Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Lost in translation, part 94

The Guardian follows up John Carey's speech condemning the lack of new foreign translations by asking "some experts" for recommendations. Unfortunately, the last person one should ask, after John Carey himself, is the only one to nominate THREE names. Of course, not one of my pet names is mentioned.

Apropos of this, I thought, despite the many books I have already on the go, I would read Thomas Bernhard's Extinction again, for the fourth time. So I read the first page, with its long, exquisite, wrenching opening sentence. After that, the narrator goes on to list five books he wants his pupil to read. I realised that three of them don't seem to have been translated: Jean Paul's Siebenkäs, Robert Musil's The Portuguese Woman and Broch's Esch or Anarchy. At least, I couldn't find any editions.

The other two are Kafka's The Trial and Bernhard's own Amras, the latter of which can be found in the recently-published (though not in the UK mind) Three Novellas.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

You are the murderer you seek

"Britain's literary scene is so parochial that there is virtually a conspiracy against readers experiencing the best of the world's literature". Yes, and I agree with John Carey's speech. "If such laxity had applied 50 or 60 years ago, "that would have meant, for the English reader, no Kafka, no Camus, no Calvino, no Borges," he said.

Funny, I don't recall seeing translations of the inheritors of such Modernist greats (Handke, Bernhard, Appelfeld, Hofmann, to name but four) getting much attention from the chief literary critic of the Sunday Times.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Kafka and Berlin

Mark Harman's essay Missing Persons: Two Little Riddles About Kafka and Berlin is full of interest. Kafka's reaction to watching Hamlet, the untranslated letters from Berlin to his parents and (especially) the mystery of the letters he wrote for a little girl found in a park weeping over the loss of a doll.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Reading Appelfeld's The Story of a Life

The very short seventh chapter of Aharon Appelfeld's memoir begins with a simple sentence:

I met wonderful people during the long years of the war.

He cannot recall many of them because 'it went by in such a blur'. Appelfeld was still only a child after all. 'Children were like the straw on which everyone trod.'

The chapter remembers one particular woman who helped an abandoned four-year-old child as they awaited, with hundreds of others, Appelfeld among them, transportation from a Ukrainian railway station.

With simple observation, description and dialogue Appelfeld revives a forgotten moment and makes it unforgettable. It is one of the most distressing things to read.

This is easy to say. There's a tendency toward masochism and Schadenfreude in reading about those times. How is it really distressing?

When I put the book down, I got on with my day. I have read such things before and carried on. Lawrence Langer's Holocaust Testimonies: the ruins of memory is full of similar stories where past or future are not provided for narrative enclosure. Langer's thesis is that video testimony offers a truer account of the holocaust (in psychological terms if not also historical) as the testifiers are less likely to engage in literary conventions (beginnings, middles and ends).

As I got on with my day, one psychological effect that struck me was that I responded to the story in the way I respond to fiction. This is not to say I don't believe Appelfeld. It is not a question of belief. To answer it so would be to avoid the story itself. The story is only ever potential. This is distressing.

Word and words: on creative writing software

I am writing this using my three-week-old iBook. It's my first Mac and my first laptop. It has been an unqualified joy (once I had got used to Mac's peculiarities). I can write in the peace of my bedroom. I can write watching the TV (as I'm doing now: Saskia is caressing Maxwell's head in a rather mercenary kind of way in Big Brother 6). And I can write: full stop.

The PC and where the PC is have too many distractions. This iBook has no internet connection apart from the wifi from which I can leach in one area of the flat :) Unfortunately this spot is right next to the PC :(

There is a software problem though. I really don't like using Word for Mac. On my PC, I have customised the Windows background to an olive green colour. I have done so for years. But Word for Mac doesn't allow such global commands (unless you know different). Each document has to be customised. Also, I can't really concentrate on the words themselves.

Chekhov's Mistress came to the rescue by introducing me to a product for Macs called Ulysses made by the Blue Technologies Group of Germany. It offers a completely full screen edit mode (with a very effective default background of black with yellow text). I am writing this using this wonderful facility. Word for Mac's full screen, on the other hand, is laughable. You can't get rid of the menu across the top and there's a bloody great button saying 'Close Full Screen' on screen at all times. Is this Microsoft's little joke? Ulysses also has organisational and note-making features that seemed designed for the way I want to write.

Along with Ulysses, I tried another product called Copywrite which had been recommended in the comments to a blog entry at 43 Folders. In fact, I tried Copywrite three times. I installed it three times and uninstalled it three times. The demo is maddening. Opening documents didn't seem to open anything, and when one did open it seemed of its own accord. I was tempted back each time because it also has a decent full screen edit mode, allows limited archiving in the demo and, at under $30 for the full package, is much cheaper than Ulysses. However, each advantage of the demo paled before its lack of usability. I didn't trust it.

