Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Menace of the philistines

[In Menace of the Masses] Professor Carey argues that writers such as DH Lawrence, EM Forster and WB Yeats attempted to elevate reading beyond the reach and understanding of ordinary people as soon as ordinary people were finally able to read. Influenced by philosophers such as Nietzche, this elitism and contempt for the common man eventually mutated into a fascination with eugenics and a belief that the survival of civilisation demanded the extermination of certain types of people.
If "ordinary" people can read, is reading English written by DH Lawrence, EM Forster and WB Yeats "beyond" them? Is it beyond you? Does your answer suggest that the greatest works of the greatest artists transcend any supposed intention and speaks to everyone, even the little people John Carey wants to protect from such blinding light?

And what does Carey know about Nietzsche? He couldn't even spell it. I'll stick to Most Haunted on Ftn.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Imperial realism and its critics

For many years before her death, Muriel Spark was widely considered to be the great British novelist of her time. "Almost certainly true," concurred the critic James Wood in an essay in 2000, "except that such a truth does not exactly redound to the credit of British fiction." He recalled her own claim that she wrote "minor novels deliberately", which in his view causes her books to read as mere “performances of containment". In other words, Spark could not be great, quite, because she had made it clear, over and over, that "greatness", with its attributes of girth, centrality, all-inclusiveness, was not a judgment that interested her. "Whatever is at stake for her is not quite to be found in the novel one is reading, but is somewhat to the side of it," Wood concluded.
Jenny Turner quoting almost certainly the greatest British critic of his time not exactly redounding to the credit of British criticism. Adam Phillips as to why, indirectly:
One of the things Mendelsohn wants to acknowledge at the end of the book is that these lost relatives are not, and never were, fictional characters, even if the only life they can have now is in the memory and accounts of the living. In fact, he concludes, they may need to be rescued from the reconstructions they will now be victimised by. "There is so much that will always be impossible to know," he writes, "but we do know that they were, once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths, and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purposes of a good story, for the memoirs and magical-realist novels and movies."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Three nods

For Eggers, reality is continuous with whatever you want, mentally, to do to reality. For all of their effusions about the exalted wonderfulness of art, the McSweeneyites, like Eggers, do not transform reality, the way artists do. They juggle with it, the way daydreamers and entertainers do.
Lee Siegel reviews What is the What.
Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre.
Mark Thwaite on why he'd like RSB to be seen as anti-Literary Fiction.
These days I don’t need a bucket to throw up in – I need something at least the size of a horse trough.
I had wondered who that was beside me.

London Book Fair

Took Tuesday off work to visit the London Book Fair. Had no idea what to expect but was looking forward to lots of books. I remembered that the last time I had been to Earl's Court was as a teenager to see Pink Floyd perform The Wall.

The train from the south coast was scheduled to take 50 minutes, so I planned my journey to allow plenty of time to explore before lunch. But, somewhere between stations in Surrey, the train stopped. An unspecified delay was announced due to an unspecified incident ahead at Purley. I sat there gazing through my limited window space at a red jeep parked on a bend on a suburban road. Nothing moved. Then a car drove around the jeep and the bend. Then it was still again. We stayed there for half an hour. To muted cheers, the train trundled on a few hundred yards and then, to muted misery, stopped again. I had a different view. Trees, bushes, a fence, some abandoned railway equipment. After another ten minutes or so it trundled another few hundred yards and gave me a newly different view. This happened several times. I wondered if we would ever get to London. The hope was that once the train reached Purley, there would be a clear run to Victoria. This hope was realised. As the train rolled through Purley station, I saw on the platform men in reflective clothing zipping up a long white bag.

We reached London after two hours and 10 minutes. The Fair was awful.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A kind of release

