Beating Time - On Knausgaard

On Form and Memory: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This really happened.
One evening, when I was standing with my siblings at a party, a woman approached who was familiar and yet unknown. We all had the same split-second reaction: who is this stranger we know so well? It was age, of course, the passing of years, that caused the stalled beat of time before we recognized her. She approached and we all made friendly faces and she said, in her immediately familiar, slow and slightly dopey voice, with no preamble, as if we were resuming the conversation we'd carried on decades before, 'I was just remembering the roll-up lawn.'
And with that, the information arrived at once: her voice, the face she used to have, the faces we used to have, and the roll-up lawn: that tiny detail edging an expanse of green memory, the past opening out before us. The long ago garden, the neighbourhood, where we created ourselves, where our first selves were formed.
She was one of our local gang. We were children of the seventies and eighties. We spent our lives outdoors; we were our own savage, separate little tribe. The way parents did childcare back then was to say, "Go and play. Come back at dinnertime."
Childhood territory. There was the shed where my father locked himself in and wrote his poetry and fiction, there was the back lawn where we played for hours on the high jump set my father made for us, complete with proper measurements penned on the posts in inches, a bamboo cross beam and mouldy old mattress to land on. At the edge of the grass was a concrete wall and below that the lawn formed a fragrant green mat, which, we discovered, could be rolled at the edges into a long tube made of earth and grass, a thick mud-reeking sausage, veined here and there with writhing worms. Here, in the roll-up lawn, was the essence of memory, the detail, minutiae, smells and sounds: this was the kind of information out of which the early self was constructed. The roll-up lawn was a thing only a child would notice. You had to be close to the ground, in that formative phase where every part of the garden was material to explore. There was no larger meaning beyond "lawn" and "garden", there was only each vivid constituent part, the distance between hedges, the plum tree, the rat hole under the deck: these things made up a whole world.


On Nelson Mandela

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty

I had been watching the TV series Breaking Bad, admiring its saltiness, its cleverness, its mocking of American mores. Not only entertaining but effectively political, fearlessly willing to examine social pieties, obliquely and subtly iconoclastic, with style and rich characterisation, with humour. Whether the writers set out to achieve this or simply to write a story about the trials of one man in modern America, they have produced something great by turning their attention, brilliantly, to the real world. This, it seems to me, is what art should do. Here we're having a love affair with fantasy, with the ersatz, kitsch and unreal, also with hobbits and dwarves... Even C.S. Lewis said during a meeting of the Inklings, after Tolkien had shown him his latest story, "Not another fucking elf."
I had been watching Breaking Bad, and thinking about infantilism in the arts, when I heard of the death of Nelson Mandela.
Speaking after the announcement, US President Barack Obama said that the first political act he ever did as a young person was attend an anti-apartheid demonstration. It was the same for me. In 1981, when the South African Springboks toured New Zealand, I spent weeks out marching in the streets, going to every anti-apartheid meeting, every rally and sit-in. My best school friend and I never missed a march, and we tried to make sure we were in the front of every one. We held up banners, chanted, walked for miles, and, as the protests intensified and the country became more polarised, we got completely engrossed in the cause. It was political, it was important, and I passionately cared.

As attitudes hardened on both sides the protests got bigger and more violent. It was harder to stay at the front of the marches, because the front line started to be reserved for men in motorbike helmets and body padding, who were able to confront police equipped with long batons, helmets and riot shields. My whole family turned out for rallies. My parents were arrested during protests, my father as part of the group who ran onto the pitch and stopped the game at Hamilton, and my mother during a fracas after a street march in South Auckland. Protests against the final games in Auckland turned into genuine riots, and at the height of a pitched battle between police and protestors in a Mt Eden street I was picked up by a policeman and thrown over a fence. I landed in a vegetable patch, under a lemon tree, and lay there watching the riot for a while through the fence palings. It seemed a supremely comic moment.



