Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Exit Ghost, Enter Prick

How, hypothetically, would one review Exit Ghost if it were a first novel by an unknown?
Asks Carlin Romano in his review of Roth's new novel.

Rather, how would one review Exit Ghost if one were a vaguely competent reviewer?

Romano has demonstrated before his uncritical reliance on fiction to support his depraved opinions. At least Roth is aware of the problem.

Rara avis

Few people so completely English can have travelled so far and observed so feelingly what he saw. He seemed always on some journey of his own, ever restless and curious. Perhaps towards the end he felt himself to be an anomaly, a body out of place in its own time. Yet with his passing went a little of the breath of the English past, its poetry and its spirit.
Brian Cummings remembers Stephen Medcalf, legendary tutor at the University of Sussex.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More critical fantasy

Conversational Reading draws our attention to the opening paragraph of Ursula Le Guin's - sorry - Ursula K Le Guin's review of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods:
It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction. I can only suppose that Jeanette Winterson is trying to keep her credits as a "literary" writer even as she openly commits genre.
It's also odd for a reviewer to admit to such a lack of imagination. Or humour: could it be possible that Winterson is having a laugh at her own expense? Reading without humour might lead one to think in the present case that Le Guin is sublimating her own inferiority complex as a sci-fi writer by openly giving credit to Winterson for being "literary" whilst also suggesting genre is a crime. There's more:
Surely [Winterson's] noticed that everybody is writing science fiction now? Formerly deep-dyed realists are producing novels so full of the tropes and fixtures and plotlines of science fiction that only the snarling tricephalic dogs who guard the Canon of Literature can tell the difference. I certainly can't.
I wonder why she does not name one of these guard dogs? Who are they?! She does not even name one of these "formerly deep-eyed realists"! Could she mean Cormac McCarthy and his wonderful novel The Road? She claims not to be bothered by the distinction between literary and genre, but even she's not convinced.
I am bothered ... by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow-authors who created it and left it open to all who want to use it. A little return generosity would hardly come amiss.
How is ingratitude shown in the novel toward this common fund? It would be fascinating to follow such close reading. And how might such generosity toward it manifest if not through usage - a theft that is also a gift? Should Cormac McCarthy have to acknowledge the genius of Louis L'Amour? Does Winterson have to pay homage to the senior in the department? I wonder who that might be? It's frustrating not to be told. Actually, maybe Le Guin is displaying her own generosity toward the common fund of self-pitying, axe-grinding, example-free whining that frequently passes for literary criticism in the serious press.

Should I provide an example of such criticism myself? How about this from last December?

A pewterful of podcasts

I was very impressed with John Cheever's story Reunion as read by Richard Ford in the New Yorker's fiction podcast. Brevity again.

BBC Radio 4's In Our Time is back, much to my relief. After the Guardian Football Weekly, it's my favourite podcast and I've missed it over the Summer. The new series (not "season") begins with a discussion about Socrates. Next week, "antimatter". A parlour game we might enjoy is to wonder which academics would be ideal guests for shows on ideal subjects (Blanchot, Bernhard etc).

The celestial ennui

We are reaching the end of literary culture - rather as we have just about reached the end of poetry, says Nicholas Lezard.
All the better, say I, for literature.

Michael Rosen rejects such "hyperbole": Hundreds of thousands of people read, write and/or go to poetry gigs - and that's gigs of all kinds, not just poetry 'readings' but jams and slams etc.
Maybe it's just wishful thinking then.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Elsewhere

Well Left
The extent to which Malamud's devotion to his work was the cause of his limitations, rather than merely the rationalisation for them, is a question that Davis leaves open.
The FT reviews Philip Davis' superb new biography of Bernard Malamud.

I Agree Shock
The Guardian Book Blog posts entries by John Morton and Nicholas Lezard that do not annoy me in any way, including the comments. No longer am I the sole voice in the wilderness! (BTW: I want to be next year's Booker committee idiot).

Does he mean me?
Bloggers like these just may demonstrate in the long run that "thoughtful" literary criticism doesn't always have to be "long" and that the "patience" requested by certain windy critics might not really be worth the time.
Dan Green does indeed. Thanks Dan. I have time for windy critics, just not the patience.

