Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Something is taking its course

Good philosophical discussion of Samuel Beckett's works at K-Punk (thanks to Spurious for the link). The writer "Infinite Thought" was unhappy at the Barbican's Beckett Post War panel.
The problem lay in the staleness of the set-up, which contextualized Beckett in terms of 'existentialism', as if not only had the last forty years of Beckett reception in philosophy - Deleuze, Derrida, Blanchot, Badiou - not happened, but also that existentialism could still be understood in the same way that it was half a century ago.
The centenary excesses were continued on Newsnight Review too, only with slightly less focus on philosophy. It enabled Ellis Sharp to bask in the glory of NR regular Julie Myerson's critical acuity as she responded to Rockaby live at the same Barbican. It's not the first time we've had the pleasure.

PS: Channel 4 is reported to be showing the 19 films after having failed the first time. Let's hope some royal doesn't snuff it and spoil it like last time. Well, maybe it's a sacrifice I could make.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Possibility and actuality

This week's TLS runs a short review of a 25 year old novel, Christopher Priest's The Affirmation. It is a novel about autobiography, alternate worlds, obsessive love, grief and madness. So, right up the street parallel to mine. In summary, Sam Thompson writes that as the main character cracks up:
it becomes clear that [Priest] is not merely using his alternate world as a figure for schizophrenia, nor writing the sort of self-regarding metafiction that evaporates into a comment on its own evanescence. Instead, with distressing plausibility, The Affirmation implies that the human tendency to make stories is itself a kind of madness. Bringing home the power of narrative to steal reality, affirming nothing, it abandons us mid-sentence, poised between page and world, discomfited and hyper-aware.
It's the kind of book that offers to me both the suppression, through reading it, of the desire to write something like it, and the arousal of the sense of being able, at last, to write that book.

The same can be said of Borges and the Plain Sense of Things, Gabriel Josipovici's remarkable essay about fiction, possibility and actuality taken from his new collection The Singer on the Shore. If you have the slightest concern with the interaction of these three worlds, do not miss.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Writing, naturally

Composing a piece of writing feels unnatural. Even a relatively short entry on this page is wrung out. Never mind how it appears. Never mind the typos.

The urge to write a blog entry is usually to release what's lodged inside my head, what's swirling about as words, phrases, fragments of sentences, themselves forming ill-formed ideas. The dream of writing is to make all this a coherent whole. Then those phrases and fragments are submerged in the astringent wash of rhetoric. Sometimes they stick above the surface. The dream remains, hence more writing is urged.

There are examples of success to cling to. Beckett's 'siege in the room' during which he wrote three novels of the Trilogy.
Molloy and what followed became possible the day I became aware of my stupidity. Then I began to write the things I feel.
At first this statement seems like a licence to let go, to write out those phrases, fragments of sentences and ill-formed ideas without apparent mediation; mitigated as raw feeling. But reading the Trilogy seems only to reveal that what Beckett felt included the failure of feeling and the failure of the dream.

And then there's the example of Thomas Bernhard; the Glenn Gould of the typewriter. Those late novels like Bach fugues, each giving the impression of having been written with virtuosic grace and speed. This is perhaps why I prefer these novels (Concrete, Yes, The Loser, Old Masters, Extinction) rather than earlier works such as Correction, recently reviewed by David Sepanik in the The Quarterly Conversation. It perplexes me why this novel receives such disproportionate attention. It is uncommonly weighty, as dense as the forest in the Aurach valley in which it is set. Yes, it's deep, awesomely-crafted and important, but to me, compared to the others, it seems too constructed, perhaps even forced, unnatural.

I suspect Correction is regarded so precisely because it is heavier - 'demanding' as Sepanik says - thus resembling the ambitions of more-traditional novels and fitting in with conservative hopes and expectations. The curious thing is, the novels I prefer are probably less radical and experimental in composition than this one. Yet each differs radically from the traditional novel; they seem to flow more directly from the living mind. So perhaps we should regard the traditional novel, written slowly and deliberately, with each sentence composed with utmost care, as experimental, and those which seem to fall onto the page like steady rain as the more natural form of the novel; the novel, perhaps, of the future.

