Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

After nature


Barbaric Document offers many more images of this writer's grave.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods

The second chapter of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods is called Easter Island, after the island in the Pacific now known as Rapanui. Like Jennifer Vanderbes' 2003 feminist romance Easter Island, it uses the island's devastating history as part of a larger story. For both it is a microcosm of the Earth in the time of the humans. The story is well known: Easter Island had sustained a population of many thousands at least until the late 18th Century when Captain Cook's Resolution arrived to find a barren, inhospitable land with a ragged population "few in number". What had happened? The Stone Gods suggests an answer by using the famous stone statues – the moai – as a metaphor of global industry. On her website, Winterson spells it out: "There is no environmental explanation, only a human one, chiefly the pointless obsession with carving stone gods… but read the story for yourself."

Reading the story as Winterson has framed it enables us to understand that Easter Island is a lasting presence rather than an isolated case. What happened to the island will happen to us; or rather, is happening to us. Just as deforestation ended Easter Island's moai-building culture (timber was almost certainly used to move the statues from the quarries) and eroded the nutrient-rich soil, so our "pointless obsession" with economic growth will, if we fail to act on the signs, lead to a destitute time.

Although there's no evidence that Easter Island's decline occurred so dramatically, in The Stone Gods the women try to stop the men from cutting down the final tree. Of course, they fail. The novel's four chapters - all different yet interlinked - might be a more sophisticated, if equally vain, attempt to prevent an identical fate. It is aware of its likely reception. Billie, the main character, finds an old manuscript on the London Underground (the Circle Line). It's called The Stone Gods. She examines it: "A love story, that's what it is - maybe about aliens. I hate science fiction." Later, she hands it to her robot friend Spike to read:
"What's it about?"
"A repeating world."
Yes – a world that carries on regardless unable to see the implications of its actions even as the implications loom like moai on the horizon. She thinks it is an entertainment; the truth becomes "science fiction".

After reading The Stone Gods, Ursula Le Guin's review – which I referred to at the time of publication – appears even more cranky.
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.
This is doubly wrong: one character says it once. And, if my reading is fair, it's also a joke resonating with the theme of disastrous repetition. How many times will we turn exigency into a genre? One can only suppose Ursula Le Guin is pursuing her own pointless obsession. It isn't the first time she has made bizarre critical claims.

Winterson diverts from the record too, with more interesting results. The nineteen-page chapter compresses and distorts Easter Island's real history. Cook's party did injure an islander but did not kill him. Nor did Resolution sail away immediately after. Not one row of moai on the coast stares out to sea; they all look inland and, contrary to what Billie observes, the plinths on which they stand do not contain wood. Also, after Cook had sailed, islanders are seen to be toppling moai, suggesting a loss of faith. However, such destruction occurred between the arrival of the Dutch on Easter Day 1722 and Cook in 1774. Very few moai were left standing by the time Cook popped by. In a cave, Billie is introduced to Rongorongo tablets displaying a written script though this was not reported by visitors until almost a century later. Of course, such non-false errors reveal only the value of the imagination.

Later some moai's "unseeing eyes" are said to be fixed on the interior of the island yet, if they had not been toppled, it is very likely they would have had eyes of white coral with painted irises and pupils. I admit that this example is particularly unfair. Even when painted, we know they could not see anything; "unseeing" is not wrong. Yet still, the viewer has to make the intellectual leap to deny the illusion. And it's this uncertain space between instinct and intellect where the gaze of the moai becomes uncanny, even when the eyes are blank grey basalt; perhaps even more so. But the uncanny is a genre also. Where does it leave us?
It is as if, here, everything signifies some other thing: the Bird, the Egg, the flag, the writing, the winning, the winner, the Stone Gods, even the island, even the world are symbols for what they are not.
Face to face with a universe of symbols, we await some other thing; something that is not. The inexpressive eyes of the moai make it felt but never allow us to see. Perhaps this is why they were toppled. It was an attempt to bring an end to the imagination. Now, in the civilisation of the book, they have been raised again.