Tuesday Top Ten
Yesterday, the Editor's Corner at The Book Depository posted my top ten genre-defying books. Regular glancers at this blog will be familiar with many of them. But here's your chance to click through and buy them at low, low prices!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Blanchot's two lives

Last Saturday I posted a web exclusive to mark the centenary of Blanchot's birth: Charlotte Mandell's translation of Jean-Luc Nancy's anniversary tribute. Perhaps you missed it. Most litbloggers did!

Anyway, today is the actual day 100 years on, and one or two have noticed. Pierre Joris has posted The space opened by Blanchot, his contribution to the 2004 memorial volume Nowhere Without No, while Spurious marks it with Common Presence: Blanchot at 100:
Communism and friendship are words Blanchot will often use in proximity to one another. Reviewing a book by his friend Dionys Mascolo in 1953, Blanchot argues that there is an alternative to the account of need and value as it is found in Marxism. Friendship, for Blanchot, suggests a way in which we might look to a future world that is not comprised of human beings who have become little more than things. We must live two lives, says Blanchot - one in which we struggle against the values that conceal the truth of our condition from us, and another wherein we live according to what we share, which Blanchot, from the late 1950s onward, will call speech.
UPDATE: And don't miss wood s lot.

Theroux the keyhole

Over the years ... he's turned out many similar books, some of them marred by his slightly sour personality.
Mmm, this is what I have enjoyed in particular about Paul Theroux's books! It's the bitterness of VS Naipaul's shadow that makes the book fascinating, despite its longueurs. Actually, it wasn't until Claire Messud's recommendation of Bernhard's The Loser that I realised how taboo it seems to be that "dislikeable characters" dominate a narrative. Even Michael Dirda succumbs to this easy route of criticism. Twenty years ago, Jonathan Raban - in his review of Theroux's best novel My Secret History - observed what really mars the work: he "has sometimes slipped into a routine professional ironising and knowingness, a magisterial garrulity, that has made him seem on his off days like a revenant Somerset Maugham."

Dirda makes the same comparison: "he's the Somerset Maugham of our time." But means it as a compliment.
Maugham was comparably disdained by critics as just an entertainer, a marketer of commercial fiction and travel journalism. Yet he wrote clearly and powerfully, and once he started telling a story, it was nearly impossible to stop turning the pages.
For such a stage, shouldn't we expect better arguments than this? One turns the pages of flip books far more quickly than any Maugham or Theroux novel, so does that mean they're unfairly disdained by literary critics? An example of such disdain would have been enough. The lack of one here suggests the disdain for commerce and entertainment is Dirda's, as it is for all those who feel the need to sublimate their inferiority complexes by writing about unnamed others' snobbery.

Again, Raban recognised the distinction between a novel as a mere time-killer and a work of literature:
[My Secret History] is a book whose sentences lead their own secret lives, where meaning is doubled and redoubled as in a hall of mirrors. Read it warily; read it twice, and more: it is darker and deeper than it looks.
PS: There are two coincidences between the two reviews. I've already mentioned Somerset Maugham. Then there's Raban report that My Secret History "is Paul Theroux's 27th book" while Dirda says that "The Elephanta Suite is his 27th work of fiction." Wow.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rechts links

Those translated excerpts from the German Book Prize shortlist that I mentioned last week have begun to appear at Sign & Sight. Unfortunately not all as yet.

In Cabinet Magazine, the extravagantly-named Leland de la Durantaye goes on a journey to Heidegger's hut at Todtnauberg, explaining many things on the way, such as the problems of translation:
Holzwege proved a disarmingly difficult title to translate, or even understand: Holz means 'wood,' and wege means 'paths.' Thus: 'Paths in the Forest' — but Holzwege are not just any paths. They are paths made not for the forest but the trees; paths for finding and carrying wood (back to your hut), not for getting from point A to B. And when you are on one, you are, proverbially, on the wrong path.
The almost-as-extravagantly-named Patrick ffrench has a fine essay at Parrhesia journal about friendship as understood by Bataille and Blanchot, two writers deeply influenced Heidegger.