But of course, such definitions are all made by the reader. Without scholarly attentions, we cannot know how much care was taken to write what we're reading. So, what's the difference between 'experimental' and 'traditional' reading?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Patrick Giles

It's happened to me twice now. Googling a friend's name only to find that they're dead.

Patrick Giles wrote to me four years ago. He said he liked what I wrote. We exchange emails, chatting about mutual interests. He passed on links to examples of his published work and countless recommendations of novels. It seemed we both loved the same authors and reservations about the same big name novelists and critics. He expressed regret that it wasn't easy - more or less impossible - to publish the sort of things we both wrote or wanted to write. Keith Gessen suggests it was a long-standing regret. There were also the not-so-mutual interests. I'm nonplussed by opera and musicals. He loved both. And I can't forget when he spoke of a baseball pitcher who "when he bends over to pick up a ball you can practically tell how dilated his sphincter is." I told him I preferred cricket.

After a break of some time, I heard from him again, this time in a comment on The Elegant Variation. I knew he had cancer and told him I was pleased to see from the comment that he was firing on all cylinders. But he said the ravages of the illness made the post more intemperate than it might otherwise have been. The comment was then elevated to a wider public by James Wood who quoted it in his defence of Realism in the New Republic, recently reprised in Prospect Magazine. I was touched that he asked me for advice on how to reply. I hadn't a clue. I'm not sure if he ever did write a response. In his last email on July 24th last year he said his health seemed to be improving, but he died on October 13th. I found out on Wednesday only because I picked up a book he once reviewed and wanted to find the link again.

On this page of condolences, you get the sense of the man and his emails from the picture alone. Most of the comments include variants the phrase "I never met Patrick in person". The same goes for me. But if it wasn't for this extraordinary friendship medium, not one of us would have had got even this far. And that's something for which I'm grateful.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mid-March miscellany

Four things. Ready Steady Book adds to its unique series of interviews by asking unique British writer Gabriel Josipovici about, among other things, the three new books he has out this year. The line that sticks in my mind: I find myself being much more ‘radical’ in my writing, simply driven by the demands of the work, than I am in my tastes.

Elsewhere in our merry blogosphere, be aware that George Galloway's gotta new blog. Perhaps he'll tell us about what really went on in the Celebrity Big Brother house?

Thirdly, John Pistelli, lately of the excellent commonplacebook, has also begun a 'live journal' with the self-consciously grand title Maxims and Reflections.

Meanwhile, on a more established blog, the editor of the TLS Peter Stothard mentions me! Well, I was excited. It's about my frustration with the local library. Looking back, I was probably a little unfair. The new fiction selection is actually very good, except it seems there ain't much good fiction around. This might explain my lack of enthusiasm in the three novel reviews I've written for Sir Peter's publication.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Oblivion stands between us

It's impressive that Ellis Sharp has exercised his considerable critical attention on an instance of Paul Celan's apparent moral inattention. It's not something one sees very often. Celan has a critical aura of protection about him. One cannot read his long account of the poet's brief relationship to Israel without unease. He begins with Celan's more famous - and more famously ambiguous - relationship with Heidegger, the lapsed-Nazi. We hold him to account for his actions - that almost goes without saying in critical circles - so what about Celan?

Well, if the attention is for sound reasons, the only useful and meaningful way to do hold a poet to account would be to hold him to account according to poetry, just as the only meaningful way to hold Heidegger to account would be according to philosophy (as many have done - Timothy Clark for instance).

Sharp approaches this by insisting that one poem (Denk Dir) despite being "a cryptic, elusive poem ... is surely in essence a Zionist poem", one that "under its abstractions and ambiguities" is "on the side of Israel, and hence of imperialism and sectarian persecution". He extracts John Felstiner's analysis to confirm what seems to me, in both, a rush to judgement. Ian Fairley, in his knotty introduction to Fathomsuns, reads the abstraction and ambiguity of the same poem as essential to its meaning rather than obstacles to it. He suggests - though my understanding is fraught with uncertainty - that the poem is an implicit warning to Zionism and, more generally, the yearning for a homeland; a similar yearning - for clarity, for certainty, for an impossible homecoming - that we experience in reading poetry.

