Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Handke untriumphs

Ah, so Peter Handke has not received the Heine Prize after all. Pierre Joris reports with links and includes his latest insistance that the unforgivable opinions he has been reported as expressing have been put into his mouth.

Perhaps appropriately, I've just finished reading In Time of Need, a stimulating conversation between Reiner Kunze and Mireille Gansel about the German poet Peter Huchel. He had endured two German regimes that sought to control writers. As I'd not heard of Huchel before, nor most of the names referred to in the conversation, it was almost like reading fiction; a sci-fi novel about poets (there's an idea for any blocked genre writers out there).

I say "appropriately" because the general technique of the modern world, of course, is not to place the jackboot across the writer's wrist, but simply to ignore what they write. So, it's almost like the old days!

(I say 'almost' because few people seem interested in what Handke has actually written).

Monday, May 29, 2006

Handke triumphs

So Peter Handke has received the Heine-Preis despite the distortions of the herd. Gilles d'Aymery provides an excellent report of the farce. He also translates the words of the great author himself in a conveniently delayed correction to the factual errors spread by the French press:
I have not laid a red rose on the hearse of Slobodan Milosevic. I did not touch the hearse. I did not wave the Serbian flag. And I have never approved "the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing." I've never considered the Serbs as "the real victims of the war."
We even get a glimpse of what that infamous speech at the funeral consisted.
The world, the so-called world, knows everything on Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything on Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth. For that, the so-called world today is absent, and not only today, and not only here. I know that I do not know. I do not know the truth. But I look. I feel. I remember. For that, I am present today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.
The speech might be present in full and in German on Michael Roloff's unique Handke site but I can't find it.

I hope this tiresome controversy at least has the virtue of prompting more English-speaking interest in Handke's work, particularly those transcendent novels of not knowing, of looking, of feeling and of remembering Across (which I actually saw in a bookshop recently!!), Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer. Maybe someone might even translate and publish Der Bildverlust and Don Juan. In the meantime we can make do with other necessary volumes such as Jade's My Autobiography (as if she could write anybody else's).

Acquired naiveté

Robert Newman is a novelist too. But in this brilliant stand-up performance about 'the history of oil' he begins by wondering why professional journalists fail to highlight the continuity of 90 years of western intervention in the Middle East. He calls it 'acquired naiveté'. The kind of thing, I imagine, one needs to sign the Euston Manifesto. That makes me laugh too.

One might keep this in mind when literary journalists repeat the old chestnut that non-fiction is supplanting the novel.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Portals of discovery

During the Open Source discussion (as mentioned below), the presenter Christopher Lydon wished for a Great American Novel like Dostoevsky's Demons, which James Wood referred to as The Possessed (so I presume that's the same book with in a different translation. It's also translated as The Devils). Anyway, this was the work that Thomas Bernhard read as a young man in a sanatorium, dying (or so it seemed) from tuberculosis:
Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me.
This is from Gathering Evidence, itself an engrossing and elemental work. Almost everything he says about Demons applies also to my experience of reading Gathering Evidence. Curious then that Bernhard did not go on to write an Austrian version of that novel. He merely reinvented the novel in his own likeness.

Taking a sentence for a walk

The Open Source roundtable about The Great American Novel is a good listen. However, I was disappointed and depressed by Ruth Franklin's and Mark Greif's recommendations of young novelists to look out for. James Wood had said he didn't take part in the poll selecting the greatest US novels of the last 25 years because people choose what they think is appropriate rather than any personal reason. The suspiciously-pleonastic phrase 'public novel' was used to define it. Franklin and Greif chose novelists who write exactly those kind of novels. Scope, relevance and ambition were presented as guarantors of worth. Public worth, I suppose. But what about worth it for me?

I longed for a recommendation of a quiet, uncertain narrative that merely took a sentence for a walk; a novel equivalent of Eloge de l'Amour. I wonder what that would be like?

Actually, maybe I should start writing about novels that have yet to be written. Browsing the library shelves, their ghostly form is often glimpsed as I remove another to peruse, drawn by the title ... and then dolefully replace.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The way ahead

A line just heard in the 1944 feel good war movie The Way Ahead currently on Channel 4. Raw civvies are on their way to training camp. Conversation turns to politics.
"There's only one good man who ever got into Parliament."
"Who's that?"
"Bleedin' Guy Fawkes."

