Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

This inhuman state


We had agreed to meet with Glenn after his concert at the Ganshof in Maxglan, an old inn I particularly like. We drank water and didn't say a thing. At this reunion I told Glenn straight off that Wertheimer (who had come to Salzburg from Vienna) and I hadn't believed for a minute we would ever see him, Glenn, again, we were constantly plagued by the thought that Glenn would destroy himself after returning to Canada from Salzburg, destroy himself with his music obsession, with his piano radicalism. I actually said the words piano radicalism to him. My piano radicalism, Glenn always said afterward.

He spoke of the lung disease as if it were his second art. [...] But Glenn didn't die from his lung disease, I thought. He was killed by the impasse he had played himself into for almost forty years, I thought. He never gave up the piano, I thought, of course not, whereas Wertheimer and I gave up the piano because we never attained the inhuman state that Glenn attained, who by the way never escaped this inhuman state, who didn't even want to escape this inhuman state.
From The Loser.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

An award-winning lack of nerve

In The Times' literary pages, I read this below a headline: "George Pelecanos's hard-boiled crime thrillers have been compared to Balzac and Zola. He talks to Marcel Berlins". So I go to the article to see why someone who "writes the toughest, meanest, truest, most uncompromising novels in modern crime fiction" is compared to these two big names of Realism and Naturalism. I had to wait until the final paragraph for their names to be mentioned again. It seems that it's little more than the apparently rich portrait of a particular social world. Of course it's one with which most of his readers will have had little contact: "drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, conmen, grifters, shady businessmen, enforcers, petty gangsters and gunmen — and their victims". That string of adjectives describing his novels indicates not major fiction but middle-class romanticism; literary mitigation for schadenfreude. If, using the same language, Pelecanos had written, say, about an architect sitting in the shade of a tree in Connecticut reflecting on the peace of his life, would it be less true and more compromised?

But I don't wish to pick on individuals. It's not the only example in this weekend's literary news of such soft-witted sentimentalism. The Guardian reports that James Meek has won yet another award for The People's Act of Love. The judges described it as:
"a novel of extraordinary ambition and imaginative compass". It was, they said, "a prodigious achievement" whose passion and complexity could be compared with the great Russian classics.
Yet again, it's taken for granted that we need to compare a 21st Century writer to acknowledged 19th Century greats in order to gain literary justification for what is effectively genre writing; that is, avowedly derivative fiction. Would Balzac, Zola, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky be remembered now if they had written 17th Century novels?

Notice too how these comparisons are always indirect - someone else has made the comparison. It's a neat way of side-stepping any awkward need to think. I've made this point before. It really is sore-thumb territory!

All in all, it reveals an artistic lack of nerve in judging panels, writers, publishers and literary journalists. I suspect if a writer comes to define our time (in the sense of representing it, not being a mere marketing or cultural phenomenon), he or she will be a stranger to prizes and culture-vulture comparisons. And quite possibly to publishing too.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Writing like a person

Always fascinated by stories of creative writing classes and books discussing the same, I went straight to Emily Barton's review in the NY Times of Francine Prose's interesting-looking book Reading Like a Writer. The title is promising for sure.
Prose’s chapters focus on potentially challenging topics: dialogue, narration, even where to take paragraph breaks. (I wish she’d included one on getting characters in and out of rooms.)
Reading this, I felt relieved to be the kind of writer who worries only about one of these topics. I think: if you're uncomfortable with dialogue, don't write it! If you have a problem with paragraph breaks, don't use them! Find another way. And if you have a problem moving characters around, let the reader.

I tend to believe that if you have a problem with literature, it's probably a problem with literature, not you. Think of it that way and it might be a problem no longer. But where would such an attitude leave the creative writing industry?

Five Questions

The excellent blog of the writer John Baker has been putting the same Five Questions to many another blogger. This week it was my turn. My answers are very short.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nick Hornby and the "joy" of reading

Nick Hornby wastes over 2600 words over a misapprehension. (Link again via KR Blog!).

