Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"After mankind, the Horla"

Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing - and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.

This entry from Peter Handke's published journal The Weight of the World has always stirred me. I think I know why. Everytime I read over something that I've written, I'm appalled at the imperial peace of the rhetoric crawling over the page. Despite my intention to dispense with the usual procedures, I end up following them to the letter. The word 'dispense' in that sentence is evidence enough. What is the alternative?

Handke’s words returned to my mind today as I read Guy de Maupassant's remarkable story The Horla, in Charlotte Mandell’s new translation. It’s the diary of man on the edge of madness. The narrator is convinced someone is haunting him, taking possession of his mind, making him think mad thoughts. He calls it 'the Horla'. His resorts to reason tend only to make things worse.

August 7th: I wonder if I am crazy. As I was walking just now in the full sunshine, along the river, doubts about my reason came to me, not vague doubts as I have had till now, but precise, absolute doubts. I have seen madmen; I have known some who remained intelligent, lucid, even perceptive about all matters of life, except on one point. They speak of everything with clarity, agility, and profoundity, and suddenly, as their thoughts turn to the stumbling-block of their madness, their thought processes shatter, scatter, and sink into that terrifying and furious ocean, full of leaping waves, fogs, and squalls, which we call ‘dementia’.

Unfortunately, those leaping waves and squalls, because of their clarity and agility, are as still as the doldrums. As if troubled by the contradiction, Maupassant wrote two versions of The Horla and also a Letter from a Madman (each included in the new edition). He sought an impossible lucidity on that one excepted point. Perhaps he was haunted by literature.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Beyond ambition: on literary success

There it is again: 'On Beauty is arguably [Zadie Smith's] most ambitious novel.'

The Telegraph says it's ambitious because it features "two middle-class, mixed-race and black families, one based in an American east coast university town and the other in London" while The Scotsman's unnamed reviewer says it "squeezes a great deal of contemporary life between two covers. It is packed with tangents on the iPod, the seepage of pornography into sex life, the fashion imperatives of hip hop, and glimpses of life in America under Bush."

Given this, how can we measure its success?

Clearly it’s not the same as other ambitions. If a mountaineer plans to climb several unconquered peaks, he is ambitious. And if he climbs them, he has succeeded. But what about a novel?

Does it depend on believability? The Scotsman says the book’s characters are convincing, so it seems she has succeeded there. But how do we measure believability? Is there a scale running from Not Believable to This Character is Now a Real Person? One would have to rely on bad faith to rely on such deliberations.

Really, literary success is as nebulous as Smith’s title subject: beauty.

The Scotsman says the theoretical questions 'raised but mostly dropped’ by the book (“What is beauty? Who is beautiful? What is beauty worth?”) are best approached through storytelling. At least, there it doesn’t feel 'tacked on'. So in that sense, Smith has failed. The essence of beauty is known only as a tangent to the narrative, much like ‘life in America under Bush’, which is only glimpsed.

So perhaps there’s good reason why the big questions are ‘mostly dropped’. A clue comes in The Scotsman’s summary of what it considers the most successful character, Levi:

Raised with underprivileged skin in a posh setting, he feels born into the wrong body. And so he quits his job at a record store to sell DVDs with Haitian street workers in Boston. Affecting a 'gangsta' limp, he claims to be from Roxbury, but his more authentically downtrodden colleagues see right through him. Smith has great fun lambasting Levi and his type for fetishising actual pain - but there is an edge of sadness in her cackle. What kind of country lures people to its shores with a promise and a dream, only to say success makes you inauthentic? What is the point of a university system that teaches students to make pets out of the downtrodden?

Levi might stand for those who cannot accept literature’s distance from the world; the same people who assume authenticity depends on a non-literary proximity. Levi’s literary equivalents would be those who, for instance, fetishise the work of writers like Azar Nafisi as it reflects on life under Islamic totalitarianism, and deny the implications of her willing proximity to those who cultivated such terror in Iran by supporting the Shah's police state and Saddam's invasion.

There is an inherent contradiction in writing that romantics cannot bear, and so increase their own proximity to what they profess to oppose. For them, literary success equals the annihilation of literature just as, in politics, 'freedom' depends on maintaining a system of terror around the world.