The newest gloss

In a mad moment I deleted the post about the Jessie Macbeth interview. It wasn't prompted by the uncertain veracity of the video but getting the title of the Euston Manifesto wrong. I first read about it on 3 Quarks Daily which, as you can see, calls it the Euston Road Manifesto [link now broken due to host site's failure]. When I accessed the site, I had scrolled down beyond the title and was immediately faced with its convoluted apologia for state terror. (Whereas this, as you'll see, is a convoluted apologia for recognising and opposing it).

Anyway, the video contains a memorable performance by Macbeth, which makes me doubt doubt itself. As I wrote, it's like a Beckett monologue; those musical stammerings in particular. In what way, I ask myself, are Beckett's monologues false?

It all reminded me, too, of the Wilkomirski Affair. His book Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, as Moby Lives explains, received a lot of attention and won awards because of its stark, poetic descriptions of Nazi atrocities from a child's perspective; Wilkomirski's own.

Except they weren't. He was a German called Bruno Grosjean. He wasn't even Jewish. All of it was imagined. Blake Eskin wrote an excellent book about the affair. Many people, mainly those who had welcomed Wilkomirski/Grosjean as a long-lost member of their decimated family, refused to believe that it was invented. The Holocaust itself wasn't imagined after all.

But one thing Eskin's book didn't address was why Fragments was written in the first place. Grosjean evidently believed he was really Wilkomirski and that he experienced those terrible events. Watching him on a BBC documentary, it was clear he was, at that time, a deeply troubled individual. If he hadn't have believed, he might not have been able to write the book in the first place. When I discussed the Eskin book with a friend, he said it was an extraordinary account of autism.

So perhaps writing the book was necessary for the writer to make the connection to the outside that, in life, he otherwise couldn't. He absorbed other people's experiences to an extraordinary degree; to the point where he became the other person. He wrote; he became.

What might that mean for the meaning of writing and of experience? Perhaps Jessie Macbeth is less a fraud than a victim of extreme imaginative empathy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Remembered if outlived

When I read reports that Will Oldham a.k.a Bonnie Prince Billy has a new LP soon called Then the Letting Go I thought: he's so good with titles! It's always a good sign. But it turns out the title also makes up the final words of Emily Dickinson's poem that begins After great pain.

Whatever, it's in keeping with a theme I noticed so many years ago when I wrote something to welcome I See a Darkness into the world: he writes songs of the human animal. The LP covers, at least until Joya, tended to feature an animal on the way to becoming human. But then there was last year's slightly disappointing Superwolf collaboration too.

This is something to be investigated further. The relation between the formal feeling of being human and the great pain of being animal might be said to be the dynamic behind so much art (that is, art has to outlive the animal yet also seeks to return). Eric Santner certainly seems to think so. His new book On Creaturely Life looks at Rilke, Walter Benjamin and, perhaps most intriguingly, WG Sebald. Santner argues:
Sebald’s entire oeuvre can be seen as an archive of creaturely life. For Sebald, the work on such an archive was inseparable from his understanding of what it means to engage ethically with another person’s history and pain, an engagement that transforms us from indifferent individuals into neighbors.
This last point is one I tried to make in my own essay on Sebald - one that I felt was missing from the reviews of his Airwar book, mainly because many of the reviewers used it for special pleading on behalf of bombing our neighbours in Iraq.

Monday, May 22, 2006

In praise of books in films

Remember that rush for copies of The Third Policeman after it featured in Lost? It might have been better for the book industry had Jean-Luc Godard's plangent masterpiece Eloge de l'Amour captured the public imagination instead. Books feature throughout. Above is a screengrab of the lead actor reading one, although it happens to be blank. Tonight, in yet another viewing, I happened to note down the books as they appeared because the first two caught my attention.

A woman places Vladimir Jankélévitch's L'imprescriptible on top of Ruth Kluger's Refus de témoigner (Refusal to testify). Only the latter has been translated, into the less-than-inspiring title Landcapes of Memory.

Next came Etienne de La Boetie's The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (out soon from Black Rose Books).

After that I noted:
Eduoard Piesson - Le Voyage d'Edgar
Christa Wolf - Cassandra
Peter Cheyney - Récits de l'ombre
Simone Weil - Oeuvres
Robert Bresson - Notes on the Cinematographer
Chateaubriand - Memoires D'Outre-Tombe.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What good is lukewarm, stewed tea?