Oh God, we've been here so many times before. Every week at least one litblogger confesses that they've not read some classic novel, while another admits to loving Jackie Collins novels (or some such). Hornby also sets up this familiar (and false) opposition of books for pleasure and books for worth. We should read, he says, only that which gives us pleasure.

Who could disagree? Many, according to Hornby. He rages at an unnamed broadsheet journalist who sneered at the lowbrow reading matter ("Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code [and] Nuts") noticed on a train journey. He hasn't been reading the same broadsheet journalists as me, such as Sarah Crown in The Guardian and her smug commenters (to whom I responded here), or Robert McCrum, both of whom share his disdain for "pretentious" readers.

Hornby evidently believes that reading is a good thing in itself and should not be discouraged. If that is the case, I wonder how he'd feel if those train passengers were reading not Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code or Nuts but The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Imagine a whole carriage buried deep in Mein Kampf instead. How would he feel then? While we can all find reasons why reading these books might be a good thing - understanding one's enemy all the better to slay them - there is always residual discomfort. (Perhaps we should be thankful they weren't reading The Daily Telegraph.)

The issue then becomes not what is being read, but why.

Why do people read The Da Vinci Code then? I'd guess two basic reasons. First, to read what everyone else is talking about, so as not to be left out. We all want to be part of a community, even if it's only a community of one (perhaps the hardest). Second, to be entertained; to take pleasure.

So why do people read the "literary novels" which Hornby finds so boring (he seems to think the distinction is something to do with "more opaquely written" language!)?

I'd say for the exactly the same reasons. The first reason in both cases is basically the same as the pursuit of "intelligence" with which he is so impatient, while the second is identical. Or almost.

So what's the essential difference? Well, Hornby's misapprehension is that enjoyment is simply that. But it isn't.

I'll explain. A few years ago I enjoyed Michael Frayn's Headlong. It is compelling, funny, and written with a remarkable fluency. But I can't bring myself to read a more recent novel Spies, which I'm told is even better. Why the hell am I withholding such pleasure from myself? Above all, I think it's because I found the enjoyment too close to despair and, you know, I don't really want to experience that again. While reading Headlong, I so wanted to find out what happened next, to get beyond the latest twist that's sends the protagonist into another headlong spiral of narration, that I felt almost nauseous.

On the other hand, the pleasure I get from those books I love does not lead to nausea (unless there's Nick Hornby's review of it immediately after perhaps). Maybe they are "hard work" as Hornby presumes most "literary" novels are, yet unlike Spies, it's work I cannot resist, because it is pleasure (such is the paradox of literary fiction). It resists that despair, it works through and against unhappiness.

I've learnt (through reading and reflecting on that reading) that the only way of maintaining that resistance is to first of all recognise that despair (of course, something out of Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death). It's no good feeding oneself wishfulling fantasies that merely reinforce one's original condition, but of starting from despair, unhappiness, failure and not stopping until one has recognised them and found the right words in the right order to describe, explain and understand them. (Maybe literary fiction really is all about language after all as NH hints). Anyone who's a fan of Thomas Bernhard (the most pleasureable of novelists) knows how all these conditions bizarrely coalesce into life-affirming joy because, in part, of his extremism, his refusal of received ideas.

How each one of my favourite novels manage to offer this kind of pleasure isn't always so clear to me. It's something to do with the same kind of careful seeking I hear one experiences in the careful narration of a detective novel - though in Bernhard's case it's often a narration against narration. But not being clear means I am driven to find out in my own writing. There's an obvious irony that in reading Nick Hornby's article and writing this to work out why it gave me such displeasure, I have eventually taken pleasure and so perhaps demonstrated the limits of his liberating call.

I want to share with others this temporary victory over despair. And I seek the pleasure of reading those who are also trying to understand without resorting to middlebrow platitudes. It's the main thing missing from the broadsheets with which Hornby is so wrongheadly angry. But maybe he is in despair and doesn't know it.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Banville, how it is

John Banville speaking at the Edinburgh Festival, quoted by The Guardian's festival blog:
There's a notion that we writers are interested in the world; that we like the peculiarities of people and collecting characters," he said. "That may be the case with second rate artists, but true artists are only interested in what's going on in their head."