Finally, I'm not now trying to scale the heights with my experience, I'm trying to comprehend it.
Norman Mailer reflecting on The Castle in the Forest on KCRW's snug in the cosmopolis Bookworm.
Perhaps I see it as a metaphor for the dilemma of all men: necessity whose bars we look through and try not to see. Social injustice, apathy, ignorance. The personal prison of entrapment in past experience, guilt, obsession - the somewhat blind or blinded self, in other words. A man has to construct, invent, his freedom. Imagination helps. A truly great man or woman extends it for others in the process of creating his/her own.
Bernard Malamud on the prison motif within the creation of “the human sentence”.
I think about Jandek often. That there are so many albums to which to listen. That his first recording came out in 1978, and seems the outcome of a lengthy process. Dozens of recordings. Experiments. Working out how to play, and how to record. Sending out a few demos and then, finally, deciding to record by himself, all alone, and release his work by himself, all alone, dependent on no one. And how good his records sound! How perfect they sound! Put anything next to them and they sound fake. [..] On his 45th album - revealed, suddenly: he plays piano. And sings in a new way, half speaking. I admit that this, for me, is the most moving of his albums, especially in its cumulative force. It's 80 minutes or so long, and when it ends, great cheers from the crowd, and from me, too, inwardly. Great cheers, and a kind of release. This is divine music. This is the music of God.
Spurious is back, this time on the enigma of Jandek.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Cahiers Series

Last year, the small press Sylph Editions received deserved recognition from the British Book Design & Production Awards, winning in the Literature category for its gorgeous edition Ten Poems from Hafez (where each animal is drawn using the words of the poem in Persian).


Its latest project is The Cahiers Series - which seems to be printed on the same fine-smelling paper - seeking “to make available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities.” The first of six editions is Richard Pevear's Translating Music. You might recognise his name as the translator of Oprah Book Club featured novel Anna Karenina. His latest book features facing translation of Pushkin's long poem The Tale of the Preacher and His Man Bumpkin with accompanying pictures drawn by Pushkin himself, followed by an essay about the translation.

The subscription page says future editions are likely to include translations from Rimbaud and reflections on Dante and his translators, and “original poetry from established poets”. The second in the series already exists however: Walking on Air commemorates Muriel Spark with some of her own writing: i.e. “one handwritten note on dream interpretation; one dream, recounted; two poems; an essay on Piero della Francesca and another on hotels; one note on translation; one short story; and several diary entries.”

Measuring the reviews

More high-profile reviews of Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World are appearing. We got a hint of the approach they might take last year, and I wasn't very happy. Mark Anderson threatens more provocation in The Nation: “Reviewers in Germany and in the United States have welcomed Kehlmann's comic novel as a departure from the lugubrious German bestsellers of the recent past ...” he begins (via Dispatches from Zembla). Mmm... While the welcome is strictly for it being a bestseller, we read it differently. The implication, even if it was never meant in that way, is that comic novels are not written by Germans because they're a lugubrious race. I'm aware that it's more than unlikely that even a smart Germanist like Mark Anderson (himself a translator of a great Austrian comic novel) will promote Gert Hofmann ahead of chat about Gunter Grass and the legacy of Hitler and the breath of fresh air Kehlmann apparently represents. So I want to repeat it here: Gert Hofmann is the great comic German novelist of our time. He should at least receive a namecheck in the many reviews of Kehlmann's novel.

Like everyone else, I was interested in reading the famous bestseller. So when I got a copy, I read into it with high expectations. So far, it's entertaining. No doubt about that. However, it's hardly anything to get excited about. Here's a passage from the translation chosen from the page where my bookmark has come to rest:
At the Academy, Humboldt gave lectures on the conductivity of the human nerves. He was standing right there in the drizzle on the trampled grass outside the city when the last section of longitude was measured that connected Paris to the Pole. As it was completed, everyone took off their hats and shook hands: one ten-millionth of the distance, captured in metal, would become the unit of all future linear measurements. People wanted to name it “the meter”. It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm. The excitement stopped him from sleeping for several nights.
Without doubting its adequacy, you can read this sort of thing in any weekend supplement on any number of subjects. It's relaxing, undemanding. This a criticism only if someone wants to call it a great novel or to repeat the much-quoted comparison with Nabokov and Proust. Now that I've read some of the book, this comparison is even more absurd than when it was first trumpeted. Whoever made it doesn't seem to care about providing evidence and the British publishers haven't even revealed who made the comparsion, merely quoting Luke Harding's unattributed quotation. No doubt this is also from where Kate Chisholm got it. Any further comparisons sans evidence will probably rely on the same piece. I predict that if negative responses to the comparison are ever addressed, the complainants will be described as “purists”.