The question "What good are the arts?", which John Carey asks in a book with that question as a title, prompted a tented debate at this year's Brighton Festival - specifically Charleston, Sussex HQ of the Bloomsbury Group - not one event of which I have attended. Donald Clark - who is attending and indeed reviewing events - provides a trenchant summary of the debate and of the catering. He doesn't conceal his own opinion: "The Arts tend to steer clear of this debate; for fear that it may uncover some unpalatable truths." They didn't like him asking for another cuppa either.

I suppose the former is true if one takes 'the Arts' to mean arts organisations, particularly as they rely for their existence on the assumption that attention is a social good. Yet what have arts organisations got to do with art? Here the answer is self-evident.

So what are the unpalatable truths? John Carey argued (uncontroversially, I'd say) that the arts do not make people better and might even make them worse. Clark says:
He went on to claim that the arts, far from leading to democratic improvement, led to the reinforcement of social distinctions. As for ecstatic experience, he showed that sex and drugs were far more efficacious.
I wonder how he showed that? Anyway, he was seconded by Blake Morrison who attacked the Bloomsbury Group, though on what grounds we're not told. Carey also criticised the group as snobbish and elitist in The Intellectuals and the Masses, the seminal tract of Little Englander philistinism, so we might guess where he was coming from.

Opposing Carey and Morrison was the novelist Howard Jacobson who said something witty and unconvincing about Middlemarch but who basically believes the arts have "a functional role in freeing us the better to enjoy and endure life”. This is true of my own experience of art at least (though 'enjoy' is perhaps overstating it). It's what draws me to specific works of art rather than 'the arts'. The experience of reading a great novel is dialectical rather than solely (or ever) ecstatic. It's not easily explained or shared. It's why teenagers tend not to read Proust and why philistines are, in effect, perennial teenagers: 'Modernism?! Oh no, it's so unfair'. Whether this makes me a better person is another question and perhaps the individual confuses their own enjoyment and endurance with goodness, or at least the potential for goodness.

(By the way, it's no coincidence here that Carey dislikes In Search of Lost Time and frames the author as a snob, though whether he really means 'Marcel' is unclear).

Once the main speakers had had their go, Clark was the first to speak from the floor. He expressed resentment that his income was being taxed "to subsidise opera seats for those who can afford to pay for them themselves". Quite what this has to do with art escapes me. What opera has to do with art anymore also escapes me (though I can appreciate it is often wonderful entertainment).

The question really is not What Good are the Arts? but 'how might a work of art be good?' And in that instance, I would say that being good includes being bad. Or rather, that art must include the question of itself in its being as art. ("Let us suppose that literature begins at the moment literature becomes a question"). In this sense it can be as much a work of criticism as contained genre.

Human beings still long for narrative but narrative itself is evidently not enough, hence debates like this one. They really shouldn't be so separate. But such discussions in this country invariably steer clear of the foundational question, just as current political discussion, as emphasised by the New Labour columnist chairing the debate, excludes ideological doubt. (Don't hold your breath for a debate entitled "What good is capitalism?").

In the end, it is up to the individual to find their own way with art. It can't be outlined in a White Paper about arts funding. There will be losers as well as winners - Lichtenberg's asses and Lichtenberg's apostles - but maybe our cultural products themselves (I hestitate to call them works of art as yet) can guide more people to being winners if they confront the fundamental question rather than habitually avoid it.

Make it new, like the tea.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Colm Tóibín has had ten ears

It's sad and moving that David Lodge has found himself unable to read Colm Tóibín's novel about Henry James whose publication clashed with his own. He mentions it only in passing in this long extract from his latest book The Year of Henry James. But the rest of the article reveals the persistence of his anguish.

The novels really are quite different and he shouldn't be so despondent. From several months reading distance, Lodge's Author, Author is my favourite even though I read Tóibín's first and couldn't imagine it being bettered.

Readers of the extract will be momentarily confused after they read a paragraph in which Lodge prefixes a description of a meeting with his fellow Jamesian with an explanation "that in recent years I have become quite deaf". He failed to recognise Tóibín and couldn't hear a word he said:
If this seems improbable, bear in mind that I had only seen Tóibín in the flesh for about an hour, 10 ears previously, and in the meantime his physical appearance had altered. [sic]

Looking in the dark

The TLS has gone out of its way this week to bring its readers the probable truth behind the headlines. Amy Knight gives a lengthy precis and uncritical review (not online) of John B. Dunlop's monograph with the snappy title: The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises. Despite being published in Stuttgart in a decidedly-plain academic style, it has drawn a review that spreads over three side of the paper.