He continued: "Fiction gives the illusion of showing how we live - but it is a thing in itself. Great art looks and smells like the world, that's its trick. But the work of art is always about the work of art."

A British Schreibtischtäter

The basic thesis of Daniel Johnson's open letter to Günter Grass is that the latter's silence over his past has emerged as the noise of his opposition to Western imperialism (link via KR blog). "Now that we know how you began your career, with a thorough indoctrination in the Waffen SS" he says "your lifelong loathing of the West takes on a new and sinister significance."

It's a curious loathing. Grass takes part in debate. He puts over his opinion. Sometimes it seems (I don't follow his pronouncements), he challenges governments if he believes they are wrong. Isn't this what the West stands for? Isn't this what participants in a democracy are meant to do? Not according to Johnson:
Like your American counterpart Noam Chomsky, like countless writers and intellectuals of the left from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Harold Pinter, you have worked hard to discredit the political and economic system to which you owed your success: capitalism.
So there we have it. They should all shut up. What's more, the 'success' of Chomsky's theory of generative grammar, Garcia Marquez's fiction and Pinter's plays is down, not to talent and particular application, but to capitalism. Perhaps Johnson means financial success instead. I suspect he does. Yet his article proves that a lack of intellect and talent isn't a drawback.

The logic of Johnson's comment is that anyone who dares to speak out against the actions of the political and economic system to which they "owe their success" is immediately a hypocrite. Curiously, this is the same logic used by Nazis and Stalinists on their own dissidents. Barring the rest of Johnson's 4800-word tirade, this alone is enough evidence to suggest democracy is only a veneer over the distressing logic of capitalism.

Johnson has history as a blowtorch to that the veneer. In April 2003, the TLS published his sickening 4000-word review of three books about the Allied bombing raids on Germany during World War II. I wrote about it soon after in an essay on WG Sebald. At that time, the invasion of Iraq had just taken place. Johnson picked out a certain novelist for contempt then too:
Grass has no doubt that the Allied bombing [of Germany] was a war crime because it lacked military objectives. "The Allies tried to break the resistance of the German people by killing hundreds of thousands, but the resistance grew." Speaking before the collapse of Saddam's regime, he was equally sure that the Iraqis would defend their country "because of the bombing". Grass evidently identifies with "the German people" in their "resistance" to the Allies; as a young soldier, he was after all one of them.
Before anything else, this reveals that Johnson already knew three years before this letter that Grass was Nazi soldier, so why does the particular branch make any difference now? Yes, the Waffen SS had been made up of ideologically driven Nazis, but that late in the war everyone knows that such elitism had long been abandoned. And anyway, isn't Grass saying rather that the bombing put in jeopardy liberation from tyranny by increasing the resistance? His "identification" is more like understanding beyond ideological constraints, an intellectual openness that Johnson, like his father, cannot abide.

An aside: Johnson would no doubt dismiss anything Grass says as suspect. For instance, he doesn't believe that Grass, as he claims, tried to join the U-boat service instead. These recruits, Johnson says, "were also notoriously hard-line Nazis" anyway. This is false. A late friend of mine was drafted into U-boats also as a teenager. He might have gone into the Waffen SS instead. That would have been more fortunate as few submariners survived. But he did survive and soon after the war emigrated to the UK. Later he joined the Civil Service and at retirement received a medal from the government; an achievement he cherished and one hardly likely from a hard-line opponent of the West. All these were actions of someone who wished merely to belong and do good, which he did.

The letter format enables Johnson to tell Grass that "you [as a Nazi soldier] were careless of how many people you killed, for to you they were scarcely human. Your mentality was not unlike that of the Islamist suicide bombers of today". (There's another clue as to Johnson's real concerns). As Grass claims he committed no crimes as a soldier, one wonders what deaths he is talking about. If Grass did take part in lethal actions, it has to be proven, yet Johnson offers no evidence. The whole letter is full of such assumptions and contortions. The giveaway example: as suicide bombers tend to be fanatical converts in small cells rather than teenage boys filling the space left by fallen adults in one of the largests armies the world has ever seen, the more appropriate comparison is with US soldiers in Haditha, Fallujah, et al.

