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Words from the Departed

The Guardian’s books supplement (December 28th) remembers prominent writers who have died this year – Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Elmore Leonard, Ian Banks ‑ with a selection of quotations from each. Here are some of my favourites. There is of course Seamus Heaney's response to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982:

Be advised / My passport’s green, / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen.

Well fair enough, though Heaney did point out to Dennis O’Driscoll that his first passport, hurriedly applied for before a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1958, was a British one. Indeed he also worked in a student job in the British Passport Office in London (and why wouldn’t he?). So a full consciousness of nationality, or of the need to make a decision about it, only came later and perhaps under the pressure of events.

Then there’s this on Ireland, which hits the mark:

No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration.

Chinua Achebe on writing for Africa:

There is that great proverb ... that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

And on the reception of African literature by some in the imperial metropole:

Some people will say, Why does he put in all these Nigerian-English words? And I feel like saying to them, ‘Go to hell! That’s the way the story was given to me. And if you don’t want to make this amount of effort, the kind of effort that my people have always made to understand Europe and the rest of the world, if you won’t make this little leap, then leave it alone!’

Here is Doris Lessing on feminism:

I’m not interested in being a feminist icon. If you are a woman and you think at all, you are going to have to write about it, otherwise you aren’t writing about the time you are living in. What I really can’t stand about the feminist revolution is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible.

And on motherhood:

There is no boredom like that of an intelligent woman who spends all day with a very small child.

Elmore Leonard on characters and dialogue:

My characters have to talk, or they’re out. They audition in the early scenes. If they can’t talk, they’re given less to do, or thrown out.

On exclamation marks:

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

And on literary writers:

Most of these writers don’t write for a living. They write for tenure. Or for the New York Times. Or to get invited to conferences. When you write to make the rent or send your kids to school, you learn how to write without a lot of nonsense.

Ian Banks, a man of strong opinions, on Thatcher, Scottish independence, and the immortality of the soul:

There was nothing symbolic about her death, because her baleful influence on British politics remains undiminished. Squeeze practically any Tory, any Blairite and any Lib Dem of the Orange Book persuasion, and it’s the same poisonous Thatcherite pus that comes oozing out.
The difference between the Scottish and the English ... [is] sufficient and long-term enough that this effective divorce between Scotland and England makes sense for both parties.
“Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs” – oh please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not.

On hearing that he had only a few months to live:

I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps).

This perhaps recalls the dying George Orwell’s written proposal to Anne Popham – “What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.” Though Popham wasn’t Orwell’s partner but someone he had just met.
29/12/2013