Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Beckett's Hall of fame

In a quietly fascinating piece, Sir Peter Hall reflects on the impact of presenting the English language version of Waiting for Godot for the first time fifty years ago:

This was dramatic poetry — organic, not words applied as verbal sequins. I wondered less and less about what the play meant. It was a metaphor. It meant what it said.

Godot began a process of returning theatre to its metaphorical roots — a process which has continued to this day. It challenged and defeated 100 years of literal naturalism.


Perhaps we need such a controversial hit now, particularly in the novel. Reading of those who scorned the play at the time, it is clear nothing has really changed that much. One need only replace the names and the titles. Then it was the repellent squirt Bernard Levin, today it's 'Skid' Mark Steyn, David Baddiel, Robert McCrum and innumerable others. We might think Levin's contempt was an unfortunate aberration, but there is a reason why the papers are still packed with his modern day equivalents. As the editors of Medialens put it:

Leading commentators are paid vast sums for doing very little. How else are they to make this kind of money? How much better to let someone else ask the tough questions and instead seek job security in bland observations, trivia and obfuscation.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Great novels need great readers: a note on graphic novels

The other day, somebody tried to explain to some people from work my suspicion of graphic novels. Unfortunately, before I had had chance to correct them, certain lines were thrown at me: You can’t just condemn every one! (meaning every graphic novel). But it’s as valid as any other art form! Once I had a chance to explain that I was neither condeming every graphical novel nor do I believe that it is not a valid art form, my colleagues calmed down … and left the room. Still, it enabled me to find out for myself, as I improvised on my suspicion, what I really think, again.

The reason why I am so doubtful that graphical novels can also be powerful literary works is down to one reason (which might well also be an assumption): there has yet to be published either a graphical novel of sufficient literary distinction or, perhaps more importantly, a review/essay that speaks powerfully for such a novel (and I mean specifically for that novel’s literary distinction). Perhaps you know of one.

It might be said (rather than argued) that only literary idiot savant like me would need a review to convince me that a graphic novel was worth reading and gave the Novel in general a powerful new direction. But I don't think so. Great novels often require great readers. From what I've read so far, people want literary cache without having the slightest clue what it means (and so, like David Baddiel in The Times, make all kinds of spurious definitions).

For convenience, I’ll turn to a negative example. One reason why the Lit Blog Co-Op’s first Read This! choice got such a mixed response was due, I think, to the recommendation: it is like a forum rave for a brand of tranquiliser! One really needs more than this. The minority opinion helped by filling in some of the smiling blanks.

So, where are the great readers of the graphic novel?

PS: in order to give an impression of open-mindedness, I am currently, er, looking at V for Vendetta by Moore & Lloyd.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Addicted to books: on despair and escape

What does it mean to be addicted to books? I remember hearing Anthony Burgess saying he read everything, from the recipes on the labels of Lea & Perrins bottles to Jackie Collins and onto the most complex treatise on language. Why do I remember this? I’m sure it isn’t only trivia clogging up the mind. Perhaps it’s one of those things that helps you to determine something about yourself. I don’t read everything. I am not addicted to reading. Burgess spoke of it as a curious and rather pleasant affliction over which happily he had no control. We often hear certain writers' works described as addictive. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, but there is something in it.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the nausea I have felt reading a compulsive storyline. One cannot turn the pages fast enough, and yet, when the denouement is reached, there is very little satisfaction. There is only the room behind the book spinning and a wish for something more. I suppose that usually this would be another book.

There is something despairing in this cycle.

At first it might seem ironic, but I’m sure somebody has described Thomas Bernhard’s novels as ‘wickedly addictive’. If they haven't, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say it. But what distinguishes his novels from sauce bottles and Jackie Collins and treatise on language is that the despair cascading through them is recognised. It is part of the compelling narrative. We become addicted to Franz-Josef Murau’s delaying tactics as he avoids facing his past and future. Despair becomes the main content of the novel to the point where it is painfully obvious and painfully funny. It is 'wickedly addictive', yes, but one cannot escape the implications of that addiction. Reading Bernhard is thus far more pleasurable (to me at least) because one begins to see a way out of the ever-decreasing circles of despair.