Gert Hofmann on the other hand can be safely compared with many other great writers; though not perhaps Nabokov and Proust. He's as funny as they are, but the sensibility is different. Another random quotation is necessary. Coincidentally, he also wrote a comic novel about an Enlightenment figure, the scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.
It was the first time in a long time that Lichtenberg was walking in such close proximity to people. They smelled his sweat. Their eyes and ears boggled, not one of them shrank away from him. Because the Stechardess was now eating and sleeping at his house - not with him, mind! - they had abrogated their greeting. He had to go on greeting them, though. Then he was past them, and they spun round to look at him from behind. He didn't really notice at all, he was lost in thought. Often it would be thinking about some favorite notion of his, for instance: Is the cause of all movement in the world an idea of God's? Lichtenberg nodded and smiled subtly and said: It's possible! And resolved that he would go and sit in the third of his rooms today and look into the matter.
Superficially the two quotations are similar. But notice how Lichtenberg's ebullient character inhabits the third person narration (those exclamation marks!). The novel doesn't lord it over its characters but takes us into their world; or rather, into the space between their world and ours. Though I haven't read it all, so far Kehlmann merely uses the setting to pursue his purpose (i.e. triumphant storytelling).

For that reason, it's appropriate that the novel is also reviewed by Daniel Johnson, the London print media's resident Germany-basher. He applauds Kehlmann because the novel “deconstructs the fantasy Germany of which many of his thirty-something contemporaries dream, rather than the real, hollowed-out Germany they actually inhabit.” No, I don't know what he means either. Is Britain any less hollowed-out? Johnson's neocon fantasies have been well and truly deconstructed since he championed the “moral bombing” of Iraq four years ago yet he still appears on a regular basis to sneer at those who noticed the emperor's new clothes. Like his father Paul, any red-face isn't from shame.

He goes on: “Like W. G. Sebald, who had to emigrate to England to become a major German writer, Kehlmann had to escape Germany - he lives in Vienna - to anatomise its escapism.”. For what it's worth, Hofmann lived and died in Munich after travelling around a bit. Most Germans seem to travel around a bit; escaping into the world. Often escaping enough to realise that real people live there. Johnson compared Germany's opposition the US invasion to its apparent revisionism over the Allied bombing campaign 60 years earlier, i.e. that it hadn't learned. It's been made clear since then, if it wasn't bleedin' obvious at the time, that it opposed the bombing precisely because it had learned.

Still, Johnson was right to say that it “has been a long time since Germany produced a major novel.” Yet this might be because “major” novels are anachronistic and that the majority of German writers have recognised that. Reviewers looking out for the imperial grandeur of “major” novels might easily miss the great novels of their time because these novels seek to be truthful rather than powerful. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl hasn't even been published in the UK.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thomas Bernhard died 4 U

Bernhard, who mocked the visiting of places associated with writers as well as admiration journeys to museums and churches, had done nothing less than design a museum for admirers like us to visit, in the same way that he devoted his life singlemindedly to writing even though the writings we possess are only nonsense because they can only be nonsense. Bernhard’s house is part and parcel of his literary legacy: a seriously satirical stance that eludes the initial urge to peg him as a misanthrope, a pessimist, or a nihilist.
Jonathan Taylor goes on an admiration journey to Das Bernhard-Haus in a village in Upper Austria and, along the way, reveals the most unlikely secret about the great man's musical tastes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Renounce action! On Kundera's The Curtain

Over Easter weekend I read Kundera's The Curtain. It's a thumping good read, and I recommend it for the limited space in one's holiday luggage. I warmed to it from the start with its persuasive argument that historical consciousness is inherent to our aesthetic perception of art; a simple truth it now seems. He uses the example of a modern day composer producing a work Beethoven might have written. It would, he says, be "spontaneously felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous. Our feeling for continuity is so strong that it enters into the perception of any work of art". Well, it's strong in those of us who are aware that comparing, for instance, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française to Tolstoy (as Doris Lessing and Robert Fisk have done) is not the praise those making the comparison think it is. But it seems many see art as a Platonic realm free from the disaster of history. Ironically they tend also to be the ones who insist that novels speak to us of our time, lamenting along the way that there is no Dickens for modern Britain. We need to move on. "[I]n the absence of aesthetic value" Kundera states, "the history of art is just an enormous storehouse whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning. And conversely: it is only within the context of an art's historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen." Yes, storehouses containing piles of artless trash for "book lovers". A modern day Dickens will have moved on.

