Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Stupefiction

What is the inverse of the bildungsroman?

Friday, April 28, 2006

The stillness of midnight

The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.

Kafka, 2nd February 1920
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Thursday, April 27, 2006

The future shouldn't be Orange

Natasha Walter says that we still need the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction because "judges of book awards still tend to see male writers as the safer, more authoritative choice". She laments that
the most prestigious prize-giving culture in Britain still often shows itself weirdly unable to recognise and reward the greatest writing, and for some reason books by women are still often the ones that lose out.
She insists that she not saying that this is because judges "consciously prefer work by men". So is it unconscious then? It's plausible I suppose, though ultimately indefensible. After all, one could say women unconsciously write lesser novels and justify this by pointing to how few women have won big book prizes.

More plausible is Walter's contention that an easy consensus is preferred: "The differing opinions [among the judges] tend to cancel each other out". Yet this is also an ultimately vague reason why certain novels win prizes and others don't. Booker winners Keri Hulme and Penelope Lively fit the bill for each side of the argument. Neither novel has lasted. And the most outstanding miscarriage of literary justice in recent times was Elfriede Jelinek winning the Nobel ahead of fellow Austrian Peter Handke - even the winner said so.

What seems really to trouble Walter is that her favourite novels didn't win:
When Zadie Smith's ferocious and heartfelt novel On Beauty lost out in the Booker race last year to John Banville's desiccated The Sea, it was only what one has come to expect from the Booker prize.
So here it is. Now that we're beyond the generalised complaints, we get literary critical judgement, which is far more interesting. Of course, other critics have said quite the opposite about these two novels. And what about Ali Smith's novel? Shouldn't that have won - if not, is Walter herself unconsciously denegrating a woman writer?

The larger issue here then is nothing to do with gender but authority itself. Prizes have replaced critical judgement. This is what literary journalists should be discussing. Why do we attach such an aura to prizes? Even if we claim, as I do, to take no great interest in the results, the blue spine of Banville's little hardback does glow a little bit bluer. I feel obliged to read it (and not chuck it aside as I did before it won). Yet the same could be said for all novels around which a fuss is made, such as On Beauty. If the reasons why a novel deserves a prize could be identified and examined then maybe each of us we'll find our own way to choose and judge novels. We could then persuade others to read them rather than rely on vague appendages such as "prize-winning".

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Supermarket fiction

The local supermarket ran a stall last week advertising a popular news and gossip magazine. I can't remember what it is called. Has a new one been launched recently? The front of the stall had a picture of a young blonde woman, like Phoebe in Friends, making a face between a frown and a pout. The headline revealed her story, the one you could read inside: "I woke up in a morgue!".

The thing is, I knew the picture from a framed poster in the offices where I work. It's been there for years. It's from a database of thousands of copyright-free images. I found it almost nauseating to know that. The awareness not of a genuine story but of a professional job being done.

I got the same reaction reading that Kaavya Viswanathan story. That is, disgust at the cynicism in the production of such fiction and the attention drawn to it because of the ridiculous advance paid to the alleged writer (though judging from the publicity photograph, her talent is self-evident). Any indignation at the young woman's apparent borrowings is a little unfair of course. Those kind of novels might as well be xeroxed anyway.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Short views

Philip Roth says his work in progress is as relatively short as his latest work not in progress Everyman. In the same interview he says the latter was inspired by Saul Bellow's funeral. Coincidentally or not, around the age as Roth is now (73) Bellow published two novellas - A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection.

Elsewhere, I'm reminded that The Litblog Co-op has also recently been discussing issues of novel length. I'm all for shorter novels. Bellow himself referred at the time of his novellas to the "congestion of modern consciousness" and his own preference for taking, by way of Sydney Smith, short views. I think this should be encouraged. Indeed, some writers should not only write less but not write another word, while others should actually unwrite their novels.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Everynovel

Douglas Kennedy compares Philip Roth's "brilliant new novel" Everyman with Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. While the latter, he says, anaesthetises loss "with a bucket-full of balm", Everyman "confronts the nullity towards which we all travel"; "Roth spares us little when it comes to detailing the minutiae of disease". It seems to be strong contrast. Yet after reading the review and an extract (link via Rake's Progress), I wonder how different they are really; for what does that particular confrontation mean when it comes to narrative? Kennedy says:
Roth is not the sort of writer who trades in elegant metaphysical ruminations about death and its attendant mysteries. If anything, this novel is rooted in the realpolitik of human transience, and the horror of growing old.
But perhaps narrative is itself a kind of metaphysical rumination (even if it isn't the writer who does the thinking). It circles death as words circle silence. Is it impolite to mention this? For how can storytelling confront the end of life when it is itself something that never ends? After all, every novel can be read again and again. If Roth doesn't let his protagonist live on in heaven, as Sebold does, he cannot really kill his everyman. He is born again with each reading.