On the morning of July 15th, Moscow was as hot as an oven. Deep in the Metro, the trains seemed to travel too fast, the crowds were densely packed and the air was sweaty and close. When the news came that a train had derailed between Park Pobedy and Slavyansky Stations, killing twenty-two people, it was a fact to turn over in the mind, to consider with perverse wonder: I was on the Moscow Metro that very morning. I was down there, sweating and claustrophobic and silently complaining about the speed. Just as, the month before, I was flying over eastern Ukraine, on a Singapore Airlines flight to London, before that airspace was closed. Eat, drink and be merry, the universe was telling me, for tomorrow we go up in smoke.

Like a child, sleeping in a UN school in Gaza. In a Moscow hotel we watched the World Cup final. In the bar were thirty elderly Germans and a group of Israelis. Two screens had been set up, one a Russian channel, the other German. At half time, Russian TV played clips of sexy cheerleaders, while the German channel dourly switched to the news: live coverage of the bombing of Gaza.
We watched in silence, as Palestinian women and children screamed and panicked and died. I wanted to get up and say, OK, re Gaza. You Israelis, you Germans. Does anyone want to share? The Israelis were crying bullets, the people of Gaza were dying, the Germans silently sipped their tankards of beer. Nothing to do with them, these murderous Israeli tears. It wasn't their fault. Still, one thing was very clear: whatever or whoever had driven them to it, the Israelis had gone completely insane.


Eleanor Catton in Canada

Canadian Adventure

Booked for a three week tour of Canadian literary festivals, I flew to Calgary, a city at the foot of the Rockies. In the restroom at Calgary airport a voice behind me drawled, "No soap." Louise, I thought, looking in the mirror, but actually it was Thelma. I watched as she was ushered through the crowd, Geena Davis, tall and elegant, still a star all these years after she and Susan Sarandon drove their car into the Grand Canyon holding hands.
In winter, Calgary gets to thirty below zero. The city has a network of covered walkways, and I could walk from my hotel to downtown indoors. Jetlagged, I went jogging beside the river, attended parties, performed my quota of readings and panels. I brushed past John Cleese in the foyer (was he here to meet Geena?) and went to an insane reading by Chuck Palahniuk, U.S. author of Fight Club, involving groupies, glow sticks and coloured beach balls. After a week I was driven to Banff, high in the Rocky Mountains. In the hotel there were instructions: now we were deep in the Banff National Park I was advised to beware of wolves, elk, black and grizzly bears, cougars, lynxes and coyotes. Eleanor Catton had arrived in the night and holed up in her room with a bison burger.I woke in the freezing morning to blue skies, extraordinary alpine beauty. Ellie invited me to join her for breakfast, and while we ate, the winner of the Booker Prize gave me a rundown on Canadian wildlife.


On Charlotte Dawson

"God, we partied hard."

When Charlotte Dawson died, her friends publicly poured out their sorrow at her loss. One recounted how kind and good she'd been, how she'd been his advisor, what fun she'd been and how much he'd loved her. He recounted a recent afternoon when she'd summoned him to her apartment on Woolloomooloo Wharf at four in the afternoon and how the fun had raged on into the night. His tone turned rich, fervent, with all with nostalgia of an old soldier summoning up the trenches. He wrote, "God, we partied hard."

I remember Charlotte Dawson, back when we were young, in Brooklyn Flats in Central Auckland. Glimpses, flashes of memory: Charlotte Dawson, stoned, eating a whole packet of bacon with a pair of scissors. Charlotte Dawson with short, bleached, teased-up hair, a white face. To my naïve teenage eye she looked rarified, wild and exotic; I was yet to realize that uncommon glamour doesn't necessarily signify an extraordinary mind. I thought she was a snow leopard; really she was just a nice, ordinary girl. She was beautiful and unruly, as were many of the people who passed through that block of flats back then, before it was renovated and gentrified. It was a den of vice, disorder and talent. Hinemoa Elder lived in one of the basement flats. On another storey lived an artist who regularly stole televisions and pot-plants and threw them out of his window. The park across the road was the site of numerous festivities, bonfires and the mysterious arson of cars. 