See also my review of Easter Island: The Great Taboo by Nicolas Cauwe.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Belben the explorer

I hope Rosalind Belben's long-overdue success in the James Tait Memorial Prize for Our Horses in Egypt encourages an enterprising publisher to reissue her remarkable earlier novels Dreaming of Dead People (1979) and Is Beauty Good (1989). In her review of both, Maggie Gee wrote that Belben:
has written pages about sexual desire, frustration and loss which are clearer and more compelling than any I can think of in literature. She has a photographic eye for natural beauty, and is also tough-minded and funny.
So why, she then asks, is Belben so little known? The unfortunate answer is provided: "Because she is an experimental writer".
In Britain today the body of experimental writing is even slimmer than it was 20 years ago. It is perhaps British empiricism, our commonsense regard for the plain truth, that makes us distrustful of it. But this prejudice cannot with any fairness operate against Rosalind Belben, for her pages, bare of euphemism and conventional narrative seduction, are truthfulness itself.
Twenty further years on, the body is healthy (from the New Labour lexicon, one might say it is "robust") yet, from the perspective of major literary prizes, invisible. So one has to wonder why then, as a judge on the 1989 Booker Prize, Maggie Gee chose to operate against "truthfulness itself" by not insisting on the inclusion of Is Beauty Good on the shortlist.

Another review of the same two books, by Linda Brandon, describes Belben instead as "an explorer". Isn't this is a much better, more appropriate word? "Belben's prose, like the gardens she prefers, is unpruned and 'crammed with oddities'; but her landscape is shaped by a musical sense of form, each voice tuned to its own harmony."
There are passages so powerfully evocative of the natural world, and its destruction, that the question 'Is beauty good?' is made concrete and urgent. 'Better never to have known it', says one of the voices, 'if that was what beauty was, to have to hanker after it. I wonder if senility is like that, suffering glimpses.' In her work Belben gives us glimpses of such beauty that one can only choose, like her, to celebrate life.
For more, see RSB's interview from last year.

a quiet time

Last night as I lay sleepless and let everything continually veer back and forth between my aching temples, what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me; namely, on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and, heedless of my stammering, destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life?
Kafka, in a letter to Max Brod, July 1922.
By this I don't mean, of course, that my life is better when I don't write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness. But that, granted, only follows from the postulate that I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness. But what about being a writer itself? Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lost in the Mailer

Norman Mailer once wrote of Samuel Beckett that, as "he never enters a situation where any of his people might try to break out of whatever trap they are in", his work is "obsessive rather than haunting".
This is how Stephen Abell begins his review of Paul Auster's Man in the Dark. Mailer is right of course; not one of Beckett's characters kills themselves. I mean, in what other traps are his characters other than the eternity of stories? "His people" go on; they have to. Beckett's fiction explores the "obsessive" state we might call life (whatever trap that is) which, in writing, never dies. However, in life there is one way, apart from suicide, of breaking out: by writing. But this would mean including in one's writing an awareness of the trap into which one is falling; otherwise it would be a false escape. Sidney Orr in Oracle Night writes this conundrum into the story within the novel. To deny it is perhaps a symptom of a condition from which Mailer suffered badly: optimism.

Abell also uses Mailer's wrongheadness to frame his review of Auster
whose fiction has seemed resolutely to obsess about recurrent problems with little hope of resolving them: coincidence; indigence; and – most commonly – the troublesome act of writing itself.
A summary that is fair enough, except that he seems to think that the latter problem defines the work as "postmodern". He argues that there's an additional problem for readers "when the process neglects to be relevant to ... outside existences".
If postmodernism is a jail freely entered, the writer must ensure that he always looks out as well as in. When Auster writes only about writing, he removes his relation to the outside world.
Well, apart from the fact that writing (about anything) is part of "outside existences" too, "looking out as well as in" is how I'd define modernism. Writing about the process or experience of writing in itself signals nothing except an author's willingness not to exclude elements of life from his or her work considered taboo by others. Whether it is a justified use depends on the individual work.

The good news is that Abell reckons Auster includes the dual vision in the new novel (even if such things are determined less by an author's agency - suggested by "ensure" in the quotation above - than by the inspiration of the work): "It is a piece of work that is artistically life-affirming; it is postmodernism, for once, with a pulse." Postmodernism, that is, that isn't postmodernism.

I'm sure it is accepted in polite society that "outside existences" haunt writing just as the whiteness of a page haunts black ink. Yet writing also haunts the outside. Auster's inclusion in his fiction of this relentless mutuality makes him one of the few US American novelists still worth reading.

PS: Auster is the guest on the latest Bat Segundo show.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Stroker? Kafka's "porn" stash

What more can be said about the revelation that Kafka owned some erotica except: please, no more? Anyone familiar with his work and with the secondary literature won't be in the least bit surprised. Even if you've read only Metamorphosis, the magazine image that Gregor Samsa had framed for display showing "a lady, with a fur hat on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished" is enough to suggest a unusually stimulated imagination. But there's much more. So why has the British media used the find to misrepresent Kafka with the same shameless inattention to reality as it has with recent events in Georgia?

