Monday, May 14, 2007

John Wyndham's The Chrysalids was published in 1955. I picked it up in a charity shop recently. The back cover describes it as set in a world paralysed by genetic mutation. The story's compelling, told by a boy in an isolated community attempting to purify itself through violent, uncompromising intolerance of any so-called deviation from the norm. On the fringes, the deviants live and further afield, monstrous plants, animals and wasteland where nothing grows.

I count this among one of the best novels I've read recently and coincidentally it complements some of the others found like treasures in charity shops, After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party. This seam of reading began with a re-reading of 1984, by George Orwell, that set me off on rediscovering novelists of my teens.

What happened next was confirmation of and renewed admiration for the storyteller's ability to foretell the future, to warn, to predict, to prepare. Yes, these masters of story telling are oracles of a kind. We know that, but need to remind ourselves sometimes when we're surrounded by the white noise of advertising that pushes publishing's latest money maker. We know the best writers dig deep into human behaviour and show us ourselves in a way no confessor or therapist can do, because the novelist, short story writer or poet puts us in context.

Who knows what research went into these novels written about the world we are now living in. Maybe scientific journals, maybe a magpie attraction to odd news stories, maybe daydreaming. Greene's is the least futuristic, but nevertheless somehow deeply oracular and reads as a horribly appropriate parable for today.

As a counterpoint to this compelling prose, I've been indulging, and yes that is the only word for it, in Michael Longley's Collected Poems that arrived from Amazon the other day, significantly cheaper than my local bookshops since I bought it with a copy of Rene Char's poems and Mary Oliver's - both in the Bloodaxe world poets series.

Longley's poems are such a delight and rather like spending time in the landscapes he summons up - his work engenders a sense of peace, of understanding and reassurance of elements back into their rightful places, rather like burning frankincense, actually. I guess the common denominator in his later work is the wisdom it gives off.

The Collected Poems is also fascinating for mapping Longley's poetic journey. When I did my MA many years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the influence of Dylan Thomas on Sylvia Plath - clearly there in her early work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her chronologically for that dissertation, witnessing how she'd developed, looking back to poems that were indicators of where she'd go. It's the same reading Longley - there are early signposts among some of his clever and more self-conscious poems, of the clear sighted, confident and humane writing he offers us now. And I realise as I work my way through, how he's our foremost writer of elegy, clear that lives should be celebrated and marked in poetry.

Mary Oliver's also a great discovery and I'm looking forward to reading this collection properly. Rene Char, too. I'm reading him in anticipation of a visit to the Avignon festival in July.

Domestically, a French boy staying with us as part of an exchange that my daughter did in February. Poor boy, it's been stair rods of rain, other than on Saturday when she was singing and playing sax on the seafront, then we wandered through the Laines for the Streets of Brighton festival. But from the day he arrived it's been storms, wind and deep, deep puddles. Today he's in London. I hope there's a let up. How far away that mini-drought of April is. All my bean plants, nearly, eaten by slugs. I am wondering if I'll be able to grow more on, use the propagator. I dread to visit the allotment. It'll be devastation, I know. I had the most beautiful row of lettuce seedlings. I am already mourning them.