Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bathysphere

The Warwick Prize for Writing shortlist was announced last week. On the dedicated site you can see footage from the event and interviews with three of the five judges. I'm pleased that Montano's Malady is there to represent the absence of fiction.

I would have also welcomed Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places on to the shortlist. While it probably doesn't well enough fit the prize's theme of Complexity, for me it addresses the same question posed by Vila-Matas' epigraph: What will we do to disappear?


There are also personal reasons. My own disappearances into the Sussex countryside were frequent until last January. A couple of weeks after I snapped this photo, and about a mile further down the same road, my bike was hit by a car. I was more fortunate than the fox I saw minutes before straddling the white line, one side of its body plump golden brown, the other flat mush. As I pedalled into the black future, I wondered about the fox's dream-like existence before it dashed across the tarmac; then death so fast.

I cannot cycle anymore but I can't forget the release of those hours on the back roads. No, the South Downs are not wilderness and I don't know whether I felt anything more than happy forgetfulness, but I did approach a certain distance from human time which is close to wilderness and also to what is given in writing. It might be why I am drawn to both.

Part of the success of The Wild Places is its resourcefulness in finding words for the elemental remove of the non-human world. On the Welsh island of Ynys Enlli, Macfarlane pauses to watch two seals "hauled out on the rocks". When he moves closer, "they began to toil off their perches" and later "sculled past ... gazing at me". While this seems to channel the prose of Seamus Heaney, it does so in order to attend to a unique experience. However, it is a particularly human experience, one charged with agency by the richness of the verbs. For a moment, the reader is there, and grateful to be so too. Yet this also troubles me. Isn't it really the experience not of watching seals in Wales but of Macfarlane remembering, working hard in his study to make the experience more than itself? If so, what would that mean for our sense of being there and, perhaps more significantly, for our own unique experiences to come?

Six years ago, Macfarlane criticised Peter Carey's novel My Life as a Fake for its "exhausting reflexivity". "The job of fiction" he wrote "must not be to give an account of its own workings"; instead "[t]he novel’s special mandate is to investigate the human". My response then (on the deleted In Writing blog) is the same now: why separate the workings of the novel from "the human"? Macfarlane perhaps provides an answer in the same review by praising Carey's Dickensian misstep Oscar & Lucinda in which the author's intelligence "acted as a powerful magnet held invisibly beneath the page, pulling [the novel's] myriad stories into meaningful patterns". No wonder he think this is "by far his best book"; authorial mastery is withdrawn under a beautiful blanket of denial. The withdrawal is there - and we know it - but it is inadmissible.

Nowadays, instead of country paths and narrow mud-streaked roads, I trace the edge of the sea as it laps against pebbles and sea walls. Like Hawaiian priests in a sacred procession, I walk with the land on my right, the sea on the left. For them, the land represents life, the sea, death. But then I turn around and go in the opposite direction.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Words and music on Burns' 250th birthday



Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best:

There's wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
But day and night my fancys' flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:

There's not a bonie flower that springs,
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Look homeward, angles

This website invites artists of all disciplines ... to respond in some way to the text of The Next Village. Their responses may take any form, and of course, they may not respond at all.
The Next Village is a very short story by Kafka; short enough to be reproduced here, though I won't. Keith Ridgway's site has contributions from other notable writers such as Hugo Hamilton and Lawrence Norfolk (the first half of whose novel In the Shape of a Boar is like nothing I've read before or since) as well as Rhys Tranter, from whose excellent blog A Piece of Monologue this information comes.

My own, uncalled-for response is merely to read and re-read the story itself, which now, I realise, has led me to the next village anyway.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The blue of the sky is what best expresses the sky's emptiness"

Part of the fun and annoyance of blogging is that it is a distraction from one's primary work. The deadlined review, the in-depth critical essay, the twenty-eighth fucking draft of the novel are each set aside in order to follow a sudden urge to comment, the futile wish to redirect the juggernaut of communal misconception. Of course, blogging soon usurps all. In an ironic comment on one's literary hopes, each form pales and becomes the Platonic ideal of literary creativity: the invisible review, the paradigm-displacing essay, the elemental expression of being. The blogger is here at one with his critics who see online writing as a form of vanity publishing parasitical on the real thing, even if before, as the reviews and essays progressed away from their objects, and as the novel shed its inspiration, he wondered: where is the real thing?