Instead (i.e. instead of a homestead), he writes that we must live in "the conflicted liminality of ... an unhousing which demands that we live ... with, or in, what is without." This seems to locate the brutalism inherent in patriotic utopianisn and enacts, instead, an imaginative engagement with a meridian - "the connective which, like the poem, leads to encounters". Denk dir; think of it.

What Sharp doesn't address, and which perhaps might offer more pertinent insights arising from his critique, is why someone else - anyone else - someone with apparently impeccable ethical credentials, is not automatically a very good artist; often quite the opposite?

PS: And speaking of Celan, I was intrigued to discover through Buzzwords that a young writer called Donari Braxton has, in addition to writing prolifically his own work, translated Celan's collection Die Niemandsrose. He extracts one of my favourites Soviel Gestirne, translated here as So Many Stars.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Steven Pinker, philistine

In an excellent edition of The Quarterly Conversation, Dan Green provides a shocking insight into the philistine world of Steven Pinker, popular science writer and darling of the liberal media.
[In] the chapter on the biological origins of art and the appreciation of art [...] Pinker comes close to suggesting that art and literature are necessarily restricted to fulfilling biological functions assigned by human nature and that any artists or writers failing to meet the terms of these requirements are thereby derelict in their duties.

In [his] account, the culprits here are not merely the usual postmodern suspects so frequently identified by critics of contemporary art and literature, but can be traced all the way back to the early modernists: the painters and their “freakish distortions,” the fiction writers, with their “disjointed narration and difficult prose,” the poets who “abandoned clarity,” the “dissonant” composers unable to appreciate rhythm and melody, the whole lot producing nothing but “weird and disturbing art.” Given the public’s presumptive preference for the familiar and comforting, the work of modernists and postmodernists alike is characterized not only as artistic failure but as a kind of moral decadence as well.
I remember upsetting some of Pinker's fans when I expressed disgust at his recommendation of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, the literary critical equivalent of such narrow-mindedness. At the time, I wondered if I had gone too far. But Dan's review-essay convinces me otherwise, and I'm grateful for his informed resistance to presumptuous scientific approaches to art. (I made an indirect attempt myself on this blog some time ago).

Elsewhere, discussing the same work, Harold Fromm quotes Pinker about our recent past:
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship.
Well, rather pretentious and unintelligible than ignorant and plain wrong.

Not much

Edna O'Brien writes very surely about Beckett, ever nearing that significant date.
[He] often spoke of darkness and what made him tremble before the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Jack Yeats was illumination wrested from darkness and the void.
Ah, it's a good thing now we have the electric light switch instead.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Russell's Paradox ... and the novel?

Why have I always remembered the details of Russell's Paradox? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides the summary:
Some sets, such as the set of all teacups, are not members of themselves. Other sets, such as the set of all non-teacups, are members of themselves. Call the set of all sets that are not members of themselves 'R.' If R is a member of itself, then by definition it must not be a member of itself. Similarly, if R is not a member of itself, then by definition it must be a member of itself.
It's not like I was ever attracted to logic. When it was studied on my undergraduate degree, I ignored the material (just as I ignored all ten novels on the English Novel course!). So I don't even know how I even heard of it. Maybe it was on Brian Magee's The Great Philosophers TV series in 1987 (featuring a young, striking Martha Nussbaum discussing Aristotle).

Wherever, the reason why the detail remains has almost certainly less to do with the substance of the paradox than with how I misunderstood it. For I've long asked, under the breath of reading: in what way is narrative implicated in the content it utilises in order to exist?

For example, how might a story of a journey repeat the experience of a journey rather than merely appropriate it? And, does the tale of addiction correlate to the comfort of storytelling? If so, what is a writer's and reader's cold turkey? The same question goes for accounts of descents into madness or obsessive love. Every narrative is implicated; even the narrative of narratives.

The issue might expand into and explain my a priori dissatisfaction with genre fiction. Why are science-fiction novels written in the most old-fashioned manner? Why do crime thrillers appear to be accomplices to the crimes they describe? Why does a Romance novel limit love to the movement of its own narrative rather than embody it? Is fiction really the sublimated denial of the abyss of experience?

