Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Evening without angels

Listening to this. Looking at these. Reading this. The TV's on too.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Blair's Bombs

Rachel from North London is an admirably independent voice for victims of the 7th July bombings in London. Today she merely links to another survivor's story. It is quite something. The details are what make Steven Lovegrove's account of one summer's morning remarkable: the words he said to himself; the greed of the taxi-driver; the walking home from the hospital; the people crossing themselves. Above all though, for me, were two things: the sense that it never happened in time. There was only ever before and after. And secondly, the staggering question and answer in the immediate aftermath of the explosion: "a young man behind me asked, 'Why would they bomb us?' I replied, 'Olympics'."

Elsewhere, Lenin's Tomb, in responding to the destruction of the Samarra Shrine, reminds us that Blair's occupiers have already been caught once preparing terror bombings to foment civil strife (see penultimate paragraph) and, oh yes, slaughter civilians. So it's likely the horror stories we might read if Iraqi survivors wrote blogs - and blogs in English - would feature such questions too. The answer would be different though.

A correction, six years late

In my essay on Paul Celan, posted by Spike in 2000, I called his friend Yves Bonnefoy 'an avowed Christian'. It's come to my attention from a reliable source that he isn't. From this distance, I can't remember how I decided he was. Anyway, I shall correct it in the version over which I have control. But the other will have to remain.

This is the joy and the curse of the internet. When I first wrote things for Spike - a review of two Beckett biographies, the Cioran meander, the Bernhard, Celan and Will Oldham introductions (all written in the last century) - I didn't consider their future. Unfortunately one cannot wrap online articles around fish & chips. To every browsing reader, they appear freshly posted. So, from time to time, I get an email either praising or criticising the Cioran atrocity. Both types embarrass me. I'd delete it given the chance but, apparently, it's one of the most popular pages on Spike that doesn't mention porn. Bugger.

Culture: pyrotechnics against a night sky of nothinginess. (Cioran)

Book Wrap

Has anyone used Book Wrap?

I've seen rolls for sale and wonder if one needs origami-like, present-wrapping skills to make it worthwhile?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Got any Rizlas Virg, I'm dyin' a skin up?

One of my regular time-wasters is searching Amazon UK using the Publication Date: Newest First selection. This morning, I entered 'Dante' into the search field. Second from top was a title that threw me for a moment: Dante's Divine Comedy Box. Is this a discovery of a cache of jokes, balloons and medieval card tricks? Ah, no. It's a rather dubious illustrated 'adaptation' of the Commedia.

The first book to arouse genuine interest was Peter Hawkins' A Brief History of Dante published in July by Blackwells. But I've still to read all of Dante's Testaments which I've been told is one of the best books on the subject.

Next, at the end of April, came veteran Dante scholar Barbara Reynold's Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man from IB Tauris. What makes this book stand out is the claim that Reynolds' "research indicates that Dante smoked cannabis to reach heights of creativity". Who would have thunk it?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Sixth Type

I was attracted to the review in the TLS of Peter Hobbs' collection of stories by the title of the book. I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train. It suggests a unique sensibility, even a wilfulness to write what needs to be written rather than just another set of stories. What is it about titles? Is there something to be discovered in the titles given to novels?

Reading David Lodge’s book Author, Author, I noticed that Henry James was always beginning works with titles taken from the name of the main character. Guy Domville, Daisy Miller, The Princess Casamassima. When his friend George du Maurier took up the pen, his first novel was called Peter Ibbetson, his second Trilby. Perhaps this had something to do with a general fascination with the rise of the individual and its isolation. "My prison cell - my fortress" as Kafka put it a little later.

There were also titles taken from the names of places - Washington Square - and, more familiarly to us, ‘poetic’ titles such as The Wings of the Dove. Whichever, they all indicate a close focus on one person or a group. Very little seems to have changed. Take Amazon UK’s Hot 25. There are examples of all three. First, the individual: The Time Traveller’s Wife, The 5th Horseman, The Last Templar; then there’s the location: Labyrinth, Brokeback Mountain, and finally the ‘poetic’, though in this list there's only one: The Shadow of the Wind.

The remaining titles can be included in sub-sections: For example, Saturday might well have been called Henry Perowne or Fitzroy Square. And I suppose Peter Hobbs' title could well be classed in two of these three.

There is a fourth type too. The appeal to scientific modes of storytelling: The History of Love, The Da Vinci Code. Like the ‘poetic’ title, it alludes to uncommon knowledge without the attendant pretentiousness.

Yet there is a type of title that usurps all three: the cliché. Be Careful What You Wish For, Malicious Intent, Second Honeymoon, Dead Simple, Making Your Mind Up.

I can't imagine ever being attracted to a book with a brazen cliché as a title. I seek the sixth type; the type of title that is as mysterious and as compelling as the narrative it shrouds.

PS: As it happens, Peter Hobbs' book was in my local library, so I'm now reading it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bourne of cynicism

There shouldn't be so much fuss over Michael Dibdin's spiked review of Jonathan Freedland's pseudonymous thriller. Negative reviews are often rejected. I know of three, including one of my own. Editors have to edit after all, which is why you won't see anything positive here. What appalls me in each case, however, is that the book was written and published in the first place.

