I've been keeping a "commonplace book" for [gulp] around 30 years. It's a chunky leather notebook in which, as a student in 1986, I began to copy out occasional pieces of prose or poetry that tugged at the bellropes in the back of my mind. The first entry was from a letter by the composer Claude Debussy, despairing at the uncongenial atmosphere in which he was attempting to study in Rome. His personality was at odds with the place, the establishment, the tradition and the demands placed upon him by the prize he had won, which sent him to the Villa Medici. He was a rebel, a Bohemian in inclination; all his life he could only go his own way. I felt his Roman pain, being at odds with my own surroundings at college. Sometimes you need Debussy to say things better than you can yourself.
Since then I've kept the commonplace book at varying paces. Poems by Keats and Margaret Atwood, Byron and Betjemen. Phases of special inclinations, including telling moments after the deaths of my parents and my sister, such as one on the day my father died. It's a quote from an advertisement for trainers: "Some quit when they reach their threshold of pain. Some don't." Later there was a musing from Turgenev about his refocusing of intent upon reaching a landmark birthday. A phase of French poetry lasted several years, interrupted by some that was Russian and German. Many extracts explore the nature of creativity and motivation for writing: Angela Carter, Russell Hoban, Malcolm Bradbury. I don't spend much time pondering such mysteries myself, but I do love reading what writers I admire have said about them.
Some years I added five or six items; others, nothing whatever. It's fascinating to look back on it all: a map of your own life in other people's words, helping to hold your identity together with elastic bands and paper clips and, like those, making sure you don't lose certain things that matter. It's a practice that I would highly recommend.
The other day I discovered someone has already encapsulated the essence of GHOST VARIATIONS and what I'd like it to say, in just four lines. Wouldn't you know it, it's TS Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets, 'East Coker', which was written in 1940, two years after my selected story comes to its close. I find it interesting that he is contemporaneous with the incident that sparked the book; and I wonder if my long-standing love for his poems, especially the Four Quartets, had unconciously percolated into the cocktail of elements that made me want to write the novel in the first place. Whatever happened, there could be worse spiritual companions...
Here's the extract:
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business...
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