For critics of literary blogging, its location is very clear. It is the work engirdled by the divine authority of commerce; it is the book floating on puffy clouds of cash borne aloft on great thermals of bookchat. The immanent qualities of the work are strictly irrelevant. No amount of writing, no matter how good, no matter where it appears, is likely to disperse the dense blanket obscuring the sky.

However, there are occasional arrows into the blue. The Existence Machine, for example, asks a very simple question: what is a novel? Simple, yet infinitely troubling, as the examples and commentary provided demonstrate. (The Reading Experience provides a useful response). We place such cultural and artistic weight on this term novel that it has developed formal pillars to maintain its shape and to enable recognition. These pillars are what we call genre. Yet freedom from shape is precisely what gives the novel its unique capacity. As I've pointed out before, Robinson Crusoe was not marketed as a novel. Daniel Defoe maintained it was a true story as told by a shipwrecked sailor. It was only later - in England at least - that the form consolidated and was recognised as such. This is not to say a novel must proceed as a fact-based account but to emphasise the motive for the novel is to make known what has previously been hidden; at least to approach it; if nothing else then to make its physical absence felt. As Thomas Bernhard says (and enacts) in his memoir: "What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell the truth and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth."

Truth is not a genre.

As reported two years ago, for Gabriel Josipovici, "genre is like a family":
[Y]ou take it for granted. You feel comfortable there. Things are familiar and comforting. But confidence in a genre can wane in the same way that a family can come to seem deadening. He cited an example from Dr Johnson, who criticised Milton for responding to the death of a friend by writing a pastoral elegy. The generic form was false, not natural.
The pastoral elegy is false in this instance because it is a means of deadening the impact of death, of burying the subject in an elegantly-carved, death-shaped coffin whilst maintaining the opposite as an alibi for existence. "When there is leisure for fiction," Johnson said "there is little grief". Grief is not a genre.

"Leisure" here might well now be changed to "a market". When books are written to order and in order to exploit a market, there is no grief but in those for whom writing remains a weapon against the habit of falsity. For the majority of readers of course, the less grief the better. For them, devouring kitsch-and-sing dramas offers the comfort of an imaginary family to which its online scribbles can make only more comfortable. Add to them the number of units shifted from the 3-for-2 stall and you have a powerful land army giving the impression that fictionland is thriving when, in fact, the herd of happy-clappy amateurs, trolls and time-wasters has a scorched-earth policy; everything becomes a pastoral elegy. The impression is provided by those with vested conservative interests.

In a piece by another interested party, Boyd Tonkin asks how the economic crisis will affect serious writing and, in doing so, wonders if 'e-literature' might provide an alternative route to print. He misrepresents online critics but does ask Tom McCarthy - someone more sympathetic to the virtual arbiters - to comment: "The internet has produced some excellent criticism and debate around literature, but I've yet to see any good 'primary' writing on there." This is also my experience, yet it might be because we need to redefine what we mean by "primary". Spurious, for example, has provided a broken template for a possible redefinition.

When we ask What is a novel? or What is "primary"?, the questions beg the generic answer, an answer that comes too soon. The question does not go back far enough. Instead, we should ask: what does it mean to write?

Monday, January 12, 2009

A short history of decade

1 April 1969.
Beckett wrote to me about my book Démiurge, "In your ruins I find shelter."
From EM Cioran's Cahiers 1957-1972. This and eight other extracts are from the time Cioran was friendly with Beckett. They were translated by Thomas Cousineau.