No wonder there's an 'edge of sadness' in Zadie Smith's cackle.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Oh Faulks off

No, I haven't read anything by Sebastian Faulks. The nearest I got was reading a novel that had, on the back cover, the view that it is "streets ahead of Birdsong". I thought: jeez, if that's the case, Birdsong must be terrible.

Now I see he's got a new novel out. It's 624 pages long and Lisa Appignanesi says what no doubt every other review will say: Human Traces is his most ambitious novel yet.

She tells us: It begins in 1870, when his two heroes are 16, and moves through the First World War. Geographically, the book spans England, France, Austria and Africa, with a foray to America's west coast. Intellectually, it attempts a history of the mind sciences and madness.

Oh God. Wouldn't it be as ambitious to write something like this under 100 pages? Here's a blog I wrote earlier.

Reading Nafisi in the West

On Splinters a couple of years ago, I upset a few people by expressing a certain disdain for the interest and excitement over Azar Nafisi's book Reading Lolita in Tehran. I hadn't read the book, but I had read the many enthusiastic reviews. These were to what I was referring. Yet, in the unfortunately-erased comments, people assumed I was disdaining Nafisi's book too. I wasn't. However, it now seems I would have had good reason.

Dan Green refers to Amardeep Singh's 'terrific blog' on the book and quotes the passage in which Singh describes

the strangeness of the situation [in which Nafisi reads and teaches literature]: here are these women, their lives destroyed by an unthinkably repressive regime, and their most subversive act is... to get together once a week to read photocopied (illegal) copies of Lolita.

Apparently this is extra strange because, in the 60s, Nafisi was a young radical. According to Singh, under the current repressive conditions it's rather improbable and anti-intuitive that Nafisi became a less political reader, rather than a more political one. But she makes a good case for her response: no matter what they banned or who they imprisoned/tortured/executed, literature provided the means to keep one's imagination free and open.

John Pistelli, recognising in Nafisi the familiarly deceptive apostasy of 60s radicals, begs to differ:

[Nafisi's] book is of course not apolitical and you don't have to read the whole thing to know that; everything about it, from its cover blurbs to its acknowledgments page in which the author thanks Paul Wolfowitz, to its credulous critical reception, looks political.

Indeed. One only has to think of the actions of another unthinkably repressive regime to recognise a blindspot in the critical reception. This regime has destroyed many other women's lives in many other nations (though not, as yet, Iran). It's been happening for years and it's happening right now. This does not seem to trouble very much those celebrating the romance of Nafisi's literary resistance. As professional reviewers, they know what can and cannot be said in literary reviews. This is why they are professionals in the first place. So much for a free and open imagination. As Pistelli says: Nafisi, militantly apolitical as she now imagines herself, is actually objectively pro-fascist.

And anyway, what would a literary resistance look like in the West? Reading Ian McEwan's Saturday FFS?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lostness

Modernism is dead says VS Naipaul. But Modernism is borne by death.

Like many of my countrymen, I’ve been watching the US TV drama series Lost. I too want to find out what happens next. I know people who have downloaded the series and seen every episode. Yet I am only half-envious. I rather enjoy the suspense waiting for the next episode. The ironic thing is, the next episode is invariably a disappointment. The idea is much more compelling, and I like to think about how the series might have been. Perhaps that is why I continue to watch: to drain my imagination, which is all too unrequited.

Recently, the ‘maverick’ director Terry Gilliam said: “When I watch films now they bother me, the technique of films bothers me, because it's so obvious how you do things, sell things. I don't like that any more. It's becoming a cliché the way things are done.”

I feel the same way. Example: there’s a scene in episode four of Lost in which the square-jawed, designer-stubbled All Amercian good guy ‘Jack’ tries to engage with a middle-aged woman who has been sitting silently apart from the group. It seems she has been traumatised by the death of her husband in the plane crash. Jack goes out of his way to speak to her. He asks her to accept what’s happened, to move on and join the rest of the survivors. All the while she remains silent, staring out to sea. We are made to wait for her reaction, even though we all knew what it will be. We know she will address not one thing Jack has said but instead speak wistfully about her husband; some trivial item to contrast with the gravity of Jack’s approach. And guess what happens next?

We are meant to be moved. We react by understanding that we are meant to feel moved. But we feel nothing. Sometimes it's good to feel nothing. We know where to go when we need to feel nothing. It's called Popular Culture.