The allusion to Dante’s Inferno is perhaps more than fortuitous.

It can help me to clarify a comment in a previous post in which I said that I prefer literary fiction over genre because engages me ‘at the deepest level’. This engagement might take place in the way literary fiction includes itself in the logic of its narrative (and thereby becomes literary). In doing so, it recognises (unless it’s done in an arch, postmodern way) the despair in the acts of reading and writing. This offers the possibility of a way out of addiction: a more realistic form of escape. The engagement would then be to include oneself in relation to the narrative. We might go places, as Dante did. Where, for him, faith in God was the key, for us it is perhaps to have more faith in art.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

GOB Stopper: defining literary fiction

It's one of the major reference points of bookchat: the definition of literary fiction. There are as many definitions as there are litblogs. But there is a constant: evasion.

We all know what genre fiction looks like: there's romance, there's crime, there's fantasy. Sometimes there are even pictures. Yet some of my favourite literary novels contains these too: Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is nothing if not a romance. Peter Handke's Across contains a murder. Borges is fantastical. And WG Sebald's novels have all sorts of pictures. How are these distinguishable from genre fiction?

To seek an answer is itself a literary endeavour.

Unfortunately, this means those who perhaps most need to appreciate the answer are bound to avoid it. One can see examples everywhere. For instance, Grumpy Old Bookman sidesteps the issue with some bizarre accusations and assumptions. Take this entry beginning:

Just occasionally, you may come across comments in the more 'elevated' realms of the literary world which might lead you to believe that those who write in the 'lesser' genres - crime, science fiction, and romance - are, somehow or other, people of lesser intelligence, not so well bred

As is common with GOB, no examples are offered. There is a good reason for that of course. The inverted commas indicate the workings of an inferiority complex. Who is speaking here?

He goes on to insist that: genre writers are certainly not inferior when it comes to IQ and general knowledge.

Who would doubt this? Still, this time he provides evidence: the appearance of the Romantic Novelists' Association on BBC2's University Challenge. (Gert Hofmann wasn't among them.)

The subtext to all this is clear: why is genre fiction not taken seriously. Why is it not given the recognition it deserves. After all, genre writers are intelligent, their novels superbly-crafted, their prose elegant and precise, and the entertainment value second-to-none. No sane person doubts this. So why aren't they regarded with the same esteem as the literary writers?

Help toward an answer comes in an article by David Baddiel in The Times. He castigates prize judges for giving the top awards to books for reason extrinsic to literature. He cites Heaney's Beowulf getting the Whitbread over a Harry Potter volume as an example of snobbery. I'm sure GOB would concur, as I do, with this judgement. Only it isn't literary snobbery. It's that inferiority complex again. Baddiel remembers Rose Tremain - one of the judges - telling him the book was chosen for its relevance to the war in Bosnia. This is typical. Elfriede Jelinek got the Nobel Prize instead of Peter Handke for political reasons. In public discourse, non-literary reasons invariably take the place of the necessary literary endeavour. Otherwise an uneasy silence spreads across the public space. Alfred Nobel's stipulation that his literature award should go to a writer working "in an ideal direction" (as Handke does) is full of such silence. The esteem for literary writers is really esteem for their noisy avoidance of the literary.

I shall myself evade defining literary fiction right now. Let this entire blog stand for that endeavour. I will say this though: when I read a novel, it's not IQ and general knowledge I seek or admire, it isn't elegant prose, fiendish plots or psychological realism. It's not even entertainment. I seek an engagement at the deepest level. It’s not always the most comfortable of experiences, and if I had any intelligence maybe I'd avoid it by getting lost in some genre fiction.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Poetry of the novel: Beckett in Germany looking at paintings

One thing I dislike about biographies is that they often begin with the subject's birth. While I accept that this might be necessary, the background of grandparents, parents and siblings, no matter how brief, is often tiresome. By the time the subject is an adult, my interest tends only to be in finishing the book. For this reason, I began re-reading Damned to Fame, James Knowlson's long, pains-taking biography of Beckett, from Chapter 10: Germany – the Unknown Diaries 1936-37. The chapter also contains the deeper reason for my impatience.

