Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, October 31, 2005

Die all you can

David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, based on the life of Henry James, seemed to fall into the shadow of Colm Toibin’s The Master, which made the Booker shortlist and seduced readers, including me, with its elegance and perception. I enjoyed it so much that I assumed Lodge’s could not be as good. This assumption was strengthened by an extract which made it seem more like a biography with imagined dialogue. But I’ve just read the whole thing and it is as good as Toibin's, if not better. Certainly it is different. Lodge isn't so pruriently speculative about James' sexuality, preferring to respect its obscurity as something rarer: asexuality. And there isn’t any Jamesian pastiche.

What the novels do have in common is a focus on James’ disasterous theatre career. It’s painful to read the long run-up to the opening night of Guy Domville, following James from sleepless bed to grubby Reform Club toilet as his nerves take over. He goes to see a Wilde play as his own is performed elsewhere. He is disgusted at its smugness and appalled at its easy popularity. Wilde had the success James craved. All the time, we know what’s going to happen. But the pain of the long run-up is really the pleasure of reading.

The best part of Author, Author is Lodge’s recreation of James’ friendship with George du Maurier. I hadn’t heard of him. He was an illustrator for Punch magazine. He also wrote an autobiographical novel in the cruel and sentimental manner: characters as puppets on a string. It was a mild success. Then he wrote another based on a story he offered to James but who declined it. When I read the title Trilby, I thought of the hat. The book was a huge success. It gave us the character of Svengali. It gave us the phrase ‘in the altogether’. And it gave us the hat.

It also gave James the willies. His longing for commercial success, for its implicit recognition and its financial security, was being ridiculed. Here was an unserious, part-time author having it all and more for a potboiler! Lodge seems to think the situation has been redeemed somewhat with James’ posthumous fame. But nothing he has written has entered the language like du Maurier’s Trilby. And anyway, he is famous because of nostalgic movie adaptations. I found it disconcerting that I know all the words and phrases from Trilby without having heard of it. Will this be the fate of Harry Potter and similar book fads? Their creations might enter national consciousness yet the books themselves, being artless confections, shall be irrelevant, like the advertised objects left in filing cabinets of which Marshall McLuhan spoke. What does this tell us about popular literature and the real interests of those who valorise it?

Du Maurier was overwhelmed by the boom that his novel detonated. He died young. James retreated from commerce and moved to Lamb House in Rye to write his masterworks of human consciousness. The definitive New York Edition of his work made him $211. How does one cash-in consciousness?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Death to everyone, again

Over the last week, I’ve been enjoying three biographical books. First is Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s patient biography of BS Johnson. Despite Johnson’s unsympathetic humourlessness and self-obsession, it's surprisingly readable. Well, up to page 150 at least. At that point, I realised I was reading only to find out why he killed himself. With almost 300 pages still to go, I lost patience and read the final pages describing his last hours. Then I closed the book for good.

The second is Margrave of the Marshes, the autobiography John Peel was writing before he died in Peru a year ago last night. I thought it would be very moving. It is quite. It's also very funny. Peel writes lightly and self-deprecatingly (a phrase he addresses along the way). It reminds me of Well Remembered Days, a comic novel by Arthur Mathews, who co-wrote Father Ted. I know that Peel had read this as he said so on his show and loved it so much he offered copies in a competition, one of which I happened to win. So I read it too. It came with a postcard of Peel, but unfortunately no note or autograph.

After 165 pages, with the last word Peel having written in his book being ‘brothel’, his wife Sheila Ravenscroft takes over the narrative. She writes in the same light, charming, though slightly stand-offish style. Most of the stories will be familiar to anyone who had listened to the radio show for 20 years. Still, it’s not easy to stop reading. But then I got to page 200 and found myself reading the epilogue. Really, I wanted to know what happened in Peru. As might be expected, this is sidestepped. Perhaps it’s too tender a subject, yet the couple are otherwise quite happy to discuss sensitive issues such as Peel’s first wife, his dose of the clap and sexual abuse by public school boys (though not in that order). I was very disappointed.

The third book, Author, Author, David Lodge’s novel about Henry James, begins with the great author on his death bed. This is how it should be. I shall finish this one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A blog goes on

Since a certain point at the weekend, I’ve been wondering what on earth I might write about here to break the silence. I feel that the silence must be broken, if only to displace the increasing desperation of the most recent entry. Also, whenever I see a blog whose latest entry is somewhat previous to the present date, I wonder: what on earth has the blogger been doing instead? From this glorious vantage point, it looks like bugger all. It looks like haughty neglect. I am offended. I take it as an affront. To what, I’m not sure.

I particularly dislike posts informing the loyal reader that the blogger is ‘taking a break’. They always announce that they’re taking a break ‘for a while’. I want to know, taking a break from what? When I write my blog, it feels like the break itself. A break like a fag break at work. Like a break gazing out of the window at the passing world. Like the breaking moments after some bad news. Like the gap between switching the TV off and getting up to go to bed. Like the time after writing. A blog goes on.