Of course, Grass has been proved right in his prediction of resistance from the Iraqi people, though it is probably down less to Shock & Awe than the subsequent tyrannical occupation. This is what upsets Johnson more than anything, for he has more in common with Grass of old than he can possibly admit. Johnson has (as far as I know) yet to apologise for his outspoken support for an illegal invasion and occupation that has caused the deaths of a quarter of a million people. At least Grass has tried to atone in his writing life. Johnson reckons his silence over an ultimately irrelevant detail still makes him a Schreibtischtäter, a desk-criminal. But one has to recognise what one has done before atonement can take place.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Behind the mountain of prose

Sitting at the workdesk today, I realised it might seem glaringly contradictory to say, as I did on Tuesday, that I prefer narrators to orators. As I sat there, working away, I thought, who could narrate less than my favourite prose writer, Thomas Bernhard? Didn't he say it himself?
I'm not one of your cheerful straightforward authors. I don't go in for stories. Basically, I hate stories. I destroy stories. I'm your typical story spoilsport. In my work, if I find traces of a story beginning to take shape or, if somewhere in the distance, behind my mountain of prose, I spot the outline of a story emerging, I shoot it down.
And after all, it's why I love his novels to an almost ridiculous degree. But at the time, thinking about it, sitting at the workdesk, I couldn't rush to correct the impression given on Tuesday. So I was impatient for the time when I could.

Yet once that time arrived, I had already noticed that the new Kenyon Review Blog says I agree with Guy Dammann when he wrote that Gunter Grass' fiction is inseparable from his politics. Before I could do anything else, I felt it important to qualify this. Yet as comments are restricted to WordPress users, I couldn't qualify it there, so I have to do it here first, before anything else.

Rather than agree with Dammann, I said that perhaps in what little I have read of Grass, I had sensed the inseparability and that's why I hadn't been able to read on. Perhaps it reminded me too much of all those dreary State of the Nation novels so beloved of the intelligentsia. And Grass is certainly admired by the British intelligentsia. If pressed to mention an important European novelist, they always mention him and never Thomas Bernhard, whom they ignore in the way they ignore all great writers who don't fit in with their idea of what an important novelist does, i.e. write 800-page state of the fucking nation novels.

And while I am not drawn to Grass for that reason too, it's really also due to the sense he tells too many stories; there's too much imagination teeming down onto the page and over too many pages. All that metaphorical corporeality: the flounder, the rat, the snail, the cat and mouse. I much prefer an astringent, destructive aesthetic. Sitting at the workdesk today, I realised that too. The opposition isn't between narration and oration as such, it's between creation and destruction. While Bernhard and Appelfeld are very different writers, they do share a destructive impulse, to pare the superfluous from a narrative, perhaps in order for it to become a narrative in the first place, all the better to reveal the elementary rhythm behind the mountain of prose.

So I wanted to say that as soon as possible too, to correct the original impression as soon as possible and - the important thing! - to stop thinking about it. As soon as it was written down and separate from me, I knew it would leave me alone. The question then occurred to me, sitting at the workdesk, why should it do that?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Grass and Appelfeld

Guy Dammann provides welcome sensitivity to the discussion of the recent revelation about Günter Grass. While most of us would insist that the author and his (fictional) work are necessarily separate, Dammann suggests Grass is an exception: "the trouble with Grass's case is that ... it is impossible to disentangle his literary from his political legacy [as both are] driven by and intent on driving towards a particular moral and political vision of Germany". Perhaps I have already sensed this, as I've yet to get very far into one Grass novel. I'm not interested in writers who orate rather than narrate.