Barring only recent Godard, I see such procedure in every movie and every TV series. Formula within formula, cliché within cliché, lie within lie. Yet nobody talks about 'the death of screenwriting'. Perhaps it has yet to be born.

Leavetakings

While Ed Champion complains about the focus on the length of Paul Anderson's debut novel rather than its literary qualities, he also admits to being drawn to 'these mammoth affairs'. Well, I want to say the exact opposite. I'm drawn to brevity. While Ed enjoys ‘the pleasure of getting lost within a world, the specifics of characters or a particular vernacular’, I like being pitched back into the shining solitude of this world. The best online example I know of is Josipovici’s short story A Glass of Water. It takes my breath away. There’s a leavetaking in progress that never stops being in progress. Suddenly, one’s own world becomes richer in the process. A 500-pager would struggle to do that without becoming tiresome and exhausting.

It's also a leavetaking of itself.

That said about brevity, I’ve read In Search of Lost Time three times. This too, I suppose, is a story of leavetakings. Marcel letting go of his mother's goodnight kiss. Marcel letting go of his grandmother after her death. Marcel letting go of Albertine after she leaves him. It's curious then how the original English title – Rememberance of Things Past – should appeal to complacent nostalgia when it is really about the joys of the present - the place where paradise is lost. I suppose the inaccuracy of the first title indicates the negative side of getting lost in a book.

Gilles Deleuze corrects this assumption: “Proust’s work is based not on the exposition of memory" he writes "but on the apprenticeship to signs.” In particular for the young Marcel, the signs of love.

To love is to try to explicate, to develop [the] unknown worlds which remain enveloped within the beloved.

We might regard this as similar to reading a book. The trouble is, it leads to a contradiction.

We cannot interpret the signs of a loved person without proceeding into worlds that have not waited for us in order to take form, that formed themselves with other persons, and in which we are at first only an object among the rest. The lover wants his beloved to devote to him her preferences, her gestures, her caresses. But the beloved’s gestures, at the moment they are addressed to us, still express that unknown world that excludes us. The beloved gives us signs of preference; but because these signs are the same as those that express worlds to which we do not belong, each preference by which we profit draws the image of the possible world in which others might be or are preferred.

Marcel sees Swann experience this as he is crippled with jealousy over Odette. It prefigures his own relationships. They seem very familiar to me too.

So the contradiction of love consists of this: the means we count on to preserve us from jealousy are the very means that develop jealousy, giving it a kind of autonomy, of independence with regard to our love.

I think this is why, for me, reading is never as carefree or as pleasurable in the way commonly described (mainly because, I think, we are not true to our own experience of the autonomy of reading). In this way, ‘loving a book’ takes on a whole new meaning.

Friday, August 19, 2005

David Markson's Reader's Block, page 49

"Björnstjerne Björnson. Rudolf Eucken. Frans Sillanpää.
Verner von Heidenstam. Halldór Laxness. Pearl Buck. Karl
Gjellerup.
Toni Morrison."

Of course, this is unfair. On Halldór Laxness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Once again at last

My jaw cannot drop any further. Erica Wagner writes 'At last, a literary award where the consumer votes'. But imagine it has.

She's covering the Quills book awards in New York for the London Times. It's the usual stuff: celebrating the democracy of consumer choice; bemoaning the predictability of more established awards; charging the Booker, in particular, with elitism for not including Nick Hornby's latest confection (whether it's a good or bad book seems to be irrelevant; that it is popular is enough apparently).

She goes on: "there’s often a 'type' of Booker book. Literary critics, and panels of judges, have tastes, prejudices, opinions just like everyone else. Listen to them by all means, but trust your own opinions too. And if you can find a prize that enables you to do so, go and vote."

She's right of course, in the way advising us to breath in and out is right.

But a literary award already points beyond tastes, prejudices and opinions. It is an award for literary excellence. One can define literary. It is a 'type' of book. The question of the definition is the question begged by all of these interminable articles each proclaiming the end of the need to question.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Blessed are the media workers ...

I was mildly surprised in June when the editors of the BBC's Newsnight Late Review chose to discuss James Meek's A People's Act of Love rather than its staple of popular trash and established literary names. You will know that it has now made the Booker Longlist. However, today's Observer reveals the likely reason for its unusual rise to prominence: "Two years ago [Meek] was foreign reporter of the year."