I suspect in Freedland's case, he'll soon be telling one inevitable interviewer how he had no intention of writing a highbrow novel for intellectual reviewers - it is just an unpretentious yarn for the general reader - and telling another, once it misses out on the Booker and the Whitbread, that the literary world is policed by snobs who sneer at genre fiction but popular novels can be great literature too, look at Dickens. I was playing with genre, he'll say, extending it, inverting it, subverting it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The lawyer of Genre

One can only agree with Amanda Craig in her defence of Romantic fiction that "the idea that all great literature must, by definition, escape genre is snobbish and wrong." I have no problem with that. (And I’m grateful that she names names along the way). After all, for some time now I’ve insisted that one of the great novels of recent times is Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. In addition to being unique, it is also a love story; a Romantic novel!

One can’t easily disagree with the sentence that follows either: "Great literature plays with genre, extends it, inverts it and subverts it - but it cannot, ever, be wholly independent of it."

Unfortunately, ease is precisely what genre fiction is about. It might be futile to try to escape genre, but writers who struggle to do so are the only ones I want to read. Genre fiction is for people at home in the novel.

Craig reveals the anxiety lurking beneath the surface when she insists that Romantic fiction is “alive and kicking in the works of prize-winning authors such as Maggie O'Farrell, Joanne Harris and Sarah Waters”. Ah, prize-winning. That's what it's all about. And I thought this was about literature.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A poem for Valentine's Day

He Resigns
Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come & find me empty.

I don't feel this will change.
I don't want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don't think I will sing
any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.


John Berryman, Delusions, etc. 1972

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Radio and nothingness

The BBC must be keen to keep up with developments in French philosophy and literature. With the influence of Blanchot and Levinas growing ever stronger, not to mention the presence of Bataille, Deleuze, Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, it devotes the full 45 minutes of Radio 3's Sunday Feature to ........ Jean-Paul bloody Sartre.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Death Sentence: opening paragraph

These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth. I am not frightened of the truth. I am not afraid to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked. I know this guile is a warning: it would be nobler to leave the truth in peace. It would be in the best interests of the truth to keep it hidden. But now I hope to be done with it soon. To be done with it is also noble and important. [written by Maurice Blanchot, trans Lydia Davis]

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Green Integer Review

US small publisher Green Integer has published some fine books. I've written about at least one. It's also just posted some poetry and prose in its first Green Integer Review.

Though recognition is irrelevant, I recognise only two names; Jacques Roubaud being one. You can read a cute little essay by him about poetry. The extra good news is that Green Integer is finally publishing his collection of essays in translation Poetry, Etcetera: Cleaning House in June. This in addition to Dalkey Archive's volume of his poetry The Shape of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart in July.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Opening lines

Oh this is fun, once you start. Prompted by Chekhov's Mistress' post and link to the American Book Review's choice of 100 Best First Lines, I went in search my favourites. I have chosen four.

There are two from Samuel Beckett in the 100: from Murphy and The Unnamable. However, for my first choice, I have selected his final prose work Stirrings Still:
One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.
The movement back or forth is everything. It draws one back, in, and it sets one free. This is why I disagree with CM's evaluation of Proust's famous opening line - that is famous only because of what it precedes. No. It goes back and forth. It encompasses the novel to come.

My second and third choices are by the same author, Peter Handke, both translated by Ralph Manheim.
I shut my eyes and out of the black letters the city lights took shape. Across.

A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother. Repetition.
For my final choice, I was tempted by the two and a half page sentence hurling us into Thomas Bernhard's Yes, solely for its hilarious, horrendous excess. But I ran out of patience copying it. So instead I chose my real favourite, the first line of Extinction as translated by the late David McLintock.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilerated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Two caesurae

For a short time, I wrote and rewrote the introduction to reflections on Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder. There seemed so much to say about it and about fiction in general. Others have felt the urge too. The excellent new blog The Midnight Bell for example, and Splinters-but-not-me. What happened to that time?

Lately, I've started another piece, adding to the pile. It's an attempt at a commentary on and summary of Blanchot's review-essay of Jean Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes. And today, ReadySteadyBook pops up with a great surprise: Michael Syrotinski's introduction to his new translation of the latter. Oh Manchester, so much to answer to.

Despite this accumulation of projects prompting and blocking other projects, I do not despair, very much. I take heart from Walter Benjamin.
To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives. For only the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in conclusions, feeling themselves thereby given back to life. For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep itself into his workshop labour. About it he draws a charmed circle of fragments.
Even if I don't really understand what it means.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

So evenings die

A surprise yesterday as I continued my nightly reading of Wallace Stevens' Collected Poetry and Prose. Part four of Peter Quince at the Clavier begins:
Beauty is momentary in the mind -
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
I didn't know that's where it comes from. Words I've seen most days for years now. Wood s lot's subtitle. Bookmark it and see.

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