First time when I heard ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, I was already thirty something. And I had only left China a few years ago. The moment I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’, I was dumbfounded that I had never come across this before. The song was so intensely sorrowful, yet beautiful, that I fell into a fevered fantasy in which life from now on could only be a hippyish work of art with psychedelic shirts and flared jeans, and the derangement of the senses. Zeppelin’s incredible sexiness shook off all cold sticky English rain from my shoulders and galvanized my writer’s heart, even if the feeling lasted only a few minutes. With the last chords fading away, I would sink again into the damp reality, facing my computer or my notebook, with the task of writing a novel in a second language, English.
As a writer who uses her second language to write, my foremost problem is the natural flow of language. The difficulties of storytelling and structure are only secondary. The challenge of flowing in one continuous outpouring of language in a novel is my killer. So, Debussy is always good for releasing the stream pent up in me, especially ‘Clair de Lune’, one of the most beautiful and harmonic melodies ever written. It certainly soothes my anxiety during my struggle with the words, and promises some idea of perfect fluidity and freedom. If only words could be as free-form and deliciously polymorphous as his music!
Speaking of words, Leonard Cohen is the master who teaches us how to dance with words, and how to speak with music. His songs are always narrative gems, even his most simple songs. I am very fond of his ‘Because Of’, a song with spoken words: ‘Because of a few songs, wherein I spoke of their mystery / Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age / They make a secret place in their busy lives . . . ’ Cohen murmurs to himself – or to us? It’s not clear. It reminds me of an artist’s mental state when he/she works. We all speak to ourselves while creating our work, indeed, we murmur with different personas at different times. A dialogue is contained in one writer. I have this feeling when I write, that until I finish the specific passage, I must contain the words, the inner murmurings, and not let any flow out into the external world, otherwise the work will be instantly diluted, and its substance will be washed away by an overwhelming but trivial reality. You can only show the work when it is finished, and that’s the time the writer stops murmuring to himself. But the performer, like Cohen, can recreate this creative murmuring, when they deliver their songs to the world. That release is something I lack as a writer.
Nick Cave’s ‘The Weeping Song’ captures the essential driving force that animates all sorts of legend and folklore. Men and women are weeping because of each other. Love and longing are the reason we weep. It is said we need to be aware of all bland generalizations and stereotyping. But I still wonder how an Australian man could produce so many exquisite and melancholic songs? It doesn’t correspond to my idea of the sunny dry new-world landscape, nor the sport-obsessed beer-drinking cowboys tempo. Perhaps, Mr Cave suffered from a small-town teenage complex, and then wandered under the Berlin and London sky too long, that European gloom soaking his coat as well as his soul.
The fifth song, the one I often play during my writing breaks, or to finish off a day’s work, is Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’. Is that too obvious? So what? I love it, absolutely, and I play it on a loop. There is a certain sadness in Patti Smith’s voice. This sadness, I think, is subconsciously to do with the loss of youth, loss of innocence, or the loss of punk’s spirit. These lines inspire us in our banal day-to-day life: ‘Because the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to us.’ Yes, with love we sleep, with doubt the vicious circle, turns and burns.
For more about the author, including critical perspectives and in-depth biographies, visit the British Council’s web pages on Xiaolu Guo.
Photograph © Edinburgh International Book Festival