One writer who does the latter is the Israeli Aharon Appelfeld. Recently Ellis Sharp has been critical of what he calls the blindness of Aharon Appelfeld, specifically to what his nation has done and is doing to Palestine. Evidence for his blindness, however, is not taken from Appelfeld's fiction, hence my recommendation to him to read his great, ruining novel The Age of Wonders. He took the trouble to read it and, before providing a literary assessment (to which I look forward), says:
As far as the Palestinians are concerned [the novel] reinforces rather than modifies my view of Appelfeld, since what I find striking are the parallels between the Jewish experience which he so eloquently represents and the Palestinian experience, making his lack of sympathy or understanding of the victims of the Jewish state all the more striking.
This gives a clue as to why writing is central to Appelfeld's quiet life in Jerusalem. Those who have read A Table for One will be familiar with his innocent need to write - something we might find a little odd, and some even suspiciously naive - but the achievement of that writing is the only reason to remember the author's name and then to read The Age of Wonders, The Healer, The Iron Tracks, For Every Sin ...

Monday, August 14, 2006

"Exciting" isn't the word

Here's the sound of me reacting to the announcement this evening of the Booker longlist. But the books must be simply wonderful if they beat Tom McCarthy's Remainder to the list.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Miscellaneous asides

The Kenyon Review has started a blog.

Bryan Appleyard, whose Updike-enthusiasm I responded to the other day, also has a blog. Among the selected articles of his journalism, I don't see the one on Beckett that momentarily redeemed the Sunday press for me some years ago, which is a pity.

And speaking of Beckett, at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, there's an exhibition of paintings by artists who influenced the writer.

Jenny Davidson of Light Reading has got hold of an early copy of The Zürau Aphorisms of Kafka.

Ellis Sharp speaks of 'the blindness of Aharon Appelfeld' and calls him 'an interesting minor novelist'. I would still urge him to read The Age of Wonders (preferably in this edition) to see if that judgement holds up. It might also complicate the rather black and white moralising about his silence.

Do you shout at the TV newsreaders as they twist and spin facts into camouflage? I know I do. Well for once, someone else who shares my derangement actually got to do so during a live broadcast. I salute you Mr Galloway!

Oh, and this is This Space's 300th blog entry.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Thomas Bernhard's house



I prefer to be alone. That's my ideal condition. My house is really a great prison. I like bare walls. Bare and cold. That's best for my work. And my books, my writings, are just like that. Sometimes I think the individual chapters are like the individual rooms in the house. The walls are alive. The pages are like walls. Look at a white wall really hard. It's not white. It's not bare. If you're alone for long periods, if you're used to being alone, schooled in it, then wherever ordinary people see nothing, you'll start to discover more and more.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The possibility of narrative

The ongoing misconstrual of the critical response to John Updike's Terrorist has highlighted the schism in the church of fiction. There are those for whom the lucid economy of Updike's prose provides "a frail bulwark against the larger and more furious passions that threaten the world" and those who are not entirely convinced by the detail of this particular rampart. Yet both are manning the church doors. Outside, in the graveyard, beside the freshly disturbed earth, stand those unwilling to mark the spot with fragrant flowers in elegant vases and then move indoors.
Blanchot's récits ... do not recount historical events, even when those events correspond to crucial turning points in modern history, like the ill-fated signature of the Munich accords that forms the political backdrop to Death Sentence, or the bombing of the synagogue in the rue de la Victoire in Paris in October 1941, recalled almost exactly half-way through When the Time Comes. Such events are nevertheless present in the margins of Blanchot's texts, but not as episodes in a completed narrative sequence. Events like these are not just crises in history, Blanchot suggests; they are crises of history, and they challenge the possibility of narrative itself.
(Leslie Hill in the TLS, 1999).

Friday, August 04, 2006

Multiple Bloggasms

After interviews at Bloggasm with comrades RSB and Spurious, it's my turn. In my interview, I discuss among other things the difference between writing newspaper and blog reviews, the differences between US and UK litbloggers and which books I'm looking forward to seeing published in the near future.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

End of a search era

Tonight I discovered that Amazon UK has changed its design to look more like its US sister site, which is fine, but its revised book search engine fails to offer the option of sort by publication date. This was, for me, the great advantage of the site. Amazon US includes the option yet, for some reason, it throws up all kinds of books irrelevant to the search. All in all, it's another good reason to turn to the Book Depository.

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