Dalya Alberge claims without evidence that the erotic material has been "studiously ignored by scholars anxious to preserve the iconic writer's saintly image" and Hawes himself says "while academics pored over every postcard or diary entry written by the writer, the graphic collection of pictures was virtually unknown." The poring over every postcard and diary entry might be due to them containing words written by the writer. If we're making literary and biographical assumptions based on mere ownership, can we assume that the presence in Kafka's library of an edition of Dante's Göttliche Komödie means he was a closet Catholic with an interest in cruel and unusual torture or that he was, like Dante, concerned to find salvation in an eternity enveloped by divine light? Have scholars "studiously ignored" Dante's place in his library to preserve the writer's image as a secular jew, or is it because it provides only anecdotal evidence of influence? A scholar might see a connection between the bespoke fates of the damned in Inferno with Samsa's transformation, but that is quite different from assuming Kafka had an S&M fetish. No wonder German experts are appalled at Hawes' claims.

The media reaction is something the author and his publishers must have banked on. They will have known it would be lapped up by the British reading public. It's an ideal opportunity for them to sublimate their philistinism further and to disguise their assumptions about Kafka and Kafka scholarship as commonsense knowingness. Kevin of Lincoln reacts to the story with these impressive thoughts:
Kafka wrote a load of overrated cobblers. That he was one of the worlds first porno pervs just shows how the academic world of literature is led by the emporers new clothes. It is about time someone dismantled all these great early icons of literature & show'd them to be all human beings not gods. [sic]
It is time indeed, just as it's about time Kevin stopped giving the impression that Lincoln is populated by illiterate philistines. While he's doing that, maybe he can have a word with Obooki over the garden fence.

I exclude Nicholas Lezard from all this as he is mercifully unfazed by the “news”. It's the array of assumption displayed in the comments to his blog that need to be addressed. However, the title of his post - "Kafka's guilty pleasures" (not necessarily chosen by the author) - repeats the Guardian's lazy standby usually employed when referring to the consumption of chick lit. By assuming Kafka felt not only guilt but pleasure too, it reveals what it really thinks about the relation between reader and work. As well as the Dante edition, Kafka also owned many books by Knut Hamsun. Was Kafka an incipient admirer of Hitler too then?

The assumptions keep coming: Gaviero informs us that Kafka "was a weedy, socially awkward loner with no talent for attracting women”. From where did he or she get this image? Certainly not from Mark Anderson's Kafka's Clothes which outs Kafka as a bit of a dandy concerned with his appearance as much as any metrosexual, or from Dora Diamant's account of her first meeting with the man she would eventually live with in which Kafka comes across as a matinee idol; tall, handsome and charming.

James Walton makes an interesting point in his review of Excavating Kafka. Nowhere does Hawes mention the "similar arguments" put forward in Milan Kundera's essay In the Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (collected in Testaments Betrayed). Among other things, the essay summarises the presentation of sex in Kafka's novels, such as the "exuberant delight" of Brunelda in Amerika and the "act of love ... among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor" between K and Frieda in The Castle. Kundera was keen to retrieve Kafka from the saintly image portrayed by Max Brod (though this had started in the 1930s with essays by Walter Benjamin) and to distinguish Kafka from earlier writers like Dickens and Gogol despite superficial likenesses:
Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex ... as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone's life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.
I first read this in the TLS in 1991 and it has been in book form since 1995. Perhaps James Hawes has been too busy poring over postcards and diaries to notice.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

John Berger's From A to X

The problem is in the deep phoniness of the whole conception: its gross sentimentality (all faceless oppressors and noble peasants); its intoxication with its own portentousness.
Sam Leith's review of John Berger's Man Booker Prize longlisted From A to X - the first I've seen - comes as a relief. In the time since reading the novel, I've wondered if I had missed something. Even if the source of his antagonism is the Telegraph's fusty politics, Leith's final line, reminiscent of an impatient blogger, is not unfair. So why on earth has the prize committee chosen this very unsatisfying novel for the longlist? Is it for political or literary reasons?

In the past I've been asked if my own antagonism towards Ian McEwan's fiction is due to one rather than the other but, despite wishing to explain more fully how in this case they're inseparable, I've been unable to swim in the dead sea of Establishment Literary Fiction. However, you won't find Berger dining with Laura Bush at 10 Downing Street. His political commitment is appreciated by Arundhati Roy and Harold Pinter. And, unlike McEwan's stiflingly formal approach, From A to X takes a relatively challenging form, refusing the gifts of elaborate scene setting, characterisation and plot. Perhaps against expectations, this refusal is what makes the novel so easy to read.

