Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Refusing to grow up: on Banville on Houellebecq

I have yet to read Michel Houellebecq. This is because I asked a friend (with infallible judgement), who had, for an opinion. Shrugging his shoulders and turning his mouth down at the corners, he said: nothing special ... and when you have Thomas Bernhard

Ah yes, Thomas Bernhard: the funniest and, indeed, most readable literary iconoclast of European fiction. Odd, I’ve long thought, how the market for Houellebecq’s virulence and extremism doesn’t extend to Bernhard.

But maybe not so odd, I now think, having read John Banville’s Bookforum essay on the French writer, an essay that takes in Houellebecq's long essay on HP Lovecraft. It seems Lovecraft is the clue to why Bernhard’s name is not read close to Houellebecq’s (except here of course).

An ex-flatmate of mine owned a copy of Lovecraft’s stories. As he displayed special enthusiasm for this writer, I read one of them. I can’t remember the title but it reminded me of Borges’ The God’s Script. However, in comparison it was staggeringly poor. The writing was cringe-makingly florid, and the twist at the end was easier to guess than the one in The Sixth Sense. I mentioned all this to my flatmate, being more diplomatic about Lovecraft than I am here. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t move on to Borges.

In the essay on Lovecraft, Houellebecq’s mentions that he discovered the stories aged seven. He immersed himself in Lovecraft's world of fantasy. That rather indicates why my flatmate didn’t want to read Borges. It meant letting go of childhood naïvete and the innate, unrepeatable wonder of the world that it allows. Or rather, letting go of the nostalgia for this state. The story I read could have frightened only a seven-year-old. In Borges, fantasy is never unfettered, never innocent, and the pleasure it affords a colder heaven. A seven-year-old would most likely be non-plussed. Actually, so would my flatmate.

According to Banville's analysis and quotations, it does seem to me that Houellebecq is essentially a disillusioned Romantic – the child who resents growing up and stamps his feet as a result. The passages of extreme misanthropy are blatantly disingenuous ("For all the ferocity of his vision, Houellebecq does have a heart"). Whereas in Bernhard the narration is always subject to its itself, there is a self-satisfied arrogance in Houellebecq that refuses to be included under the terms of its observations.

Maybe the novels are more nuanced, though Banville - usually an acute critic - doesn’t bring this out. In fact, his essay is surprising for the vagueness of its praise and criticism. He says Houellebecq is darker than Beckett because he "would never allow himself, or us, those lyric transports that flickeringly illuminate the Beckettian night". If lyricism transports, then where does it take us? Somewhere nice, apparently. Yet there were transports from European cities in Beckett's time. So maybe it's not so straightforward with lyricism; perhaps that's what makes it lyrical.

Banville then uncritically quotes Houellebecq on Lovecraft: "There is something not really literary about [his] work." Yet what could be more literary in a writer than that?! Remember folks, if you can fake unliterary writing, you can make great literature!

Then later, referring to Houellebecq's court appearance over racial insults and incitement to religious hatred, he swipes at the "many French intellectuals [who] at best kept silent and at worst sided with Houellebecq's accusers". But he offers no names. Banville doesn't comment on Houellebecq's opinions and how they might be reddened by subsequent massacres of Muslims by Christians in Iraq in the last two years. Should we make of that any more than he makes of anonymous silent French intellectuals?

He also fails to mention any names again when laughing at 'critics' who ascribe Houellebecq's opinions to his peculiar upbringing (which Banville details, rather begging the question): "How simple and determined it must be, the life of the critic!" Indeed.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Towards a philosophy of note-taking

Anxious, impatiently awaiting a phone call, I tried to relax by reading Vilém Flusser's small book on photography. Last year, Steven Shaviro put me on to it, and this week I found a secondhand copy.

The opening seven pages are extraordinary. It is about somewhat more than photography! So I began taking notes. It distracted me and I relaxed.

Each page of the book filled a page of notes in my large Moleskine. You won't keep this up, I told myself. It always happens this way. You start a book and you take copious notes for the first chapter. You think this time for the first time you won't forget what you've read. But then they peter out. In the notebook there is usually a page number like '27' next to the note. Yet below, the next note is marked '156'. It's shameful! So what's the point of all these notes now?

Actually, in the midst of this frenzy of note-taking, I made a note to think about note-taking.

But if it was in the midst of the frenzy, wasn't it part of the frenzy? No. Because it was calmness itself.

The note-taking during the reading of the Flusser book enabled me to overcome the travel sickness in the arrhythmic opening movement that is inevitable in an unfamiliar book. Once I am further into the journey, I can sit back and breath steadily, even doze off and dream. The other note was a sedative.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A flight of possibilities

I started writing a blog about Paul Auster's Oracle Night but have now posted it as a review at Spike.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Kafka dicks: on people with their subtexts around their ankles

This subject has provoked me before. In this week's TLS Michael Maar reviews - somewhat late - the latest biography of Kafka by Nicholas Murray. Maar presents many hints that Kafka was a repressed homosexual. This is a very familiar theme. It won’t go away. This is due partly to the infinite number of subtexts one can read into Kafka’s work, and partly because we want simple answers to the most complex issues.