18 May 1970.
At a rehearsel of La dernière bande, when I said to Mme. B that Sam was truly despairing and that I was surprised that he was able to continue, to "live," etc., she replied: "There's another side to him." This answer applies, on a lesser scale to be sure, to myself as well.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A report from the academy: more on Kafka's "porn stash"

Last August, in my response to the reviews of James Hawes' Excavating Kafka, I said that the headline "revelation" that Kafka owned magazines featuring erotic images would not be a surprise to "anyone familiar with his work and with the secondary literature".
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.
Later in the blog, I wrote that Hawes' book seemed to be relying on a saintly image of Kafka as promoted by Max Brod opposed and revised by Walter Benjamin as early as the 1930s and by Milan Kundera in the 1990s. In the latest print edition of the TLS, Julian Preece confirms this suspicion by using, Kundera apart, the same examples to express surprise at the focus of the book: "Saying that Brod got it wrong is hardly worth another book".

Preece, a professor of German and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, also reveals that the "porn" magazines to which Kafka subscribed "mainly contained literary writing". I seem to have missed this telling fact from all the debate at the time. Nor did I know that Hawes' recommendations for further reading consists of only "seven European male critics". Preece quotes his reasons: "You don't need any more than this, for the brutal fact is that there really is very little else that would be missed", to which Preece responds: "So that's Benjamin, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari, Canetti and Sebald dealt with". Is it really true that Hawes does not include any of these names? I hold out little hope that my own favourite writers on Kafka are included as Preece says that Hawes' exceptions "seem to be associated with his book".

However, I do know that Hawes rates the biographer Reiner Stach, and that's good to know but, in connection with this, Preece complains that Hawes "rehashes one sexist misnomer: that Felice was just 'a little typist' ... and consequently desperate to bag the successful, good-looking lawyer". As he points out, Felice was "a successful businesswoman with managerial responsibility working for a high-tech company". This is very clear in Stach's The Decisive Years with its revisionary portrait of Felice, her family and, by extension, Kafka himself, so one has to wonder if Preece has quoted Hawes out of context or if Hawes disagrees with Stach's scholarship.

Preece's trenchancy also confirms my hunch that the marketing profile of the book was borne of confidence in the lazy, ignorant and philistine preferences of the British common reader rather than in any conspiracy or incompetence of Kafka scholarship.
One could go through any number of the "K-myths" [as demolished by Hawes] and show how they were cleared up years ago, if indeed they ever really existed.
Preece concludes: "his disregard for readers who know what he is writing about is perplexing".

Friday, January 09, 2009

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18


In planning this review of Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18, I found two files containing notes from last summer for two more, both unwritten. The lists of ideas and quotations revealed wasted hours and renewed the hopeful pangs each had begun in me. I had believed the angels in Cees Nooteboom's Lost Paradise offer an unusual commentary on the strange call of fiction - something reviews routinely bypass or, at best, belittle. I wanted to pursue the call in this direction; reviewing is so much unnecessary repetition otherwise. Coetzee's long appreciation in the New York Review does not address the effect of the angels in this way but does cover more or less everything else I wanted to say, and the prospect of paraphrasing his plot summaries to reach the reserve from which the angels emerge was enough to discourage more effort.

And then there was the diaphanous presence in Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert (AKA The Delighted States). The eponymous friend of Flaubert's is said to have translated Madame Bovary before anyone else, but the woman had died young and her work had disappeared.

It leaves us, Thirlwell says, "a heavenly shimmer" of the perfect translation; something we'll never see. Again, there was a sense of something beyond reach, an unexpected residue. Thirlwell relishes the playful juxtaposition of contained narrative and surging life. Miss Herbert's absence is "not a story", he says, it is "real life", and leaves it at that. Indeed, his relaxed attitude toward the space between fiction and vanishing life is a constant throughout the surprising length of Miss Herbert. There is never any anxiety at fiction's inability to close the distance. In my imagined review, I had hoped to show how Thirlwell's brief comment burnt a black hole through the bright surface of postmodern literary mastery.

By happy coincidence, Novel 11, Book 18 lightly satirises my earnest concern to stalk the unseen. It is itself about the gap between our hopes and ideas and the experience of life. The story concerns Bjorn Hansen, a Norwegian civil servant. His life is described from a distance, as if in a clinical report written in free indirect speech (hence perhaps the filing-cabinet formality of the title). For instance, his name is always "Bjorn Hansen", never just "Bjorn" or "Hansen". We're told he has left the mother of his two-year-old son to be with the wonderfully-named Turid Lammers. Why he has done this seems to be as unclear to the report as it is to Hansen. He drives to Turid Lammers' house in a town 45-miles from Oslo, moves in, and continues his life as if nothing had happened. We never hear from the abandoned wife and Turid Lammers never says a word. However, it is at the latter's suggestion that he applies for a local job. He even joins the local amateur dramatics society in which she is a star performer. They live together for many years. Everything is apparently stable. There are no snags. At least, nothing untoward appears in the report.

