I'm chairing a session with Lloyd Jones down at the Christchurch Writers Festival so I thought re-reading Mr Pip would be useful. I didn't count on the feeling I'd get opening a book knowing what was to come. Knowing about Matilda and Pop-eye and Great Expectations and Dolores. Knowing about the disembowled dog and the story about the colour blue.
I got that rush I remember as a child opening a favourite book, or later, as a mother, opening The Secret Garden to read to one child or The Hobbit to another. No doubt it's the same rush my re-reading friends feel when they gather themselves for the annual assault on Persuasion or Master and Commander.
I haven't really understood it til now. I've always thought there are so many books and so little time I should not dare to look back.
Until this week and Mr Pip.
And re-reading has other advantages. I see more clearly now what Lloyd is doing - the fable he's created on this distant island, the stories he lays one on the other and the emphasis on the importance of telling them, the theme of the reliability of story over the unreliability of real life. Especially life on Bougainville, then.
It's interesting that Lloyd always seems to choose to read out loud the part in Mr Pip when the mothers come to the classroom and tell their stories to the children. Stories about fish and faith and remedies and luck. These stories sound like the threads in the fabric the people of Bougainville live by, but a white writer from Wellington says he totally made them up. Audacious or what?
Remember the way Mr Pip starts with a name - like Great Expectations, like Moby Dick? The magic of that: summoning the person by chanting his name. Waiting for him to arrive. Pop-Eye. And so the story begins.
Then I had to buy Nigel Cox's Phone Home Berlin: Collected Non-Fiction. Lloyd has been living in Berlin after all and I figured Nigel's essays could be useful. What a book. I've only skimmed it at this point. But it is a wondrous thing. A man thinking his way through a life stuffed with family and literature. The way he felt 'invisible' in Berlin as a NZer and so felt freed (in a way) to write. He talks of the importance of that thing he has no better name for than 'the solace of art'.
Damien Wilkins' interview of Nigel Cox at the end of the book is a tour de force and a must-read for every NZ writer. They discuss this strange 'handicap' of being a writer so far from the hub. Here's a quote from Nigel: 'I think it is a curse but I have also always thought that New Zealanders are very romantic and there is a romance about writing here because there is no money in it. And that I like.'
And speaking of the romance of writing. I went to the White Album winter poetry readings tonight at Wellington's City Gallery. These events are deliciously unpretentious and always fun. Poets are given space to read, organisers Mark Pirie and Michael O'Leary dress up (cricketing whites this year ) and smile alot, there's theme music (the Beatles White Album this year) and lashings of wine (asking what the wine was I was told 'white and red').
This week, Helen Rickerby and Harvey Molloy each launched a new book and read half a dozen poems. They were joined by Will Leadbeater and Niel Wright. The latter recently completed his 36,000 line epic poem The Alexandrians after 47 years of continuous composition.
Who knows how many books these poets will sell? To be a poet in this country - or anywhere, really - you have to not care. The main thing is to publish and to celebrate. Which a bunch of us did tonight.