Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Kelly / Kempker, Shame

This is the book I was reading on the train.



The dustcover, which I removed before setting out on my journey, says it is a collaboration in which the two authors communicated by e-mail for two years (writing in their own languages) about shame 'at its most personal, prosaic, intimate ... most generic, couched, poetic and hallucinatory'. (Unlike many blurbs, this is very accurate). I will continue reading on another train journey tomorrow, but Ron Silliman has read it already.

Actually, it's a double collaboration as the book is also being published in Germany by Engeler Urs. In the US, Shame is published by McPherson & Co.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mind the gap

What is it that makes a book more readable when one is reading on a train?

Why does the design of a book seem to coincide with one’s experience reading the words?

And why does a sentence, printed in a perfectly-designed book, read on a train, seem to presage some merciful future, always only ever arriving?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Library book

Newish blogger (and editor of the TLS and knight of the realm) Peter Stothard got Candida Höfer's Libraries for Christmas; "a book of photographs showing nothing but bindings, shelves and desks from different libraries around the world". Lucky him. Luckier still are the people who are able to use the libraries on show. Floor to ceiling shelves of books! Take a photograph of the library I have to use - grateful though I am for its small mercies - and you'd struggle to find an angle with one flamin' book in sight.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Banville's Todtnauberg, more fall out

Elsewhere I've already expressed astonishment at the nature of John Banville's specially-commissioned BBC Radio 4 play Todtnauberg based on the famously mysterious meeting between Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger in the latter's mountain retreat. The only record is Celan's poem called Todtnauberg.

Others have expanded on my shake of the head. ReadySteadyBook links to one of them and receives a comment from one of Celan's main translators Pierre Joris. He says the play revealed that Banville "is totally clueless as to who Paul Celan was, how he thought and functioned".

Joris not only translates Celan (and Blanchot) but is also a poet and essayist of note. He's now a blogger too. Check out Nomadics.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Reading backwards

I've decided to read Blanchot's books backwards. One can lose concentration reading the 54th entry in a collection like Faux Pas. So this time, I'm going to start with the very last piece: On Insolence Considered as One of the Fine Arts, a review of Solitice de juin by Henry de Montherlant.

The twelfth piece in Faux Pas is one of Blanchot's most thrilling essays: How is Literature Possible? It's a review-essay from 1941 of Jean Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes: or, Terror in Literature, a book that remained untranslated until the University of Illinois Press published it this month. Well done to it and translator Michael Syrotinski.

As I believe How is Literature Possible? demands attention from those engaged in the struggle for a renewal of literature in this country, I will attempt a précis of it in the near future. If it causes a deep, dark silence to descend on the literary community, it will have done its job.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Theory's Empire

Thinking about literature cannot but be philosophical. (Simon Jarvis). But thinkers cannot write.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

'Death is the mother of beauty'

It seems posting blogs begets blog posts, so this silence seems unbreakable. I have been busy elsewhere though. There have been a couple of reviews here and a couple there. And there's more to come.

The other night, without anything to say or the wish to say it, I read with the sole purpose of unloading the burden of consciousness. I read Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens. Of course I had read it before, perhaps many times, but never like the other night. It was exceptionally moving; as moving as a poem can be, I'd imagine. It surprised me. I wanted to write a blog about the play of light and dark and such like within the poem; the way it celebrated and lamented the world in which we have to exist, but thinking about it would have involved remaining awake. So I switched off the lamp.

Then I saw Dan Green's post on the staggering remarks about Stevens by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. When I read what the unquestioning Wiman had said, the isolation and darkness out of which the pleasure of reading Sunday Morning emerged, which at the time was almost too much to bear, began to seem necessary.

Poetry is not congenial to $100m grants or any politically-orientated, state-sponsored programs encouraging a herd of independent voices. Christian Wiman, Ms Lilly? What a waste of money.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The last Modernist?

James Wood’s introduction to Henry Green's novels in this week’s TLS is admirably clear and fluent. I read it furtively at my desk through the working day and never lost the flow. Much as I appreciated the stimulation, two things bothered me. First, it does have the whiff of upper class English boys admiring that the slums got so much soul: “one of Green’s greatest literary achievements is his ability to write about unliterary people, and to catch the half-thoughts of unlettered minds”. I don't believe such people exist.

Later though Wood admits that “a great deal of [Green’s] genius lies in how he invented a plausible magic on the page for his speakers”. Speech in his novels “is consistently more savoury and inventive than it would ever have been in ordinary life”. He gives the example of the word ‘draggers’ used by one of Green’s best characters: it’s "a literary word", he says, "but it does not belong to high-literary diction". What, I’d like to know, isn’t a literary word? And more, what isn't high-literary diction? Is it something like the opposite of speech in ordinary life? If so, how can we know what it is once it is presented on the page? If it's convincing, wouldn't this be because it's a plausible magic? And if it isn't convincing, then it's probably not literary enough.

The oddest thing, however, is the title: the last English Modernist. Wood doesn’t justify labelling Green a modernist, let alone explaining why he is the last one in this country. Perhaps it is because
he removed those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (“She said, grandiloquently”).
This seems to be the nearest to an explanation. Maybe I have missed something. But modernism isn’t a style or even a range of techniques. One could say it’s an implicit exploration and critique of style and technique. Admittedly the majority of postwar English novelists didn't give much attention to such explorations and critiques, but I can think of a few. Yet according to Wood “English literary Modernism essentially expired” after Loving, Green’s 1945 novel. Perhaps it seemed to expire because there was a dearth of popular English critics who wanted to write about literature as an artistic problem rather than an insight into the half-thoughts of the little people or as a cultural phenomenon or as mere entertainment. This might answer why a writer like Green has remained “so essentially neglected”.

Ten years ago, in my first review for Spike (of a book called The Last Modernist), I lamented “the assumption that modernism is an historical event rather than a virus at the heart of culture”. Nothing has changed. The assumption continues. It’s a shame that the most powerful contemporary English critic isn’t drawing our attention to neglected contemporary writers. I can think of a few.

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