Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, June 30, 2006

The hidden order

The program I've used lately for for writing blogs is Journler (for Mac only). An iTunes for journal writing, as it describes itself. It has five default categories underwhich one can classify entries. There's 'Personal', 'Work', 'Observations' and 'Thoughts & Aphorisms' . The last one made me wince. Never trust anyone who writes aphorisms. The other category is 'Dreams'. That made me wince some more. But it feels good to have something other than Word in which to write. It's promising.

Promise is everything. Only today I saw a large notebook in a stationery shop that promised much. Yet do I get one of them instead of a third Moleskine? (One can't have both). The trouble with the latter is that my notes on various books are interrupted by so many random jottings, beginnings of notes about other books and then more random jottings, that it is impossible to collate them; to make them useful in the way I imagined they'd be useful. Instead they get lost in an inky black forest. So, yes, it would be more effective to write them on the perforated sheets contained within these other notebooks. Everything can then be brought together.

Perhaps that isn't really what I want though. One thing that draws me to the Moleskine is just covering white pages (well, creamy white) with black ink (this explains an aversion to blue). Just the sight of it offers obscure relief. A pile of loose-leaves wouldn't be the same. In their dispersal, the random jottings and notes merge into one another and, in doing so, mimic the hidden order of the book they were meant only to pursue. Reading the notes demands yet more note-taking. The notebook has itself become a book. Well, almost.

In fact, the book to which all those notes relate would itself have to be written again. So much is left out after all. It too is only almost a book. Note-taking and review writing and essay writing would not be enough. Indeed, writing the entire book again would not be enough. One would need to write many more books in addition to that one. Each line of text evokes a cascade of ideas and associations, each one demanding a book in itself.

Each book, then, is really only a notebook about other books as yet unwritten; the books we imagine as we read. We need more notebooks in which to write them. We need new software. New lives.

Touching the void

On my right in the barber's was a soldier just back from Iraq. He chatted to the guy cutting his hair. On my left they were discussing the cricket. I tried so hard to listen to that instead.

Solider: There's this woman in the paper who says the Iraqis hate us. I got really wound up. She's has no idea. It's not some Third World country. It's actually quite sophisticated.
Barber: Yes ...
Soldier: The Americans pumped millions into Iraq in the 50s you see.
Barber: Weren't they supplying weapons into the 80s?
Solider: Yes, the technology. But then Saddam turned against his people.

Anyway, the cricket ...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

If you bought Suite Française, you may also like this

In my feed from Guardian Books, I read "Stephen Moss meets the man behind the summer's hottest novel". As one has to take note of "hot" novels, I read the piece. But you'll struggle to find out anything about the book itself. It's set in Libya and is told from the perspective of a child and has "excited the critics" (though not one is quoted). That's about it.

It has to be admitted that, on its Amazon page, Hashim Matar's In the Country of Men has a puff from JM Coetzee, but "A poignant story of a child exposed too early to the brutalities of Libyan politics" is hardly excitement is it?

Of course, all this has nothing to do with the fact that Penguin has signed him up in a six-figure deal.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The fictional black hole

Perhaps by coincidence, I have been reading two trilogies that are each only two-thirds complete. Both consist of long individual novels, never short of 350 pages each. Despite this, it has not been hard work. One soon sinks into the narrative, though neither could be said to be rollercoaster rides, but you already know I like it that way. The pleasure is the descent into deep silence; fathoms from anywhere, as Beckett described it.

However, after reading these novels and trying to recall the details, to sort out the facts, the characters, the digressions and the anecdotes, the sort of thing one imagines make each unique, I was left almost blank. It took a lot of work (notetaking, re-reading) to retrieve an account for an audience. All that's left in my memory after hours and hours of patient reading is the general movement of the story, the sense of its created world, the taste of its atmosphere: in fact, just the reading experience.

But isn't that just more or less everything? It is probably why I am attached to some short stories or novellas as much as I am to standard length novels. They are, in effect, all the same length; they take up the same amount of memory space.

If it's easy to dismiss utilitarian dismissals of the novel ("Oh yes, well of course film is the most popular art form of our time"), it's less easy to find time to read enough to remain in touch with a community (of readers) - albeit a contrived one - mainly because there are so many novels and so many are so long. And they have to be long to be considered ambitious. Yet perhaps it would be more ambitious to write shorter.

