Sunday, February 27, 2005

Moleskine redux

Today, I decided to abandon my disintegrating large-ruled moleskine notebook and begin the replacement. So I sat down, opened the book, picked up a pen, took the cover off the nib, then smoothed out the page I wouldn't be writing on, preferring to begin on the third side, that is the first side of the second page because the first page is glued too closely to the stiff cardboard page inside the cover and one can't write on a firm, smooth surface if one uses that page.

So, at the top of the first side of the second page, I wrote two words. Then I noticed the small square of kitchen towel - used to absorb any residual ink - was missing. Could it have fallen out? I look around my table. No. But it had to be there. I cut one out specially the night before and left it inside the notebook! So I looked again. And then I found it. It was where I had left it, that is in-between the second side of the first page and the first side of the second page. I had begun writing at the wrong end of the book.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The same day

Death, like punctuation, is the writer’s stock in trade. Writers respond in various ways to this predicament (but not various enough, really). For this reason, it's peculiarly inappropriate (and thereby appropriate) that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself on February 20th, two years to the day since Maurice Blanchot died of very old age.

Both Chris Mitchell and Paul Theroux refer to the epigram to HST’s most famous book: He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. Unfortunately, neither a "hellraising lifestyle" or shooting the typewriter brings about the desired condition. Nor, according to Blanchot, does suicide.
Nerval, it is said, wandered adrift in the streets before hanging himself. But aimless wandering is already death; it is the mortal error he must finally interrupt by immobilizing himself. Hence the hauntingly repetitive character of suicidal gestures. He who, through clumsiness, has missed his own death, is like a ghost returning only to continue to fire upon his own disappearance. He can only kill himself over and over. This repetition is as frivolous as the eternal and as grave as the imaginary.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The pulse of everyday life

My heart's really not in this. Yesterday I welcomed the calm relief of a weekend morning. Today was identical, only the silence had soaked in more deeply. I would like this to continue for a month, or a week. An entire day would be nice.

However, it was ruined after a few minutes by a casual glance at the Sunday online book pages. In particular, I was upset by Robert McCrum’s characteristically small-minded World of Books column in The Observer. And then there was Jane Stevenson’s prurient article on DH Lawrence. My focus was lost. Anger and bitterness took over. I was very conscious of what was happening. I asked: do I take care of these sorts of things, or do I ignore them?

I walked off the emotional energy. After a few miles, and in the centre of town, I passed a telephone box from which a regular thumping could be heard. Inside, a young, crusty underclass male could be seen beating the silver, multi-purpose console. A hundred yards on I could still hear the pulse of the thump. Hundreds of people were in close proximity to it – though not, it seems, one policeman. People looked. I looked. We carried on in typically British manner. The scum was after money, never mind stealing, never mind damaging others’ property and disabling the facility for others. This renewed my anger and bitterness at the selfishness and stunted intelligence of British culture. As I walked home, I realised it was more sadness and fear.

It would be easy to say that the sunlit peace of my weekend morning was a retreat from this culture. But why is it any less real than the violent scum in the phone box or, indeed, Robert McCrum's literary journalism? Wouldn’t foregrounding any one in particular be to distort modern life?

McCrum's article is a report and comment on the storm in a tea cup that is the critical reception of Stephen Greenblatt's popular biography of Shakespeare Will in the World. One of the most critical reviews is by Alastair Fowler. McCrum decides the criticism is not literary. 'To some experts, Will in the World is Hollywood, a shameful sell-out by a scholar of high reputation.' He doesn't name any experts who say this. It can't be Fowler as right at the beginning of his review he welcomes the book's readibility and refers to Claire Tomalin's hugely-popular biography of Samuel Pepys as a contribution to history no less . So I wonder who he means?

McCrum is very impressed with Greenblatt's sales figures. 'His portrait has struck a chord with readers' he says. This is a cliché; it doesn't really mean anything. It's well-known that Greenblatt signed a lucrative contract to write it and there has been an uncharacteristically high-profile marketing campaign. The publishers are aware that the market demands gossipy biographies. This is what usually strikes a chord with readers. It doesn't take a marketing genius to work out that if you mitigate wild speculation with the clout of a scholarly image (something that McCrum introduces right away), the book will sell more than others. People will buy it to indicate their sophistication without having to read anything too heavy. (One only has to read George Orwell's memories on working in a bookshop to know that this condition is nothing new. Link via wood s lot).

Note that Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory didn't sell so well. Perhaps McCrum can explain why. Presumably in this book Greenblatt also 'makes brilliant connections between life and literature in a way that scholars of [his] distinction are not supposed to do' (as McCrum says about the latest book). So why is its Amazon sales rank in six figures while Will in the World is in three?