The bulk of the book is a collection of short letters to Xavier, a life-term prisoner, from A'ida, his partner on the outside. We're able to read them because, as “J.B.” informs us in the foreword, they were discovered in an otherwise empty cell in a condemned prison. The personal nature of the letters means readers feel at home despite the hasty exit of the hand-holding reporter. An illicit quality to the reading experience remains even after he has, as it were, given permission to read. But there's also an aura of mystery because, as A'ida can assume Xavier's knowledge of family and friends, work and politics, we cannot place them with a definite political arena. We are compelled to withhold judgement as we await a deeper understanding and engagement. For these reasons, each reader becomes a witness to an intimate fortitude and thereby sympathise with A'ida's hopes and fears. However, this has the downside of placing extra pressure on the quality of the letters. Unfortunately, what they lack in a fully-fleshed background, they make up for in weightless anecdotes and vague folk wisdom.

A'ida's first letter opens with a question about her last parcel before moving on swiftly to an evocation of the bucolic ambience of her freedom: a blue sky, a braying donkey, “the rustling noise of a shovel turning cement”. She even adds a postscript about a chameleon climbing down a tree:
They way they can twist their pelvises - their very small pelvises have iliac crests like ours but they swivel differently on the backbone - is comic and handy. They can plant their weight, at the same moment, on a vertical wall and horizontal floor! For negotiating certain difficulties we might learn from them, don't you think?
This might be forgiven as a nervous, formal start; perhaps A'ida is unused to writing letters. But this is unlikely for a pharmacist and for someone who uses words like “iliac” and fussily precise adjectives such as “comic and handy”. And the book goes on like this. A'ida begins a letter with another question: “Remember the three pickled snakes in jars in the shop window of the pharmacy?”. The answer is in no doubt because we're soon given more unnecessary detail: “A grass snake, an aspic adder and an adder with a wider mouth.” Another anecdote demonstrating their people's inexhaustible virtue follows. The reader's faith is broken as sweet pity becomes saccharine.

The lack of distance between the qualities and the problems of From A to X suggests a certain amount of authorial trust in the choice of the epistolary form. The explicitly-flagged nobility of these activists against state power must be gained through an equivalent trust from readers; by allowing another to speak without interruption or a given frame, even if it is not a speaking to us. Rational discourse is set aside. Otherness is irreducible even in the free space of the imagination. But here, if the demand for trust is indeed the intention, Berger is asking for too much of the form. The letters comprising Antonio Tabucchi's It's Getting Later All the Time develop a similar aura of smugness around the regular use of the rhetorical "Do you remember...?". The more precarious device Tabucchi uses in his wonderful Declares Pereira (the title-switch here is deliberate by the way) might confirm this. Perhaps aware of the danger, between A'ida's interminable letters Berger scatters notes made by Xavier. These consist of political facts, dreams, anecdotes, quotations and more folk wisdom. In the final note Xavier remarks on the similarity of precariousness of their situation twenty years before and the precariousness of the situation now: "this is strangely reassuring in face of what we are up against today, for it suggests precariousness is our strength." This is perhaps also this fiction's futile hope.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dante, Proust and Blanchot: more links!

A TV Dante
Ubuweb presents Peter Greenaway's and Tom Phillips' A TV Dante from those special early years of Channel 4. It features Bob Peck as Dante and John Gielgud as Virgil, with commentary along the way from Tom Phillips himself and, er, David Attenborough.

Untranslated Proust
Until now that is! The Lemoine Affair is a novella made up of Proust's pastiches of famous French writers published as part of Melville House Books' Art of the Novella series.

Translated: Sollers on Blanchot
In the previous post, I linked to Philippe Sollers' review of Blanchot's political writings. Now it's available in English courtesy of Maitresse. Interesting perhaps for the anecdotes it contains and - something one doesn't see often in relation to such a restrained writer - the violence of its journalistic summaries.

UPDATE: Two things have been pointed out to me by someone who read Sollers more closely. Sollers says: Blanchot speaks of "Comrade Castro", but does not seem to perceive the existence of Solzhenitsyn. But of course there are many references to the Gulag in The Writing of the Disaster. And then: let us not [forget?] that Freud is a glaring missing element in this apocalyptic vision. Perhaps he forgot that there's a major essay on Freud in The Infinite Conversation as well as allusions in The Writing of the Disaster, specifically the passages beginning: 'A Primal Scene ?'.

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