Maybe, even, a different type of fiction is required. If it is possible, then our conceptions of the novel and the short story might need to be rethought in order to notice. Toward this end, I'd point toward Spurious' vertiginous angle on fiction in its meditation on Blanchot's theory of the récit, "a literary genre which tells of a single event".
The récit allows the event to complete itself, to be brought to form only as its narrative form is unjoined from itself. One might say (rather pretentiously) it is a kind of non-event that happens as the récit - and the non-event that spreads everywhere, devouring plot, character and the rest, like a black hole that turns at the heart of the book.
One might say that, but apparently it's much more complex.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Wark all over the facts

This evening BBC Newsnight's Kirsty Wark interviews Harold Pinter. In her introduction to the programme, she refers, as one might expect, to the Nobel Prize winner's political views, in this instance to Serbia:
When his distaste of post WW2 US foreign policy encompassed NATO's actions against Milošević, and the Serbian dictator's trial, many critics thought he had made a major misjudgement and he came in for a lot of flak.
Whether he deserved that flak or not (he didn't) it can't be said he opposed actions against a dictator. As elementary history reports, Milošević exercised his repellent power only when elected, much like our own dear leader. He resigned only after an uprising and the collapse of popular support. In a strict sense, Milošević was not a dictator.

Somehow I doubt that a veteran BBC journalist like Kirsty Wark would ever refer to Tony Blair as a dictator despite the fact that, unlike Milošević, he retains power even though he no longer has majority support (did he ever?) and, what's more, ignored a popular uprising in order to launch an aggressive war in which, at a rough estimate, twenty times more people have died than in the former Yugoslavia (i.e. to justify the bombing that increased the death toll). To describe him as such would be, of course, factually incorrect, merely expressing an opinion, and also thoroughly unprofessional.

Handke's rhythm

Sign and Sight provides that rare thing, the actual words - in an English translation of an interview first published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung - of Peter Handke.

He talks about Serbia and the idea of Yugoslavia. And once again, he insists that his reason for writing about Serbia was to counter "a particular journalistic style". He wants us to "consider how I write, my view, my rhythm".

This has to be what marks the significance of Handke affair. Such a style has become so institutionalised, so embedded in the way we think, that Handke's words (above all pragmatic words) will not make too much sense; certainly not to the bomb-door liberals. They will not register his words about Srebrenica ("an eternal disgrace") because he adds that it was "blind and evil revenge for the murder of over a thousand Serbs around Srebrenica in the three years before". Murders, like so many others, that cannot enter the ritual of public recognition or condemnation. After all, the bomb-doors might lock.

There is much else to note. For example: "Serbia is the most lost country in Europe". The day before the interview was published, the truth of this was plain for all to see.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Post books

James Reidel's translation of Thomas Bernhard second and third books of poems (In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon) landed on the doormat this morning.

How many more days will there be like this - one with the presence of a new book by Thomas Bernhard? One, for sure, with Michael Hofmann's translation of Frost due in October. But after that? Perhaps a collection of his plays - though, in all honesty, the prospect of that leaves me indifferent. We'll have to settle for translations of books such as Karl Hennetmair's memoir Ein Jahr mit Thomas Bernhard. Oh I'd settle for that.

Reidel's instructive and mercifully concise introduction is notable for its relaxed inclusion of quotations from bloggers - an unnamed Spaniard and our own Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review. It's gratifying to see that, while we remain in the civilisation of the book, this new medium is being drawn slowly (or quickly - it's hard to tell) into its remote unity.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Black pages

The story of Arthur Crew Inman's diaries (via Metafilter) - 17 million words in 155 volumes - suggests, above all, a pathological disorder. A neurological explanation is that he had "hypergraphia, a compulsive urge to write detailed diaries and poems". I wonder if there's a condition that compels people to become neurologists?

An introduction to an abridgement of the diary offers mitigation. It says that Inman had motives for his madness:
He calculated that if he kept a diary and spared no thoughts or actions, was entirely honest and open, and did not care about damage or harm to himself or others, he would succeed in gaining attention beyond the grave that he could not attain in life.
Living beyond death is often regarded as the gift of literature for the writer. But the gift of death is also delivered.

Today, exactly 21 years ago, Jacques Roubaud began writing the first part of The Great Fire of London cycle:
... this piece ... will be black, composed in minute, close-packed letters, without deletions, regrets, reflection, imagination, impatience, promising nothing but their ensured existence line after line on the page of the notebook in which I am writing them. And I am writing only in order to keep on going, to elude the anguish awaiting me once I break off.
Does this desire to fill pages with black ink explain your attraction to literature more than anything else?

"Acts of war"

They are smart. They are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.
US Rear Admiral Harry Harris
, Guantanamo Bay Camp commander, on the suicide of three inmates.