Finally, Spurious has a beautiful meditation on forgetting in novels, framed by James Wood's readings of Chekhov and Virginia Woolf:
Into what are we drawn as readers? Into the self-forgetting of the novel, that sets free its central characters and all of its characters, that sets free its plot and lets wander; and finally sets free its narrative voice, that speaks only in the invisibility Mrs Ramsay has been allowed to inhabit. As though her thoughts had turned her inside out like a glove. As though there was a kind of streaming that is more than consciousness - a current that has drawn us drowning beneath the water.

Serious fiction coverage

As reports come in of a decline in the review coverage of fiction, I was astonished to learn on Wednesday night's Newsnight that fiction sales are up. This is due, it seems, to the influence of Richard & Judy's Bookclub. I was less astonished from then on. The report, which uses the interlude jazz number from KCRW's Bookworm, features veteran ghost writer Hunter Davies composing on his pre-historic Amstrad PCW9512. Ah, the memories!

Anyway, such are the boring details of commerce. What follows the report is more interesting. Back in the studio, Jeremy Paxman quizzes Martin Amis and John Banville on the future of the novel. Amis says some interesting things about the novel surviving because it's a vehicle in which one can commune with one's inner self, and how poetry has been marginalised because it stops time while the novel keeps up with history. Interesting, that is, in that Newsnight allowed such pretentious thoughts to air. Banville meanwhile rather avoids Paxman's main concern over the future of novel sales and the mythologically-concomitant desire for a dynamic plot, which suggests Paxo couldn't get his buddy Robert Harris on the show to recite the usual canard about "the literati" and the reading public.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Show me the way to the fourth circle of Hell


The Wordsworth Trust has an exhibition up in Grasmere about "the rediscovery of Dante in the Romantic period and its lasting impact on British literature and art".

If Cumbria is a little out of your way, then the Trust has produced a book on the same subject. I've seen and held a copy and it's the definition of sumptuous. Not only that, it's the best-smelling book I've sniffed in a long while.

Unfortunately, it isn't available through the usual channels so can't be added to any (albeit futile) wishlist.

Young Bernhard


An eight-minute documentary on Thomas Bernhard featuring an interview from 1967. On 6:58, Bernhard is filmed twenty-one years later outside his country home reading from the short story An der Baumgrenze (as advised in the comments. Thanks MFD!).

Definately don't loose out

Thanks to StumbleUpon, I can get the advice of the experts on all my writing concerns. For instance, to make the most of what one has written in the past, FreeCashQuest recommends bloggers Take the dust of your archive and then indeed proceeds to show "How to take the dust of your archive". If you're still unsure, the final line repeats the advice: "Take the dust of your archive; highlight your best articles and direct your visitors to them on a regular basis!".

Elsewhere, Copywriting Grab Bag offers a list of interviews where, among other things, one can learn "How To Write A Book Today ... And Be Making Money With It By Tommorrow".

A dictionary perhaps?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Maurice Blanchot by Jean-Luc Nancy

What follows is Jean-Luc Nancy's tribute to Maurice Blanchot on the 100th anniversary of his birth. My thanks go to Charlotte Mandell for providing the translation and to Espace Maurice Blanchot for its permission to post it.

The Infinite Conversation: This title - one of the most striking of all his works - we could take as an emblem of Maurice Blanchot's thinking. Not so much thinking, really, as a stance or gesture: a confidence. Above all, Blanchot has confidence in the possibility of the conversation. What is undertaken in the conversation (with another, with oneself, with the very pursuit of conversation) is the ever-renewed relationship of speech to the infinity of meaning that shapes its truth.

Writing (literature) names this relationship. It does not transcribe a testimony, it does not invent a fiction, it does not deliver a message: it traces the infinite journey of meaning as it absents itself. This absenting is not negative; it shapes the chance and challenge of meaning itself. "To write" means continuously to approach the limit of speech, the limit that speech alone designates, whose designation makes us (speakers) unlimited.

Blanchot was able in this way to recognize the event of modernity: the evaporation of worlds-beyond and, with them, of any secure division between "literature" and experience or truth. He reopens in writing the task of giving a voice to the part of the self that remains silent.