In fact, it seems more promising to make out a case for Kafka’s ‘secret’ being an attraction to very young women. Read his diaries (page 466 onward) for his trip to Weimar with Max Brod in which Kafka’s becomes pathetically infatuated with Grete Kirchner, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the custodian of Goethe’s wohnhaus. Kafka celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday in the city. He wrote The Judgement soon after returning to Prague after Grete used a dead bat on all his advances. The secret inspiration of that story is usually construed as homosexuality due to Georg Bendemann’s ambivalence about telling his fiancée about his 'friend in Russia' (he said 'bende’, heh heh). This corresponds with Kafka’s new relationship with Felice Bauer, to whom he was not physically attracted. Yet one could say it was a classic on-the-rebound relationship, with Kafka’s real heart being elsewhere in an impossible love for Grete ('If a person could only pour sorrow out of the window').

Moreover, what's the name of Gregor's sister in Metamorphosis with whom there is an undercurrent of incestuous love?

Alan Bennett’s comedy play takes the prurience one step further of course. It makes affectionate fun of the reductionism of small-minded people as well as appealing to them. Bennett’s work has always done this. In that other blog entry, I mention Bennett’s wonderful remark when asked to admit that he is gay ('like asking a man in the desert which brand of mineral water he preferred'). Evidently he felt it was a question that avoided more pressing matters, which is much the same as I feel about the question of Kafka’s sexuality.

(Coincidentally, I was at an event on Sunday night in which Bennett was present with his ‘partner’ – a younger man. They both seemed very happy. I suspect the people who drone on that Kafka was a closet gay are not so comfortable with themselves and need to bring others down to their level. Either that or they're very bad readers.)

As everyone who promotes this knowing reading (the other post quotes one or two) has to admit, as Maar says: 'there is no corroborating document like Kleist’s letter to Pfuel.' He goes on:

Matters are in any case more complicated with Kafka, and his happy life with Dora Diamant in the year before he died seems to [indicate] a happiness of whose private circumstances, however, posterity knows next to nothing.

Except we now know more than nothing from Kathi Diamant’s very moving book about Dora: Kafka’s Last Love. This might not include anything about whether Franz preferred Dora’s, er, posterity, but one doesn’t read about Kafka for hardcore titillation (unless you're very sad).

Finally, and on an encouraging note for Kafka fans without any German, Maar tells us that the first volume of Reiner Stach’s massive biography Kafka: the Decisive Years is being published in translation later this year (did he become less decisive later then?).

The book ‘recently created a furore in Germany’ and has 672 pages. The longer the better I say, which I’m sure Bennett’s Kafka would endorse.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Somewhere about hope: Adam Phillips on 'a new sane art'

Last night, ITV’s arts documentary series The South Bank Show featured the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips talking about his new book Going Sane. Although the discussion was generally about notions of madness and sanity in our culture, the focus was on art. I was taken by Phillips’ advocacy of 'a new sane art':

There are so few articulated alternatives to a glamourised version of madness, or a despairing version of madness. So it might be worth producing descriptions of what about ourselves we think might be valuable, that is not a version of passion, possession, elsewhereness, otherness, and so on.

He tends to think this isn't something we get from mainstream art (the following is my rough transcript of a conversation with presenter Melvyn Bragg):

Adam Phillips: We might look to poetry now because poetry is marginalised - which is the best thing about it! It's freeing people actually to be able to work their own way. People are only going to be poets now if they really want to be. There's no money in it and very little glamour. That seems to be promising. The only pay-off of being a poet now is writing a good poem. And this seems to hold within itself the possibility that people will be freer with their own thoughs. They’ll be less preoccupied by being winning, or by being charming or indeed by selling anything, because they’ve got nothing to sell.

I think the new thing that might be happening is that the new sane artist will not be seeking recognition. That is whereas the mainstream of artists will be seeking recognition, fame and fortune, the new sane artist will have to dispense with precisely that quest to do their work.

Melvyn Bragg: Why is that important?

AP: Because it frees you. Because once you relinquish the market (and that doesn’t mean you don’t earn your living), once you relinquish the saleability of your art now, you’re now freer to have your own thoughts. Because, insofar as you’re interested in marketing your thoughts, you have to be pre-occupied by a fantasy of what people want. It makes you compliant; it makes you inevitably servile to a fancy of the audience. Whereas if you have no audience, that interest drops out.

MB: But having no audience can often mean for people not having the time to do the work they want to do. They have to work in a bank, or teach – do jobs which tire them and therefore when it comes to do the work they want to do, there is no energy left to do it.