One problemette I had with The Curtain was Kundera's range of reference in the history of the novel. He celebrates huge, kaleidoscopic fiction: novels by Marquez, Fuentes, Carpentier in South America, Fielding, Sterne, Balzac and Broch in Europe. The one constant reference point that isn't so jaunty is Madame Bovary. I am drawn to the less jaunty. Even when referring to Kafka, Kundera prefers the novels to the stories (at least he doesn't mention the latter). All this made me uneasy, and while I'm sure it's just the intervention of my own taste for brevity, melancholy and serious peace and quiet, I suspect it's also my piquant sense of aesthetic rightness. Modern works like this (i.e. those that seek to filch respect and attention from that given to earlier works) are equivalent to the Beethoven pasticher and should be discouraged.

Is this for reason more than taste? But of course. In a small section headed “Action”, Kundera uses Hegel's contrast of the world of the epic with that of the novel to suggest why. In the epic of the Greeks, "the freedom to participate in the struggle [for power] and the freedom to desert it guaranteed every man his independence. In this way did action retain a personal quality and thus its poetic form." In the modern era of an organised state, an individual's behaviour is instead determined from outside. So "[i]f action is merely the effect of obedience, does it count as action? And how to distinguish the activity of repetitive gesture from routine? And what does 'freedom' mean, in concreto, in the bureaucratized modern world where the possibilities to act are so minute?". One might think here of those many novels following familiar paths in form and content as merely repetitive gestures; obedience to a bureaucratised understanding of the freedom offered by the novel (obedient to the demands of commerce, of readers in want of distraction, of the desire to do a "professional" job, rather than the demands of the work itself).

Kundera says Joyce and Kafka "reached the farthest limits of these questions" yet adds that Sterne in Tristram Shandy had already broached them. He tells of the "only infinitesimal actions" that take place in this massive book, the several chapters it takes for Tristram's father to pull a handkerchief from his pocket and lift his wig from his head:
That absence of action (or miniaturization of action) is treated with an idyllic smile (a smile unknown to either Joyce or Kafka, and that will remain unparalleled throughout the history of the novel). I think I detect a radical melancholy in that smile: to act is to seek to conquer; to conquer brings suffering to others: renouncing action is the only path to happiness and peace.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Easter asides

At last, an American who doesn't overrate Clive James, unlike one or two US litbloggers recently. Gary Indiana provides a clue as to why he might appeal: "James can expound his subjects' accomplishments without oversimplification; what he can't do, apparently, is interrogate his own broad assumptions and prejudices." It's not only in the liberal arts that this applies it seems.

Elsewhere, Chandrahas Choudhury reviews the brief tales in Etgar Keret's Missing Kissinger and calls them "potent drops of storytelling". They are indeed, and when he also describes them as "anti-literary" and "anti-romantic", I accept (reluctantly) that these are positives. Yet I found them too glib and self-satisfied to warrant the enthusiasm of the blurb quotes (including Clive James' "One of the most important writers alive"!). I used the word 'glib' in a review - not online - but what I didn't mention (due to space) was the translation from Hebrew. I presume it's accurate in its colloquial tone, though it does tend to emphasise the cultural similarities between the US and Israel rather than their differences. Many read like products of creative writing classes. One similarity might be ignorance of football. In one story, the narrator mentions having Adidas trainers like those worn by "Kroif". The translator evidently didn't know that this refers to Holland's greatest ever player. So maybe Keret's prose is not as carefree as the translation suggests.

Keret should attract younger readers; at least those less concerned with form than with content. In this, he's more like a rock star than a writer. Ah, what it must be like to live life to the full, on the edge, like a musician, this one for example.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A book of beginnings

Against all inclination, I began to read a thriller. The book just happened to be there, offering itself. The packaging is classic: a compact paperback with the starkly-worded title raised in gold lettering against a foreboding image. I had no expectations at all and it began well. The main character was introduced in crisp prose with a wonderful pulse. I learned of his mundanely pleasant life, his mysterious girlfriend and the suggestion of a dark cloud waiting to float over and block out the sunlight. No trouble. I've read many infinitely worse “literary” novels. Yet it was here that I put the book down. Now that a world had opened up, I wanted more. I wanted the whole book to be like this; a book of beginnings, sunlight ahead, and I knew that was not going to happen. That dark cloud scuttled over soon enough. That's why, I think, to take a recent example, I love to re-read Peter Handke's Repetition (seventh time in progress) and have been enjoying his No-man's Bay marathon. These books are full of beginnings, full of fresh air and sunlight. By contrast, the thriller felt like a noose tightening around the neck. Death is also escapism I suppose.

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