To give such a voice is "to keep watch over absent meaning." Attentive, careful, affectionate vigilance. It wants to take care of these reserves of absence through which truth is given: the experience within us of the infinite outside us.

This experience is possible and necessary when sacred scriptures with their hermeneutics of existence are shut. Literature - or writing - begins with the closing of those books. But literature does not constitute a profane theology. It challenges any theology as well as any atheism: any establishment of a Meaning. "Absence" here is nothing but a movement: an absenting. It's the constant passage to the infinity of all speech. "The prodigious absent, absent from me and from everything, absent also for me" that Thomas the Obscure speaks of is not a being or an authority but the continuous shift of myself outside myself, by means of which there comes, although always pending, the "pure feeling of his existence."

This existence is not life as unmediated fondness for, and perpetuation of, self, nor is it its death. But the "dying" of which Blanchot speaks - and which is not at all to be confused with the cessation of living, but which on the contrary is the living or "sur-viving" named by Derrida so close to Blanchot - shapes the movement of the incessant approach to absenting as true meaning, annulling in it any trace of nihilism.

That is the movement that by being written can "give to nothing, in its form of nothing, the form of something."

Jean-Luc Nancy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and author, most recently, of Listening, also translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Wednesday links

Sign & Sight takes a welcome break from Islam-bashing to report the shortlist for the 2007 German Book Prize. English translations of the first pages of each shortlisted title will appear on Sign & Sight next week, which is nice. In the meantime, we're told that Thomas Glavinic's Das bin doch ich features a writer who "has a nice friend who's written a novel, 'Measuring the World' with sales figures that make [the] author's mother shriek: 'When are you going to write something like that?'" Now I wonder who that could be?

On Monday I mentioned that the centenary of Blanchot's birth lacked an English dimension. It still does. But here's Jean-Luc Nancy with his contribution to the French commemoration, which includes the lines:
[L'écriture/la littérature] ne transcrit pas un témoignage, elle n'invente pas une fiction, elle ne délivre pas un message: elle trace le parcours infini du sens en tant qu'il s'absente.
Google Translate has this as: "[Writing/Literature] does not transcribe a testimony, it does not invent a fiction, it does not deliver a message: it traces the infinite course of the direction as it goes away." Ooh yesh. But can anyone come with a better final line?

The Fall edition of The Quarterly Conversation is out. Good to see Goldberg: Variations and Remainder receiving more serious attention.

And finally, in more translation news, Robert Alter discusses his new translation of the Book of Psalms, and Pierre Joris reports a new translation of The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa.

Tense beginnings

Sandra of BookWorld draws my attention to Susan Hill's Creative Writing Course, run from her popular blog. Hill warns readers who might take part that she is "the Simon Cowell of the Aspiring Writers' world", which presumably isn't intended to mean she knows nothing about art and everything about marketing. Anyway, the first part is harmless enough and involves identifying opening paragraphs of novels that "urge [you] either to read on immediately or to shove the book back on the shelf". It's a good start.

As I've mentioned before, I'm drawn to reading about Creative Writing courses, not only because I'm keen to look everywhere for the way forward with writing but also because, as that link attests, I'd probably be very negative and alienate my previously enthusiastic colleagues. It would be another act of literary self-definition. The only creative writing course I have taken, however, is my own. And I'm more Morbo than Simon Cowell.

But going back to the question of novel openings. Sandra makes it clear from her own search that there is no guarantee of reading-on in either a slow-burner or a meteorite. So it must be something else, something more fundamental. And that reminds me of an essay in The Singer on the Shore in which Josipovici quotes Proust on his own unexpected reactions in reading:
I have to admit that a certain use of the imperfect indicative – that cruel tense which portrays life to us as something at once ephemeral and passive, which, in the very act of retracing our actions, reduces them to an illusion, annihilating them in the past without leaving us, unlike the perfect tense, with the consolation of activity – has remained for me an inexhaustible source of mysterious sadness. Still today I can have been thinking calmly about death for hours; I need only open a volume of Sainte-Beuve's Lundis and light, for example, on this sentence of Lamartine's (it concerns Mme d'Albany): 'Nothing about her at that time recalled … She was a small woman…etc.' to feel myself at once invaded by a profound melancholy. (from On Reading)
"The use of a tense in a book" Josipovici explains "or of a preposition or conjunction, seems to force upon us truths we had hitherto protected ourselves from, or which we could never have experienced if left to our own thoughts."

