Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos

So, at last, news that FSG (site currently down) is publishing Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, Krishna Winston's translation of Peter Handke's 2002 novel Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos. But contain yourself, it isn't out until next Summer.

Suhrkamp's blurb describes the novel as portraying
a "greater age" in which contemplation, love, goodness, beauty and peace are not only construed as utopian possibilities, but can be generated and made viable propositions by telling stories.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Something random

This morning I passed time at work listening to the Guardian's podcast "Writing by Numbers" - a roundtable discussion about the creative writing industry. One panelist could have spoken for the entire hour as far as I was concerned. Among the many observations made by Russell Celyn Jones one was that CW classes are really only a new form of studying literature. Such classes, he said, can aid a writer only in their own, very personal search.
The [students] who come saying "I am a writer" and I just want to take a course ... are usually the ones who don't write very well. The students who come with a sense of curiosity about what they could find are usually the best ones ... because there's something random about the act of writing, and there's something random about the act of reading. When students say: "Tell me what books I have to read and tell me what skills I need and that's grand, right- it's all finished" then that's when I lose my temper. Well, not my temper, but I say you want the life of a writer but you don't want to do the work of a writer. The work of a writer is the randomness. It's about reading things you don't normally find in the obvious places. It's a very personal search. [...] It's a long process of learning ... what you need to write about and what it is the reader wants to read.
This explains why I felt annoyance at the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list that I saw the day before, and not just because Saturday is on it and the usual infuriating wrongheadedness (three Handkes yet not Repetition or Across). It was the resistance to randomness; as if all one has to do is read the 1001 and you're done. What I love about the blogosphere is the possibility of discovering a writer who might help me in the search. It's why I don't waddle sheep-like for the Booker shortlist or the 3 for 2 stalls or "confess" that I've never read Hardy or Tolstoy. Forget them. Follow your nose.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Holes in paper

I don’t find solitude agonizing, on the contrary. Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.
For days and nights now, I've wondered about the space between everyday corporeal existence and those holes in paper. Just wondered, without purchase. Then I read about Robert Shields and his diary.
For twenty years, Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington, has kept a written record of absolutely everything that has happened to him, day and night. For no less than four hours each day, Shields holes himself up in the small office in his home, turns on his stereo, and types. His diary, at 35 million words, is believed to be the world’s longest.
The gif showing a page of the diary is grim and melancholy.
The entire day is accounted for. I don't leave anything out. I start in at midnight and go through the next midnight, and every five minutes is accounted for.
Fathoms from, indeed.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Peeling back the years

Two years today since John Peel died. On its Keeping it Peel site, the BBC has put up recordings of a six-part show Peeling Back the Years recorded in 1987 (and which I remember listening to). It's Peel chatting with his producer John Walters about his "musical history".

Monday, October 23, 2006

A linguistic edifice

When publishers, with heavy heart, stamp "literary fiction" on books nowadays, they generally mean to brand them as serious in intent, not hitching a lift on genre or journalistic trends. The Lay of the Land is literary in that it is an entirely linguistic edifice. What happens? Frank's consciousness happens. Unlike his short stories, which found "success" only when sold to Hollywood back in the 1960s, it is practically screenproof.
From James Campbell's TLS review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Holding out for a loser

Tales from the Reading Room (written by the mysterious 'Litlove') finds an interesting correlation between diverse texts concerning the disaster that is Man:
What I found most interesting was the consistent implication that men have been socially and genetically estranged from the creativity needed to respond sensibly and strategically to the difficulties they face. Put a man in an awkward position, these three authors suggest, and he will instantly work to make it worse. After reproduction and aggression, man’s greatest instinct is for self-sabotage.
In the comments, Emily Barton observes:
that instead of working merely to make things worse, throughout history so many men have worked to make things worse (current example being the war in Iraq) and have then done everything possible to cover up the fact they’ve made things worse, often portraying themselves as great heroes. Obviously, the cover-up doesn’t always work, as noted by my current example.
Litlove replies that men have a problem with taking responsibility for their behaviour.

It's a fair cop. Except, I wanted to question the apparent feminine alibi. If men are predisposed toward aggression and self-sabotage, then it is due to their reproductive advantageousness. Such behaviour would otherwise die out. To use an extreme example (because human history is constituted by extremes) Ted Bundy pretty much fits the bill for the caricature of male behaviour. He was aggressive and self-sabotaging. So you'd think he'd be genetically repellent once his crimes were paraded. However:
During his trial for the Kimberly Leach murder, while Bundy was acting as his own attorney, he married former coworker Carole Ann Boone in the courtroom as the trial was being conducted. During his incarceration, Bundy received about two hundred fan letters each day from female admirers. [..] In October 1982, Boone gave birth to a girl.
Bundy would have been better off becoming a soldier, an entrepreneur, a rock star, an actor or a politician (such as the Bundy lookalike in the White House) where psychosis is a major advantage.