So, today, as I walked along the prom, I resolved to buy Ulysses. What convinced me was the producer's special offer running to mark Bloomsday (technical problems preventing coincidence with June 16th apparently). How can one not feel comfortable with such literate fellows? Even though €62 still seemed very steep, I hoped it would release much-needed concentration.

Before buying, I had a look around the demo and the company's site. Early on I happened upon discomforting spelling errors ('devided', 'appart'). Still, English isn't their first language. So I got my credit card details ready and looked for the Shop page. This is where the site's design increases doubts. One has to scroll in search of the Download and Buy buttons. But I didn't buy. Why? Well, in between my decision to buy and getting the card out, the price had risen to €82, up €20!

It was then I realised that all such concerns about writing are merely excuses not to write. This blog is another such excuse.

Now to copy & paste into Word for Mac after setting the background to black with yellow text. Sorted. Time for bed.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

On the solitude of the long-distant blogger

Why did I add 'the fire's blog' to the title? (Actually, I'd prefer it to be lower case but the strip is hard-coded. If anyone knows how to change it without reloading a new template, please advise!)

I changed it because This Space is too bland. At first, I liked it bland. It is supposed to focus on the space of writing rather than what is apparently beyond it; a beyond that many other blogs, professing to be literary, assume to be literature's salvation.

So, thinking of Blanchot's La Part du Feu, I added the added bit. So what does that mean?

I'm not sure. In her introduction to the translation of Blanchot's book, Charlotte Mandell says the title The Work of Fire is 'inadequate to all portended' by the original. And a lot is portended! (In his review in th TLS, Gabriel Josipovici says he prefers The Fire's Share).

What I take it to refer to is the various roles of fire: to lighten, to heat and to destroy. The essays are about that part of literature incinerated when appropriated or adapted to culture. Most, if not all, of that which lightens and warms is destroyed when turned into cultural capital.

We soon turn our reading experience into cultural capital. Dan Green provides the resistance to its common manifestations, while Sandra of Book World links to an amusing and sinister example of its excesses. But the peculiarity of the literary experience makes such examples inevitable in sociopathic publications.

(This evanescent quality of literature also prompted the blog's title in the first place, as Blanchot wrote in Lautréamont & Sade: Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words. And as such, due to the fact that it claims modestly and obstinately to be nothing, criticism ceases being distinguished from the creative discourse of which it would be the necessary actualization or, metaphorically speaking, the epiphany.)

There is still, however, in the rest of us, the sense of something other than chat about fashion, plot and character; of something burned away that cannot be spoken of and ordered so readily. It's there in the same people who write such nonsense as linked to above. Hence a near-universal frustration with literary discussion; a sense of inadequacy; a preference for silence, the carefree distress of inertia, the resort to cynicism and, more lately, infantilism, or as alternative to all these that is, in fact, no different: productivity.

I have practised most myself.

Perhaps this thing burned away is solitude; the movement of abandon in reading and writing that seems to be the precise opposite; a solitude experienced where solitude ends. But vice versa too.

A solitude that is not loneliness but the time when one is suddenly – slowly as a narrative proceeds and yet, all at once, in the first sentence – adandoned. Here, culture appears as the relief-giving fire break.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The limited experience: Laura Cantrell's new LP

This mp3 blog called Borrowed Tunes (presumably a reference to Neil Young's song) provides links to two songs from Laura Cantrell's gorgeous new LP Humming by the Flowered Vine. One is possibly the best upbeat track on the record, the other is the only dud (probably covered as a nod to the woman Laura is supporting on tour).

Borrowed Tunes tells us that her voice is somewhat limited. It's probably true. But is it really a criticism?

With this in mind for a moment, I thought of my favourite authors and remembered how James Wood called Thomas Bernhard "a drastically limited artist" (scroll to the entry for The Loser) - and I think: so what? My favourite writers are all limited: Blanchot, Josipovici, Appelfeld, Handke and, yes, Bernhard.

There's something about knowing your limits and making the most of them. Appelfeld does not go where others go. And I’d rather have the 154 pages of Concrete, and read it ten times, than read an expansive talent’s 1500-page soap opera even once.

And it's also why I'll listen to Merle Haggard rather than Wagner anyday.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Neufundland: on two novels with the same title

Note the two Bs. Rebbecca Ray has just published Newfoundland, a novel of 1000 pages. She is 25 and it took her seven years to write. Tanya Gold read it in one sitting (and in the report at least doubles the amount of novels published by Proust).

I was drawn to read about the new novel because of its title ("obviously a metaphor"). When he died, Thomas Bernhard left an apparently uncompleted manuscript for a novel entitled (in German) Neufundland (the place and a metaphor). It consists of the first sentence on one page - about two people, one of whom is a doctor, going up to a house on a mountain, and the final sentence (in translation) on the second page: … and died at the age of fifty-nine in Newfoundland.