Hence Proust's defence in the same volume of the significance of Flaubert's style. His use of "the passé défini, of the passé indéfini, of the present participle, of certain pronouns and prepositions ... renewed our vision of things almost as much as Kant, with his categories and his theories of knowledge and the reality of the external world."

Yes, reading others is a good start.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday links

Lee Rourke reviews Tom "Remainder" McCarthy's second novel and also my current reading Men In Space.

This coming weekend Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson has This Feeling of Exaltation, an open series of poetry readings, panel discussions and music celebrating the 80th birthday of John Ashbery.

The Existence Machine responds, in part, to my essay on The Frank Bascombe Trilogy.

Joan Acocella reviews the final volume of the Hollanders' superb translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (link via). I've already added this to my Wishlist along with the next item.

The 27th of this month (or the 22nd) marks the centenary of the birth of Maurice Blanchot. The single event in English that comes close to coinciding (though it's scheduled for November) is the publication of Blanchot's Epoch, a collection of essays edited by top UK Blanchot scholars Michael Holland and Leslie Hill. The title suggests Blanchot's time is over, but the book description says otherwise:
The twentieth century ... may be thought to have been Blanchot's epoch. As he himself was aware, however, no epoch is properly contemporary with itself. If he speaks of his own age from a place firmly embedded in the struggles and transformations which marked it, therefore, he also writes from a place which exceeds the confines of that epoch, and where history in the received sense gives way to a totally different mode of time.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Irony, or the shelter of a lie

With his customary pluck, Ed Champion combats the disdain attached to irony as a literary device: It "may be a helpful tool to the contrarian thought process, but it is apparently the stuff of tots. Basic human skepticism and healthy chicanery are now beneath the current elite." He goes on to criticise various critics for dismissing those big American novels which make us all so unhappy (especially if one hasn't read them).
The critical establishment has no desire to give itself a swift kick in the ass, much less exhibit the kind of playfulness and inclusive expertise that makes for good criticism. If the critical establishment cannot effect these qualities, then it deserves to die a lumbering and painful death. This monster has only itself to blame for ignoring so many passionate qualities.
Of course, the predicted death will not happen because rigor mortis already constitutes the majority of establishment reviewing practise. (By the way, I plead guilty to not having read what Ed calls Ozick's "criminally underread" essay, so if anyone's got a copy they can forward, please do).

Still, I think scepticism over irony is not entirely ill-placed. A useful definition of irony as a device and irony as an affliction is provided in Joakim Garff's biography of Kierkegaard. Garff doubts the latter form of irony - "an arrow of pain ... lodged in my heart" - that Kierkegaard claims to have had since his earliest childhood is the same irony as performed in his books.
A child may be satisfied with employing a bit of irony, with pretending, with crawling into the shelter of a lie, with using language in a manner different from what other people think. In this case one says something other than what one means, or one means something other than what one has said. This is irony. And it is good to have it at the ready when other people abandon us, which of course they do. Sooner or later. (Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse)
Later in his life, Garff says that through his study of the German Romantics, Kierkegaard "inhaled irony's urbane ether" and "during the calamitous course of his engagement [to Regine Olsen] he developed [it] into a sort of desperate perfection", as demonstrated in a journal entry of 1848 alluding to the engagement:
A wishing, hoping, searching individual can never be ironical. Irony (as constitutive of an entire existence) consists of the exact opposite, of situating one's pain at the precise point where others situate their desire. The inability to possess one's beloved is never irony. But the ability to possess her all too easily, so that she begs and pleads to become one's own - and then to be able to unable to possess her. That is irony.
Garff continues (I won't use the word "glosses" as I dislike it as much as "normative" and "trope"):
Irony is thus something more and something different than a spirited turn of phrase for the delight of one's dinner partner. Irony is (also) an intellectual distance from others, from the world, and from oneself, a prerequisite for being able to die away. And as such, irony is an extremely sophisticated but also a very risky maneuver that can place the ironist in a life-threatening condition.
Those large American novels are, almost by virtue of their size and ambition, "wishing, hoping, searching". Certainly all three are prominent in the passion they generate in readers and potential readers - why else would they care? And they don't "die away" either. So how are they ironic? Perhaps the ability to write such novels is itself not ironic. There are so many! But their inability to become what we want them to be - despite or because of the attentions of critics - maybe that is.