Can Russell's Paradox help us understand this? Stanford obliges again:
The significance of Russell's paradox can be seen once it is realized that, using classical logic, all sentences follow from a contradiction. For example, assuming both P and ~P, any arbitrary proposition, Q, can be proved as follows: from P we obtain P or Q by the rule of Addition; then from P or Q and ~P we obtain Q by the rule of Disjunctive Syllogism.
Well, that's that cleared up.

Save as Daft

About the time of the repeal of the Corn Laws, I wondered when the Save as Draft facility on Blogger might begin to work. Is it just me for whom it fails? Why isn't it on Blogger's Known Issues page FFS?

Anyway, when I installed the funky new Blogger widget for OS X dashboard, I was wary about clicking the said button. But hey, it works! It also provides a hyperlink to the browser edit page. So I clicked it and continued to edit. However, as the blog entry in progress remained incomplete, I selected Save as Draft again.

Gone.

Good thing I saved it to Word first.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Baddiel on Jewish Book Week

With predictable levity, comedian-turned-novelist David Baddiel expresses frustration with Jewish Book Week. He thinks it limits the universal appeal of books with Jewish themes. It's quite clear they aren't part of the British mainstream. Baddiel observes that
We are happy to appropriate certain minorities as representing our national voice, as long as they are thought of as cool, oppressed and part of the multicultural texture of modern Britain: which frankly Jews ... are not.

So, if you write a book with a Jewish theme in this country, the goys don’t buy it.
He's probably right, but probably for the wrong reasons. Over the years, I've been impressed by the range and seriousness of Jewish Book Week. It is hard to imagine the Hay-on-Wye or Cheltenham festivals offering up such attractive programmes. They tend toward the author-as-celeb. The reason why Jewish Book Week seems to Baddiel "to represent a niche market" is probably due to Britain's almost-terminally philistine culture. Thank (the Jewish) God for small mercies.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Conclusively Right: the politics of book reviewing

Andrew Marr’s book about journalism Our Trade was reviewed widely in the mainstream media. It gave a highly enthusiastic response. For example, Roger Alton swooned over Marr's previous achievements and claimed the current work is "one of the best books about journalism I've read".

Alton also asks what most of us want to know: how does Marr do it? He wrote the book while he was still the BBC's chief political correspondent, meaning he'd be seen by news bulletin viewers reporting from the Palace of Westminster almost every day and night. Marr mitigates the impression of superhuman powers by admitting the book consists of six discrete "reflexive and relaxed" essays. It was probably written on the fly or in a conservatory somewhere. Nice then that his chums think so highly of the book to give it such wide coverage and ideal blurb quotations.

I remember when Marr joined the Beeb. He announced that, despite previous closeness to New Labour, his "Organs of Opinion [had been] formally removed". Evidence for the success of the operation came after the statue of Saddam was pulled down by a crowd in Baghdad. Live on the BBC he observed:
Well, I think this does one thing - it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of... well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history. Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren't going to thank him - because they're only human - for being right when they've been wrong. […] I don't think anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he's somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion, or focus groups, or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result. (April 9, 2003)
A surgeon somewhere should be struck off.

Curious then, that a new book about journalism, which has been called by a legendary journalist "the most important book about journalism I can remember", has yet to find a reviewer in the mainstream press. David Edwards - one of the authors - takes up the story, including correspondence with Boyd 'Not this time, thanks' Tonkin, literary editor of Marr's old paper The Independent.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Try that instead

Julian Barnes is asked: Would you recommend being an author to anyone else?

All I would say is, don't become a writer unless you are convinced that writing is the best way of describing and rendering the truth about the world; if you think there's a better way, try that instead.

The radical loser

Hans Magnus Enzensberger warns that in "a global society that constantly produces new losers, this is something we will have to live with." He doesn't mean blogs.

Attention to detail is paramont

Proofreading is a futile task. One either has so many things to correct that it becomes inevitable that something will slip through, or, if there are few mistakes, one's concentration is challenged so that it's easy to allow the most glaring of errors to go into print. At least, that's the fear. But how can one know for sure without reading everything again and again?

