Sunday, September 25, 2005

Milestones: a first anniversary post

It was this day in 2004 when this blog began. To mark it, I shall break from tradition and write about … books. Had you worried there.

Bookworld recently took up a challenge to write about the books which "have shaped, or even defined, the reader". How can one resist such a challenge? Yes, it would easy for me to join in. However, regular readers can guess what authors I am bound to select. The list in the last entry would cover it, in terms of authors at least. So I thought I’d do something different.

When I began reading (circa 1985), I looked everywhere for what I was looking for. Guidance came mainly through reviews and events such as the Booker Prize (though it didn’t take me long to get disillusioned!).

Elsewhere I’ve written about patiently and perplexedly going through JG Ballard’s back catalogue after I had read an article in the New Musical Express. And thinking back to that time, I recall reading a novel that was one of the greatest novels in the whole world ever, or something, so I read it. And that Malcolm Bradbury was hilarious, so I read Rates of Exchange. They were, to say the least, not what I was looking for. (I soon realised that the London newspapers were full of such middlebrow hyperbole).

I was also influenced by specific publishers. I thought Faber & Faber was fab because it published a book on my forthcoming list, so I was attracted to its books. Maggie Gee’s Light Years rather reversed that judgement. Eventually, my judgement became more discerning (I like to think). This list includes milestones along the way. I might have stopped and set up camp, but I no longer live there.

So, the list.

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
First of all, this surname must be pronounced Kun-dur-uh. Death to those who say ‘Kun-dare-er’!

What drew me to this novel, of course, was its extraordinary title. I remember reaching for it on the library display in January 1986, the day of my birthday in fact. The book could easily have been like the movie: shallow and pretentious. And it probably got its notoriety anyway for its promiscuous sex and political sexiness rather than its literary daring. What made the book extra special for me - took it beyond the merely fashionable - was the way it began. Yes, there’s the opening section on Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence (which I didn’t understand), but more importantly for me there’s also the passage where Tomas is introduced looking out of a window, introduced, that is, looking out of a window as seen through the writer’s imagination; not as an obvious figment or a postmodern plaything, but a living presence who begins the narrative. This simple moment of honesty felt like a gift; the key to the door.

Noam Chomsky: Turning the Tide
I used to make a round cycle journey of eight miles to visit the nearest-town-to-my-town’s library. When Robert Wyatt mentioned (in another NME article) that he was reading Noam Chomsky, I looked him up despite my conservative assumptions. Turning the Tide, subtitled United States Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace was new on these shelves. Nowadays his books are everywhere but then, only here. It was more than a political realignment. What Chomsky did for me was to compare word and action. The result was an unexpected juxtaposition revealing that, in the case of those who had influenced me until that point, one obliterated the other. Everyone around me began to speak in code. In political terms, one can hear it everyday. The invasion of Iraq was ‘a mistake’, for example, or President Bush’s delayed response to Hurricane Katrina was ‘a mistake’. Both of these ignore the quite deliberate rationale for each: both invasion and delay were done to enable Bush to carve the reconstruction up among his corporate sponsors. For Katrina, see this article. No mistake at all. Apparent criticism of power, then, is seen to be really the profoundest kind of support. In literary terms, one way among many that we can see this in action is in the infantilisation of novels – symbolised by the rise of JK Rowling. It’s the bad faith of people who read the most simplistic, reductionist fiction and then insist they do it only for escapist purposes when really it only reinforces the conditions from which they feel the need to escape, and to which they are also deeply wedded.

Henry James: The Beast in the Jungle
I don’t remember when I read this for the first time. Actually, it feels like I’ve never read it. In this way it’s like Blanchot’s Death Sentence, which coincidentally I’ve also read three times. This is perhaps because it’s a story that never really gets beyond its beginning. This isn’t a criticism! The stifling restraint of the relationship between John Marcher and May Bartram is matched by the way the story is told. Marcher’s misunderstanding of his fate – which is really also a terrible appreciation – is present also in the logic of our reading. We get to the end only to find the deep ravage is in the face of the other, not in the story. It is outside. We have held ourself apart in reading a book.