And then Stephanie Merritt, in her summary of the longlist, tells us that one of the nominees "was the producer behind some of the most successful television comedies of the past 15 years". No wonder she claims that "this year's Booker winner is unlikely to be a controversial choice".

Saturday, August 13, 2005

"Loving you is like loving someone else"

The small window of the weekend. Plenty going on. Necessary housework. Unnecessary shopping. The Ashes and the Premier League to follow. Projects to pursue.

Plenty to read also. This morning, with a cup of tea and an extra pillow, I read Hic Non Est, the seventh chapter of Robert Pogue Harrison's The Dominion of the Dead and knew I had to stick with it for the rest of the day. So much was promised.

Still, I was drawn to the library. John Banville’s The Sea and James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free were on the shelves for the first time. Rhyming titles. I withdrew both, wondering as I did, where the time will come from to read them and whether, indeed, I had withdrawn them to read them. There really is no time. And I do this all the time. Regularly, I take books back, more or less untouched. Maybe I withdrew them because they’re new. They promise something: extra time.

Actually, I am drawn to books that explore such hope.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Christa Wolf's In the Flesh: or, why Case Histories wasn't such a bad choice after all

My review of Christa Wolf's novel In the Flesh can be found on the new-look Ready Steady Book.

The review was written before the Lit Blog Co-Op controversy over the choice of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories for its first Read This! choice and The Complete Review's subsequent revelation that Wolf's novel was its nomination. Unfortunately, due to an administrative mix-up by an unnamed third party, it got lost. So here it is, four months late.

What I didn't say explicitly in the review, I shall say here: In the Flesh is one of the worst novels I have ever read.

While the greatest living writer of German (Peter Handke) is treated with scandalous neglect by English-language publishers, this edition adds insult to that injury.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

From the inside: on 'a new life for the novel'

Jason Cowley's claim in today's Observer that there is 'a new life for the novel' in Britain is really just a fresh bunch of flowers on the tomb of the 19th Century novel.

He sets up the familiar scenario: after 9/11, the consensus was that 'fiction was either irrelevant or incapable of offering a convincing representation of a new, changed world.' Of course, this was the consensus of literary journalists writing in the shadow of large headlines. They agreed that 'a certain kind of literature was no longer possible'. Cowley does not provide examples of this kind of literature, only that 'so many of our novels were largely a reflection of the times in which we lived: safe, affluent, complacent, at ease.'

I don’t remember such times. Before 9/11 there were plenty of other events with powerful, metonymic status. In my life, I think of ‘General Belgrano’, ‘Orgreave’, ‘Lockerbie’, ‘Omagh’ . All these and many more. So where does one draw the line? How does one draw the line? Is it the number of deaths?

If so, the El Shifa bombing of 1998 that caused ‘the suffering and death of tens of thousands of innocent people all over Africa, many of them children, by depriving them of basic medicines against malaria, tuberculosis, and other easily curable diseases’ should be as significant as 9/11. That is, had journalists in the West given a shit. Perhaps it is definitive because they didn’t, and still don’t. But that would mean novelists, rather than journalists, would have to give such events symbolic power. This is unthinkable of course.

So one wonders whether fiction borders dangerously on irrelevance as Cowley characterises it. Perhaps it is journalism that is moribund? Like the unnamed fiction Cowley referred to, perhaps journalism is ‘safe, affluent, complacent and at ease’ as it expertly turns the world into a fearful caricature for its corporate bosses. Indeed, one can read articles and comments like Cowley's every week; only the byline changes. Is this consensus, wilful ignorance or censorship?

Cowley takes it as read that fiction needs to address the same issues as his newspaper in order to be relevant. He then slips in the claim that the unique quality of the novel is that only it 'can truly show, from the inside, how it feels to move through space and time, from one day to the next, with contradictory thoughts constantly clashing, over the narrative of a lifetime.'

Presumably, by marrying inner and outer, we would have a unique document that shows us what it was like to be alive at a particular time. This seems fair enough. But then he uses McEwan’s uniquely safe, affluent, complacent novel Saturday as the exemplum. (See Ellis Sharp’s and John Banville’s eloquent destructions of the book).