Everyone and nothing

According to the BBC, "Actors including Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance have lauched a debate over who really wrote the works of William Shakespeare".
The 287-strong Shakespeare Authorship Coalition says it is not possible that the bard's plays ... could have been penned by a 16th Century commoner raised in an illiterate household.
Elsewhere it is also being asked how it is possible that the combined intelligence and talent of so many people can produce such small-minded irrelevancies.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Dirty but clean

A few weeks ago, the TLS ran a review by Edward Luttwak of The Reagan Diaries and, like Antonio Cazorla-Sanchez, I was appalled and completely unsurprised that his administration's policies in Central America - the euphemistic 'dirty wars' - were not mentioned. Cazorla-Sanchez wrote to the paper to wonder if "30,000 people killed in Nicaragua alone were not important enough" to merit a mention. This week, with his familiar insouciance, Luttwak replies:
My ... review certainly did refer to Central America: "Until I sat with him and a few others serving on the transition team to discuss the El Salvador war in detail and depth, I too half believed the stories" (about Reagan's incompetence). But that was certainly not a 'dirty' war. It was a very clean war indeed in which I am proud to have played a small part, by helping villagers defend themselves against guerrillas who refused to take part in elections, and instead attempted to impose a Cuban-style Communist dictatorship by force of arms. When they were defeated by the US-trained Salvadorean army and by village militias, they did participate in general elections and were soundly beaten. By then everyone knew that the Sandinistas of Nicaragua were predators and that Cuban Communism was a miserable failure.
The concentration of euphemising code here is breathtaking. The murder of 30,000 Nicaraguans by US-trained terrorists disappears behind a blithe 'by then'. And it's odd how Cuban Communism's 'failure' is clear to him at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, yet not to his powerful buddies who still insist on a crippling embargo. To them, Cuba's survival and progressive social programs appear to be an irritating success, just like Afghanistan in the 80s, whose unacceptable human rights record was an irrelevance when it was resisting the attentions of its nearest superpower. But that too is another euphemism: 'miserable failure' means 'does not allow investment opportunities'.

But back to that clean war. Another US-based scholar gives an insight to US training of Luttwak's heroic liberating armies:
In the 'fledgling democracy' that was El Salvador, teenagers as young as 13 were scooped up in sweeps of slums and refugee camps and forced to become soldiers. They were indoctrinated with rituals adopted from the Nazi SS, including brutalization and rape, to prepare them for killings that often have sexual and satanic overtones. According to [a] deserter, draftees were made to kill dogs and vultures by biting their throats and twisting off their heads, and had to watch as soldiers tortured and killed suspected dissidents - tearing out their fingernails, cutting off their heads, chopping their bodies to pieces and playing with the dismembered arms for fun.
Of course, this is not part of Luttwak's clean war itself, so how did it get on 'in the real world'?:
The results of Salvadoran military training are graphically described in the Jesuit journal America by Daniel Santiago, a Catholic priest working in El Salvador. He tells of a peasant woman who returned home one day to find her three children, her mother and her sister sitting around a table, each with its own decapitated head placed carefully on the table in front of the body, the hands arranged on top "as if each body was stroking its own head".
Not only clean, but tidy!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Literature as experience

"How can you write about life if you haven't even lived it?" asks Joseph Ridgwell.

Rather, how can you begin to write if life hasn't failed?

Writing is not about life. Writing is about the experience of distance from life, the stuff of anecdotes. In that way, writing is life.