In the introduction to my story collection, the editors (including a pre-fame Tom Paulin) sneer at Marchers disdain for reality and his ‘retreat’ into a morbid imagination. They include the story for contrast. But really Marcher’s response is one of excessive respect for reality! He allows the mythical beast to dominate his life. His morbidity emerges in the projection of a world elsewhere. Instead, he needed to be more selfish. James is aware of the irony, hence the necessity of form and content: life always lives in the ironic denial of life.

Richard Ford: The Sportswriter
It still amazes me now. I read this novel three times in the late 80s. I also loved its successor Independence Day. Everything else Ford has written has left me non-plussed. What I liked here was the voice of failure seeking and refusing to seek. I liked the flatness of it all. It is a flatness that isn’t as smug and precious as in Raymond Carver’s stories. Apparently Ford is working on the third volume.

Colin Wilson: The Outsider
I have no memory of the content of this book except wondering why the Henri Barbusse novel it discusses wasn’t available. But it certainly excited me. I read dozens of Wilson’s other books, all of them products of cynical hack work and/or English philistinism. It embarrasses me to mention it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Multiple volume madness

Because of Book World's post, because of Golden Rule Jones' post, I am posting a list of multiple volumes in my collection by or about single authors. It was difficult to compile as mine is not an orderly collection; I was always discovering additions in neglected locations. Cut-off point is double figures.

Franz Kafka - 28
Maurice Blanchot - 26
Dante - 25
Proust - 24
Gabriel Josipovici - 24
Thomas Bernhard - 20
Beckett - 20
Kierkegaard - 18
Heidegger - 16
Walter Benjamin - 16
Nietzsche - 16
Saul Bellow - 14
Peter Handke - 12
Aharon Appelfeld - 10

I would own more of Handke if the English-speaking publishing industry was half-decent (and had I not lost two novels), and far more Gert Hofmann if, indeed, there were more. Same with Celan.

What surprises me is not the amount of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, neither of whom I've read very much, but that of the 29 authors listed by Book World, I share only 9 (not necessarily from those above), and of the 36 listed by GRJ, I share only 10.

Finally, many might be astounded and appalled that not one woman author appears above. I think four is the maximum, by Rosalind Belben. But I am utterly indifferent :)

The space of literature

Tombe de Maurice Blanchot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Entering a world of pain

At work this afternoon I was asked to read part of a book in preparation for an imminent project. The book was left on my desk. I was horrified. The mere sight of Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sent shivers of revulsion down my spine. A few weeks ago I had seen an advert for Anthony Robbins, of whom I had been blissfully unaware until that point. Anyone who pronounces the ‘th’ in Anthony has to be prick anyway, but the idea that success is, by turns, and all at once, square-jawed, fist-pumping and (to go by his ‘tribute’ to the hurricane victims) cloyingly insincere, sickened me. So I handled Covey’s tome with distaste. And I thought: anyone who uses the initial of their middle name …

Anyway, I looked first at the paratexts. I see it was published in 1989 and has sold 15 millon copies. Then there was the biography: Covey was once named one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans. (Who then, I wondered, were the other twenty-four of Covey's time? JR Ewing? OJ Simpson? Michael Jackson? Ted Bundy? Mork & Mindy?). Then there’s some extraordinarily indulgent acknowlegdements, and a picture of Covey at a conference. Yes, in the Robbins mould: smart suit, ultra-cleancut, in control with microphone and humanising wooden staff in hand. At this point, I wondered about how one manages one's time in order to write a self-help book on time management? Such glorious reflexivity! I daydreamed of a joint-smoking layabout, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, rocking back in a chair in a messy office doddling incomprehensible diagrams in between tossing off jargon-ridden paragraphs headed by epigrams swiped from the web.