This brief summary of the first half of the novel might seem inadequate but it is not much less than one gets reading Novel 11, Book 18. You might guess that there is something missing, and you'd be right. Something is missing for Bjorn Hansen too. The expected fullness of a meaningful existence with the love of his life has not materialised, at least not according to his expectations. The contingent banality of suburban affluence in a peaceful land is not enough. In a rare moment of reported speech, he tells a doctor that: "Nearly everything is totally indifferent to me. Time is passing, boredom is everlasting."
"I find myself [here] by pure chance. [...] But if I hadn't been here, I would have been somewhere else and have led the same kind of life. However, I cannot reconcile myself to that. I get really upset when I think about it", Bjorn Hansen said, once more shaken in his innermost self by the fact that he was really expressing himself in this way in the presence of another person. "Existence has never answered my questions" he added. "Just imagine, to live an entire life ... without having found the path to where my deepest needs can be seen and heard!"
The angst would be comic if it were indeed angst in itself. Instead, it is comical because it is emotion carried in the hunger for angst, for the reality afforded by the tag applied by public discourse rather than something unique to him, Bjorn Hansen. Hansen seems to have realised that he has cultivated experience in order to make life life-like according to the definitions of this discourse. Did he abandon his family merely because it was a decisive event? It seems so. When Turid Lammers flirts with fellow actors, he feels that he could go mad out of jealousy. Isn't this the real thing? Bjorn Hansen asks the same question and discovers the problem: "Had he not renounced everything in order to cultivate the temptation [of jealousy] in all its intensity, for what was left, after all, except this intensity?". Yes, this is the experience which might rent the fabric of life, but it has little or nothing to do with Turid Lammers and everything to do with Hansen's "profound yearning for something irrevocable".

The second half of the novel follows Bjorn Hansen as he seeks the irrevocable with more focus. It's a quest in which we, as readers, have a share. Will this novel begin to provide the shapely conclusion we expect? Until now we have had a serious lack. For instance, after leaving Turid, Hansen is living alone in a flat when he receives a request. His grown-up son Peter, whom he hasn't seen in 14 years, asks if he can stay with his father while he takes a course at a local technical college. Hansen is thrilled by the idea. It sounds like another opportunity to discover real life. When the 20-year-old look-a-like stranger arrives, it is immediately clear that he is a peculiar and obsessive character. This gives a rougher texture to the novel. So what is the truth behind his strange behaviour and the decisions he makes that perplex his father? We never find out. Peter moves out with all the questions unresolved. This is the pattern throughout the book only this time it is felt more keenly. Bjorn himself moves on and continues with his plan to make real his idea of the irrevocable. Other novels might have led Bjorn into a crime ring or a murder mystery or have him discover some dark truth about his son. Instead Solstad gives him an at once upsetting and hilariously muted fate which changes nothing.

It is encouraging that the reviews for Novel 11, Book 18 have been very positive. Eileen Battersby's in The Irish Times is worth a mention too. Perhaps more translations will be commissioned. However, to demonstrate what real literature is usually up against in mainstream reception, take a look at The Telegraph's review. Alan Marshall falls back on public labels such as "the existential novel" for this uncomfortable take on modern unhappiness. He complains that "Hansen's relationship with his son seems to open up another possibility for the novel, away from the rather stale, existential plotline" as if this were not about the meaning of possibility itself. "It's a strange failure of imagination," he says "posing as an act of imagination". It is strange precisely because Bjorn Hansen is seeking to make real his imagination; to make it fail as imagination. Failure is necessary to this unique novel.

We leave Bjorn Hansen as he lives the dream, only now he wishes that someone could see him do so, to notice what he has done. The unseen continues to haunt the novel.

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