So, while Roth appears to resist Sebold's naive projection of the impossibility of narrative death into metaphysical hope, every novel he writes implicitly shares it. When Kennedy says
the genius of [Everyman] stems from the way that Roth turns his desolate assessment of death into something bracing: an angry acceptance that mortality is the price we pay for the sheer wonder of this thing called life
it suggests that the contrast he began with is only one of tact. Acceptance of death is the same whether it's angry or meek.

I should point out that this is not Roth's fault. Every novel does it. It's just that not all novels wish to recognise let alone confront it.

We're constantly being told that literature is not a substitute for life. That constancy should tell us something. We keep on having to remind ourselves. We retreat from life to reiterate its primacy.

Roth's acceptance of this might be why the narrative details of Everyman focus on the corporeal rather than explicit "metaphysical ruminations". What would his numerous fans - keen to present literary fiction with a human face - say if the novel included any reference to its contradictory status? How indeed might one include that status in form and content? I ask this question each time when confronted with the maddening immortality of literature.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The material of expression

My late night reading is Wallace Stevens' Collected Poetry and Prose. Last night, I reached the end of his 1942 collection Parts of a World and was surprised to see that it ended with a passage of prose not in Faber's Collected Poems. It has no title except "The Immense Poetry of War" added, it seems, by the editors:
The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is consciousness of fact.
I knew this in slightly different form as an aphorism used by Paul Auster in The Invention of Solitude. He opened Opus Posthumous at random and read: In the presence of extraordinary reality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. I quote this from memory of a book I last read in 1988. (Appropriately, in a pile of books I searched through, Stevens' poetry was found immediately below The Invention of Solitude but I can't yet find the Stevens reference).

The prose passage continues by doubting that such consciousness of fact is readily available to us in works of the imagination.
We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.
Putting the book down, I thought that maybe this helps explain my lack of enthusiasm for any young writer that I've read lately and the unease I also feel about banging on about writers long dead. I long for more fundamental struggles with the material of expression.

Stevens' words need not have been deleted for the Collected Poems even if they were meant for a wartime audience. Since that time, as he predicted, the desire for fact has been overwhelming. It ranges from VS Naipaul's vain rejection of fiction to young writers resort to self-consciously 'raw' subject matter in unconsciously dead prose. It's not a new thing but the misreading of a perennial failure. It's also a failure of nerve.

Another one of these dead writers to whom I'm always returning is Beckett, and this week's TLS provides another opportunity. It has Until the gag is chewed, Dan Gunn's marvellous essay (not online) on the correspondence of which he's an associate editor. He makes it very clear that when (and if) the four volumes are published they will "consitute a major addition to the Beckett corpus". Just one quotation from a 1960 letter to an Israeli writer is confirmation enough. It also reiterates Stevens' words whilst also pointing a way forward:
But the material of experience is not the material of expression and I think the distress you feel, as a writer, comes from a tendency on your part to assimilate the two. The issue is roughly that raised by Proust in his campaign against naturalism and the distinction he made between the "real" of the human predicament and the artist's "ideal real" remains certainly valid for me and indeed badly in of revival. I understand, I think no one better, the flight from experience to expression and I understand the necessary failure of both. But it is the flight from one order or disorder to an order or disorder of a different nature and the two failures are essentially dissimilar in kind. Thus failure in life can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer, or richer in unexploited expressive possibilities, than the failure to express.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

NB

On the train, I read The Following Story, a short novel, chosen for that reason. The narrator says he read some Tacitus.
After that I read something about Java, for since losing my job I have written travel guides, a moronic activity whereby I earn my living, but not nearly as moronic as all those so-called literary travel writers who can't resist pouring out their precious souls over the landscapes of the entire planet, just to amaze the middle classes.
Checking Amazon, hoping to see news of a new novel, I see that instead there's Nomad's Hotel, published in February. In it:
Nooteboom gives us his unique view of the world, using his penetrative observation to show us the strangeness in places we thought we knew and the familiarity of places most of us will probably never see. A whimsical, hilarious, heartbreaking tour of the world.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The same sky

If I mark Spurious' 1000th phenomenal post, it will be only to regret the form the marking takes: this facile resort to critical comment.

I thought about it on Saturday afternoon as I looked out at the rain through the conservatory windows. A puddle forming on the slatted patio table reflected camellia flowers blooming above it - and the sky above them. Deadheads were rotting on the paving stones below. In those moments, I knew it had to end.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Draught fiction

Bel Mooney compares Nick Hornby with Anne Tyler. "But Anne Tyler would never be dismissed as a 'popular' novelist".

Sigh. She is a popular novelist. Nothing wrong with that. It's not a dismissal. It's a literary definition. Why does Mooney feel that the label is a dismissal? Who is being the snob here?