These were a nice few moments of smiling vacantly. But onward and sideways: I opened to the relevant section of the book. The epigram was enough to stop me in my tracks. It is from that well-known management consultant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Things which matter most
Must never be at the mercy of things which matter least

OK. The first question I asked was: what matters most to me? Is it writing? I have many things I want to write for sure, but is it the most important? Maybe I need find time to think about it? Time needs to be found to write a blog in response to Book World’s challenge. Time also needs to be found for non-writing domestic things, such as re-installing the wireless router I bought this week. Probably not a good purchase for a technophobe. It's gone horribly wrong. And there’s more: time needs to be found to continue the longer writing project that currently relies on the haphazard arrangements of casual employment. Actually, this last is perhaps what matters most. A longer work should surely take priority over the daily distraction of a blog. Arrogant eternity demands it!

Yet it could also matter least. I've finished it three times and abandoned it three times. What is the point of spending hundreds of hours working on something to be read by nobody? I might have spent the time more productively writing hundreds of blindingly good blogs! (It would be good to start somewhere).

There are too many questions begged by these self-help books. Too many to go into tonight. Anyway, after 2040 every day, I look at the wall for an hour and dribble.

And there’s that caesura in the Goethe quotation: it suggests that it is from a poem or a play, which itself suggests it isn't Goethe's personal opinion. So where does it come from? Who says it? Could it be the devil in Faust?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The sorrow of living

I was told they’d come in the afternoon to pick up the clapped-out washing machine. So at midday, when afternoon begins, though I’m sure they meant one o’clock, I was indoors waiting for the buzzer to sound, just waiting. Four hours later, I was still there. Each successive moment might have brung that urgent electronic exclamation. I had to be there. I had to sit and wait. Each new moment, however, was as silent as the rest.

From the armchair, as I waited, I looked at the bookshelves. Too many unread and, more importantly, never-to-be-read books! So I decided to pass the time by putting my books through a selection parade. One pile to keep, one pile for Oxfam. I put the first book, a book about Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, on the Oxfam pile. I have not read Also Sprach Zarathustra let alone this. I remember standing in a secondhand bookshop and wondering whether to buy it. One often buys books out of hope. One day, one will have time to read all that is necessary. One day, everything will come together. Now, six years later, that hope must be abandoned. I will not read a single page. I know this. There are loads of other such books; so many futures to be dissolved.

The next book to be judged was Jorge Semprun’s autobiographical narrative Literature or Life. Actually, I read this eight years ago when it appeared in the university library. I bought the paperback in 1999 because it was so impressive. But I never read it again. The covers feel like soft blackboards smeared with chalk and, worse, the opening pages appalled me. I didn’t recognise the book. Second time round it came across as mannered and smug. This time, I had another look. The Oxfam selection process was abandoned. I’ve now read two-thirds of its 310 pages. For sure, it's still mannered and smug, but there is gravity too.

Semprun was a Rotspanier, the label applied to him as a Spanish political prisoner at Buchenwald. He had been arrested as a resistance fighter in occupied France and deported. Before the arrest, he had also been a student at the Sorbonne, reading philosophy. He says he went without meals to buy Heidegger’s Being & Time after being inspired by Levinas’ essays. A good deal of the book is informed by such thinkers. He is much taken with the lines in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: ‘Death is not an event in life. Death cannot be lived.’ He is taken because, after Buchenwald, he felt that he had in fact lived through death.

