I haven't made an entry in this blog, journal, diary, whatever it's to be called, for almost two years. In effect, I came to a deliberate - and irked - standstill, because I didn't know what a blog like this should be. I even wondered whether it should appear at all. And if so, how often? And what should it contain? Blogging has become such an international sport that there seemed no point in adding another voice without good reason(s) and without something to say that adds a useful touch, however small, to the roll of the planet.
And blogging is so risky. Pomposity can get out over the wall and roam the neighbourhood, unrestrained and boorish. In the film, "Inherit the Wind," with Spencer Tracy and Frederick March, Gene Kelly, playing a newspaperman, has an excellent line: "He's the only man I have ever seen who can actually strut sitting down." Blogging can be seen as - and so often is - strutting sitting down.
I don't want to strut. Nor do I want to seem pompous. I'm back because I now know that this Notebook (the word "blog" sounds uneuphonious and lumpen) is a usefully direct and trustworthy way of sharing. In three ways.
First, readers write to me all the time, and in the reward of their letters I recognise my good fortune. And therefore I can use this Notebook to return some of that reader contact. In which case, given the silence, here's a brief update: When I last wrote anything for my website, I was still in the throes of "Ireland - a Novel" and its publication aftermath. In fact, that aftermath continues, with letters and e-mails every week, and questions and comments from individuals and audiences every time I speak in public. I am deeply grateful for each and every response.
Since "Ireland" I also wrote a non-fiction book, "Simple Courage," the details of which are here on the website too. The intensity of the response to it has startled me. I had always wanted to write that book, had always kept the figure of Captain Kurt Carlsen in my mind, and to my sadness I never met him. But I have now encountered so many people who did know him, and who have spoken of him glowingly - some tearfully - that I feel a different kind of reward from that of "Ireland - a Novel." At library readings, at bookshop signings, even on live radio and television shows, I have heard from people who knew him. They always seem to say, "I had the honour to know - or to sail with - Captain Carlsen." Always that phrase, "the honour to."
Carlsen was extraordinary - and he would have denied it fiercely. I had suspected that he was astounding, mostly in the wide compass between his natural bravery and his deeply-felt modesty. The experience of having written "Simple Courage" confirmed it for me; it has been confirmed multiple times by those who have told me that they knew him - and that confirmation has been further enhanced by coming to know his family, down to the great-grandchildren. They all seem touched with the Carlsen brush - modest, aware people, with strong and decent values.
As a second sharing, I mean to refer here to writing that I've come across, and alert my readers to other books and authors that I've enjoyed. A number of bloggers already do this; I'm glad to join those ranks. I'll be writing across time, because I so frequently return to the books that I read many years ago and find fresh rewards there.
I also want to highlight new gifts from established authors; currently I have the thrill of reading Joyce Carol Oates. Her new novel, "The Gravedigger's Daughter," has, I understand, some family background to it. The writing, as ever, is as strong as gunmetal (I simply can't have read every novel and short story of her immense output - but I have read a great deal of it). Her characters are immediate and lasting; they remind me of the people in Italian mediaeval paintings - meaning that you expect to see them or their recognisable descendants on the streets of the towns she writes about. I have heard that, in Princeton, she is a beloved teacher. Not surprising; over and above her considerable writerly gifts there is a generosity in the work, a kindness, that takes the breath away; like all great writers she loves the humanity she discusses. A just world would give her the next Nobel Literature Prize.
Thirdly, I want to exercise my delight in words. In West Cork, Fish Publishing runs a Literary Festival every year, with Irish writers and others. It's as tight and sweet as a nut, and their courtesy makes it a pleasure to appear there. En route in July, I drove through Bandon and recalled a conversation I had with a woman in Minneapolis a few years back, who said that her Irish grandmother referred to her as "a little dote" and she wanted to know if I knew the word. My next novel, "Tipperary" (to be published early November) has some real-life characters in its pages - among them Lady Bandon, known as "Doty" to her friends. Could it be that she had been "Dotty" from "Dorothy"? Or was "Doty" a childhood pet name, common in Ireland in my childhood?
Dr. Terry Dolan of University College, Dublin, in his (essential to me) Dictionary of Hiberno-English, gives "dote" as "a term of endearment, especially for a child," and "an appetising infant or young child." Professor Dolan also cites some Old Dutch and Middle English root, meaning "silly" or "deranged." I think I'll walk quickly past that - although Lady Bandon was by all accounts sweetly eccentric.
Well, there it is; a silence broken is a weight off the mind. I mean to have this Notebook appear on the first of every month. And I mean to try and keep it close to a thousand words per entry. Perhaps those two disciplines will also help me watch out for any strutting.