Wilkie Collins to Woody Allen

Still Leaving

In Wilkie Collins's classic novel The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright does what 19th Century protagonists often do mid-novel, before the resolution and the happy ending: he goes abroad. Marion Halcombe sees him in a dream, now shipwrecked on a foreign shore, now menaced by "dark, dwarfish men" with bows and arrows in the grounds of an ancient temple. Glimpsing him in the surreal fragments of her dream, we know he will return, evil will be banished and hope restored. I read on. Out the window a strange sunset lay dark as blood along the edge of the horizon. We were climbing above the clouds and Auckland was already far behind. Have I become addicted to leaving?
I remember a line in Saul Bellow's novel, The Dean's December, about the ice blocks in Lake Michigan, 'gray-white and tan and stained with sand by the prevailing wind.' In the Chicago streets at the edge of Lake Michigan it was summer; no ice blocks but instead a hot sandy beachfront, thousands of swimmers and sunbathers, the stink of coconut oil, a line of crammed and rowdy bars where the beachgoers staggered to drink in the shade of fringed umbrellas. Inland, against the hard bright sky stood the glittering, elegant rampart of the city's skyscrapers. Chicago, scene of the Dean's bleak and freezing December, was baking in a blue August. The architecture was sharply stylish, and the lavish public art reflected American wealth and scale: sculptures, fountains, galleries, parks.


Hawaii at War

Hawaii was in the middle of nowhere but Hawaii was America and so, post Boston bombing, it was on edge. "We're at war," the bus driver said, pulling up at the police line. That morning a bomb scare had emptied downtown Honolulu; now a suspicious package outside the Royal Hawaiian Centre had police cordoning off four blocks. On CNN Piers Morgan told the FBI, "Someone's dropped the ball on security," and Republican senators were debating an outrage: the surviving Boston bomber had been read his Miranda rights, and would answer no further questions without a lawyer. He should have been treated as an enemy combatant, questioned without a lawyer, had his wounds poked, his painkillers withheld. America was in no mood for acting nice. Piers Morgan's eyes narrowed. "In fact," he said, "someone has dropped two massive balls."

Beautiful Hawaii: it's where you used to stop to refuel on the way to L.A. and Europe, Honolulu a smeared blur through glass, tropical, fragrant, steamy and always left behind, just flashes of colour as the plane banked over the mountains and away. How pretty and vulnerable it must have looked to the Japanese pilots on December 7th 1941 as they flew over Pearl Harbour with their murderous payload. That morning in 1941 the incoming Japanese planes made a large, sinister blip on Hawaiian radar, but the lieutenant in charge dropped a massive ball on security, blithely telling his men the signal must be American supply planes flying in. Now Pearl Harbour, still a large and active military base, has tight security for its memorial to the destroyed USS Arizona, where the bodies of nine hundred men lie, and a brisk trade in mementoes: Pearl Harbour key rings, hats, trinkets, baseballs, and American flags.



"A tightly plotted, incisive depiction of the corrosive effects of power.." - Publishers' Weekly 

"A truly riveting novel." The Globe and Mail, Canada

"A stunning acheivement." The Vancouver Sun

"Opening the pages of Charlotte Grimshaw's new novel Soon is akin to tilting the blinds in a dim room; the razor-sharp precision of her words floods your mind with crisp, searing light, such is the vivid clarity of her prose." - One News TVNZ 

"Soon is a sly, masterly novel." - Malcolm Forbes, The Literary Review UK

"An efficient, coolly poetic tale of Auckland's glitterati....darkly comic...paced like a classy thriller, it slips down as easily as the Hallwrights' dirty gin cocktails." The List UK

"One of the ten best reads for summer." Red Magazine UK

"You shouldn't get the impression that Soon is simply political satire... Grimshaw is going deeper... Soon's almost a thriller, going places that you didn't expect - a thriller with real ethical weight. - Philip Matthews, Metro

"Full of delicious political and social satire." The Daily Mail UK