Why the fuss? Well, after reading the review, one can only be sure that the headlines conceal some extraordinary facts about Putin's government's and the Russian Security Service's role in both events. Perhaps mainstream publishers are afraid to release this kind of thing for fear of upsetting the political elite? In that case, I suppose, ibidem verlag and the TLS are to be thanked. Knight even provides a URL of a Russian language site offering the "Pravda Beslana". (The woman who runs it was apparently "savagely beaten by thugs" on a Moscow street and told to "be careful").

Even without being able to read most of it (there's a small English section), the site does look like any number of US-based conspiracy theory sites about the 9/11 atrocities. We shouldn't have to wonder how books questioning the official story of those events would be discussed, even if they were. However, if you are wondering, you can get an idea by listening to Radio 3's Nightwaves edition featuring a staggering discussion of Chomsky's new book (which isn't about 9/11).

But one doesn't always have to look into the obscure corners of the publishing world to illuminate the probable truth. We're still awaiting, six months after publication, the first national press review of Edwards' and Cromwell's groundbreaking Guardians of Power published by our very own Pluto Press.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Book Depository

A book I'd like to buy is Ernst Bloch's Traces. Looking on Amazon though, it seems to be unavailable. It has that phrase in the Availability field "usually dispatched within 4 to 6 weeks", the bookish equivalent of "can't we just be friends?"

But an alternative has appeared. The Book Desposity not only says Traces will be dispatched in 2-3 days, it is also over £2 cheaper than Amazon AND has free postage and packing.

I'm going to investigate the rest of the site which includes, in keeping with its title, a specialist section of books on greenkeeping: Grassy Knolledge.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Radio OuLiPo

Last week KCRW's unique Bookworm radio show (unique because it discusses books) aired an interview with Ian Monk, one half of the English-speaking membership of the OuLiPo group and translator of Raymond Rousell's New Impressions of Africa.

To be honest, I wouldn't have much time for OuLiPo were it not for Jacques Roubaud. Also last week, Mark of RSB provided a list of new translations of works by and about him. Nice to see a new edition of The Great Fire of London with a new cover design, although I'm not sure whether it's actually been reissued yet. What's more, the Green Integer edition of his essays seems to be, once again, a mirage.

However, I would swap all of the above for a translation of the entire Great Fire of London cycle.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some distance from Non-Photography Day

Celebrate the moment, don't document it!

Twice now around town I've seen flyers with this slogan stuck to advertising posters. It promotes Non-Photography Day, July 17th. The promoter, a Brighton-based photographic artist called Becca, says that:
This day was made after trekking through the Jungle on the Thailand/Burma Border with a group of travellers. As you would expect we came across many wonderful views, villages and creatures on our way; however I noticed that the people around me were living in these moments through their camera, and as soon as we stopped and were still, all reached for their camera.
I'm sure we've all felt this, even as we reach for the camera. Isn't it enough just to be there and look?

Non-photography Day is designed to help us:
to think about how life exists, in essence and not appearance and to understand the inadequacy of the photograph in describing this essence, to bring awareness of the perils of living through the view finder or the display screen.
An admirable and worthwhile aim. But that isn't the same as celebrating the moment is it? Thinking about the essence of life demands reflection, a suspension of thoughtlessness, a documentation. By observing her fellow travellers, one could argue that Becca was doing just that - thinking, reflecting without a lens - and thereby failing to celebrate the moment. She was taking another kind of photograph.

Perhaps it's significant that the site does not explain how one is meant to celebrate the moment. It's taken as a given. Yet any celebration requires a certain distance from the event itself. After all, the event can only be itself through distance. In celebration, we isolate the event in time and space. For instance, how does a 'wonderful view' manifest without distance?

A few days ago I quoted Kafka on the subject. He takes it further, placing life's essence in the awareness of our distance from it. The paradox animates his writing. His expressions of inadequacy, rather than being only cries of self-pity, demonstrate that it is a necessary component of life experience. Cries of joy have an equal weight. Neither draws us closer to the world. Rather than seeking in vain to collapse that distance, Kafka brings it to life. The only alternative is death.

Non-Photography Day: your funeral.

The Cuban Five

The story of the Cuban Five is more or less unknown on this side of the Atlantic. A recent collection about the case Letters of Love and Hope, introduced by Alice Walker, had not received a review until this one in The Morning Star appeared today.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Other people are wrong

"[T]he blogosphere, that underground realm of steaming ressentiment" says gorgeous, pouting James Wood.