Literature or Life was originally published in 1994 as L’ecriture ou la vie, which perhaps should be Writing or Life. That’s the choice Semprun had to make after a terrible discovery. Once the camp was liberated, he returned to Paris and began to write and live again. Just as you might expect. He found that his ‘crazed, ravaged gaze’ attracted women and he used it ‘without scruple’.
Without scruple, most certainly, but not without some apprehension. Because each of these encounters, each of these adventures, pleasant though they were, revived the pain of memory for me. Each one of them reminded me of what I wanted to forget: death, whose shining darkness was the source of these pleasures.
Writing had the same double edge.
All through the summer of my return, through autumn, up to the sunny winter’s day … when I decided to abandon the book I was trying to write, the two things I had thought would bind me to life - writing, pleasure - were instead what estranged me from it, day after day, constantly returning me to the memory of death, forcing me back into the suffocation of that memory.
Paris is full of such memories of death, the dark side of Proustian reverie. He sleeps in an apartment with furniture wrapped in white winding sheets. During the night he wakes in a cold sweat, biting his clenched fists to keep from screaming. ‘Only forgetting could save me’ he writes.

Clearly by the time these lines were written, the need to forget had dissipated. But the book infuriates because the narration is deliberately self-distracting. Reading it is like trying to keep up with a fast walker who is also talking a blue streak. Even now, nearly 50 years later, Semprun approaches his memories only in occasional glances over the shoulder of time. He learnt his lesson in Paris. ‘I should have been more wary, that night’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have ignored the portents of le malheur de vivre. The sorrow of living.’

Which reminds me: back to the selection process!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Houellebecq: any possibility of a literary review?

David Coward's long review of the Michel Houellebecq's new novel is curiously lacking. It was the first thing I read when opening the TLS this evening. I was willing to be convinced he's an interesting novelist. And Coward is very enthusiastic about his subject. Except he doesn't say why MH is interesting as a novelist. Plot summaries are supplied, but there's little sense of what it is like to read the novels. Of course he's interesting as a cultural phenomenon (which seems enough to many) but as a novelist? We're not told. Worse still, in the final paragraph Coward conflates what's said in the narrative with MH's opinions. Perhaps they're obviously the same, but that would suggest he's not a very interesting artist.

Nothing said before this review had persuaded me to read Houellebecq, so it was especially disappointing. On Monday I read David Sexton's feature on him in the book pages of London's Evening Standard (not online). A lot of what he says looks like the kind of journo-gossip that would have featured in a profile of Thomas Bernhard in his prime: that he's hated by the mythical literary establishment, that the po-faced middle classes love to hate him, that he's a cantankerous old bugger, and that he's a massive seller across the continent. Yet one thing is missing: the overwhelming local-level joy of reading Bernhard's unique prose is not mentioned. The pleasure in Houellebecq seems to be two-dimensional; like the sniggering at a teenager's tag on the headmaster's wall.

Sexton says MH is a cynic only because he's a hopeless romantic. This rings true. Both positions are essentially the same. It's easy to be one or the other, just like it's easy to be a Communist one decade and a Neocon the next. It takes a great artist to move beyond these tired false oppositions. But it seems there is no space in the papers to talk about them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Dreams we share

Without ever addressing it, I realise that, for a long time, the experience of dreams has preoccupied me. Not their events and narratives – which seem to be random variants of the same scenario – but the experience. The purity evoked in dreams unsettles me. One wakes reeling from the experience; an experience which soon drifts into insignificance yet also seems to contain the essence of all experience; the teleology of experience. What is the nature of this purity - truth or illusion? As dreams are, by definition, unreal, does this make the purity unreal?

In online searching for a means of forming these questions, I note that, among the new age guff and dry, disingenuous science, a translation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is available online. [All links broken]

After I’d given up the search, I saw 43 Folder’s link to a long blog entry by Phillip J. Eby. In The Multiple Self, he uses a programming metaphor to discuss self and self-help. He offers "the ultimate answer, not to life, the universe, and everything, but the ultimate answer, I think, to the nature of the human condition: ‘You’ are not ‘yourself’ today. For that matter, you were not yourself yesterday, and you will not be tomorrow. You never have been, and never will be, because ‘you’ and ‘yourself’ are distinct neural subsystems which do not overlap."

