Friday, February 28, 2014

The Magnificent seven

I have a taste for lists this week.

It is said that as you grow older you find it more difficult to make new friends and that the number of truly close friends you have in a life never goes beyond the number of fingers on two hands. However true this is as a sociological observation (probably more so for introverts than extroverts), it does appear to be true, for me, in the authors that I love and return to over and over: my friends. Though it does not appear to be true with artists as I discover, and fall in love with, new ones all the time!

I came up with seven that I thought I would list roughly in chronological order.

Herman Hesse is possibly an inevitable starting place as an author you discover in youth, love in a passionate, uncomprehending adolescent way; and, if you are lucky, rediscover later and learn to appreciate the richness, the blend of classical restraint and Romantic ideal, the thought as well as the poetic narrative. I read Narziss and Goldmund first, it being about 'monks and sculptors' and equipped on the cover of its then Penguin paperback edition with a haunting ruined monastery in the winter snow by Casper David Friedrich.

Kathleen Raine was introduced to me by a  school friend through her remarkable, honest, searching Autobiographies, then in three separate volumes, available at the library, and her scholarship on Blake, whom I most desirously wanted to understand, and who is not included here, as a writer, because I realise that it is as an artist I most feel companionship with him. I came to know Kathleen and her attention restored spirit in me, for which I will remain eternally grateful, and cannot read her without hearing her voice, that carried such quiet intensity and a power of  quickening thought.

Martin Buber I read first at university through self-propelled discovery and now would be hard placed to unpick the fabric of his thought from what passes for my own! His core faith that each and every person is made after the image of God and, therefore, is both infinitely precious and always eludes our categories, rests at my core too; however, hard it is, at many moments, to live it.

Patrick White I learned of first from an essay on his novels by the distinguished French poet, Jean Mambrino, in the second edition of the journal 'Temenos', founded and edited by Kathleen. I went out and bought his 'Riders in the Chariot' immediately (quite literally) and read it, not once but twice (and subsequently repeatedly) as well as working my way through all his major works (his first novel, which he repressed, has just been republished and awaits me). 'Riders' is, amongst much else besides, one of the most penetrating studies of the nature of evil that I know and though it may be 'banal' in its origins, it does require a certain diligent attention to spin its webs.

Temenos also brought me Wendell Berry, farmer, essayist, poet and story teller, who I first heard (and bought) at the first Temenos conference held at Dartington Hall  in 1986. Of all the authors here the most grounded in the everyday realities of a crafted life and the creator, in fiction, of a living, breathing community - the Port William membership - explored in book after book - endlessly engaging and educative. An author who has repeatedly shown me what it might be like - to be an anxious parent with an anxiety that never dies for example - or who has written so movingly of the contours of our shared lives (and deaths). His quiet image of life as a room within a house, through which we pass, yet remain housed, before and after, is the most consoling of grief that I know.

Edwin Muir first appeared in an essay by Thomas Merton, then one by Kathleen (and in her Autobiographies) but it took a time before I began to read him for myself. At which point revelation broke. Of all the authors here, the one I most deeply admire and identify with. His central myth - of Eden and the Fall and the long journey back from darkness into light - is my own. His eccentric Christianity - incarnate, forgiving, fleeing any traced dogmatic certainty - is my own and his love for the 'Transfiguration' (one of his great poems) pointing at the redemption of all to come, my own to.

Ursula Le Guin is the only author here, I realise, that I discovered after university and included in the charmed circle! Nor can I recall exactly how I came by her! She was oft quoted, I remember, in the writings of the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross, whom I knew slightly, and must have resonated and slowly stuck. I began reading her when on sabbatical and at a contemplative Dominican ashram and fell in love with her crafting of anthropologically credible yet very different worlds to our own (and from which we can look back on our own and wonder and think). I cannot think of any author who writes shorter sentences, each one usually very simple, but building to a complexity of image and thought.

None of the seven I realise are conventionally religious, though all are compellingly exploring the boundaries of the spiritual. All of them give you the sense of being, in a meaningful sense, contemplative yet all are socially engaged, though from the margins of being writers, first and foremost. All are of the liberal left though deeply conservative in important ways. All are from the last century and all of them practise/practised a range of writing disciplines - though perhaps only Berry and Buber would not have one (poet or essayist etc) as a dominant mode.

Nothing was planned in these connections yet they do seem to hang together even as they were found through happenstance, personal connection and a shaping (if indefinable) taste!

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