Sunday, September 25, 2005

Milestones: a first anniversary post

It was this day in 2004 when this blog began. To mark it, I shall break from tradition and write about … books. Had you worried there.

Bookworld recently took up a challenge to write about the books which "have shaped, or even defined, the reader". How can one resist such a challenge? Yes, it would easy for me to join in. However, regular readers can guess what authors I am bound to select. The list in the last entry would cover it, in terms of authors at least. So I thought I’d do something different.

When I began reading (circa 1985), I looked everywhere for what I was looking for. Guidance came mainly through reviews and events such as the Booker Prize (though it didn’t take me long to get disillusioned!).

Elsewhere I’ve written about patiently and perplexedly going through JG Ballard’s back catalogue after I had read an article in the New Musical Express. And thinking back to that time, I recall reading a novel that was one of the greatest novels in the whole world ever, or something, so I read it. And that Malcolm Bradbury was hilarious, so I read Rates of Exchange. They were, to say the least, not what I was looking for. (I soon realised that the London newspapers were full of such middlebrow hyperbole).

I was also influenced by specific publishers. I thought Faber & Faber was fab because it published a book on my forthcoming list, so I was attracted to its books. Maggie Gee’s Light Years rather reversed that judgement. Eventually, my judgement became more discerning (I like to think). This list includes milestones along the way. I might have stopped and set up camp, but I no longer live there.

So, the list.

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
First of all, this surname must be pronounced Kun-dur-uh. Death to those who say ‘Kun-dare-er’!

What drew me to this novel, of course, was its extraordinary title. I remember reaching for it on the library display in January 1986, the day of my birthday in fact. The book could easily have been like the movie: shallow and pretentious. And it probably got its notoriety anyway for its promiscuous sex and political sexiness rather than its literary daring. What made the book extra special for me - took it beyond the merely fashionable - was the way it began. Yes, there’s the opening section on Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence (which I didn’t understand), but more importantly for me there’s also the passage where Tomas is introduced looking out of a window, introduced, that is, looking out of a window as seen through the writer’s imagination; not as an obvious figment or a postmodern plaything, but a living presence who begins the narrative. This simple moment of honesty felt like a gift; the key to the door.

Noam Chomsky: Turning the Tide
I used to make a round cycle journey of eight miles to visit the nearest-town-to-my-town’s library. When Robert Wyatt mentioned (in another NME article) that he was reading Noam Chomsky, I looked him up despite my conservative assumptions. Turning the Tide, subtitled United States Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace was new on these shelves. Nowadays his books are everywhere but then, only here. It was more than a political realignment. What Chomsky did for me was to compare word and action. The result was an unexpected juxtaposition revealing that, in the case of those who had influenced me until that point, one obliterated the other. Everyone around me began to speak in code. In political terms, one can hear it everyday. The invasion of Iraq was ‘a mistake’, for example, or President Bush’s delayed response to Hurricane Katrina was ‘a mistake’. Both of these ignore the quite deliberate rationale for each: both invasion and delay were done to enable Bush to carve the reconstruction up among his corporate sponsors. For Katrina, see this article. No mistake at all. Apparent criticism of power, then, is seen to be really the profoundest kind of support. In literary terms, one way among many that we can see this in action is in the infantilisation of novels – symbolised by the rise of JK Rowling. It’s the bad faith of people who read the most simplistic, reductionist fiction and then insist they do it only for escapist purposes when really it only reinforces the conditions from which they feel the need to escape, and to which they are also deeply wedded.

Henry James: The Beast in the Jungle
I don’t remember when I read this for the first time. Actually, it feels like I’ve never read it. In this way it’s like Blanchot’s Death Sentence, which coincidentally I’ve also read three times. This is perhaps because it’s a story that never really gets beyond its beginning. This isn’t a criticism! The stifling restraint of the relationship between John Marcher and May Bartram is matched by the way the story is told. Marcher’s misunderstanding of his fate – which is really also a terrible appreciation – is present also in the logic of our reading. We get to the end only to find the deep ravage is in the face of the other, not in the story. It is outside. We have held ourself apart in reading a book.

In the introduction to my story collection, the editors (including a pre-fame Tom Paulin) sneer at Marchers disdain for reality and his ‘retreat’ into a morbid imagination. They include the story for contrast. But really Marcher’s response is one of excessive respect for reality! He allows the mythical beast to dominate his life. His morbidity emerges in the projection of a world elsewhere. Instead, he needed to be more selfish. James is aware of the irony, hence the necessity of form and content: life always lives in the ironic denial of life.

Richard Ford - The Sportswriter
It still amazes me now. I read this novel three times in the late 80s. I also loved its successor Independence Day. Everything else Ford has written has left me non-plussed. What I liked here was the voice of failure seeking and refusing to seek. I liked the flatness of it all. It is a flatness that isn’t as smug and precious as in Raymond Carver’s stories. Apparently Ford is working on the third volume.

Colin Wilson - The Outsider
I have no memory of the content of this book except wondering why the Henri Barbusse novel it discusses wasn’t available. But it certainly excited me. I read dozens of Wilson’s other books, all of them products of cynical hack work and/or English philistinism. It embarrasses me to mention it.


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