Elsewhere I have mentioned that 2006 is Beckett's centenary. I'm looking out for the news of the promised first editions of his collected correspondence. Knowlson whets the appetite with quotations from a few letters. I have read them before. Indeed Spike's review of this and Anthony Cronin's The Last Modernist was the first thing I ever wrote for it, back in 1996, the year of its birth (which means Spike has a special anniversary itself). I don't recall much of either biography, hence the decision to do so again but without the stifling preamble.

Beckett is 30 and, as he leaves Ireland for a not-so-grand tour of Germany, has various people trying to get Murphy published in the UK and US. In my review of the biography, I mention that these diaries reveal that Beckett to be very conscious of what was happening in Germany at that time. He despised the Nazis and was disgusted by those who parroted received opinion. The Nazis also frustrated the main purpose of the trip, and this is what makes this chapter particularly intriguing; something I didn't mention in the review: Beckett's travels are almost solely given over to viewing art. And he mixed not with writers but collectors and artists. He visits Hamburg, Brunswick, Erfurt, Dresden, Berlin and Munich always to view paintings.

At that time the Nazis had banned 'decadent' art from exhibition, so it was rare he could see all that he wanted. But he found much to inspire in older works, such as 'the profound reticence' of Giorgione's self-portrait and the sacred in Altdorfer's landscapes. Incidentally, when I read this in 1996, I did not have access to the internet, so it was good to be able to access images of these as the biography does not contain illustrations.

I didn't need the internet to visualise one artist however. I was pleased to be reminded that Beckett loved the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Knowlson says that Two Men Contemplating the Moon might well have stayed in the author's mind long enough to emerge as Vladimir and Estragon. But it is more than inspiration for characters that painting had on Beckett's work.

Knowlson's book is famous for including details of Beckett's excruciating psychosomatic illnesses. In Hamburg, he had a sore on his lip, ruining his chances with art-friendly German ladies, and then festering boils on his fingers. In Berlin he gets laid up by an unexplained abscess behind his scrotum. As he rests, he notes down his thoughts on poetic theatre, having just seen a production of Hebbel's Gyges and His Ring. According to Beckett, 'the poetical play can never come off as a play, nor when played as a play either, because the words obscure the action and are obscured by it'.

Knowlson argues that Waiting for Godot creates 'a poetry of the theatre rather than poetry in the theatre.' The play uses speech rhythms whose vitality comes 'not from poetic forms or metaphors but from music hall and circus and action and gesture [that] create their own kind of intricate, balletic choreography.' In later plays, Beckett 'took care to set up tensions within […] language and create powerful visual images, often modelled on paintings, that either sustain or undercut it'.

This might help us define the necessary distinction between the kind of literary novel at which Grumpy Old Bookman regularly sneers, because it places poetic language over doing a good professional job for the reader (whatever that means), and the real kind of literary novel whose poetry resides not in relentless perception, fancy metaphors or swooning sentimentality, but in the intricate choreography of language and the action it describes. This is why I feel no pressure to admire beautiful sentences and endless mots juste churned out by writers for whom the novel just happens to be the given form (i.e about 95% of modern novelists).

It's also why reading one chapter from the biography can be more affecting than wading through the 700 pages, just as looking at a painting can offer more than any amount of background information. The shape of the life can be sensed over thirty pages. One reads them with the tension of the present either sustained or undercut by the past and future.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The novel is Incendiary

I would prefer not to write about what might be called Politics. What happened on Thursday would seem to have nothing to do with the 'literary preoccupations' of this blog. Indeed, to discuss them from a literary perpective would seem to be the height of callous folly. However, I did try to imply that the general response to the events was distinctly literary; an unusual hyperbolic lyricism. That is, in hailing of the special stoicism of Londoners, and through gestures like the We Defy Terrorism campaign, there was a whiff of borrowed Churchillian rhetoric designed to aggrandise senseless waste, and our culpability. (I want to say not "give these terrorists whatever they want so they’ll stop" but "give the people of London what they have always wanted: the end of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.")