Today I read Morris Dickstein's review of a book - that book - about Bernard Malamud. He tells us that:
In interviews and occasional lectures, [Malamud] adamantly shielded his private life, though he sometimes exposed it in his fiction, with unfortunate results in the autobiographical novel Dubin’s Lives.
Wuh? But it's not unfortunate. It's a terrific book! Perhaps his best. I must read them all. But then again, the consensus does tend to contradict my discerning judgement. It thinks Austerlitz is Sebald's best book. It thinks Correction is Thomas Bernhard's. I think the exact opposite. These are their least best.

Any other gross critical contradictions out there?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cruel and unusual punishment

For an unknown crime, Donald Clark has been sentenced to attend an event on every day of the 2006 Brighton Festival. And as part of his community service, he's keeping a blog about it. So far he's been to see Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk in conversation, some art exhibitions and separate performances of Beckett's Trilogy and Milton's Paradise Lost. I'd say he's suffered enough, but it is entertaining.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"The flower of my anger grows wild"

James Reidel's translation of Thomas Bernhard's youthful poetry In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon is out very soon.

You can get a sense of why it is a neglected side of his glorious oeuvre by downloading a few pages in PDF format from Princeton UP's page (i.e. not too many chuckles along the way).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A question to the misrepresenters: justice for Handke

There's been a lot of discussion online about the Comédie-Française's pathetic decision to drop the plays of Peter Handke from its repertoire. It seems to be based on Chinese whispers - the kind Handke speaks of in his short book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia: those from "the long-distance dispatchers who confuse their profession as writers with that of a judge".

Handke's own refusal to be a judge in this book still hasn't prevented those who claim to have read it from judging him. For example, Alison Croggon of the blog Theatre Notes says in A Journey to the Rivers Handke argues "that the Srebrenica massacres never happened" and that it was instead "a hallucination generated by the mass media". To get clarification, I posted the following question to the site:

Can I ask where exactly in Handke's 'A Journey to the Rivers' does he argue "that the Srebrenica massacres never happened" and that it was "a hallucination generated by the mass media"?

Is it page 56 where he meets a woman whom he says is "convinced" that the massacre took place and with whom he doesn't argue?

Is it page 73 where Handke's companion asks "You aren't going to question the massacre ... too, are you" to which H. answers "No".

Or could it be page 81 where he refers to the "great suffering" prevailing at Srebrenica?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Still searching: Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream

The latest Litblog Co-Op rave is a collection of stories by Jeffrey Ford. Rather than read anymore of the blog's weightless encomia (weightless because it lacks the work itself), I read an online story instead: The Empire of Ice Cream.

First, I should admit that part of the reason for reading it was down to the title. It's allusion to Wallace Stevens famous early poem (the slight difference escaped my notice until I was corrected). I wanted to see how the story related back to the poem. But that was soon forgotten as I read on. The story is interesting enough in itself. I also forgot that it is hosted by a science fiction website. There's William Shatner in the top left corner! He's not usually the guarantor of top quality fiction.

That's the joy and distress of reading though isn't it? The known world fades away to be replaced by another, richer, more hopeful, more meaningful world. The Empire of Ice Cream itself represents this with the young male narrator's apparent hullucination of a young woman. He becomes addicted to the visions. And it's here, in the confusion of worlds, that the connection with Stevens becomes clearer. No matter how much we wish to isolate fantasy from the rest of our lives, it seeps in. It is part of what reality means; it is the finale of seem.

The Empire of Ice-Cream is a satisfying, stimulating story, reminding me of Nabokov's awesome Signs and Symbols. What I found lacking, however, is the very local pleasure of both Nabokov and Stevens: the inventiveness of language. Ford's narrator is nothing if not a cliché-monger. Only one paragraph separates the lines "I was subjected to by a veritable army of so-called professionals" and "she was a veritable genius at teaching me to allow myself to enjoy the sounds I produced."

And immediately after that, explaining further about the sounds: Enjoy them I did, and when I wasn't being dragged hither and yon in the pursuit of losing my affliction, home base for me was the piano bench. In my imposed isolation from the world, music became a window of escape I crawled through as often as possible.

Over the length of the story, such prose rather numbs the senses - even if it doesn't spoil the story - whereas Nabokov and Stevens reanimate them.

