Thursday, January 1, 2015

The question of relevance

When I sold my book shop fifteen years ago and faced the unlikely prospect of having nothing to do for the rest of my life, I was given a fountain pen to encourage me to write. I had written before, had a poem and a short story published in the Listener, not to mention my pieces in Ako Pai, the Teachers' College magazine, but really I had no time for writing or even thinking about it when I ran a business. Free of that, this was my chance. I knew what I wanted to write about. Write what you know is the mantra of writing schools. I wanted to write about the encounter between sophisticated European immigrants and the people of colonial New Zealand. I wrote a few stories that were OK. Not brilliant, but OK. I went to at least three creative writing courses, and my fellow prospective writers and tutors liked what I wrote. I had one story, Beethoven in Tirau, based on something the composer Douglas Lilburn said, broadcast over Radio NZ, All this was very encouraging. But I was not satisfied. These stories were all lies, just something I made up. I was happier with an account of Richard Fuchs, a forgotten German Jewish composer, whose large body of unperformed and ignored works I came across in the Turnbull Library. I was looking for something else, but a sentence in the files of the correspondence of the Chamber Music Society jumped out at me and told me that this was my story, the story I wanted to tell. My account of Richard Fuchs took wings, his music came to be performed by the NZ Symphony Orchestra, by leading chamber music groups and singers, and even by students of his old Alma Mater, the Hochschule fΓΌr Musik in Karlsruhe. This was satisfaction indeed. But there in my bucket list are my stories, that perhaps with some cutting, chiselling, polishing and recasting I could turn into successful stories. I keep coming back to them in my waking moments in the middle of the night. But I always come up against the glaringly obvious. They are about a world in the distant past, deal with issues that no longer touch people. They are old people's stories, of no relevance to people a generation, not to mention two or three generations younger than I. Who reads Graham Green, now, or Somerset Maugham? Even the new John Le Carre reads like a strenuous effort to stay current and relevant, without the immediacy and power of the Spy who came in from the cold or the Smiley novels. The challenge is to give immediacy to memories of times gone by.