Every so often somebody complains, as Mooney does, that popular authors are shunned by 'literati' solely because they're popular. No evidence is ever offered. Instead, as in this case, extra-literary achievements are thrust to the fore. With Fever Pitch Hornby got "young men wearing Arsenal shirts to pick up a book — and keep picking them up almost as often as they sink a pint". Great, if you assume reading literature is necessarily a good thing. But not only that:
His paperback sales total 6 million, excluding the US and translations. A Long Way Down went straight to No 1 in Italy, Robert De Niro’s production company paid £2 million for the rights to About A Boy. And so on. Hornby books make movies — and money. It is enough to make the average literary hack reach for the poisoned arrows.
The arrows Mooney provides as exhibits seem to have their points disguised, as far as I can see they're nothing other than routine literary critical opinion. She says many reviewers were unconvinced by the scenario of A Long Way Down and claims this is nonsense. The opening to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is, she says, even more unrealistic. But are these writers' modes comparable? One a comic realist, the other a magical realist? And did Rushdie's novel get good reviews? Not as far as I can remember. There's only one reason why The Satanic Verses is so famous. Perhaps Mooney should be directing her ire at the Ayatollahs for shunning her hero?

Yet even if the reviews are indeed inaccurate and unfair, it doesn't prove that the motivation is due to Hornby's popularity.

Mooney goes on to offer a more subtle reason: critics think a great writer cannot be comic and serious (hence perhaps the dismissive reviews received by Muriel Spark and Saul Bellow).
This is fiction transforming pain into the archetypal comic mode — through pity and laughter to purge the emotions. Hornby’s accessibility should be celebrated — offering millions the gripping possibility of redemption.
The gripping possibility of redemption! One can imagine what the pint-sinking young men in Arsenal shirts might say about that.

The literati might appreciate that though, so it seems odd that they're so negative. But who makes up this mythical grouping? Mooney names only one member. It's a helpful reference as Adam Mars-Jones' conclusion that A Long Way Down is "emotional truth processed into convenience food, insight that you boil in the bag" might well be the best explanation as to why Hornby sells so well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Random sentences in random novels

Having written a few reviews lately with increasing dissatisfaction, I realise that what I would really like is to review how a novel is written at a very local level rather than outline the story (stories don't interest me really). Each sentence seems to say something about the whole. I suspect the writers I prefer know this and those that I don't like don't.

So, to find out what might be revealed in this way, I picked up a three novels from three large piles on a colleague's desk (thanks J!) - popular novels, genre novels, fashionable literary hits - and opened each to a random page, usually two thirds in. I then copied out the first descriptive sentence - that is, not dialogue. All were written in English. Can anybody guess from whence they came?
She turned away from him to gaze at the ceiling.

Thomas watched his father swill straight from the carafe of day-old, cold coffee.

He did not notice that the gentleman was at least as uncomfortable as himself.
Then come the three picked at random in the English novels in my collection (precious few!).
They nest in those grass bowers and lose the clutch at a fell swoop.

He stands at the window, his face in the shadow of the wall.

A month has passed.
Well, that didn't help much. But I do so much like sentences.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Hearing through the whine

The radio was on as I did the washing up. I'd just abandoned some writing and was fed up. So much housework still to do. Getting late.

First up, Henry Purcell. Very nice. Then, without intro, two pieces by John Cage including some spoken words. I guessed it was Cage because of the prepared piano sound. As that faded out, in came the familiar tune of Wichita Lineman as sung by its composer Jimmy Webb. I prefer Glenn Campbell's version but hearing this, and all these, without warning, was wonderful. Oh for a radio station that did this all day ...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Well, I'll be watching the Masters

But on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday night there's a evening marking the Beckett centenary. In addition to Embers starring Michael Gambon and Krapp's Last Tape with Corin Redgrave, there's a documentary presented by the actor Stephen Rea about Beckett's relationship with his actors. You can listen live online and later through the archives. Sorted.

It's a shame they haven't thought to include the perfect reading of Stirrings Still that I recorded from R3 in March 1989. It's read by the late Norman Rodway, whose name know only because I recognised his voice while watching an episode of Inspector Morse. Still have the recording too. (Of Stirrings Still I mean, not Inspector Morse.) I didn't know Beckett's work then. Soon did.

He is a sex addict

Caveh Zahedi looks like he makes fun films. He came to my attention after making Tripping with Caveh in which the film-maker and Will Oldham go to the local park and eat some mushrooms. I also liked the title and concept of In the Bathtub of the World.

He's also written about what drives his film-making, citing Kafka and "his spiritual heir" Blanchot as influences. And I thought it was just me and Lars Spurious who include Bonnie Prince Billy and Blanchot within their charmed circle! The essay is well worth reading by the way.