If it was clear that more women were of the Dorothea Brooke persuasion then, in the long run, aggression would probably diminish. Unfortunately (perhaps), so would the population. And wasn't Causabon psychotic in his own way?

The answer could be for women to take control (thereby relinquishing it) and mate only with unaggressive men with no interest in power, no instinct to cover up their passivity, and who embrace lack, humiliation and vulnerability.*

*That's an invitation.

The gift of language

James Fenton is transported by Paul Muldoon's fine collection
The poet Primo Levi was transported by a cattle truck.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Leap into parchment

On Monday lunchtime this week, wandering through Brighton town centre, I popped into an ex-church used as an art installation venue. I have done this two or three times before during previous displays and invariably walked out within 30 seconds. This time, the only apparent work on display was a stack of vertical light strips. Woo. Hoo. As I walked to the far exit, expecting to break my short-stay record, I noticed an entrance to a small cinema. Inside were three rows of wooden chairs. I hadn't read any promotional material and knew only the title from a poster glanced as I walked in: The Sound of Silence (which wouldn't tell anyone anything). There was a countdown to the beginning of whatever was going to be shown in the bottom right of the screen. Very dramatic! I sat down and waited.

The film lasted about 10 minutes and told the story of the South African photographer Kevin Carter, from his army days to his discovery of photography, through his recording the resistance to apartheid and, finally, to the taking of the infamous photograph of the starving Sudanese child and watching vulture. Yet, while it was a film, the story was told only in white text on a black background; short, bland sentences in newstype appearing sentence by sentence. The artist Alfredo Jaar also uses this style to introduce his website.

As I knew Carter's story, it didn't come as a surprise that the only image in the ten minutes turned out to be the one of the Sudanese child. It appears as the viewers recover from a blinding flash directed away from the screen. (Suddenly, I wonder: were we photographed?). The story slows down at this point. It details the encounter with the child and vulture. It was shocking to read that Carter didn't just snap the image but waited, hoping that the bird would spread his wings. Once he had taken the photo and chased the bird away, we were told he sat down in the shade, smoked a cigarette and spoke to God. The urgency of our thoughts were acknowledged with narrative silence. Didn't he immediately help the child to the feeding centre?! Did he help it all?

Silence.

The story then skipped to the reception of the photograph when it first appeared in the NYT. What had happened to the child, people asked? No-one knew. Carter was accused of being no different to the vulture. Soon after winning the Pulitzer Prize, he killed himself. But the story didn't end there. Profits from the photo, it seems, go to a trust fund for his daughter. The film reported that the photo is owned by a company owned, in turn, by Bill Gates. It says the company "controls" 100 millions photographs. It gives us the serial number of the famous image. Then it ends.

Walking away (I had to get to the supermarket), I wanted to dismiss the presentation as mere sentimentality and stiff moralising. The slanted technical information seemed to provide a convenient displacement of the unease provoked by the image. "Oh yes, Bill Gates and corporate ownership of a universe of visual media controls our perception of the world." Wouldn't it have been more resonant to leave it with Carter's death? Why not just the image itself? There's no leaving the photograph after all. It's why I'm still trying to think about it and the film as the week ends.

I think the image provokes the deepest unease not because of what it reveals so much as that it remains. It sits there. Its limits absolve us, which makes us culpable, yet, within those limits - where we seek involvement, engagement - is a space as parched as the land it records. The image might also be a metaphor of photography itself.

Banally true as this might be - and it's my commonest experience of art - it's something we habitually avoid. It's there to be overcome with readings of political relevance or philistine appreciations of craftsmanship (the bad faith of claiming merely to "like" a work and to be seeking nothing more). Blanchot says as much and then suggests a way out:
Reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it may be (and the more engaging it seems to be) is empty - at bottom it doesn't exist; and you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend. [trans. Ann Smock]
Yet how does one leap?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Will Oldham, new interview

Uniquely intelligent, fascinating and informative hour-long interview with Will Oldham by Chicago Public Radio. Barely any gossip involved either.

Scroll down.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Letter defending Auschwitz Report

ReadySteadyBook's blog has a scoop with the unedited version of the editor's trenchant defence of the publication of Auschwitz Report, co-authored by Primo Levi, following a very critical review in the Observer.

