Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Gardening: on intensely pleasurable private experiences

Trawling through piles of books tucked away behind the TV, I found Damned to Fame, James Knowlson's biography of Beckett. Opening it random, I read Dennis Potter's "review" of Not I when it appeared on BBC TV in 1977

Would Solzhenitsyn have understood? Would the Jews on the way to the gas chamber? Question: Is this the art which is the response to the despair and pity of our age, or is it made of the kind of futility which helped such desecrations of the spirit, such filfh of ideologies come into being?

It's hard to comprehend the arrogance, insensitivity and sheer wrongness of these questions. As Knowlson comments, Beckett would have read this "as someone who had joined the battle against Fascism as a Resistance agent precisely because of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews".

But such philistinism is endemic in British culture, even among those considered avant-garde. Beckett has never been accepted with the same enthusiasm as his mentor Joyce. And yet, even then, Ulysses is often mitigated as a Dublin compendium, as if it were like any other 'ambitious' 800 page time travelogue. Even a Joycean like Anthony Burgess thought that Beckett's reputation would take a deserved downturn after his death. (Of course, it has soared while Burgess's has plummeted).

Knowlson quotes a letter written by Beckett during a period of "inertia and void" toward the end of his life: "I remember an entry in Kafka's diary. 'Gardening. No hope for the future'. At least he could garden."

I tend to think: at least I can read. Forget the culture and desecrations of the spirit by journalists.

Today, I read Franzen's odd, enjoyable review of a book by Alice Munro. He puts it well: Beckett is also "the remote provider of intensely pleasurable private experiences". It doesn't matter that the author is under-appreciated; it doesn't matter that a book is not "a major cultural event"; it doesn't matter that the reviewers get it wrong all the time; it doesn't matter that not one of your friends has heard of him or her. It doesn't matter at all.

Instead, what matters (to me, at least, as I watch Ohio Impromptu) is: how does one discuss these experiences?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Reviewing: "The saying of inapposite things in uninteresting ways"?

In 2002, the novel Luck was published, Michael Hofmann's translation of his father's Das Glück. It is a wonderful novel. The TLS ran one of the few reviews it received. Michael Butler, a professor of German, was polite, welcoming and condescending ("an idiosyncratic author"). And in the final paragraph picked holes in the transation. Michael Hofmann responded with a letter, which I think merits repetition:

Translators live in the doghouse, and whenever they come forward ("sich zu Wort melden"), it's invariably dismissed as self-interested barking. I have, accordingly, tried and tried not to write about Michael Butler's really hurtfully inadequate account of my translation of my father's penultimate novel ... but it's no good.

There is a kind of niggardliness that mistakes itself for measure, for judgment. Butler's piece - he perhaps didn't even know it - was niggardly. It was an even 1 on the Richter scale. It was one bland, tepid routine phrase ("they last for ever if you look after them properly") after another. This wouldn't matter - or it would matter a lot less - if the book he was - or, on the whole, was not talking about hadn't been wildly, vocally, desperately, blackly original. It made me wonder what criticism was, or reviewing: perhaps the saying of inapposite things in uninteresting ways.

As for the few strictures on the translation (along with the usual, and usually worded cereal pack goodies, "considerable gifts", "fluent", "prose rhythms", la-di-da), I reject those too. The idea that by commission or omission I could do anything to diminish the effectiveness, the vivacity of my father's book is to me traumatic. The things that "grated" with Michael Butler - but, please, the whole book is meant to "grate" - I am perfectly happy with. "Gone on" ends a sentence and carries a metaphor (it was about a marriage, if I remember) better than "passed away"; "whippersnapper" is unendurable; if "bite down hard" isn't English yet, there's no reason why it shouldn't be soon; and the shoes did go downstream. I was four. They were my shoes.

I don't want to antagonize a profession, but it upsets me to think that busy people like professors of German can still find the time to impair the pathetic prospects for German literature in English. It took me eight years to find a publisher for Luck. There is nothing like it in English. Take that any way you like.


The good news is that Hofmann's ultimate novel, received a lot more attention; all favourable.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Death to Everyone: in memory of John Peel

For one month and twenty years, Peel kept me company. In the autumn of 1984, I first listened to his programme. I was fortunate enough to catch Microdisney. And I remember being impressed by a Moroccan band called Dissidenten. From then, I rarely missed a show.

In March 1985, there was a session by The Nightingales, it included a song called How to Age. I can't recall much of the song now except that it meant a lot to me; for the atmosphere and emotion expressed. It was the middle of the Thatcher years and I was unemployed, without much of a life to come.

At the same time, I heard Hüsker Dü, the early Crime & the City Solution and Yeah Yeah Noh. But he didn't just play dark European music. He introduced me to the Bhundu Boys and the Four Brothers, both from Zimbabwe. It seems like a long time ago and, now, listening to the old favourites, my skin bristles and I am uncomfortably warm. It is not nostalgia. I am more interested, like Peel, in hearing new music – new music that will have a similar impact on me. Yet listening to the old music, such as Hupenyu Wangu (from the Bhundu Boy's Shabini), I realise such joy is not far from this sense of incommensurable loss. Mere repetition doesn't bring joy – it is the implicit knowledge of it being finite that makes it so good. This is why Peel was always looking for new music; it enabled the old to become new again.

I had imagined he would die when I'd long given up listening to his show, and perhaps long after he'd stopped broadcasting. I knew it was not a world I particularly want to live in. A week after he died, that feeling was sharpened.

