Title: Beer in the Snooker Club
Author: Waguih Ghali
Publication date: 1964
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Ram has been brought up among the wealthy, English-educated Cairene elite and is struggling to come to terms with his identity in Nasser’s Egypt. Uncertain what to do with the sheer volume of knowledge he has absorbed from the many books he has read, he drifts between the life of a political rebel and that of an impoverished, unemployed upper-crust sponger. The book has been described as the Egyptian Catcher in the Rye.
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What did I find out?
In the novel, Ram wants to ‘live’ the life he has read about in books. To him, life is not what is already happening to him, it is a specific narrative that plays out in his imagination: drinking beer in Europe with intellectuals, discussing politics, engaging in rebellions by day and philosophical debate by night. He travels to England to pursue this dream but, unsurprisingly, does not find the satisfaction he has hoped for; he has to return to Egypt to truly discover his life and identity.
During the three years I’ve been writing the Book Diaries, I’ve gone through a similar process of discovery. Through reading books I’ve tuned in to what holds meaning for me; but, unlike Ram, I’ve never felt that the stories themselves are a blueprint for my life. I’ve been able to take the elements that resonate and use them to achieve a greater understanding of myself and the life I’m currently living.
One thing that has happened simultaneously with this process is my gradual renunciation of amateur dramatics – or, to be more specific, acting. For years this was my hobby: I loved getting up on stage and pretending to be a different character, speaking lines written by someone else. Since starting the Book Diaries, however, I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with this: I don’t want to be reciting someone else’s script any more, I want to write my own – both on stage and in life.
A recent foray into acting after an extended break almost threw me off course; I’d forgotten how absorbing and exhausting it was, ‘living’ as someone else. Reading Beer in the Snooker Club has got me back on track.
What do I now see differently?
This follows on from the above. In the novel, it is only when Ram throws off the strictures of the narrative framework he has tried to emulate that he discovers himself; in other words, he makes a choice to be who he wants to be, rather than attempting to fit a predefined character type. After having many different ways of living presented to him, he learns to accept himself, faults and all, and decides for himself how he wants to live.
This issue – of making a conscious decision about who we are and how we want to be – was also illustrated this week in the TV show The Walking Dead. The characters Carol and Ezekiel both recognise that the path they are taking through the apocalypse – the actions they take, the decisions they make, the priorities they hold dear – is not something they have fallen into by mistake; it is an active, ongoing choice on both their parts.
It is easy to imagine, when we are going through hardships, that a better life is not within our power to achieve, that we have been dealt the hand we have and must put up with it. Both Beer in the Snooker Club and The Walking Dead have this week reminded me that, at any point, regardless of our circumstances, we can still choose to be someone different if we don’t like the person we have become. That is a choice we will always have.
This issue of ‘I have no choice’ really annoys me: annoys me to the extent that I’ve installed a little ‘I have no choice’ pot on my living room table. Each time I’m watching a film or TV show and someone says ‘I have no choice’ (when what they really mean is ‘I have to make a difficult decision and I don’t want to’), I put 20p in the pot. I take 20p out whenever anyone insists that, actually, they do have a choice. (This happens far less frequently.) In the couple of months since I started the pot I’ve amassed £3.80: that’s nearly 20 times someone has insisted they ‘have no choice’.
If I hope for anything from the Book Diaries, it’s that people will be encouraged to believe that they have choices – and the power to exercise them.
How will this inspire my writing?
The emphasis in this novel on the impact books can have on one’s life has, naturally, made me reflect on what I’ve been trying to achieve with this blog. For some time I’ve been meaning to pursue further research into how people react to storytelling, the power of narrative and the personal meaning one can find in a book. I’ve been distracted from making serious strides towards this goal due to its sheer scale: I’m certain that when I start to delve, I’ll become embedded in a lifetime’s worth of study and will barely scratch the surface.
However, I’ve decided that this is not an excuse: just because something seems difficult, that’s not a reason for not trying. And so I’m going to dedicate myself anew to the pursuit of this knowledge, and make my best effort to write a book at some point about what I’ve learned. It will likely take years rather than months, but that’s the nature of vocations: they’re not quick wins, they’re an ongoing commitment. Let’s see what happens.
One additional thing. I’m now down to my very last Book Diaries read of 2018 – and probably my very last Book Diaries read ever, as I have no plans to continue the blog after this year. I’m conscious that the theme of this year was to take inspiration for my writing – by which I initially meant my novel, as I was intending to devote this year to getting it written. However, the novel has stalled, and several of my ‘inspirations’ have been about other writing projects. For my last book, therefore (Everfair by Nisi Shawl), I’m going to resume my quest to take inspiration specifically for my novel writing – and end the year, hopefully, ready to pick it up again with renewed enthusiasm in January.
A musical interlude
I’m not entirely sure what this song is about, but once I got it into my head I couldn’t shake the feeling that it somehow connects with the vibe of Ram’s experiences in the novel. An angry young man, commenting on the politics and insanity of much of what he sees in the world around him – it could only be Bob Dylan.