Mi libro del año

With all the fuss about other Spanish and Spanish-speaking novelists, I want to shout the name of Enrique Vila-Matas above the din. Montano's Malady is my novel of the year so far and Words without Borders has a new review:
Vila-Matas follows, sometimes quite literally, in the footsteps of authors as various as Cervantes, Montaigne, and Musil in a bi-continental search for the purpose of literature in a shifting world that seems evermore to question the need for literature. [...] [The narrator] attempts to commune with the writers who have inspired his battle "against the enemies of the literary" and reconcile his dreams for literature with the competing limitations of his own mundane life as a writer and husband.. [...] Montano's Malady is a touching and perhaps hopeful inquiry into what it means to be a reader, or writer, in an increasingly unliterary world.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Our desperate friend

The Editor's Corner at The Book Depository makes a good point about the recent survey that found "almost 10% of Britons aspire to being an author". No, Mr Ed points out, most of that 10% want to be JK Rowling, which is something else.

Even so, many do still wish to become authors, even if it means working "very hard for very little recognition and for precious little money". Creation is its own reward (apparently). With this fresh in mind, I began to read Enrique Vila-Matas' novel Montano's Malady (I refuse to link to the English edition and its cretinously truncated title). It's about a man who is literature-sick. Every situation in his life is immediately related to a memory of literature. Someone, he decides, looks like Robert Walser, which reminds him of that WG Sebald said Robert Walser looked like his grandfather and died in the same way, walking in the mountains, and so on. (Vila-Matas reminds me, incidentally, of a comic WG Sebald, if you can imagine such a thing). The narrator introduces his son, Montano, whose malady is the inability to write any further. The struggle with literature-sickness and Montano's Malady maintains the book's energy and, as Three Per Cent's review says, is also a sort of manifesto for a renewal of literature against its enemies (aka "Pico's moles").

The great thing about the novel is that it's both very light on the surface yet also profound, moving and inspiring. No way is it "heavy stuff" as one mooing reviewer claimed. It's an ideal, unputdownable, thumping-good-read for that ambitious 10%. They can see their situation portrayed in a novel. Not being able to go on is, after all, a vital part of life.
I'm going to go to the kitchen to have a yogurt; I shall be accompanied by the desperate friend who always goes with me, that friend who is myself and who, so as not to fall into the clutches of cursed despair, writes this diary, this story of a soul trying to save itself by helping the survival of literature, this story of a soul no sooner strong and steady than it succumbs to depression, in order then, laboriously, to get back on its feet, to readjust through work and intelligence, constantly battling with Pico's moles.

Catch up

Only 48 hours without an internet connection and it's like I've been lost up the Orinoco (or the Ouse in my case). So here's a catch up:

Claire Messud makes a surprise recommendation of The Loser by the "crabby, darkly witty, furiously bleak and utterly uncompromising Thomas Bernhard". (Dispatches from Zembla also picked up on this and links to my scan of Mr Claire Messud's review from 1992). The novel, she writes:
puts us inside the head of a coldly embittered man, who aspired to be a great pianist — until he heard Glenn Gould play, and realized he could never be as good. It is, you see, about being talented, and still being a loser.
Well, if I were being picky, I'd want to emphasise that the narrator's failure is apparent only in his success as the narrator, which gives hope to all us other losers. It's the way to go. (Link via the Bernhard site, which also offers a recent review of the novel by Gould expert Kevin Bazzana).

By the way, I say it's a surprise recommendation because, from reading about Messud's novels, I wouldn't imagine them influenced in any way by Bernhard. I had hoped if more English-speaking novelists "got" his work, they would never write such novels again. Hope?, Bernhard?!

Elsewhere, Charlotte Stretch reviews Benoît Duteurtre's The Little Girl and the Cigarette, which I know nothing more about except that he comes recommended by Milan Kundera and that the novel is translated by Charlotte Mandell, a recommendation in itself. The novel is published over here by Telegram Books "bringing new writing from around the world" and by Melville House in the US.

An apparently much smaller outfit, Inkermen Press, has recently published Daniel Watt's intriguing Fragmentary Futures: Blanchot, Beckett, Coetzee. I appreciate the way this book draws in a living writer to argue "the legacy of the fragment remains as much a responsibility for modern literature as for the event of the German Romantic fragment":
The work of Coetzee demonstrates the fragment's relation to Levinasian ethics, inviting a responsiveness to the 'other': a situation that maintains the singularity of the work without reducing it to particular critical positions.

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