Reading Rilke brought about an important transformation in my understanding of myself and the work I wanted to do. I left my ego behind me, and I focussed on a task that was far greater than filling in the thinly-drawn outlines of my self. At that point, [...] I fell in love with the reason why we still read and think about literature, and it seemed imperative I should continue to do so, for as long as anyone would let me, because there was nothing more sensible I could do with my life.
Litlove

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Germane genius

Simon Barnes does that annoying British thing: make engagement with a foreign culture - in this case Germany's (because of the World Cup) - appear to be something one ought to do, like swallowing a tablespoonful of Cod Liver Oil, something to make one a better person in the long run.
I was aware that my ignorance of German literature was almost perfect. I had read the trippy novels of Hermann Hesse, of course, and duly over-rated them as a trippy student. I had read Kafka (well, he wrote in German) at school, and written Kafkaesque school stories.
Nice that he knows Kafka wasn't German. But nor was Hesse. He was Swiss. Oh I know, it's picky, but here's yet another article about German literature by a well-read and well-meaning writer that doesn't mention the three greats of modern German literature (Bernhard, Handke and Gert Hofmann). He doesn't even mention Sebald.

Tor-ist

DM Thomas' memories of the last night in the life of William Golding got me wondering about what it might mean to be a Cornish writer. I can think of only one in addition to Thomas and Golding themselves: the unlikable AL Rowse. They do seem a rum bunch. I think Colin Wilson lives there too. But then again, it is a strange place. I spent a lot of time there as a child and have always felt it was a kind of genetic home. My surname derives from micel moor, large moor, perhaps Bodmin. Shouldn't I be writing multi-volume sword and scorcery novels?

But now I discover that the moor is most probably Dartmoor, which is in Devon. So that's a relief. Can't be doing with all that magic and myth. Give me a boggy wasteland any day.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Suite F gets A

The reception of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française continues to perplex me. The Literary Saloon offers background information and a review in which it is given A. And Conversational Reading says it's "one of the best things I've read in a while."

I hope it was a short while. From the descriptions, it sounds like an old-fashioned novel distinctive only because of its remarkable back story - one to be politely admired perhaps as a document in itself and an echo of an absence - but as an important novel? And, what's more, a novel that, as the Saloon reports, "has a metascore of 95/100 at Metacritic.com - putting it tops among all the works of fiction they've covered to date."

Here's a quotation from that top-rate fiction:
He hated the war; it threatened much more than his lifestyle or peace of mind. It continually destroyed the world of the imagination, the only world where he felt happy. It was like a shrill, brutal trumpet shattering the fragile crystal walls he'd taken such pains to build in order to shut out the rest of the world.
Are they kidding?

Monday, June 05, 2006

A life in books, or not, again

While Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I use World Cups.

The other day, I mentioned that I couldn't associate events in my life with books I was reading at the time. But thinking of the World Cup reminds me that after Batistuta scored that penalty against England in 1998, I switched the TV off and read Sebald's The Rings of Saturn instead, thus missing Michael Owen's goal. But I don't remember anything of the novel.

Take the Waterloo train

I was unfortunate last night to catch The Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4 (listen to the archive if you dare) about the Euston Manifesto bowel movement. The reporter cheerily informed us of its origin in the blogosphere. (Why is it that when political blogs get a mention in the mainstream media, it's dominated by the Right or 'pro-war left'?). The main interviewee Brian Brivati said the movement emerged in response to the response by "part of the Left" to 9/11. The reaction of some, such as "Tariq Ali and others", he said, was "to celebrate" the attack. Is this true? No reference was given. Perhaps it is the same kind of "celebration" whereby the Haditha massacre is placed in context?

The only voice on the programme against the EM came from an ex-advisor to Robin Cook who admitted he was for 'liberal intervention' but that Iraq had been 'a mistake'. He also worried that those behind the manifesto were on a political journey from left to right. If only Lenin's Tomb had been interviewed instead. Or, heaven forbid, someone from the Respect Coalition perhaps, itself a popular movement. They would have been able to explain that this was nonsense. The journey was over long ago.

The main problem I have with the manifesto is its focus on the undefined phrase 'anti-Americanism'. They "reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking." Again, no reference was given. It's a meaningless, catch-all cliché.

What it means in effect is that while one is permitted to criticise aspects of US foreign policy, as soon as one puts it into historical context, shows how it pursues the policies demanded by almost-unaccountable multinational corporations, or makes any effective challenge that might actually institute a genuinely self-determining and/or egalitarian society (like Chavez), one is immediately "anti-American". Thus, the cycle of lofty ambitions betrayed by "mistakes" can continue; the Eusties' overt celebration of mass murder (i.e. welcoming the invasion) can go on.

