong to The Great Unpublished of the lower middle classes. There’s millions of us ‘writers becoming’, would-be writers, striving like those beech seedlings for their bit of space, air & sunlight.

Until Time with a capital ‘T’ relegates us to that very special limbo reserved for writers who-have-never-been.

Have we never really been? I seem to remember amateur singers pumping away at their harmonia and trying to sing Tagore songs who’d have made Tagore wish he had stuck to writing poetry. I have known poetasters whose rhymes can cause nausea as well as vomiting, though there’s no statutory warning on the back flap. I know painters I wouldn’t trust to do the bathroom door. Yet all of us are convinced that we are creative, that we are doing good work, even great work.

And then I met the Almighty and was about to congratulate Him on Creation when He said: ‘I botched it up so badly that the debris is still flying around after 14 billion years. But there’s this little planet that I made, a perfect little thing with fire inside and water outside, and a bit of green as well, with everything from ants to featherless bipeds crawling around on it – this was after somebody threw a meteor and broke all my dinosaurs. It’s still a cosy little nook compared to the mayhem that’s going on in the rest of the universe, that’s why I call it…’

‘Tell me some other time,’ I excused myself. The Almighty might have all Eternity, I didn’t.

‘Or you can read about it in my –’

‘Book?’

‘No, in my blog, I was going to say.’

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The film inside the book

Put the film inside the book: that’s my advice to all young, aspiring authors; remember that the film has long overtaken the novel as the hard disk of human memory; that the reader of today is a filmgoer first – not even a filmgoer but a filmsitter who gets it all on his/her TV/PC/laptop/tablet. Films are like the fast food, the junk food of modern culture, videos – including YouTube – representing the finger food and the street food. People are lazy as well as crazy, so you’ve got to build the film right into your novel like the skeleton within the human body. That’s what I tell my would-be authors: keep it a little visible, though – especially in the first few chapters – so that the literary agent can see it or smell it even if he’s bored or drunk.

Gone are the days when the book and the film used to be two separate entities, though related to each other, like the dowdy mother accompanying her gorgeous film actress of a daughter to the Oscar ceremony. Or heard the one about the two goats in Hollywood? (Didn’t I read it in the Mad magazine sometime at around Woodstock?) One of them is chewing a reel of film. ‘Taste good?’ asks the second goat. ‘The book was better,’ bleats the first goat between cudfuls.

Whereas these days every book is pregnant with the film; publishers don’t buy books unless they’re pregnant – the book, I mean, not the publisher. ‘I’m with film,’ the book says tearfully to its future publisher in a suitably romantic-dramatic-sentimental scene. The publisher finds that sexy because he can cash in on the deal and chalk up extra sales by merchandising ‘the book to the film’.

And then we come to the reader or readers – again, not just the fellows employed by publishers to read/reject tediously long manuscripts – we mean the ordinary reader, a rare and extraordinary creature in his own right. The modern reader is so used to films that it has begun to affect the way he or she reads a book – and when I say a book, I mean a novel. The projector starts whirring inside the reader’s head by the time he – who is mostly a she – has reached the second para. It’s as if he, well, she is wearing virtual reality goggles – more like blinders, as on horses, for me – and watching the film ‘embedded’ – what a word! – inside the book.

Originally the film had very little to do with the book. Go back to the silent film and you’ll see that films descend from the circus and clowning as well as from magic, burlesque, vaudeville and slapstick. To this day, the first characteristic of a film is that you don’t need to be literate – neither the producer, nor the director, nor the actors and certainly not the audience. Books used to be about as far a cry from films as Lady Chatterley from her working class lover.

Until democratisation set in; modern mass culture, entertainment culture – entertainture! – set in. Now the selling point of any product – from hair remover to presidential candidate – is that it sells. And films sell better than books. So why do we need books at all? Because of the story, stupid, as Bill Clinton would have put it, or haven’t you been reading your Robert McKee? The story, that’s the pearl within the shell. The story, that’s the mother of every star, brought out and paraded on Oscar, Emmys, Grammys and what-have-you, hugged and kissed on the public stage and then back to the cellar or to the attic with you until the next photo op, possibly next year. Did that tiny woman really give birth to such a beauty or such a bitch? What’s the mother called, by the way? She’s called the book. She’s the mother of The Film. Just a surrogate mother, you’d think, the way they treat her.

