Monday, 1 December 2014

Ben Okri: A Timeless Magic

What were you reading twenty years ago? Do you have it somewhere? In your attic, a row of yellowing paperbacks sharing a shelf? The first page inscribed with your old married name, so much tidier than the scrawl you've developed now? Do you still have the precious books you never lent to anyone, the ones you kept for keeps?

I went up to the attic a couple of weeks ago. It is a cob-webbed, soundless place. I brought down two Ben Okri books I found, A Way of Being Free and Incidents at the Shrine. I couldn't find The Famished Road and Dangerous Love which I know I used to have. Were they lost along the way? After several big continental moves I'm surprised when I find any of my old books.

Twenty years later I quickly found that I was not the same reader as that young woman living in Belgium. I have published books now - nothing as lyrical and accomplished as Mr. Okri's works; and although by that time I had studied African independence movements and thought I knew a little, I was clueless. I also had no idea I would soon leave for West Africa where I lived a full, life-changing ten years. That young woman was still a scrap of a thing, with only superficial stints in Paris and Mogadishu under her belt.

Rereading these two works I felt a curious melding between my original impressions of both books, and changes in myself as a reader. With the short stories, I found that the shifting, charged realities, the sharp tones of danger and dissent, and characters whose humanity was recognisable and stark, all found quick entry points and made resounding music - the dance between reader and author in a way more complete. Okri's essays, too, spoke to a more mature reader, and an older, more knowing writer now familiar with hard work, tiny successes, defeat.

From Okri's essay 'Newton's Child' (A Way of Being Free), essential for any writer:

The best kinds of books.. have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading. They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or suffered.
Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live.

The highest kind of writing - which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind - belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unresonated essence of your life - now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realising that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready.

Inspiration is harmony. The mind loves patterns.

Better a complex mind behind a seemingly simple thought, than a simple mind behind a seemingly complex thought. The mind should always surround what it expresses. Accidental perceptions can sometimes be profound, but it is always best to make accidental perceptions into a leavening agent, to extend its radiance and influence through the texture of the work. There are few things worse than being exposed by the unabsorbed felicities of chance.

November's Word Factory evening included a reading by Ben Okri. Imagine my fascination when the great man read a short story, a parable almost, to the entranced audience. Inspiration personified. An unsteadying evening. Many of us bought copies of Okri's latest novel The Age of Magic, which I have begun reading at a snail's pace: I don't want to finish it!

Ben Okri's love of his craft is passionate and graceful, his words feel timeless and touching. Here are two more treats from the essay 'The Joys of Storytelling I' (A Way of Being Free):

We all live out lives on this side of the mirror. But when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror - the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at unsuspected paradise.
The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side.

And this one surely has my name on it:

Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.


  1. Lovely post Cat. Funny that... The big-name books do tend to bethe ones thatget lent out and do not come back, or just jump off the shelf when you are not looking. But it is nicethatthey find other readers….

    1. Yes, true. But so lovely to bring down a beloved book and bathe in pages again!

  2. I've never heard of this writer before but these excerpts have me spellbound. Thank you, Cat.

  3. Lovely post Catherine. I have never read Okri, for which I am ashamed. My reading group did his Famished Road during the three years I was living in the US on a posting with my husband. We've never done him again, but your post has intrigued me. I love the statement that "There is no final point of understanding with books that live." That's a perfect description of how I feel about Jane Austen - and any book really that I choose to re-read. I often feel torn about wanting to return to books I love and wanting to read all those I haven't yet!

    1. I feel the same way about wanting to read more and more, and yet wanting to rereading certain key books, probably as much to understand changes in myself as to revisit the work. Makes me realise how books can really show us the map of our lives, over and over.

      I think you would like Okri's work. His essay on Othello is astounding.