Apart from unease with the programming jargon, which I don’t follow, and my suspicion that many cognitive science types don’t actually see it as a metaphor, the basic idea has the ring of truth. (Eby admits from the start that the ideas have been expressed before in many alternative forms.)

How this relates to dreams might be in that they are contained engagements with ‘you’ and ‘yourself’. They are pure because they are contained narratives dense with meaning; well, more than dense – they are made of meaning; everything is there for a reason. Meaning fills the dreamworld like sunlight, even when it is dark. Dreams are stories. And what Eby recommends in terms of self-help is, if I understand right, for a creative engagement between ‘you’ and ‘yourself’. As it happens, this is also my ideal in literature too. Stories are pure.

One writer who approaches the ideal is Aharon Appelfeld. His work is a raid on the inarticulate: “The palms of one’s hands, the soles of one’s feet, one’s back and one’s knees remember more than memory” he writes. This quotation comes from Theo Richmond’s perceptive review [link broken] of Appelfeld new memoir The Story of a Life. Despite admiring the book, he worries about ‘curious gaps’. There is a lot of information missing from Appelfeld’s narrative. Perhaps this reveals that memoir isn’t his true form. He’s always resisted it before. Still, there are chapters that make up for frustrated nosiness. They are extremely moving. I’ve written about this book before, in the process suggesting a reason why they are so moving; more particularly why they are also unsettling. Like dreams, they are full not only of the past but of potential.

It’s a shame then that Appelfeld's novels have not received equal attention. For instance, why wasn’t the new Penguin Modern Classics edition of Badenheim 1939 reviewed too? It was published on the same day! It’s a negligence that tells us something about the British preoccupation with gossip. Take this feature on Vikram Seth [link broken]. Always the nudge and wink about the private life of the writer. One senses they’d rather have a confessional book. Indeed each book is read as if in lieu of a confessional. Still, the occasional insight is allowed. Seth develops obsessions that drive him to write: “each of his books has come about because it could not not have been written. They announce themselves with an urgency to him that he cannot resist.”

This is how every book should be written. Any book not written with such urgency is worthless and contemptible. However, Seth’s novels haven’t attracted my interest because they merely discharge the obsession; they do not explore obsession (hence, perhaps, their prolix and conservative form). This is like telling the story of a dream by feigning sleep. Such denial frustrates me; just as genre fiction frustrates me; it is too intellectual. I shall have to come back to this.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Well, I never wondered: on Rushdie's style

I was so impressed with Marco Roth's review of Salman Rushdie's new novel that I looked up the This Week's Contributors notes in the back of the TLS. Turns out he's one of the 'founding editors' of n+1 magazine. So that's promising, for literary criticism if nothing else (but there is nothing else).

He himself is not impressed with Rushdie's "pursuit of a signature style" at the expense of the tragic story; a story buried by "satire, old-fashioned revenge romance and Hollywood action movie". This story would be the chronicle of "the distress of people who are too far away or too hidden from our everyday life"; a political dimension it seems only "willfully sympathetic" readers can make stand out (can you guess who he means?). Instead, Roth says Shalimar the Clown "seems to flaunt its determination to put as much padding as possible between readers and feelings."

And this is where my appreciation was confirmed: Roth compares such padding with the West's "camp culture of violence that seeks to rationalize our obsession by emphasizing its safe unreality: gangster rap, John Woo’s slow motion bullet ballets, action hero slogans like hasta la vista baby and mission accomplished." So, "rather than explore the crossing points between Western civilization which aestheticizes violence and Islamic civilizations which sanctify it, Rushdie writes himself in on the side of the aestheticizers."

Overall, the novel makes us "wonder if all Rushdie’s loud insistence on a no limits position for his own work is a mask for a world-weary conservatism".