So be it. You’re the author, you’re the husband of that poor woman called the book. You’ve loved her and courted her and spent all your lonesome hours with her over the years. Now the two of you will be sitting in the third row holding hands while this celebrity child of yours – The Film – goes up on the dais wearing a transparent, cutaway dress which would have made Hans Christian Andersen write the Empress’s New Clothes as well – whereas you, the author, and you, the book, the proud parents in their borrowed tux and the borrowed gown – sorry, this is getting much too filmsy for me.

So this is what I have say to my aspiring author and his book: sell the ruddy child (by which we mean the film rights) – put it up for adoption (by which we mean adaptation) – get the lucre and go and live in the Bahamas or as far away from Hollywood as you can. Good luck and good night.

The blog & the book

The first thing they tell you when you’re thinking of starting a blog of your own is – “Don’t!” Reminds me of that sign on the wall behind a fire hydrant in downtown Ottawa: ‘Don’t even think of parking here!’ And then they tell you to go and check up on other blogs, find out what other bloggers are doing – and thinking.

Because blogging is basically a social & a communal activity – like football. You can be Ronaldo or Messi but you’ve got to play by the rules. Blogging says we are all about as clever or unclever, as educated or uneducated, as biased or unbiased, as prejudiced or unprejudiced as the rest – of us.

Communal, not individual. Blogging is like a football game with one player scoring own goals both ways while the stands are packed with fifty thousand referees – if you’re lucky! ‘Foul!’ we all cry and Macbeth trembles in his grave.

The unwary blogger will find out soon enough what the price is for being – different. You can be vulgar and kinky and outrageous but not – different. A community is based on common principles, shared beliefs, shared emotions and sentiments. There can be two communities bashing each other’s heads in – I won’t go into that, but think of religion! But be different and you’re open game for both sides, for all sides. It’s that fundamental, almost Newtonian opposition between the herd instinct and the nerd instinct. The days when the herd used to applaud the nerd are over (except for The Big Bang Theory). These days, the herd tends to go on a stampede and trample down any & every form of intelligent life when they are dissatisfied or angry. But why are they so angry?

Little things, like not having enough photographs on your page, or not changing them as often as you’d change your underwear. What about video material with that triangular click button in the middle? All you need is the video function on your smartphone, what’s that for, d’you think? How can you invite people to your party – or to your blog – and not have enough to eat and to drink, to watch and to hear (all the audio-video, multimedia stuff), generally have fun, in short? Not going to lecture people on an empty stomach, are you? Give them some belly laughs, at least, be a stand-up comedian or his gag-writer. If nothing else, hain’t you got a grumpy cat? A surfin’ rat? A roller-skatin’ dog? All those critters are better’n youse, even if we’re talking YouTube now. You’re still a lousy blogger.

Writing a book is of course a very private affair, mainly because you can’t afford to talk about the Work in Progress to anybody. So you walk around mentally pregnant and smiling like Mona Lisa (latest theory of the Gioconda smile: she was thinking fifty shades of grey). While people wonder what’s wrong with you.

Writing a book is like Antoni Gaudi working on his Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (couldn’t even finish that one, poor fellow, they’re doing it for him now); it’s like Michelangelo working on his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. It requires time, grit, vision and infinite patience. Writing a book is like a love affair whereas a blog is like a one night stand – and more fun at times, some people claim.

Writing a book is like building a palace or a bridge; takes mindlessly long to complete – and even longer to be satisfied with. Let me give another example: ever written a love letter to your girlfriend? Haven’t written a letter in your life? Just sent mails & messages or called? Even better. Now think of writing two hundred and fifty love letters to your girlfriend, all sequential and inter-connected and non-repetitive and with a story-line to boot – only that you can’t send the love letters one by one to your girlfriend; she – and you – have to wait till the whole bunch is finished, paginated, printed and bound, finally published – that’s when you can give it to her, while putting it up for sale at every bookshop and every newsstand in the vicinity. The whole world – including your girlfriend – is reading that open love letter of yours – to life and to living – and either laughing, or being reflective, or sad.