Anyway, what does making 'connections between life and literature that scholars … are not supposed to do' mean exactly? Who has ever said such connections are not the stuff of literary biography? McCrum doesn't say. Again, it can't be Fowler as he refers to the 'vacuous textuality of deconstruction' and wishes 'real history' (whatever that is) was to the fore.

What Fowler does say however is that Greenblatt often conflates dramatist with character and doesn't substantiate claims. One can see why McCrum is so keen! Fowler says Greenblatt's speculations 'shows contempt for [the book's] readers'. This is not to say he objects to wild speculation because he compares the biography to Robert Nye's novel. Here the reader is aware that what they're reading is fiction.

Rather than deal with any specific criticism of Greenblatt's book, McCrum just sneers at the 'little world of Shakespeare studies' for not embracing what betrays its raison d’être. To which I ask: Little? It seems bloody huge to me. Is it any smaller than McCrum's literary landscape as portrayed in The Observer?

The answer doesn't matter. McCrum thinks that belittlement of its world is what hurts the Shakespearians. It leads to his most bizarre passage:

What's really offensive […] to Greenblatt's critics is the suggestion that literature for Shakespeare was no big deal. He wrote, observes Greenblatt, 'as if he thought that there were more interesting things in life to do than write plays'.

This is a fascinating observation. Until the self-conscious literary age in which we now live, books and writing were just a part of everyday life, something that occupied gentlemen - especially gentlemen - in their leisure hours. That's not to denigrate it, but to place it where it belongs, which is close to the pulse of everyday life, where words and feelings have special meaning

Again, one wonders who on earth he is referring to here. Are there large groups of people who think that writing plays is the most interesting thing in life? And how can one say Shakespeare thought literature was no big deal if, as McCrum also assures us, he had 'an obsession with words'? Was that obsession no big deal? And if it wasn't a big deal, how would it be an obsession?

Whatever Shakespeare felt, the plays are with us and they have exerted an extraordinary power. Harold Bloom reckons he 'invented the human as we know it' (that is Shakespeare, not Harold Bloom, although sometimes you wonder). To a certain degree, our everyday life is given meaning by Shakespeare. That degree is beyond our knowledge of course. Yet our 'self-conscious age' might well derive from awareness of some influence. The retreat as we perceive it might actually be where the blood from the pulse of everyday life leaches its complex nutrition.

Kafka suggests as much in an aphorism from February 1920:
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.

This does not put literature where it belongs. It puts literature itself under question. It is a question that provokes anger and bitterness, sadness and fear precisely because it is more than close to everyday life.

If you're a literary editor of Britain's most sophisticated Sunday paper, everyday life seems to mean showing contempt for your readers.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Dusting my library

Once again, the weekend! There is freedom without tiredness. There is crisp, bright light from the sky. There is silence. This is the time to make a life otherwise wasted in making a living.

In my case, this means writing something more substantial than a blog entry. I have three projects to choose from – one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end.

Unfortunately 'end' does not mean 'completion'. It means 'abandonment'. In fact, it also means 'beginning' and 'middle'.

So I did some housework instead.

Apart from cleaning windows and floors, washing some clothes and generally getting things sorted out, I weeded out some books collecting dust on a lower shelf. This was not a good move. I found books I wanted to read. First, the chunky, cheaply-produced paperback edition of Conversations of Goethe by Eckermann: "the best German book there is" said Nietzsche (he died 86 years before the new one of course).

I’m not one to read something for anything other than pleasure. Or rather, I dislike everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity. Ever since reading Kafka's travel diaries of 1912 (the Summer before he wrote The Judgement) and then visiting Goethe's Wohnhaus myself, I've been fascinated by all things Weimar.

Yet there was also Robert Alter's translation of Genesis. This was equally attractive as I’ve just read some breathtaking essays on the Bible (yet to be published). Beneath that was Émile Mâle’s The Gothic Image (Amazon says: no image available!) and Claudio Magris’ Danube, both of which seemed worth reading.

The first book took precedence. I sat down and read. On page seven, Goethe tells Eckermann to beware of attempting a large work:

"That is what injures our best minds, even those finest in talent and most earnest in effort. I have suffered from this cause, and know how much it injured me. What have I not let fall into the well! If I had written it all that I well might, a hundred volumes would not contain it."

This made me feel much better about my lack of productivity. Goethe goes on to advise Eckermann to leave attempts at major works until later life. By then, I would say, it seems too late. But maybe writing is always too late. It is too late in advance. This could be its main asset. Patience, belated perseverance.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Moleskine notebooks and the failure of reality

I have a new large, ruled Moleskine notebook. The other one is nearly full. It is also falling apart. The pages have become detached from the oilcloth bound cover. It’s good that the attached elastic band holds them together, otherwise it would be difficult to carry. Also, the spine of the cover has split. I use shiny grey duct tape to secure it.