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The wrong emphasis

My US American ex-housemate once showed us his open letter home. He told his family about his studies, his new partner, and how he liked England because, among other reasons, there was a general lack of religion. He also observed 'a learned helplessness' within the native population. I was rather flattered and encouraged by that, such was the ambivalence of my literary ambition. And then I realised the second syllable of 'learned' wasn't emphasised.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

He lacks the words

From today's Observer, Richard Ford writes an elegy for New Orleans:

In America, even with our incommensurable memories of 9/11, we still do not have an exact human vocabulary for the loss of a city - our great, iconic city, so graceful, livable, insular, self-delighted, eccentric, the one Tennessee Williams believed care forgot and that sometimes - it might seem - forgot to care. Other peoples have experienced their cities' losses. Some bombed away (by us). Others gone in the flood. Here now is one more tragedy we thought, by some divinity's grace that didn't arrive, we'd missed. But not. Our inept attempts at words only run to lists, costs, to assessing blame. It's like Hiroshima a public official said. But, no. It's not like anything. It's what it is. That's the hard part. He, with all of us, lacked the words.

You know (for a moment) I thought he meant Fallujah.

Peter Ackroyd, the biography

Who is Tim Martin? What is he trying to hide? Why does he spend an entire interview with Peter Ackroyd effacing himself?

"He [Ackroyd] orders a glass of wine. A bottle is proposed. Yes! he says eagerly."

Was the bottle proposed by a third person? Did someone shout over Tim Martin's shoulder as he or she was passing? I think we should be told.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Lost books

Sebastian Faulks' entertaining review of Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books makes it seem very entertaining. And it really is dizzying to comprehend the possible - though unlikely - discovery of a few dozen more plays written by Sophocles or a third work by Homer. They have all existed at one time, but now, apparently, they are lost.

However, I’m already dizzy as I regard every book as the record of its own loss. :)

Friday, September 02, 2005

More reading in the west

After my recent post surrounding Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, there's a response by Amardeep Singh. I'd like to reply here, although my reply extends beyond it as there is nothing in particular he says with which I disagree.

First, I have to say that I have yet to read the book. The copy in my local library is currently borrowed, unlike all the other literary critical works. Need we wonder why?! My concern, as this suggests, is with the ‘credulous critical reception’. I read many reviews when it came out and I don’t recall one mentioning the acknowledgement given to Paul Wolfowitz. I would have found that difficult to forget. This is why my interest was aroused.

Imagine the reviews of a similar book by someone unjustly-detained at Guantanamo Bay (though one doubts that they have access to a library) that included a dedication to a leading member of Al Qaeda. Would this be a side issue? For this reason I took the phrase ‘objectively pro-fascist’ (which I’d never heard before) to mean one who is not themselves fascist but who lends their support to fascists through expediency or complacency. Since then I’ve discovered that it was a phrase Orwell used to label pacifism in the face of Hitler. So I understood right. For pacifism, I now read the liberals who regard the manifold corruption and aggression of the Bush junta as part of the legitimate spectrum of opinion.

But back to the reception of the book. There’s an unspoken imperative running through its uncritical welcome, something that probably has little to do with the book itself. This is that literature must remain an escape. Reading Lolita in the west must remain happily meaningless; an indulgence afforded by our 'freedom'. (I’m not expecting Michael Wood’s brilliant book on Nabokov, for instance, to become a bestseller on the back of Nafisi’s success). It can mean something only when used as a defence against our official enemies. This is what I was thinking of when I referred to a possible ‘literary resistance’. Trying to think about it now after another long day of wage-slavery, I can only recall Elizabeth Costello (of the eponymous novel) trying to explain her distress to her son:

I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupifying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences.

What is thrilling about this novel is that there’s a moral and literary challenge in the story (though in effect they are the same) that includes itself and our own reading habits. The pages on Paul West’s novel are particularly chilling. As might be expected, Coetzee’s novel was patronised, ridiculed and dismissed by critics (I’m thinking of Jonathan Yardley in the US and Robert Macfarlane here in the UK) who don’t like to have the little people’s escape tunnel routed back into areas which they require fiction to keep at a distance. And I mean fiction in itself, not its subject.


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