So why is it literary?

Look at the story of the publication of Chris Cleave's novel Incendiary: "a new novel" according to The Guardian "about suicide bombers creating mayhem in London".

The major marketing campaign to promote it would have gone ahead without Thursday's events. In effect Thursday's events replaced the market campaign. The novel received a different kind of puff. But not much different. Thinking about the original campaign, I felt disgust. The cynicism of its implications: appealing to the reading public's all-consuming Schadenfreude masquerading as an engagement with modern times; a Schadenfreude occasionally showing itself as a xeroxed gesture of solidarity (as above), but mainly in the mass consumption of novels like this one.

To be fair to the author, the novel appears to be more complex than the campaign can admit. Cleave says "It's really a book about love in a time of terror." A woman reacts to the death of her family in a rather fanciful atrocity by writing a letter to the Bond-like baddy. "Her theory is that she can make Osama stop if she can make him understand for one second what it is to love. It's a heartfelt plea for the end of political violence, on all sides."

"On all sides"? Did she copy in her own Prime Minister?

There's a good review by Mike Brett in the TLS. He says the novel's portrayal of post-attack London is 'sensational and hysterical'. This is perhaps inevitable as one tries to imagine such an attack. Sensational and hysterical is the way our popular media reacted – a rehearsal of clichés that are assumed to be commensurate to the events. They seek to forge a new cretinity in the fire of terror.

Today’s Guardian also has a clever and relevant article by the novelist Howard Jacobson. He calls for more irresponsibility in fiction. "What we consider unacceptable in human behaviour, we consider unacceptable in art, forgetting that art exists precisely to say the otherwise unsayable."

Yet the writer does not say it, art does. And the attack on London has that same force of saying. Perhaps that tells us something about why contemporary novels feel the need to feature traumatic events. It lacks faith in art.

In this regard, the name author of Incendiary makes me to wonder if it’s a pseudonym. I think of Cass Cleave in John Banville's Shroud. She comes along to undo Axel Vander's long life of dissimulation by becoming close to him; seeking to become whole herself in the process. And she succeeds. It’s one of those fictional names that is rather too convenient for comfort. She dies.

Mike Brett ends his review by saying the sensationalism of the novel "rather than bringing home the horror of such an attack [shatters] the frail illusion of reality which is essential to the novel’s integrity. Instead of depicting the destruction of humanity as tragic, [it] slips into nihilism, showing a society beyond redemption". The novel however – by virtue of being a novel – cannot itself slip.

And do we really want it to "bring home the horror"? Perhaps the horror is precisely what the unsayable of art says: that we rely on such events and such novels in order to live as we imagine life should be. Our lives cleave to a fantasy that it can only cleave.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Imagining the price: the inevitability of Thursday

Many people have spoken of the strange sense of inevitability pervading our response to Thursday's events. It has been reflected in reports by survivors. We knew it was coming. For those of us who grew up knowing only regular IRA bomb attacks, the emotion is familiar; nostalgic even.

We’ve been expecting it for so long. When it happened, it didn’t seem real. It could have happened on the other side of the world. Iraq, for instance. And of course, it did.

What lies behind this feeling is the subtext of public comment. Some repeat, as if in a trance, that discussing it is defeatist or compounds the agony. But suppressing it now is to beg a question to which we already know the answer. Some have dared say it aloud.

Wednesday's surprise good news, in contrast to Thursday's, reminded me of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following its invasion of Afghanistan.

Why did the Mujahadeen want the Soviets to leave the country?

When a dove was released during the Games' opening ceremony, the famous British sports commentator David Coleman declared: 'What a hollow gesture that is considering events in Afghanistan'. Four years later, in Los Angeles, he did not refer to events in El Salvador and Nicaragua that were at least as bad as in Afghanistan. He probably didn't even know about them.

Of course the US wasn't exactly inactive back in Afghanistan either. The CIA trained, funded and gave succour to the Islamic militants who regularly captured and beheaded Russian conscripts. This didn't stop the latter getting invited to garden parties at Number 10 to be hailed as 'freedom fighters' by Margaret Thatcher. And who remembers Sandy Gall of ITN running around with these brutes dressed up as an Afghan? His book Afghanistan: Agony of a Nation has a foreword by the Prime Minister of the day. Oddly, it seems to be out of print!

