Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Wounds of the negative: litblogging wishes for 2006

So, the final post of the year. Time for futile, litblog-related wishes inspired by browsing the new Metaxu Cafe coalesence.

First, when we're discussing contemporary fiction can we drop the word 'experimental'? As I’m keen to provide examples, see its use in yesterday's post at The World of Paul Jessup. ‘Experimental fiction’ is a pleonasm. A writer chooses or finds the most appropriate way to write a work of fiction. This is the necessary experiment. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, well, then you can refer to 'literary snobs'.

But of course, what does 'work' mean? It depends what you need from fiction. If you want to talk loudly in bars about innovation and postmodernism, I suppose the diarrheic imaginations of professional novelists is for you.

Second, which is closely related to the first: define your terms! For example, take the word 'accessible'. Paul Jessup, again, wishes 'experimental' writers were more accessible and wrote 'in order to please a literary audience'. Yet how can a writer know if he or she is accessible and/or pleasing to a reader? How can the reader know if the author is allowing them access or deliberately excluding them? Answering either with certainty reflects only the assumptions and prejudices of the reader or writer.

Third, name names. In a ventriloquised rant (i.e. no individual can hold these views without merging with the herd of independent minds), Sand Storm says
It seems like some reviewers have become so enamored of abstraction, indirect payoff ... and language gymnastics that the simple pleasure of observing an interesting set of characters moving through a plot (read: storytelling!) is just plain looked down upon.
And goes on in the very same entry:
The funny thing is that some of the very same critics who decry the state of modern literature, and who complain that the young folks aren't reading anymore, would somehow 'fix' the situation by recommending the literary equivalent of a tablespoon of cod liver oil - maybe a little 'difficult' but ‘good for you’.
Who are these critics? It would be useful to compare and contrast. But perhaps they're unnamed as they are shame-engendered figments of the imagination.

And, by the way, plot does not equal storytelling. Plots are for gardeners.

Fourth, stop asking rhetorical questions. Sand Storm again: What's wrong with a good story?

Better ask instead, what's right with a good story? As soon as you pursue a question (i.e. rather than just asking it), literature begins. No wonder some people have a problem with it. What do you want, sedation or a cure?*

Fifth, let’s all conspire not to mention - let alone read - the latest fashionable novel. Read what you have to read. Write what you have to write. Forget the rest.

In connection with this, I have to admit that I haven't read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, or The Time-Traveller’s Wife or anything by David Mitchell or A People's Act of Love or White Teeth or Thirty Days in the Samarkand Desert with the Duchess of Kent. And I don’t intend to, inasmuch as indifference is intentional. This might be due to snobbery, just as the fact that you haven't read Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl might be due to an a priori rejection because you haven't even heard of it. Talk about a narrow mind!

*Answer: both!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Nur ein Scherz: an English novel


Below I referred to the endless suffering of British literary culture. So, an example. An instance.

Gabriel Josipovici, one of our very best and most original writers, has just had a new novel published in German translation: Nur ein Scherz, translated by Gerd Haffmans. The link goes to the German blurb.


The thing is, Nur ein Scherz has yet to be published in its original language. Does this happen very often outside politically repressive states?

In the TLS a few years ago, Josipovici reflected on his relative popularity in Germany.
Why are German reviewers and audiences so much more attuned to my work than British ones? Why do they see no problem where the British are baffled and resentful, and why do their questions always come close to my intentions while the British seem to want to talk about another book altogether? Is it that I write within a German tradition, or that German audiences are simply more sophisticated?

A note on the real thing

Rather than read The Divine Comedy again, I'm drawn to secondary works. Not the real thing, as they say. But I always read in translation, so it's not the real thing in the first place. And no doubt the real real thing would be to travel through hell, purgatory and paradise just as Dante didn't.

For this reason, I was drawn to the LA Times review of Manuele Gragnolati's Experiencing the Afterlife Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture. It is, as Merle Rubin explains, "an attempt to understand what people in Dante's time thought might happen after death but before the promised Resurrection".

I can tell them what happens after death, in the UK at least: the national newspapers don’t run reviews of books about Dante.

Apparently Gragnolati argues that purgatory is not so much a place, like heaven or hell, as a process; a ... process of suffering that, unlike the endless suffering of the damned in hell (who cling to their sins, never learning anything from them), is ultimately fruitful.

Endless suffering or, as it's also known, British literary culture. Occasionally there is relief, such as Nicholas Shakespeare’s review of Murray Bail’s Notebooks 1970-2003. “There is nothing so stimulating as a good writer's notebook” he says. Yes, the process, the process!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The usual literary fallacy

Edward Champion propagates Matthew Cheney's familiar opposition of literary and genre fiction; an opposition each reject. Does anyone else want to tell us this again? Both are perfectly correct of course, but only because they're also wrong. Yes, genre fiction is legitimate literature and should be reviewed with the same respect as academically-sanctioned, "serious" contemporary fiction. But keep this in mind: literary fiction is not literature.

UPDATE: Somebody does want to tell us this again!

Monday, December 19, 2005

What do we want?

I've just read a quotation used in this week's TLS from Richard Rorty: Truth is what your contemporaries will let you get away with.

Today, the editors of Medialens provide proof in Brilliant Fools, their presentation of the pattern of political control over two literary writers (Harold Pinter and John Le Carré). The contrast in the reception of their work and their opinions by elite media functionaries might help us perceive the pecularity of art. For instance, why is it able to say things that individuals cannot? How, in fact, does it say the otherwise unsayable?