Bernhard died aged 58 in Gmunden, Austria. His half-brother was a doctor.

I’ve often thought: wouldn’t it be great to write that novel; to write over the space written by death.

But no, I think. Write nothing. Write less than nothing.

Friday, June 17, 2005

In which no heroes stumble: on realism and suspending disbelief

TEV asks whether we find the following sentence (from Nicole Krauss' novel The History of Love) moving or sentimental:

Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

Neither express how I find it, but "vomit-inducing nausea" is not an option.

The post concentrates on TEV's response to James Wood's LRB review of the novel. It argues that Wood's commitment to 'realism' makes him insensitive to the ordinary pleasures of reading. From the extracts of the review, it is clear Wood is appalled at the novel's sentimentality and its caricature of Jewishness. While they reflect a sensitivity perhaps borrowed from Wood's US literary editor, the test sentence completely justifies the judgement about sentimentality.

Actually, TEV accepts the charge but says "for every mawkish note [Krauss] strikes, there is a balancing supply of graceful prose". He reckons Wood needs to embrace a willing suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the novel. Wood is reluctant to do this though "perhaps understandably" TEV says "given his literary preoccupations".

Pardon? Are we being told that Wood's commitment to realism is a "literary preoccupation"? What then is TEV's love of suspending his disbelief?

Let's look at that one sentence again: Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

I want to ask: who knows what 'he' wants? The author, of course. I know. But how does she know? What would it mean for fiction for her not to know? We might bury the question under landscapes of "graceful prose" but it's there, like a molehill on the lawn.

With this in mind, TEV's distinction between realism and suspending one's disbelief is incorrect. He seems to think it is a matter of style. If that was the case then realism would also depend on a willingness to suspend one's disbelief - you have to forget that you're reading at all. Literature is, after all, a world in which Hubert Selby Jnr and Wallace Stevens are one.

There is a common wish, running as an undercurrent through the literary blogosphere, for novels to return to the innocence of the Victorian classic. Yet even the most unabashed supporter of this wish doesn't really believe such innocence is possible anymore. Hence the nods toward irony and florid pastiche (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Crimson and the Petal) and equally excessive praise. While these disappear like the desperate ephemera that they are, there are more subtle examples, for which so many gullible readers still fall. You can read about them every week. (This Space seems to have become a firefighting operation!)

The narrative of a truly realistic novel would be an expedition to the space between the world and the book, or - to make it more pertinent - between oneself and everything else. Sentences like the one above collapse that space; make those living in it pawns in our solipsistic games, masquerading as empathy. But what is really going on in that space? It is a question each of us could spend our whole lives answering.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Writers are cunts: it's official

"Geniuses are traditionally difficult to live with" so John Carey tells us in his review of Jeffrey Meyers' new book Married to a Genius. Yes, I'm sure we've heard of these kinds of problems. Apparently Shakespeare left the toilet seat up all the time.

Carey tells us that "[a]ccording to D. H. Lawrence you must have 'something vicious in you' to be a writer. Graham Greene said you needed a splinter of ice in your heart." Familiar quotations of course, though I would have thought these were reflections on the writing process. That is, they're telling us one mustn't become overly sentimental when writing because it ruins the work.

Meyers' book features biographical sketches of nine writers with marriage as a theme. "Each study is brilliant and arresting, and they reflect fascinatingly on one another" says JC, although, rather than detail what is brilliant and arresting, the rest of the review is a summary of the juicy gossip. He does suggest that Meyers "reveals how subtly writers' lives infiltrate their fiction" though the only evidence offered isn't exactly original let alone subtle: Tolstoy's wife inspired The Kreutzer Sonata, Nora Barnacle inspired Molly Bloom. Phew, I'll have to sit down!

I wonder if Meyers defines why each of the nine writers is a genius? Carey certainly doesn't. He takes it as a given. The most important thing, it seems, is to chuckle and fake outrage at their extra-literary foibles. That's John Carey folks, the Chief Literary Critic of the Times.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

We need to be told: on an extract from Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel

Ellis Sharp draws our attention to an extract from Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. A sentence describing Kevin as a baby is singled out for punishment: If fear of abandonment contributed to a decibel level that rivalled an industrial buzz saw, his loneliness displayed an awesome existential purity.

"That is very bad writing" says Mr Sharp. "This ... is journalism, not literature", he says. I'm inclined to agree. "Ms. Shriver" he adds "turns out mundane, unchallenging, third-rate prose". Well, it is award-winning.

In the rest of the coverage given to the prize, the quality of such prose has not been an issue (although it is criticised in the one review I've read, from 2003). Instead, attention has focussed on the novel’s apparently taboo subject matter - a mother's fear of bringing monster into the world (so why did she call him Kevin?) and the fact that the author felt the need to use a male pseudonym. This is the familiar territory of literary coverage in the mass media. That is, it has nothing to do with literature.