What does their ambivalence toward the barbarity of the Islamic fighters tell us now?

It all seems so distant.

Yet it takes only a brief act of the imagination to relate to that ambivalence, and how it might be shared now by Arabs as they resist an alien ideology, occupation, humiliation and mass murder. Indeed, we feel the same way ourselves about the war crimes in Fallujah, barely reported in the press. It requires deliberate imagination. There is a blank however. We can only feel intellectual disgust. There is no story.

Many believe that to acknowledge the reasons for the London attacks is to give in to the terrorists. It's unclear though what 'giving in' looks like. Perhaps it refers to the Stockholm Syndrome, where 'giving in' would be to take sides with the enemy. For a long time I thought this was a cheap way of avoiding the issues. Now I realise that it isn't. Only we must not misidentify the kidnappers.

The BBC reports today that Tony Blair says the underlying causes of terrorism must be pulled up by the roots. He’s quite right.

He might remember that he was warned by security services that there would be a sharp rise in the risk of terrorism if Britain invaded Iraq. Against an overwhelming lack of evidence justifying the invasion, and against overwhelming public opinion, he decided it was a price worth paying. Three years ago, Tony Blair said told us we would pay 'the blood price'. On Thursday we began to pay it.

Justice, like charity, begins at home. Impeach Blair; arraign him for war crimes.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Criticism for the wilderness: Josipovici on Grimm

Regular browsers of this space will know of my enthusiasm for the fiction and criticism of Gabriel Josipovici. Other favourite authors of mine were often discovered following his reviews and recommendations. I think my original attraction to his work was due to his fascination with writing itself. He isn't ashamed to discuss the personal confrontation with the silence of writing. When I was reading seriously for the first time, English literary coverage invariably rehearsed a no-nonsense attitude, dismissing any reflexivity as ‘experimental’ at best and self-indulgent at worst. It still does. John Carey recently criticised the lack of English translations of world fiction but his criticism and prize jury chairmanship has encouraged this little Englander attitude.

Josipovici ignores fashionable concerns and writes about contemporary writers in the light of the entire European literary tradition. One can read about them in the same way one reads about Rabelais and Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare. One begins to sense how similar they all are, and how utterly distant.

I seem to remember choosing to withdraw his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism from the local library because of the title of the first essay. I’d not heard of some of the essay subjects (Walter Benjamin, Fernando Pessoa) but the first is called An Art for the Wilderness: Franz Kafka. I thought: here is someone writing about what concerns me! I wasn’t wrong. However, once I got to know more of his work, I did wonder about his fascination with folk tales. I thought this was rather too close to the simple-minded fiction and literary criticism that had revolted me when I had started reading. (This can still be seen in my impatience with the blogosphere’s interest in graphic novels and cod-Victorian fiction). It seemed a world away from the ultra-sophistication of those influencing his fiction, such as Robbe-Grillet and Thomas Bernhard, Schoenberg and Harrison Birtwistle. (Incidentally, Book World is reading his 1994 novel Moo Pak and says it's "astonishingly good").

In the latest edition of the TLS, Josipovici explains the apparent opposition. He reviews a new edition of Grimm’s Tales and discusses the history of the Brother’s constant rewriting of the Tales as they became more and more popular:

[W]hat happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of their fifty years of tinkering with them was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who, in one way or another, were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term true) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore substituted scene-setting, morality and psychology for truth. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had the effect he had on his readers (and still does): he was one who knew ‘how to be a child’ [a reference to a comment by Kierkegaard]. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers understood what was really at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished goodbye as it does so both to community values and to wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors and, by and large, nineteenth century novelists and storytellers took the path of midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth century fiction, with neither writer nor reader quite believing in what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

Perhaps the fascination with graphic novels, with genre fiction, and the wide readership of the Harry Potter series, is really the latest, desparate gasp of those compelled to pretend that they believe in romantic wishful thinking.

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