In particular, I like the line responding to the review's accusation that Verso inflated the text to book length "as if short books were somehow immoral". Reading the eligibility rules of the Man Booker Prize, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were!

If there has been any publishing offence against Levi's work, it was in the US edition's alteration of the title from the enigmatic, fragmentary If this is a man (Se Questo è un Uomo) to Survival in Auschwitz. They even manage to put spin on the follow up by changing The Truce (La Tregua) to The Reawakening. Staggering.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cirque line

Ellis Sharp discusses Bernhard's page-long story Piccadilly Circus:
A circus is, in one sense, a place of entertainment; in another, it is an open space where a number of streets converge. Both senses might be thought relevant to this story as a space in which various lines of narrative meet. But as a space it is circular and self-contained: it leads nowhere but back to its beginning. However, I resist the notion of art as self-contained.
And of course he's right to resist. Even the best work of literature is not independent. It's just very, very lonely.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Amateurs more astute than journalists shock

Worth reading today's leader in the Guardian. Compare the disingenuous blather from the professional journalists with the astute comments posted by ordinary members of the public beneath it.
(Via Medialens)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Splash it all over

Why do I find reading interviews with painters often much more stimulating than those with writers?

In my student abode, I had pinned over my desk a quotation from an interview with Frank Auerbach. It was under a picture of him sitting down - covered in paint, holding a mug of tea - looking as if the effort of painting had drained every ounce of energy from his body.
Painting is a practical day-to-day thing, I think. One might say something clever, one might say something big, but one does something limited. It is a serious thing - like religion - like love - one does the persistent thing, and then the really remarkable happens when something's there that wasn't there before.
Today I saw this one in the Telegraph with Lucien Freud (link via Conscientious).
If you look at Chardin's animals, they're absolute portraits. It's to do with the feeling of individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific. I think the most boring thing you can say about a work of art is that it's 'timeless'. That induces a kind of panic in me. It's almost like political speech - it doesn't apply to anyone. The idea that something's wrong if the work gives off a feeling of being tied to the moment is crazy. One of the things about all great art is that it involves you, don't you agree? It's the same in literature. One of the things I so like about Saul Bellow is that I almost feel as if I had written it myself. There's a degree of conviction that involves you in a way that seems almost innate.
He also speaks of painting the Queen's portrait: "She's very, very open-minded" he says. The accompanying photo seems to prove him right.

By coincidence, Serpent's Tail has just sent me The Alpine Fantasy of Victor B and other stories, a collection of stories by artists, including Jake Chapman and the late Ian Breakwell (who remembers his diary pieces on early Channel 4?), with an introduction by poet George Szirtes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The closing of the western mind

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya has rightly received a great deal of coverage west of Moscow. From afar, we are appalled at how Russia has dealt with one of its dissident reporters.

We'd never stoop that low of course.

By the way, have you heard of Yasser Salihee?

In which he calls for a moratorium

... on blog entry titles beginning "in which".

From the Priest Hole

Auster has always rewarded his fans by making them feel clever.
And by making reviewers think they're cleverer.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Death and the Martin

[Islamicism] is a tremendously radical enemy because, for them, defeat is not defeat and death is not death. Turn on your television and you'll see Islamicism is shaping world events. That's all there is on CNN. And it's having a huge wave, thrust of success. And that's because, I think, the casting off of reason, the embrace of death, is very energising ... for a while.
In the week The Lancet reports that deaths in Iraq as a consequence of the Christian invasion have reached an estimated 655,000, these comments from Martin Amis in a recent BBC Radio 3 interview, suggests he's just a chip off the xenophobic old block. But I don't want to leave it there. There's something about the intensity of Amis's current preoccupation with Islam[icism] that reveals something about his novels.

Twenty years ago, just after the success of Money, Amis spoke about the threat of nuclear annihilation and what he saw as its insidious affect on society: "It is the one great underlying uncertainty" he said. The latter part of the 20th Century was "the most dangerous era .. without compare".
We find ourselves at this moment having the fate of the Earth in the hands of .. an old actor and a prison warden. I get a great sense of discrepancy from that.
He went on to say that the discrepancy "declasses" us as human beings and that "it would be extraordinary if we didn't respond to it in violent ways".