A varied vocabulary is often assumed to constitute the entirety of the distinction between 'literary artist' and mere storytellers. You can always count on the 'literary' writer for a fancy prose style. Yet while both Nabokov and Stevens add to the language, add to the world, they also make that addition double-edged, glorious and problematic, part of the story.

Daniel E. Blackston's extraordinary essay on Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream demonstrates how deceptively simple it is. Yet the remarkable range of reference he uses rather whitewashes the banality of the prose (in that regard, it reminds me more of HP Lovecraft). This seems to be the blind spot of genre fans. They either ignore terrible writing or go overboard for indulgent lyricism.

Blackston himself is engaging with what he sees as SF editors concern to gain 'literary respectability', whatever that is. He says Ford's style:
represents a brilliant literary accomplishment not relegated, through popular disinterest, to the status of an intellectual curio, for specialists only.
(Of course, he means 'uninterest'). I've never understood this rhetoric about appealing to a mythical public. We are, each of us, specialists in ourselves; a reader inevitably separate, if not also alone. The chatter about the need to speak to wider audience is really only a discomfort - an embarrassment even - with literature itself, a discomfort which, as I have said, both Nabokov and Stevens work into their writings, such is their exceptional artistry.

Blackston wants to mitigate literature's tendency toward isolation by invoking political imperatives:
In times of turmoil, with our actual world facing global-political and environmental catastrophes, war, poverty, and an explosion of technology-driven moral and ethical questions, it would seem natural that Speculative Fiction would resonate more explosively with its potential audience (which is, incidentally, anyone who can read) were it to pursue an immediate idiom – one meant to provide a universal, rather than ontological or aesthetic, catharsis.
Well, yes (I liked that 'actual' in there!). But when were we not in a time of turmoil? And how can a writer know that an 'immediate idiom' has been achieved? How soon will it fall into irrelevance? Five years? Five weeks? Five minutes? And surely 'anyone who can read' can also read the most esoteric of works if it is also written in English? Why patronise them by calling for something less than is necessary for catharsis, if that's what you want? And how can one tell the difference between ontological, aesthetic and universal carthsis? These are just fancy words to me. What would such univeral catharsis look like anyway? And how might explosive resonance manifest in a potential audience?

It seems that concern for answers to all these questions requires one to turn a blind-eye to The Empire of Ice-Cream, a story one reads in a quiet space the story itself conjures out of thin air, and then leaves you there, still searching for the finale.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Liddle mind

In last weekend's Sunday Times:
Natanz seems an agreeable little town, perched nearly 5,000ft up in the majestic mountains of central Iran, full of dusty relics of Alexander the Great and black-clad peasants scurrying hither and thither. It is a shame, then, that we may soon be obliged to bomb it to smithereens. An even bigger shame, though, if we don’t.
That's Rod Liddle folks: liberal journalist, popular fiction writer and tousle-haired cheerleader for mass murder. Might these three occupations be connected?

Signs of absence

Joseph Koerner's book Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape opened my eyes. It begins with an inspiring revision of an apparently bland painting of a few trees in winter. That would have been enough for me. But then it offers a useful summary of Romanticism. Its artists tended to have:
  • a heightened sensitivity to the natural world
  • a belief in nature's correspondence to the mind
  • a focus on the subjective
  • a passion for the equivocal, the indeterminate and the obscure
  • a desire to be lost in nature's infinity
  • an infatuation with death
  • a preference for night over day
It seems that the Romantics were incipient Goths.

But the book's length and intensity rather wore me down and I can't remember much of the middle. I was awoken from my intellectual slumber by Koerner's use, toward the end, of an essay by Kleist on CDF's famous painting The Monk by the Sea.



For Kleist the painting evokes feelings of the possibility of transcendence; a crossing over the sea. Yet Koerner says "the desire for passage remains unfulfilled", and Kleist "at once expresses and recuperates his loss through the discovery of life within signs of the absence of life":
Such things are not possible before the painting, and that which I should find within the painting itself, I have already found between me and the picture, namely, the demand that the picture made upon my heart, and the loss that the picture inflicted upon me. And thus I was myself the monk, the painting was the dunes, but that across which I should have gazed with longing - the sea - was altogether missing.
That phrase: the loss that the picture inflicted upon me. How strange that is to read, to hear somebody else express it - yet also absolutely familiar.

Monday, May 01, 2006

End it, now

From hereon, I ask all litbloggers to join me in naming and shaming reviewers who begin discussion of a novel with "About halfway through ..." or "About two-thirds into ..." or "At one point in [insert title]". Together we can end it.

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