Tonight I accessed Apple's movie trailer site for the first time and saw one for I Am A Sex Addict, his new movie. It "tells the story of how [Zahedi's] attraction to prostitutes and compulsive honesty combined to destroy each of his past relationships". I hope we get to see it over here along with his other work. Something for BBC4 perhaps.

And if you watch it, what's the Jonathan Richman song that comes in toward the end of the trailer? On his blog, Zahedi writes about receiving clearance to use it but doesn't mention the title.

Popular literary essays

I really don't understand why collections of good literary essays aren't more popular. Since the rise of the reading group, people not studying the subject at university are stuffing themselves with literature at a greater rate than they have done for years; and an intelligent piece of writing on the subject can illuminate not only the work, but everything round it. Just as these do.
Nicholas Lezard reviews Gabriel Josipovici's The Singer on the Shore.

He also says that it is a distinguishing [...] mark of Josipovici's sensitivity to his subject and his audience that - and I can't stress this too much - that you don't have to be that familiar with his subjects to get something out of what he says about them.

This is what surprised me so much about the collection. It opens with three short essays on the Bible that say more about modern fiction than most essays (by other writers) on modern fiction. But you can read Borges and the Plain Sense of Things, one of his essays on modern fiction, at RSB.

Treasonable clerks

This post was prompted by a coincidence*. Peter Stothard blogs about the TLS's double review in 1928 of Julian Benda's La Trehison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). A book in which
he famously argued that his intellectual contemporaries had let down their fellow men by rejecting the pure philosophical idealism of their predecessors and allying themselves with practical political movements in support of nationalism or class.
Along the way Stothard mentions the influence of Dreyfus Affair on Benda's case and its current relevance to the Iraq Invasion. He provides a link to a bracing essay that makes the connection explicit (something that would be nice to see in Sir Peter's publication rather than the witless contributions of Edward Luttwak).

The fissure over the first case within intellectual salons in France inspired the dynamic in Proust's novel. His character Marcel is a convinced Dreyfusard surrounded by dimwitted or venal anti-Dreyfusards or closet Dreyfusards masquerading as anti- for social advancement. It furthered his apprenticeship to worldly signs, as Deleuze put it. Today the distinction is between those who see the invasion for what it is - what reason and commonsense sets out plainly (i.e. nothing to do with opinion) - and those who don't, for whatever unreason. The fissure is telling.

Stothard tries to make Benda's stricture apply to opponents of the war: they too can be condemned as treasonable for
their failure to recognise the lofty philosophical motives [i.e. to 'spread reason and justice'], in the best Benda tradition, which spurred many of the war's most prominent supporters.
But reason and justice had to be dispensed with in order to support the invasion. One had to keep faith with the myth of good intentions despite the trail of false promises, lies and dodgy dossiers; the patriotic forgeries as latter-day Charles Maurrases would no doubt have it. In this way the stylish prose of the pro-invasion commentators shares the same discomfort with rationality of the mealy-mouthed phrasings of BBC hacks and the racist propaganda of the tabloid press. It's not for nothing that Chomsky refers to a secular priesthood.

*Here's where I come to the coincidence. I've just received in the post Jean Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes, or, Terror in Literature from the University of Illinois Press. This has been described by Allan Stoekl as a response to what was lacking in Benda's agenda: religious impulses, what Stoekl calls "moral enthusiasm". Paulhan's was
a late attempt at reconciling abstract reason and sacred violence, language and that which exceeds it, in a new version of the intellectual, the Rhetorician.
This essay isn't online but a fine alternative is Michael Syrotinski's introduction to The Flowers of Tarbes at Ready Steady Book. In the same place, see also Chris Knight's remarkable essay on Chomsky in which he highlights the blindspot in Chomsky's own supreme rationality.

My interest in Paulhan's book was driven by Blanchot's famous essay review, which I've mentioned before. I intend to write on it, although it seems I need a private income to gain the necessary time. Heretics don't usually get on the priesthood's payroll after all. What started out as a wish to complicate the simplistic opposition of literary and genre fiction seems now to have widened into a metaphysics. But really, literature has always been that.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

ADAM on the eve

There is no true editorship when everything is prosperous. It is the essence of a literary magazine's life to be always uncertain of tomorrow... to run the gamut of monthly printers' bills and yet to be determined never to give up the fight.
So said Miron Grindea, editor of ADAM International Review from 1936 to 1995.

I remember reading about this publication and its extraordinary contents and contributors, and I once saw a crumbling collection of half a dozen of them in a secondhand bookshop. In those days, I subscribed to Granta which, even then, before it became completely allergic to literature, was unsatisfying. I longed for a regular, modern version of ADAM, at least in its indifference to marketing*. That was before the internet. Only another 50-odd years to go then Mark!

*In one of my earliest blogs for Splinters, I reacted against some of Granta's junk mail.

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