I have remembered these lines because at the time it seemed both plausible and ridiculous. Could it be both? One violent response, Amis suggested, was that anger had become a legitimate form of political expression. He cited the riots in English in the early 80s and "certain forms of insurrection" (perhaps alluding to the Miners' Strike) that had just ended. Before then, of course, it had been all sweetness and political light. Anyway, the discrepancy, as he saw it, informed his next two fictions: Einstein's Monsters and London Fields. Yet now, although the nuclear threat remains, with Earth's fate still in the hands of another born-again cretin and any number of prison wardens, it all seems rather dated. Were we ever so affected by the nuclear threat? Maybe it was just transference.

Amis's attention has since returned to the discrepancy presented by death itself, which seems much more plausible, even if, as Bernhard famously observed, everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death. The Information in the novel with that title is precisely the fact of death. In that old interview, Amis said described death as "the dark backing a mirror needs before it can give off a reflection". An uncanny situation with which the writer is familiar: the anonymous realm of negativity bringing life, as it were, to life.

This focus on death might explain one thing about Amis' career that has puzzled me. After making his name with novels about British life, why did he then write novels about the distant past, about Nazi Death Camps and the Soviet Gulag? At first it seems that Amis is being, as Tibor Fischer describes it in his review of The House of Meetings, "an atrocity-chaser ... on the prowl for gravitas-enlargement offers". But really it's Amis looking from the other side of the mirror. "Death was very central to both [Nazism and Stalinism]" he says. "In both it was imagined that a beautiful future would be built on a field of dead bodies". So while the comedy (in the older sense of the word) of the British novels emerged in the return of the repression of death, in the camps death it was normality that was repressed. So what might that return? Maybe another reviewer will enlighten us.

Another puzzling aspect of that choice was also remarked upon in the BBC interview: the obvious discrepancy between the author's personal experience and the subject matter. Amis says he had done a great deal of reading about the Gulag but had not written about it because, due to "a strategic sin of omission", he wanted the facts to sink in so that he could return to it at length, i.e. fictionally.

He claims that the only way he could gain legitimacy for the novel was not through "wringing [my] hands about the suffering of the poor bastards in penal servitude above the arctic circle" but through "the suffering of the study, when things aren't going easily with the work ... all I could do was the writerly suffering." It's an unusual thing to say, very much against the cult of experience still dominant in literary reception. It emphasises his trust in literature, for the negative to reflect the positive, for the necessary absence in literature of the world to reinforce its presence. But that trust isn't total. Amis's famously inventive prose style is a vigorous resistance to that absence, an endless war on the pleonasm of clichéd language. Death must resist death. Defeat must be defeated.

Amis sees Islamic fundamentalism in the tradition of the 20th Century's totalising ideologies: "To throw off reason, everything becomes possible for a while. Then the ground turns swampy beneath your feet. The rejection of reason cannot hold." Yet he could also be speaking of writing. Reason is writerly suffering, the long haul of attention and empathy. A writer might instead let his imagination run wild, bringing an entirely new world into existence and winning the admiration of escapists, but ultimately would be bearing forth only death. In contrast, Amis prose style is the crusader's sword beside his shield of reason.

With this in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that he spends a good deal of time in the interview expressing contempt, not only for Islam[icism], but also those who see it in the context of what you're unlikely to see on CNN:
It's rationalist naivete to look for reasons when an ideology becomes very virulent, as Islamicism has become. It's much more pleasant to look for reasons and to historical justifications ... 'our unhingeing cruelty in that region has, you know, tipped them over the edge', but one also has to be capable of identifying something that is pathological. The Ken Livingstone response, that this is what people do ... when there is an unfair balance, you know they haven't got F16s ... they use their bodies ... I think that's sentimental rubbish ... and appeasement.
. The slight of hand where reasons of historical fact becomes "historical justifications" is rather perplexing after the implicit injunction against unreason. But it's a strategic omission consistent with his fiction.

In his recent story The Last Days of Muhammad Atta (which seems to have been taken offline), Amis chose to make the suicide pilot an unbeliever.
If you make him an apostate, his thoughts are still independent, and they're worth exploring. There are contradictions and resonances that you don't get in what Atta probably was ... a hachet-faced fanatic. I made him more accessible. He's pretending to be religious. What interests him is the killing. The contribution towards death he'll make.
Since the story was published, Atta has been revealed to be a more accessible figure anyway than the grim passport photograph which inspired Amis's portrait. But the embrace of fiction is very energising ...

Friday, October 06, 2006

From the Priest Hole

When Jonathan Franzen published his bestselling novel The Corrections, readers wondered how much it owed to his own life.
This reader wonders instead if mainstream British literary journalists have ever thought about changing the fucking tune?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Nano question

Another step has been taken by me into the 21st century (the one in which we'll all die). I have acquired an iPod Nano.