However, I am yet to write in the new one. I don’t want to leave unused pages at the back of the old one, even if this means inflicting more damage on it as I carry it around with me. And I carry it everywhere, if I have a bag.

Much as I like the notebook, I’ve never been able to use it in the way I’d hoped. There are nearly 190 pages of writing: short comments about a current project, quotations, ideas for blog entries, incomprehensible remarks from nowhere, even inadequate recollections of dreams. But nowhere are the flights of creativity imagined in the reverie of purchase. The most useful pages are those following the progress of close readings of, for example, Benjamin’s The Storyteller and Maurice Blanchot’s How is Literature Possible? Otherwise, I shall probably put the notebook on a shelf somewhere and never consult it again.

For some, Moleskine notebooks are a fetish. Perhaps they are still pursuing that reverie, or maybe the notebooks do actually engender work! To meet and fuel demand, Moleskine is producing ever new designs to appeal to specialities: the latest that I’ve noticed is a storyboard notebook - much to my despair, in fact, as storyboarding is part of my money-work and the reminder weighs me down.

Elsewhere, discussions abound with tips for maximum utilisation of their organisational potential. It’s fascinating. However, I notice that nobody mentions that most gel pen ink seeps through the silky pages and often stains the facing page too. This led me to use only pencil and ballpoint pens and to slip in a piece of kitchen towel to soak up wet ink.

Ooo, I just felt it then: the sensuous specifics of practical action! It is this perhaps that makes fancy notebook usage so contagious. There is the aura of getting things done.

For writers, this aura is a siren. The draw of the notebook is the idea that the accumulation of arcana might form part of the way toward a literary work; the achievement that opposes the insignificance and temporality the writer’s life.

We know, however, that it is not. It is a means of resisting the work of literature.

So what is that work?

Last week I became frustrated with Craig Raine for perpetuating the mythic opposition of word and thing, even if he argued that language is equal to the task of encompassing reality. Once again, the work of literature is seen at best as a means of keeping up with a dominant partner and, at worst, a flight from reality.

It would be more revealing to investigate how literature forms reality, and how we turn away from literature because it generates new worlds; that is, becomes the reality from which we seek truth and succour. Here, literature’s failure would be its terrible success – one we have yet to fathom.

Hence, perhaps, the attraction of a notebook. It keeps writing within the confines of humdrum life, and enables the writer to maintain in writing a relationship with himself, the dying animal, all the while alluding to that time of death, which never arrives.

This is too glib; the sort of thing I write in a notebook. A blog. It stops me writing, you know.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Is Craig Raine a mwgnker?

In today's Guardian - bastion of lacunae - the editor of Areté writes:

For literary theoreticians, it is axiomatic that language is unequal to the task of encompassing reality. Its failure is inevitable, a given.

What's left out here is the name of any literary theoretician. But there is a reason for this: Raine means every single one, which now must include himself.

This literary theoretician would say, from experience, that the distance between word and thing is inherent in the thing itself. Actually, Raine's loving analysis of Kipling seems close to my feeling (or theory, whichever it is):

the essential thing for Kipling to describe is invisible - positive emptiness, artistic emptiness, aesthetically chosen emptiness.

The essential thing then: language.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Instead of a Comment: on McEwan's Saturday as fiction

In a comment on my post about Ian McEwan's Saturday, Adam of Completely Futile says he doesn't see why I object to a particular sentence in the novel ("This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination ...") and one I made up in the same blog to further illustrate my point. I've made my reply here for greater prominence:

I think you're not alone Adam, and I find it difficult to express sometimes. Let me try again.

One thing I know is that I dislike the sentence because it assumes knowledge of what the character knows and feels without this being in any way a problem to the author and his narrative.

Of course, most people assume that putting words and thoughts into a character's head is precisely what fiction is. Indeed, they come to fiction in order to do this or have it done for them. Obviously, we can’t easily know the thoughts and motivations and feelings of other people, so it is easier to make it up and inhabit an imaginary world for a time. Most people are content with this, it seems.

I’m not. I find that the pliable world of the imagination only reinforces the intractibility of the real.

I need fiction that makes this issue a part of the narrative. Invariably this means taking risks with the narrative itself. When a writer finds a way forward without losing sight of the essential disjunction of life and art, it is exciting and liberating. This is the past, present and future of great fiction. Hence my suggestion that writing beautiful yet solipsistic sentences is not real fiction at all.


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