Yet if we were to read the extract in literary terms, we would have to take into account that the sentence is the expression of the mother, a character who also appears to be the narrator. In this way, it is fair to discuss the content rather than the form. The latter usually becomes invisible anyway once we happily descend into the story. But where does that descent take us? In the novel in question, the mother’s prose style suggests not very far. But why is that? Well, take this line in which Kevin’s mother recalls his babyhood:

I discerned no plaintive cry of appeal, no keen of despair, no nameless gurgle of dread.

The profound legacy of Nabokov’s lyricism is easily detectable here, just as it is through so much of modern literary fiction: the repetition (no, no, no), the resourceful and elegant variations (cry, keen, gurgle) and the medley of unspecific, objectively-labelled human emotions (appeal, despair, dread). However, as Humbert Humbert famously observed, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. In Lolita, the style of narration is tied intimately to the subject matter: the contrast and connections between Humbert’s lyric sensibility (his sweet love for Lolita) and its manifestation in the real world (his criminal lust for her). In the review above, we're told that the "mother is absolved of all blame", which suggests, by contrast with Lolita, the prose is just for show. As we've seen recently with the Lit Blog Co-Op's first Read This! recommendation, such showiness is assumed to be an uncritical end in itself.

Whether We Need to Talk About Kevin shares more than taboo with Nabokov’s greatest novel remains to be seen. In the coverage of the award, one can get hints of the novel's ultimate level ("[It]has two Hitchcockian twists which make it easy to sell to bookshops, but also a touch of sentimentality at the end") but generally the coverage avoids such awkward (literary) matters; such is the real function of awards.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

This morning, a commemoration

Chapter one of Jacques Roubaud's novel The Great Fire of London begins:

This morning of 11 June 1985 (it's five o'clock), while writing this on the scant space left from by the papers on my desktop, I hear passing, in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, two floors below on my left, a delivery van which has probably pulled up in from of the former Nicolas store beside the Arnoult butcher shop.

A quiet opening. I still return to this book, despite numerous readings, intrigued by its quietness: quiet ambition, quiet intensity, quiet success.

You can read more about it in a rich online casebook published, like the novel itself, by Dalkey Archive. There's also an essay - Interlaced with Night - by me, and various blog entries at Spurious.

The novel is, however, only the first in a cycle of (at least) five in the original French:

Le grand incendie de Londres
La Boucle
Mathématique: récit
Poésie: récit
La Bibliothèque de Warburg


It's fourteen years since Dominic Di Bernardi's translation was published.

Friday, June 10, 2005

"I'm in the fold right now, as a matter of fact"

I've worked on this particular office floor for 15 months. It's open plan. I returned from lunch and was gazing around. Behind me all the usual faces were still at lunch. Behind them if they were there was the usual graphic artist. He was working away. Behind him, on the wall, was a whiteboard. On the whiteboard, I noticed, was a clock. That is, only the hands and four diamonds representing the clock's four points: north, south, east and west. I had not seen it before. So I looked closely to see if it was real or not. It seemed very flat. But I could see that it was the right time by my computer's clock: five to two exactly. So it must be real. I got up to take a closer look. It had been sketched on with a black marker pen.

Monday, June 06, 2005

To death and back: watching the BBC

Tonight is the fifth and final episode in the BBC documentary series How Art Made the World. I found it difficult to watch after the first one. The presenter has been shoe-horned into an over-written, over-dramatised script - every group of archeologists was "totally unprepared for what they discovered"; each discovery was "astounding". But this is standard practise now as the BBC seeks to appeal to audiences who like being patronised. Sometimes the series has addressed interesting questions even if it supplies unsatisfactory, science-based answers. In one episode it ended an investigation into cave paintings by claiming the reason why the paintings look like they do is because they represent drug-induced trances which ancient humans "wanted to capture". But why they "wanted to capture" them went unaddressed.

This evening's looks like it might belatedly try to answer:

Today in the 21st Century people see fewer real dead bodies than at any time in history. Yet in the modern world we seem almost obsessed with images of death. In an investigation encompassing ancient Jericho, Aztec America, and classical Italy, How Art Made the World discovers what it is that has compelled human beings to surround themselves with images of death for thousands of years.

"Images of death" is, of course, a pleonasm. :)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Clive James doesn't make connections

In the ample space of the TLS, Clive James reviews John Bayley's collection of literary essays (I wonder if it includes this one?). The third paragraph begins:

[Bayley] sees no end of connections [between novels], the best thing about which is that they are not theoretical. Apart from his intellectual objections, the main reason Bayley has no time for literary theory is that he is absorbed in literary practice.

Of course, James likes to think he also has no time for such pretension. A lot further on he announces that:

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved.

Who needs theory indeed?

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