Perhaps my experience of proofreading is why I have an extra sensitivity to mistakes in books. Recently, I've read a novel in which the word 'buses' is spelt more than once with three Ss and 'practise' is used as a noun on a regular basis. And in another book, I was perturbed by the use of 'disinterest'. Surely, I was thinking, the author meant 'uninterest'?

Things that stand out in memory include Peter Handke's essay on a successful day. He refers to 'Coney Island' in Van Morrison's song of the same name as 'a small American town' despite the song's copious use of placenames from the north of Ireland.

And then there's Alain Finkielkraut's The Wisdom of Love. This popular (and, I have to say, rather embarrassing) explication of Levinasian philosophy uses Henry James' great story The Beast in the Jungle as an example of inattentiveness to the Other. In this case it happens to be a woman, May Bartram. Finkielkraut calls her Mary Bertram. So much for his attentiveness.

Yet why should it matter? I've often wondered why it should be so painful to see typos and errors in books. Really, it's easy to see what the intention was whether the error is spelling, grammatical or factual. One needn't be held up. Yet sometimes, it's seems a tear in fabric of the universe has opened up.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Well-lodged poetry

RSB reprints Michael Schmidt's superb bimonthly PN Review editorial that made me, when I read it in the magazine itself, want to rush out and buy Geoffrey Hill's latest work. That is, if clicking on my Amazon UK shortcut is rushing out.

PN Review 168 was to be the final installment of my subscription. I have an awkward relationship with poetry (PN stands for Poetry Nation BTW). I realised that I wasn't reading the poems. The latest edition has a fascinating interview with the poet Sebastian Barker (link to a publisher's page) which, again, makes me want to read his work, though, in all honesty, I suspect it's not poetry I want. So why does poetry tend not to be enough?

I think it's because I like the discursive potential of prose. Poetry is serialism to the symphony of prose. The power of poetry, however, is contained in its ability to invent language; those unique phrases that lodge themselves in one's mind and mouth like shards of the grail. Perhaps a preference for prose is a lapsed attentiveness; a wish to bypass language with language (the way 'punk writers' imagine they can bypass form with content; with vice and vice versa).

My copy of Geoffrey Hill's Collected Poems tells me that I've owned it for 12 years. I've had it all this time and yet I know only a few poems. But some lines are well-lodged. One of them is the strapline to my dumpsite with the unfortunate, though probably accurate, URL: The Gaping Void.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What remains?

The good news is that Tom McCarthy's excellent novel Remainder has a long, positive review in the new edition of the LRB. The bad news is that only the first paragraph is online.

Daniel Soar mentions Perec's Life: a user's manual, calling it "the most memorable novel of the last fifty years". It's only now I realise both novels have a similar location and that Perec has something in common with the beguiling narrator of Remainder.

Tom McCarthy's latest venture is Greenwich Degree Zero in which he and artist Rod Dickinson 're-imagine' a failed terrorist assault on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 (that, I think, was the inspiration behind Conrad's The Secret Agent).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Novel heroins

For all his appreciation of great modern novels, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post does seem to hanker - like everybody else it seems - for large scale, 19th Century novels with extra stiff doses of violence, madness and sex. He calls James Meek's much-touted novel A People's Act of Love "a tremendously impressive work of art", though, beyond pressing all the usual emotional buttons, there seems to be little explanation of why it is art as such.

Perhaps it's enough for most readers that Meek's work will remind them, as Dirda assures, of the famous 19th Century Russians for whom there is "nothing light-hearted or namby-pamby" about life. Perhaps they'll feel closer, as a result, to something elemental. To me it seems rather like the perennial tendency among reviewers and readers toward sentimentality and schadenfreude.

Such discomfort with ordinary consciousness isn't the preserve of established, conservative voices either. London's Scarecrow is keen to introduce us to new and urgent voices, yet for all its assurance that Tony O'Neill's new novel Digging the Vein is "something quite special" in its depiction of drug addiction in California, one only has to read the first paragraph to notice the hurried resort to the most worn-out phrasing. The rest is no different. Scarecrow insists that every word counts "because he experienced each painstaking syllable". I doubt it. Doesn't heroin numb all pain? Clichés do the same.

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