I must admit to being perplexed at my uninspired state. I have been tapping the keyboard in a desultory way before abandoning the few lines of guff that result, or, more commonly in recent days, feeling a reluctance even to begin tapping. And the reason I am puzzled is that much of my reading, at the moment, is of a writer whom I find fantastically inspiring.
I decided to immerse myself in the eight volumes of Fors Clavigera after coming across Guy Davenport’s lament that nowadays, hardly anyone reads John Ruskin. Well, I had never read him, and I thought I would have to fight my way through these ninety-six letters “to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain” (one each month for eight years), the reading being a challenge rather than a pleasure. Ah, but what a pleasure lay in store â€“ and still does, as I am currently just halfway through volume five.
Ruskin is a magnificent writer, not least in his ability to veer off at unexpected angles. One minute he will be ranting about the iniquities of industrialisation, then he will launch into a transcription of what he readily admits is a fairly dull folk story about Swiss peasants, before reminding himself that he meant to write about glacier theory.
“If only the Rev. James McCosh were here!” begins a paragraph, for no apparent reason. I adore the surprise and the sheer ease of his prose. You can sense the whirrings of the gigantic and eccentric Ruskin-brain as he flits from topic to topic, but somehow never quite gets lost. He writes about barging into someone’s cottage to wish a happy new year “to whoever was there”, has some thoughts on the proper education of children, and suddenly embarks on a sustained passage about the nature of bees, what he does and doesn’t know about them, and pauses to rummage among his bookcases looking up bee information in Bingley, Cassell, Petter, Galpin, and Ormerod. The latter’s History Of Wasps, he decides, ought to be a standard book in the primary education of girls.
Am I so awestruck by Ruskin that his prose intimidates rather than inspires me? I don’t think that’s the case. Anyway, I have regular fads and enthusiasms for writers. I once read about a dozen novels by Nabokov one after another, in a frenzy, with no ill effects. So I shall remain vaguely perplexed, but try my best to start tapping away again with bluster and vim. If all else fails, I shall have to summon the phantom of the Rev. James McCosh from out of the shadows.