It's no coincidence that the main presenter of The Westminster Hour is Andrew Rawnsley.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Viva the Bullfrog: Pilger on Mandela, Hitchens on Paine

Mark Curtis' Guardian review of Freedom Next Time, the latest book by John Pilger, features something you don't see very often in the mainstream press: the uncomfortable truth about Nelson Mandela in government:
Pilger writes that as the first liberation president, he ordered a ridiculous and bloody invasion of tiny Lesotho. He allowed South African armaments to be sold to Algeria, Colombia and Peru, which have notorious human rights records. He invited the Indonesian mass murderer General Suharto to South Africa and gave him the country's highest award . . . He recognised the brutal Burmese junta as a legitimate government.
There's also some shocking facts about the economic policies followed by the ANC.
"The unspoken deal," Pilger writes, "was that whites would retain economic control in exchange for black majority rule." Thus secret meetings were held in Britain before 1994 between the current president, Thabo Mbeki, members of the Afrikaner elite and companies with big commercial stakes in the country. Mandela told Pilger: "We do not want to challenge big business that can take fright and take away their money . . . You can call it Thatcherite but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy."
This might explain Christopher Hitchens comments at a recent, poorly-attended lecture on Thomas Paine in Brighton, as described by Donald Clark. After the "lazy pen portrait" of Paine, there was a fractious question and answer session in which Hitchens appeared, to at least one person who attended, tired and emotional:
Q Who, in our own times, has taken up Paine’s causes?
A Perhaps Havel and Mandela. Certainly not that bloated bullfrog who sits astride Venezuela.
Ah yes, we know - with Pilger's help - how that bullfrog differs from those other two.

A life in books, or not

A literary blog I discovered recently is Tales from the Reading Room. The latest entry A Life in Books discusses the books that the blogger cannot dissociate from her personal history.
The memory of one enriches the remembrance of the other, and if I can picture myself reading, then I have the impression of almost total sensory recall.
It's appropriate that the first on the list is Proust. The memory of reading him must be, for everyone I think, indistinguishable from that of a long, hot, idle summer.
Proust's luscious, sinuous, long-winded sentences slow down the experience of reading, and the sensation I had was one of great spaciousness.
It's also the sort of post to which one immediately wants to respond in kind. The curious thing is that I can't. Not sure why.

The final book mentioned was unknown to me but I now long to get a copy of it: Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer. Unfortunately the translation is out of print. All I know about Stifter is that he's distantly related to Reger, the monstrous critic in Thomas Bernhard's glorious Old Masters. He (Reger) isn't a fan.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"For the fair readers": Handke again

Sign & Sight has been indispensable lately in following the Handke affair. Today it links to the man's latest response in the Süddeutsche Zeitung to the "reproaches" he's received recently. "I must do it for the readers" he says, "for the fair readers - a tautology, by the way, because a dishonest or partial reader is never a reader."

It's not easy to be a fair reader however, particularly if the writer is dishonest. I can't remember where I read it, but I read that Handke had said "the Serbs were greater victims than the Jews". He confirms it in this article: "die Serben sind noch größere Opfer als die Juden". How can anyone agree with such gross statements?!

Well indeed, he admits it himself. He admits it was wrong. "Ich konnte nicht glauben, eine derartige Dummheit tatsächlich ausgesprochen zu haben", which is pretty clear even through web translation. He explains it was an off-the-cuff, emotional response following the failure of peace talks to prevent NATO bombing of Serbia (something sensitive literary types over here don't even seem to be aware of). He immediately corrected it in print but it seems the unfair writers preferred to present it as his solemn, enduring belief, thus presenting those of us without German with half-truths.

Finally, once all the lies have been washed away, we are left with the truth of his attendence of Milosevic's funeral. From what I can work out, Handke says that he wished to resist the language of the west that had been imposed on the subject of Serbia, here represented by its thrice-elected president. "Such language compelled ... my mini-speech in Pozarevac .. not a loyalty to Slobodan Milosevic, but loyalty to that different language, the not-journalistic, the not-dominant language." Anyone who knows his novels will be aware of this loyalty. It might be a rather Romantic tendency, even naive, something which makes him open to the insipid critiques of drab, snooty moralists (see Theatre Notes' link - i.e. I don't mean the blogger), but also why he's a unique writer. There really is nobody else like him.

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