AP: I can see that. But also I think that is, now, the deal. Which is people will have to find other ways of making their living if they are to produce real art.

There is a kind of sane art that, without ignoring the complexities and difficulties of life, makes one feel that the project is worth it. Art, it seems to me, is against suicide. And that's a value ... it's somewhere about hope.


There is much I want to respond to here. But this is too long already. I'll say this though: while I was delighted to hear such an opinion (particularly on this programme which frequently offers a sop to popular culture by virtue solely of its popularity), I did want the apparent Romanticism of this 'new sane art' tempered by the acknowledgement ('recognition' perhaps) that all art, by definition, is always already public; that is what makes it a challenge to produce and what makes it universal. The freeing of individual thought is not as straightforward as it might seem, as I'm sure Phillips would have said if he had had the time and not been seeking recognition on a mainstream TV arts show!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Fortitude that finds no raison d'être

Even though I know it doesn't matter, I experience a mixture of bitterness, contempt, anger and loathing for people who begin interesting blogs then announce that it is to end because they say it takes up too much time and that they are too busy to give it the time it deserves, or that they want to get back to the real world. Bullshit.

Also, I feel sadness. But mainly the rest.

And I've started looking again in the American Literature section of the library - that is I was looking before it closed and am looking again now that it's reopened - for Robert Lowell's Collected Poems. But it's not appeared, ever. Nor has it appeared in paperback in the real world.

Not that I care really. I have at least one collection of Lowell's poetry (History) and I've not read it all. It's just that I really like one poem, which happens to be a translation of Mallarmé's Swan. I know it by heart for some reason. I never tried to learn it. And somewhere in a box, I'm sure I have his Imitations. But I've not read any of it. So I don't know why I'm looking for the too-big new collection (Michael Hofmann's enthusiasm has something to do with it, I'm sure). One poem is enough though. The book is too big.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The bed notebook

Yesterday I revealed to a shocked world that I had withdrawn Paul Auster's Oracle Night from the new and completely wonderful Jubilee Library. When I got home, the first thing I did was to put a bookmark against page one. For this purpose, and for at least the last twelve years, I've used rail tickets with a triangular snip in the side. I have a couple of hundred, many already ensconced within books I've yet to complete. They range in date from 1993 to this year, although they're becoming increasingly difficult to keep as electronic gates eat up most of them.

I didn't start reading the book until returning from a meal with workmates at a restaurant celebrating the end of a project on, of all things, passports. In the pre-meal drinks session, I regaled them all with a tale of being sent to London in company time to get my first passport in order to fly to Holland the next day and meet a client. This was nine years ago. They couldn’t believe it.

Anyway, so when I got back and into bed, I read the first 10 pages of Oracle Night and thoroughally enjoyed it, even if I did cough and splutter at the profusion of bare-faced clichés: back in the swing of things and to all intents and purposes on the first half page alone.

Then the bookmark caught my eye.



And yes, it was ticket from the trip to London to get my passport all those years ago.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Where do we find ourselves?

TEV and others have posted trivia around the meme Ten things I've done that others might not have.

Reading them is an odd experience. You begin to realise how strange experience is in the first place. I made a list and feel that it's got very little to do with me. And when reading others' lists, this curious sense of displacement wells up. What has all this got to do with anyone?

 Have had my jaw broken deliberately in two places
 Seen George Best score a hat-trick (and against Scumhampton too!)
 Knew someone who was murdered and knew someone who murdered
 Worked in a submarine museum
 Read In Search of Lost Time three times
 Survived a ceiling fall in on me as I slept
 Spent over nine years on a casual contract
 In three days saw four football matches in four English counties
 Reviewed a book for a foreign national newspaper
 Have had a birthdate that's a palindrome and the same upside down even when including my age

A fantasy fulfilled

When I first used a library, I wondered what it would be like if all the books owned by the library were returned. What perennially unavailable book would suddenly appear?

It was mere fantasy until today. In an exceptional snow shower, I visited Brighton's new Jubilee Library. I elbowed the hoi polloi out of the way and began trawling the fiction shelves. So many new books! But not one I wanted, of course. Copies by the dozen of The Alchemist, Vernon God Little and sundry Dan Brown-type trash. In the end I took Oracle Night by Auster. Last time I read him was around the time of Leviathan and I want to see what the new stuff is like.

Upstairs in the non-fiction section, I picked out books on Borges, Kierkegaard and the history of photography.

Like most library users, I really can't be bothered with all the non-book related stuff, but the self-service withdrawal is fantastic. You place the books on a wooden stall, swipe your membership card, press the relevant button and it prints out a little slip telling you when the books are due back.



Reluctantly, after an hour on a binge-high, I re-entered the blizzard and returned to the place where the books are to be read. Or at least stored before they're returned and replaced by newer books.

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