Or is a blog just that first act of love which sets the whole process in motion? I hope it is.

A nauthor

Who am I writing for? The question was put to me years ago by a very good friend of mine who lives in London and amuses himself in his spare time by acting as a reader for various publishing houses as well as for aspiring authors – mainly by way of telling them, ‘This won’t work’. Despite the fact that this is not his main occupation or preocupation, he wet-nursed an international bestseller to fame in the nineties.

In other words, his judgement is as acute as it is astute and his chance remarks have always had this annoying habit of following me around like the hound of heaven and howling like a banshee in my dreams. Such as that million dollar question: ‘Who do you write for?’ It was on the phone, and he might well have said ‘whom’, which will roughly indicate just how long ago this conv. must have taken place. I’d written three novels by then and intrepid as my friend is, he had been kind enough to look through at least two of them. Decency demands that his comments remain as unpublished as the novels in question.

My friend was a bit doubtful about my English too. You see, my English is like Oberon’s Indian fairy-child deserted in the ur-forests of Germania and raised by wolves which have strayed across the border from Poland or the Czech Republic. This has resulted in my English fermenting into a very special kind of brew which few can imbibe and even fewer recognise as one of the more exotic flavours of their beloved lingua franca. Further, my English being practically self-taught, there are large gaps in it, call them blind spots. To give you but one example: I have a penchant for such tantalising words as ‘demotic’ which crop up in connection with Eco’s The Name of the Rose, for example. I check the meaning every time and conveniently forget it after use, so that I have to google the damn thing all over again the next time I’m thinking of using it. Demotic, for instance: does that refer to simplified ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or to a form of Modern Greek? And it’s not me who’s doing the bullshitting, believe me.

Okay, so it’s Google and not the O.E.D., is it, even for somebody like me who ‘belongs to an older semester’ (which is the polite German way of putting it)? The answer is yes – I confess shamefacedly. These days, one outsources one’s memory to Google/Wikipedia and most people are unperturbed by the fact that their phones are probably smarter than them. It’s a comfortable situation, really: your head is in a Cloud, the rest of you walking the earth like a zombie.

I have not always been this modern, remember. There were the times when everybody else was running around with an iPhone and I was telling them that I was the only person carrying a uPhone – what’s that? They wanted to know. It means that I’m not going to call you, you’d better call me. Not I phone but you phone, that’s uPhone, in pidgin, I told them. You know the problem with a uPhone? It never rings.

And now I’m going to give away a business idea which will probably be snapped up by Apple: I’ve been thinking of a smartphone which will be an electric shaver as well so that you can switch over to the shave function when the conversation gets boring. The phone will be as loud as it will be sensitive so that the ladies can use it without interrupting either their chat or the depilation.

Thank God all that is behind me now and this is just a blog – I love that ‘just a blog’ demurral – so my reply will be ‘Dunno!’ every time you ask who I am writing for. The Germans call it Narrenfreiheit, fool’s liberty, meaning of course the Fool or the court jester of medieval times, like the one in Shakespeare who used to call King Lear ‘nuncle’.

Now there’s a funny word. I’d always taken it to be Shakespeare’s, until I googled it and discovered that it’s only the archaic or dialectal form of ‘uncle’, risen apparently through the rebracketing of phrases such as ‘an uncle’, ‘mine uncle’, ‘thine uncle’ and so on. Dunno about my phone, but Google is certainly smarter than me, at times.

Though I still like to think that nuncle is the negation of uncle, it’s like fooling Uncle, nuncling him, nuncling the nuncle, if you know what I mean. You don’t? Let’s go back to the Wiktionary: nuncling means to cheat or to deceive. Perhaps also to deride?

Well, if Lear can be a nuncle, I can be a nauthor too. Yes, that’s what I’ll be, that’s what I’d like to call myself, rebracketed and transposed, not an author, but a nauthor. Any objections?