I have always remembered the times when he tried to say something about a death or a tragedy. Of the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, he said very little. He was in the stadium that night supporting Liverpool. At the start of the first show on his return, he said that, as a child, he could never understand why his father never spoke about his experiences in North Africa during the war. Now, he said, he understood. He then played Tupelo by John Lee Hooker. The song was breathtaking. I'd not heard it before. He didn't have to say any more.

Four years later, after the Hillsborough disaster, he opened the microphone and began to speak. He said he didn't know it was possible to feel such grief for people one didn't know. He then broke down and cried until music faded in.

The music always seemed to resonate with Peel's voice either side of it. I am glad I didn't try to erase it from my recordings of the show. One night in 1988, he said he had a new LP by Everything But the Girl, a band whose members he had championed years before. He said he hadn't heard the record but was attracted to the title of one song – The Night I Heard Caruso Sing - and decided to play it there and then. It turned out to be a dark affair about the threat of nuclear war and the decision about whether to have children or not:

Then someone sat me down last night and I heard Caruso sing!
He's almost as good as Presley, and if I only do one thing
I'll sing songs to my father, I'll sing songs to my child.
It's time to hold your loved ones while the chains are loosed
And the world runs wild
.

As the last note faded, Peel said:

I do know exactly how they feel. There are times when you're feeling good, even cheerful, when you go as far as that [meaning the song's epiphany]. But you think to yourself, which I do, at this very moment, someone somewhere on the planet is being tortured to death; and it's happening right now. And that tends to blunt my enjoyment of almost everything.

His voice wavered with awkward sincerity over the hyperlinked words. He clearly meant it. But, I wonder, how much of that enjoyment depended on this sensibility? When I listen to music, my enjoyment, such as it is, includes the terrible knowledge that it is over. This is Peel's gift.

every terrible thing
is a relief
even months on end
buried in grief
are easy light times
which have to end
with the coming
of your death friend.

death to everyone
is gonna come
and it makes hosing
much more fun
.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

All Souls' Day

There is one reason that keeps me writing: hope. The hope that I might be able to write what I need to say because it could not be said in any other way.

That said, I am not writing.

There is also the hope of reading, which is much the same: to find, at last, the narrative that allows me to breathe and to step forward actually; not vicariously through a character or the author’s experience, but actually to step forward. The metaphor is the only means.

That said, I am not reading.

A couple of years ago I reviewed Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day, long after it had been released in paperback. I had been impressed by the way it dealt with the subject matter: a man reflecting on post-traumatic life in the way one might reflect on a hurricane in the utter stillness of its aftermath. I was writing in the aftermath of mixed reviews. The worst of them - by Julie Myerson in The Guardian - had upset me with its lazy assumptions and condescension. I didn't respect the reviewer - a classic liberal philistine - but it upset me anyway. Yet two people who I do respect had dismissed it also. One called it "trauma tourism" for its preoccupation with disaster. Looking back, I now understand that view.

Arthur Daane, the main character, merely reflects on other people's suffering: there's a scene where the Daane looks out of a boat's window and thinks of the MV Estonia disaster of 1995. This could easily confirm the criticism of the book that it is too discursive, more concerned with ideas than with anything else like emotion, empathy or narrative. Flick through the novel and you can see the names of Caspar David Friedrich, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Heidegger and innumberable others. The book teems with reflection on ideas and meaning. And at 340 dense pages, it might be too long, or at least its moments of lightness not enough. By contrast with the speculations, the death of Daane's family is barely mentioned: "no more than juicy, gratuitous sidebars" according the bad review. It also compares it to American novels that deal with stories of grief but "do not trade in art or history or big ideas precisely because intellectual posturings have no value, no purpose in such stories".

One wonders, then, what value and purpose they have in Proust's In Search of Lost Time? Proust wrote that ideas were substitutes for griefs and perhaps the beginning of release. His entire novel demonstrates that life demands understanding if happiness of any kind is to be possible. Marcel's happiness is that of a paradise lost, the only possible paradise, he realises. Is that "a big idea" or the result of a long search?

Myerson has found instead that minimal, received ideas and philistine posturings do have greater value, at least in promising lucrative careers in popular criticism. It is perhaps too much to ask her to consider the book in its European tradition, marked by history like the Berlin walls - as remarked on in the book - potted by bullet holes. Daane reads the city like a history book. His photographic eye for detail reveals the horror of living on physically untouched by disaster but surrounded by its legacy. His speculations, like Proust's, do have a compulsive edge, as if to stop thinking would return him to blank, unrelenting hunger for his wife and child. But he is aware of it. He recognises it as a symptom in the culture at large. His job is making documentaries for Eurpoean TV channels. But they demand action, violence and politically hot subjects, which appall him. When he suggests a film on Walter Benjamin, they dismiss it out-of-hand. The philistine's review is an example of this behaviour. Daane prefers instead to wander, seeking bleak epiphanies.

Mainstream British culture is also glib and anti-intellectual, demanding the "B grade sludge" of which Daane speaks. It always has been. But now it is also aggressively resistant to any alternative. Even the one TV channel dedicated to more than bland entertainment is attacked by government accountants. And for all the admiring talk from those in charge following the untimely death of John Peel, there will be no attempt to learn from his example. Everything will be forgotten.

What I admire in All Souls' Day is the willingness to remember, to make one last effort to understand, and to take the long way round, deliberately; through the trial of Purgatory.

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