Still, I quite like the obscurity of the reason for the offence I take and the bitterness I harbour. Perhaps it makes it appear more profound; the truth is so deep and so tangled that should it ever emerge it must surely provide a revelation about this new medium; a truth glistening like a whatever emerges glistening from the unseeable depths. A big fish from a river perhaps. A screaming baby from a womb. A stream of water from a tap (such as when the sun shines through it). And, I have to say, I also quite enjoy cultivating grudges. Apart from very mild grudges against regular posters who announce that they’re ‘taking a break’ (‘for a while’), I also hold many strong grudges. Most of them are political. Many more sporting (or rather, unsporting). Some are literary. All too numerous to mention. But I’ve mentioned the latter regularly throughout this blog. They constitute this blog. Apart, that is, from the enthusiasms. Here’s an example: a review of Geoff Dyer’s new book about photography The Ongoing Moment written for the estimable ReadySteadyBook.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Deadwood: Pilger and DJ Taylor on Pinter's Nobel Prize

Each new article by John Pilger about world politics is more or less the same. That is, each is always more or less true; exhilaratingly, painfully true. He describes what is happening right before my eyes. If it wasn’t for Pilger, I would wonder if my eyes were deceiving me. When I read a new article, I want everyone to read it and to say: yes, this is the truth! We can't let ourselves be deceived again; can’t let them, the professionals, deceive us anymore. But nothing happens.

Pilger writes more articles, they get published (I'm always surprised that he's published) and he makes the occasional, devastating late-night TV documentary (I'm always surprised he's allowed to do so). But nothing happens. The only exception was for his report on Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’ in which US culpability could be safely placed out of the frame. This didn't surprise me.

But sometimes he writes about literature. He’s done it before and I responded at the time. I hope nothing happens.

In the first line he quotes columnist DJ Taylor approvingly. In the late 80s, Taylor was calling for writers to explore 'the lumber room of experience' rather than write 'drawing room twitter' (whatever that is, McEwan's Saturday?). In yesterday’s Independent (subscription only), he made a similar call in an article entitled When will Philip Roth become a Nobel Laureate?.

He is appalled that Dreiser, John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair were not chosen by the Novel committee, just as he is appalled that contemporary US Americans - Roth, Updike and Mailer - have so far been overlooked. He says To watch … Channel 4's recent History of the Novel is to appreciate the absolute dominance of American fiction over practically every other variety in the past century.

Well, perhaps. This might be true had the documentary (actually called The Story of the Novel) been remotely objective. But the series was supervised by a similarly philistine and narrow-minded critic: Professor John Carey. The episode on Ulysses in particular was a disgrace.

Taylor thinks that the Nobel has become too political. From the view that sees literature as literature rather than a sub-division of international powerbroking – the Nobel jury’s habit of looking the other way whenever Roth's name is brought to their attention is a grotesque dereliction of duty.

This should go without saying, and not just for Roth. But I would say that, in the last century, it was European fiction that dominated ideally every other variety, and many of its greatest exponents have failed to receive the prize, for reasons unknown: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paul Celan, Aharon Appelfeld (born and raised in Europe), Vladimir Nabokov, Marguerite Duras, Gert Hofmann, and, most glaringly of all, Maurice Blanchot. These authors' work is literature as literature; far more so than contemporary US fiction.

But what is literature? One wonders if the answer might be hidden by the debate engendered by the significance of a writer receiving that label – Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Why do we need it?

Within our indignation, there's a yearning for something more than words on a page. But the extra is also mere words: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Everytime we try to get to something more elemental, we find only more words. Nothing happens. Literature is itself already the lumber room of experience; deadwood.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Photography, spilling into language

As I read, the Moleskine notebook is ready beside me. Too often I read without heeding the impulse to note things down. If the notebook isn’t there, I read on, headlong. I won’t note things down.

I’m reading Murat Nemet-Nejat’s beautiful little book The Peripheral Space of Photography, discovered in a remaindered shop last week. It's an edition so small that it won’t peek out of your back pocket (if you put it there). This also means recovering the desired quotation won’t take so long. For instance, ‘Photography is … a medium of reflection (reflection as image and as thought), intimately related to language’. That’s on page 10. But this was in fact noted down. I felt that it might lead me to understand why photography as an art form compels my interest. Some, like Roger Scruton, would argue that it isn’t an art form. Yet this uncertainty is perhaps precisely why it seems vital.

A chapter on light in 19th century photographs is particularly good. Nemet-Nejat says it is that each photograph from this era seems, from our perspective of technical mastery, slightly overexposed. So why do they have a power signally lacking (I believe) in 19th century literature? ‘The glow is a combination of lack and excess, lack because the reflection from the medium (the negative) is not perfect, and excess, the excess of light glow, trapped in, emanating from the print.’ The glow is, then, ‘a sign of the insufficiency of the medium. This insufficiency defines it.’