The best feature is the ability to download podcasts and listen to them at work. I do not have the patience to listen outside working hours, but during them I hardly notice the time passing, even if the subject matter isn't of my choosing. Boon-tastic.

So far I've listened to Radio 4's In Our Time on Alexander von Humboldt, Bat Segundo chatting with publishers, Wole Soyinka (who seems like a lovely man) in conversation with Michael Silverblatt and, today, oh lucky me, it was Martin Amis on Radio 3's excellent new Arts Talk podcast service. I'll return to the latter's bizarre comments and observations when time returns at the weekend. During the meanwhilst however, has anyone got recommendations for other literary podcasts?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Letting gone

I'm really not keen on The Letting Go, Bonnie Prince Billy's new LP. And to be honest, I haven't been keen on any LP of his since I See a Darkness, even if I still think of him as my favourite singer/songwriter. There are only impressions why. Perhaps the LPs have been over-produced. His voice and a guitar seem to be more than enough to me. I certainly don't like the string quartet and background singing on the latest. Yet the one exception to my disappointment is the overtly over-produced Greatest Palace Music, which I love beyond reason. And Master & Everyone was pared down.

The other impression is that the work seems less necessary than before. Less authentic. In a blog last May I referred to the movement in his work between animal and human. Perhaps this dynamic has been lost or diminished with maturity and success. You can see it still in the video for Cursed Sleep. But the music lacks something. Lack itself perhaps.

His minor works tend to be more thrilling than the LPs. For example, rarities from EPs such as Blue Lotus Feet, Forest Time, Four Screams and His Hands, the latter written for and recorded by Candi Staton. Each has an elemental quality.

Mere Pseud Blog Ed discusses an earlier rarity and offers an mp3 of the song Black Dissimulation from it. And this is it.
Oldham's strange and sometimes tortured syntax ... only enriches his cadence. By paying attention to his voicing from line to line - a gift from his acting career - he automatically sounds more interesting than most indie singers out there.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

LRB on literary biography and neo-cons

My second subscription to the London Review of Books has begun (the first was in 1987, I think, beginning with an issue with a photograph on the cover of John Ruskin arm-in-arm with Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This cover has a painting of a model sailboat and a shell, yet I'm impressed. It's good to read such concise good sense about literary biography in Colin Burrow's review of John Stubbs' new life of John Donne:
[Literary biography] gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life. Wordsworth? Well, that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just remember he loved his sister. Shakespeare? Didn’t you realise he was the Earl of Oxford? The other problem is that even the best examples can't entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom.
No doubt Nick Hornby will detect the heresy of standards here. And he'd be right. It's pernicious because it regularly misunderstands and misrepresents literature:
The energy of [Donne's] poems comes from the kinds of non-understanding they generate: you get one strand, start to be convinced, and then another cuts across and pulls you in a new direction. When those poems are solemnly presented as evidence or symptoms of a life one's immediate reaction is to protest that their vitality, which depends on a plurality of disintegrating perspectives, might be a bit like life as it might feel to live it [...] but it is not at all the matter of a biography.
I was also impressed by Stephen Holmes' discussion of Fukuyama's After the Neocons and that movement's most publically-expressed theory:
Tacitly, the neo-con advocates of Middle Eastern democracy are siding with the young men who might be tempted to join terrorist conspiracies against their clientalistic, kleptocratic and non-democratic governments, which are officially allied with the US. Al-Qaida is less like the KGB than the KGB’s implacable foe, the Afghan mujahidin, ‘freedom fighters’ supported by Ronald Reagan, among others. Today’s neo-cons no longer want to imitate Reagan by helping resentful young Muslim men regain their dignity through violent insurgency. Instead, they want to give them an alternative path to dignity: namely, liberal democracy. But the basic reason for supporting frustrated Muslim youth, that they deserve American support in their noble search for liberation, is the same.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on this massive contradiction. Although obvious in a way, it is seldom discussed; Fukuyama doesn’t seem to notice it. The neo-cons defend two diametrically opposed propositions: that the jihadists hate freedom at the same time as hating their own lack of it. On the one hand, neo-cons assert that Islamic radicals hate American values, not American policies, and deny that America’s past behaviour has in any way provoked anti-American violence. On the other hand, they imply that the 9/11 plot was inspired and implemented by terrorists radicalised by Arab autocracies allied with or sponsored by the US. This suggests that 9/11-style terrorists hate American policies, not American values. They hate not the principles of American liberty but, rather, America’s unprincipled support for tyranny. To promote democracy in the Middle East is to imply that such hatred is in part justified.

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