It’s a question many artists do not hear. In an entertaining interview from 1999 with a Medialens editor, Pinter quotes the late Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa:
In this country [Britain] writers write to entertain, they raise questions of individual existence - you know the angst of the individual - but for a Nigerian writer in my position you can’t go into that... You cannot have art for art’s sake. This art must do something to transform the lives of a community, of a nation. And for that reason, literature has a different purpose altogether in that sort of society, completely different from here.
There is regret in Pinter's quotation. Artists are not trying to transform this nation. Many readers express a frustration that art in this country is so limited politically and blame artists for the problem. Does it mean then, if other nations have a more effective art, the execution of Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government was the result of an artistic failure?

Was it a form of success? Look at the reception of Harold Pinter’s recent poetry. Everyone is perplexed, even the literary folk who share his political judgement (FWIW, I agree with the editor of Medialens' comment). It's poetry divested of poetry. Perhaps this divestment is the power of art? A divestment for politics' sake - or rather for the sake of truth. Of course this would also be its ultimate weakness. So what do we want?

Coincidentally, last week I saw on a BBC arts show a young woman (looking uncannily like a black Billie Piper) who shares Saro-Wiwa's surname. She was attending a private view with London's trustafarians wondering if the show's mysterious artist would turn up. It was an entertaining report and it raised questions, specifically of identity, even if it was only the identity of Banksy. The artist's physical anonymity was the hook of the report. Who is saying so much, why is he saying it, what is he saying? These were the implicit questions. I wondered then if identifying the man himself would divest the graffiti of its amusing, discomforting opacity, hence the odd imperative of the hook.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Plot Against Literature

Does Philip Roth include his call for a 100-year moratorium on 'insufferable literary talk' within itself? One presumes not. Such remarks are always orientated towards the future, towards an ideal world. Perhaps we should regard it as the last word before the moratorium begins. Or should we wait for the act of parliament? The latter probably, as only then might we begin to understand what Roth means exactly. Our elected representatives would have to decide whether 'insufferable literary talk' is a pleonasm or a specific type of literary talk. It might take some time to define.

While we wait, one of us might write a speculative novel about a happy, innocent world mercifully free of insufferable literary talk. A fairytale perhaps. After a time, the Arcadia in which our hero frolics inside white pages unblemished by marginalia is threatened by the rise to power of a misguided man. So much does he love this paradise, he wants to legislate in order to ‘protect’ it. The Plot Against Literature. The novel would become an instant bestseller, lauded by insufferable literary types. This is the real thing, they’ll say. Real literature! The blurb would introduce it as a cautionary tale about how public discussion about protecting each individual’s paradise of reading eventually destroys it.

Unfortunately this novel would also become the first book to test the new law. After all, the threat of insufferable literary talk cannot be discussed without raising the question of literature; the questions we all ask in our lonely ‘fight with the books’. The author would have to stand before the law charged with insufferable literary talk and so, in the process, threatening our paradise of reading.

On a point of law, the author's defence team could argue that the legislators are themselves articulating the ultimate in insufferable literary talk. The stone pages of the law have, by definition, become the absolute of literature, thus achieving a dominion over the literary world of which everyday insufferable literary critics can only dream.

As a member of the jury, what's your insufferable verdict?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Appelfeld in Germany

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has a feature on the novelist Aharon Appelfeld's visit to Germany to pick up the Nelly Sachs Prize.
Appelfeld's acceptance speech was as precise and measured as his books. He has a genius for creating emotional drama that is devoid of pathos. By relating a story involving a single scene, by evoking a simple metaphor, with just a few words he arouses a tumult of emotions in his audience.
Born in the same town as Paul Celan, Appelfeld notices a change in the Germans, the people who murdered his mother: 'they have a deep aversion to nationalism and fanaticism'.
This is my third visit and the feeling is that something has happened. One sees that there is a crisis in German culture. They are undergoing a process of Europization and drawing close, let's say, to the French. The young people have a great deal of historical and general knowledge; they do not have the German obsessiveness or the obedience and discipline. They represent a new democratic and responsible tradition.
Hence, one might add, their ability to influence their government to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Hence, no doubt, the contempt for modern Germany expressed by British neocons like Daniel Johnson of the Daily Telegraph. He wrote a disgraceful review of Sebald's Airwar book - not online - about which I'm still bitter. Here's my response at the time (and no, it wasn't printed).

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Without end

At the beginning of Chapter 18 of Kafka: the Decisive Years, Reiner Stach writes:
The Man Who Disappeared, The Trial, The Castle, The Man without Qualities, and River without a Shore - the five monumental unfinished ruins of modern German-language prose. Kafka was the author of three of them, which may seem dismal from a personal point of view, but from the heights of comparative literary history it cries out for an explanation.
Stach's own explanation is persuasive but also unfinished. We await two further volumes of biography (and they are worth waiting for, believe me).

My own reading of the first four novels on his list is unfinished. But I'd not even heard of the fifth until I read this book. And it wasn't easy to find out the author's name, even with Google. Turns out it's a trilogy by Hans Henny Jahnn called Fluß ohne Ufer. Surely rivers have banks rather than shores. Perhaps the title should be translated as Tales of the Non-existent Riverbank.

Almost interesting too that two of the five titles contain the word 'without'.

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