Insufficiency. Hardly what we expect from a powerful work of art! Few people would call Dickens’ representation of the same world insufficient. Yet perhaps this is where it lacks. The insufficiency of the medium is masked rather than revealed by an excess. It’s what Kafka called the ‘heartlessness behind [Dickens’] sentimentally overflowing style’. Without his ‘rude characterisations which are artificially stamped on everyone’, the great writer ‘would not be able to get on with his story even for a moment’ (Diaries, 8th October 1917). One can easily be seduced by this style, but only because it is the seduction of solipsism.

Nemet-Nejat says the excess of light in 19th Century photographs, over which the photographers had limited control, is their ‘constant source of power’. The glow is something ‘the medium can not completely hold or integrate’. The glow causes ‘a blurring, a failure creating an excess of sadness, turning the photographic object, a piece of paper, like a bottle, holding the light of a hundred years ago, into an object of meditation on time, on mortality, the sadness of light surviving the object from which it emanated, the image, in this production of excess, turning, spilling into language.’ This from pages 47 and 48.

If I hadn’t have noted these quotations in my Moleskine, I might well have forgotten them. The book, once devoured, would have been returned to the pile of other books waiting to be read and re-read, and I would have only this vague recollection of having been moved and impressed by an idea, soon forgotton, that spurred me on, helping me to say what I need to say, still unsaid.

Yet also, I feel that the notebook slows me down, defeats the apparent pleasure of reading, which is to read, to move forward today unhindered by questions, by doubts and by a third thing for rhetoric’s sake. Thinking, reflecting, writing, are perhaps excesses of reading. It spills into more language.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

At home with the Kafkas

Reading this very enjoyable extract from the forthcoming biography of Kafka by Reiner Stach, I wondered why I am drawn to read every biography of Kafka. I know the scene the extract covers: Kafka’s noisy homelife; his nausea at the sight of the rumpled bedsheets in his parents’ room. It's all very familiar, yet I can’t wait to read it again in book form. The table of contents whets my appetite even more, particularly the chapter on the visit to Weimar, just before he wrote The Judgement.

Perhaps I should worry that biographies of writers tempt the fallacy of biographical readings. Having read so many biographies of Kafka, I must be wide open to that temptation! But, you know, my literary criticism has nothing to do with my life.

Anyway, rather than biography bringing the author and work closer together, it makes them even more distinct. This is why I like reading them; the same thing over and over. It brings the distance to life.

Monday, October 03, 2005

I feel despair filter through me

Susan Hill tempts us with a rhetorical question: Try to think of a great novel that does not have a story, memorable characters, vividly evoked settings.

Her own 'random list' of great novels prompts a question to myself: do I want to read great novels?

The first question is raised in a report on the 3,741 manuscripts Hill received after setting up Long Barn Books (a subsidiary to Pear Tree Productions?). She hasn’t been impressed by the quality: “Most of the hopefuls ought to be doing anything but try to write. Most seemed to have written the same (bad) novel.”

It didn’t take her long to see a pattern:

Most of the worst novels were written in the first person narrative present tense. "I open one eye. My eyeball hurts. I look around a dim room strewn with unwashed plates, dirty cups, stained underwear. I feel despair filter through me. I do not know where I am."

Reads like the opening of Swann’s Way as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq!

My first reaction was one of embarrassment for the people who write this kind of stuff, and disappointment that they haven’t thought through what it means to write fiction. And then I thought: actually, I feel this embarrassment and disappointment reading the opening lines of most published novels from which I read extracts or browse in the library.

Yet Hill says in order to be published, it is essential that a writer has “some sense of what makes a novel appeal to readers”. She thinks the fault of her hopeless hopefuls is to write fiction as "self-therapy". She equates it with those of us for whom commercial success is a by-product rather than an aim. “If you despise commerce in general or believe literature should be outside and above it” she says “the only thing to do is put up your books to be read free on the internet.”

Like our journalism perhaps? Anyway, to paraphrase Jung on the existence of God, I do not believe that literature should be outside or above commerce, I know it is.

There’s something unspoken here that seems to be troubling Hill. It seems to be a fear that literature is selfish, solipsistic even, but that this mustn’t be admitted. The pretence is the achievement. The pretence is the craft. Yet perhaps all those naïve writers, by trying to draw fiction into the voiceless, private world of the self, are unwittingly expressing the failure of fiction; a failure a craftswoman like Hill sees as a success. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she also writes childrens' books.

If my suspicion is right, her fear is unnecessary. Writing is already public. Your diary is as public as The Da Vinci Code; even if is read by no-one, not even you, its keeper. Hence my embarrassment and disappointment with those who fail to notice the bottomless crevasse between oneself and writing. The crevasse is everything (and nothing).

Hill alludes to the impossibility of the problem when she says that “a love of writing books should spring from a love of reading”. Indeed, but one loves reading for the reason one hates it. It's out there. It resists.

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