The problem with bringing the inner life into the equation is that we all have our own 9/11s. We all have events that haunt our imaginations. There is no rational prioritising of these events. We have to deal with them, away from all the chatter. Saturday is far too schematic to convince that it comes from anywhere but the intellect. As Banville says, it’s like a novel created by a government committee. Perhaps this is why journalists are in such awe.

Lars of Spurious approaches the alternative in a moving blog in which he also discusses a novel that addresses the largest of issues from a quiet, very personal angle without indulging in the Schadenfreude that passes for engagement in the kind of novel of which Jason Cowley approves. I pass the blogging baton to him.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The implications: James Wood on Saul Bellow

My bank balance has taken a serious hit with the renewal of my subscription to the TLS. However, this week's edition has eased the pain with James Wood's informative (and not too long) piece on Saul Bellow's prose; his 'Biblical English'. Wood also shows how Bellow was influenced by many English writers, and remarks how many contemporary English writers were to the fore in paying tribute when Bellow died: Amis, McEwan, Hitchens.

There is a negative side to reading about Bellow though. How can we begin to write ourselves in face of such world-renewing, world-creating prose? The same for the amateur critic too: Wood has absorbed so much diverse reading material, and is able to regurgitate it so usefully, that one feels equally impoverished in comparison.

Yet, for all the pleasure in, and admiration for, Bellow’s prose and Wood’s contribution to that pleasure and admiration, I ask: And? And? OK, I think to myself, Bellow was influenced by the King James Bible, and by DH Lawrence more than we might previously have acknowledged, but what then; what are the implications of such knowledge?

Waggish has posted a response to another recent TLS article that projects beyond its limits and answers my question. It would be helpful if the "useful, new abstraction" referred to here became a touchstone of literary discussion in the blogosphere.

As Mr Waggish points out, I cited the exact same extract of the exact same article that he does a couple of weeks ago (albeit rather less profoundly). Also coincidentally, when Bellow died in April, I cited the same author’s essay introducing The Portable Saul Bellow. Here’s the relevant extract:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; a great fantasist, especially in 'Henderson the Rain King'; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging off the demands of [Bellow’s] voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context.

Avoiding the implications of Bellow's voice is also something very English.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Life: a reading experience

'The Reading Experience' would be an appropriate title to this, my half-response to Dan Green's latest in-depth post on the illustrious blog of the same name. He himself is responding to a (characteristically) long essay in The New Republic by James Wood (not online) about ‘the major struggle in American fiction today’, which is ‘over the question of realism’.

I’ve read both now and feel oddly unengaged by it all. Very little seems to be about what is important to me. In the past, I might have struggled to join in, concealing my ambivalence with uncertain assertions. Nowadays I’m inclined to follow my ambivalence.

In this case, I realise that when I read stories – and I include non-fiction such as Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir The Story of a Life, which I read recently – questions of realism and anti-realism are central to the experience. They cannot be separate from what fiction is. To come down in favour of one or the other would destroy literature.

In a recent blog, I expressed a certain mild distress reading Appelfeld’s book. He describes terrible things that really happened - in the chapter in question, how a distraught child was caught up in a transport to a death camp. Yet I read the book as fiction. I didn’t mean to read it as fiction; it’s just that I couldn’t quite comprehend its reality. My distress was mainly a result of this rather than at the facts of the story.

While at first this seemed to be a cruel abandonment adding to that described in the chapter, I realised that what made it so powerful was the story’s repetition in the book; a repetition without echo, without recourse to closure, let alone justice.

For this reason, the part of the debate that stood out to me was when Dan quotes Wood’s use of non-realist fiction in his argument for a humane (and thereby) realistic fiction: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and Hamsun's Hunger and Beckett's Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human behavior; but they draw their power, in part, from their connection to the human."

“Well, of course they do. How could they do otherwise?” Dan says, rightly, but as he knows, it’s only half-right. They draw their power equally from the non-human; they engage with it rather than evade it in false oppositions. The ‘major struggle’, therefore, is really very limited; too parochial (like most things in US culture it seems, captured in Wood's unconscious limiting of 'American fiction' to one part of a massive continent).

When one reads, one is confronted by the disjunction between the mental construct of words on a page and the world – a disjunction that might just be everything. The struggle with that possibility is real.

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