Monday, July 31, 2006

The image of Qana

During the BBC's live coverage of the Qana atrocity (with Fergal Keane doing a fine job), a reporter interviewed an Israeli government spokesman. He asked: "Doesn't [the massacre] damage Israel's image in the world?" The spokesman paused before replying: "This isn't about image, this about the tragedy of 50+ innocent lives being lost." Sometimes, even for the villains, the BBC can be too craven!

Correction, absolution

AC of the blog Slightly Bluestocking has been reading Correction, her first Thomas Bernhard. Now that must be an experience! (Not that I would recommend this particular novel for new readers; Concrete is more representative).

In light (or darkness) of this, it might be of interest to report that Roithamer in the novel has built a cone for his sister to live (and die) in and that 'cone' in German is 'kegel' and that, today, I received a spam email from a persistent fellow which normally filters into trash but today happened to be viewed and so informed me that:
History records indicate bowling started around 300 A.D. at German monasteries. The monks had churchgoers knock down a bottle-shaped object called a kegel with a rolled ball to show their devotion to God. The kegel meant the devil, and knocking it over gave complete absolution from sin.

Fixed in facility: more on Updike's Terrorist

TEV draws my attention to Bryan Appleyard's astonishing tirade in favour of John Updike's Terrorist and against all the reviewers who trashed it. Well, all but one.

What's astonishing is that a prominent cultural commentator should foreground feet-stamping and generalisations rather than precise analysis. After quoting a few negative reviews, he snorts:
Updike is just too good for them. They can’t stand being constantly exposed to somebody who just writes so well.
What a strange accusation! Do the same critics have the same response to every writer who is similarly blessed? I know that one of them (Jonathan Raban) is a great fan of Saul Bellow's, whom Appleyard places in the same exalted category as Updike. So Appleyard's accusation doesn't explain his trashing. I'm sure other people know enough about the taste of the other critics to disprove it for each of them.

Really, it's a childish suggestion. He even wheels out the oldest chestnut, comparing the critical reception with the public's "enthusiasm". This, he suggests, is evidence that it is "a very good book". If sales were a mark of goodness, then it follows that every Harry Potter novel is infinitely greater than Terrorist. I'm sure Appleyard wouldn't agree to that.

"Public enthusiasm" is proves little anyway, as the act of buying a novel says only that the individual wants to buy it, not that they already believe it to be a good book. If anything, it points to extra-literary hype and/or a wish for a more nuanced approach to terror than one gets in the news. Unfortunately, reviewing is indifferent (or should be) to the extra-literary, and it is precisely the portrayal of the terrorist of which the reviewers are critical. Appleyard does then edge toward literary critique by complaining that the critics "want their terrorists to be explicable in the most banal terms" rather than in the "opacity" of Updike's characterisation. But in not mentioning James Wood's brilliant dissection of Terrorist, Appleyard reveals that he cannot comprehend the real problem at hand is precisely Updike's mastery.

While the other critics express disbelief in the main character, Wood argues that "[i]t is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book." By enveloping the terrorist in his familarly seductive language, Updike obscures what makes the muslim terrorist such a mesmerising presence in our culture (contrasting him, I would add, to the pilot who obliterates dozens of muslims each week without becoming a focus of public fascination). As I wrote the other day, Updike would have had to frame his narrative differently for the novel to face that otherness. This has nothing to do with fine writing. It is finding the relation of literature to life; the real relation, not a quality of the suspension of disbelief.

The same problem is shared by Ian McEwan, the writer to whom Appleyard turns to back up his opinion. For all McEwan's and Updike's talent for quotable sentences - beautiful writing and all that - both writers resist the self-annihilating force of art. It's why their novels fail as art while succeeding in the stagnant pool of the popular literary novel. No wonder the booklovers are bewildered and offended when it is mentioned.

Appleyard's blind desparation causes him to score own goal after own goal: "Gore Vidal described Updike as being fixed in facility, as clear a case of the revenge of mediocrity on genius as I have ever heard." But in three words, Vidal provides the most succinct and accurate critique of Updike's fiction that anyone will ever hear. Were that other critics so mediocre!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Destruction is our Beatrice

To begin a fiction seems to me an act of great daring. What temerity - to write, and a fiction! The temerity of inventiveness! Perhaps I am like those who distrust fiction writers who would usurp the place of God. But then I remember that certain fictional works are more like a destruction rather than a creation: the world is pared down, 'reduced' as is said in phenomenology, and now in such a way the author is the opposite of God.
From Spurious, which also discusses certain of those fictional works.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why am I telling you this?

The reviews of John Updike's Terrorist seem almost universal in their unease with him, of all people, telling the story of a half-Irish, half-Egyptian teenage Muslim fanatic, albeit one familiar with life in the US. It's rare that such unease is expressed about a novel, perhaps because most do not present such an obvious disjunction between author and protagonist. Unfortunately for Updike, his personal fame rather foregrounds his attempted disappearance.

Whatever, it highlights something which has long bothered me about fiction (and to which I return under various guises often enough but never to my satisfaction; perhaps that's what literary blogging is all about). At the beginning of every novel written in the third person, one question I always ask is: why I am being told this? And when a narrator begins to speak, I ask: why are you telling me this? If these questions remain unaddressed, much as I might enjoy the novel - and I enjoy them as much as anyone - ultimately it seems to fail as a novel. It's this conclusion that often makes me appear to be unduly antagonistic toward many supposed 'literary' novels.

Most writers and readers seem to believe access to the inner life of a character or the freedom to ventriloquise another's story are natural givens of literature (what James Wood in his review of Terrorist calls "the temptation toward negative capability"). But for me, the primary experience of literature, the experience that impels me to read and to write, the experience that makes literature, is the experience of distance, the distance (which can include extreme closeness) between oneself and another, which is also the distance between oneself and the fiction, as author and as reader.

In concluding his review, James Wood says "[it] is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book". The question then becomes: how best frame that otherness, that distance? Updike's answer is evidently an evasion, so it will be interesting to see how other writers answer if Wood's suggestion, that the novel is harbinger of novels whose subject "will be religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society", is correct, as it surely is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An 'ordinary' post

Grumpy Old Bookman is especially grumpy over the success of Sam Bourne's novel The Righteous Men:
I have a well documented antipathy towards Mr Bourne and his book [he explains] based on the old-fashioned idea that there are other writers out there who deserve this kind of success far more than he does.
Well that's something to which we can all relate!

He goes on to provide the detailed background to Mr Bourne's success, all of which one could sum up as old-fashioned snobbery and professional jealousy. Surely his popularity is well-deserved having done a good professional job for the reader? Alternatively, one could sum it up as a passionate concern for good literature. But where would that leave GOB's familiar disdain for "literary" writers who write it?

GOB also introduces us to best-selling author Susan Hill's new blog which, she explains:
came about because several books-and-reading Bloggers feel that the review pages of the major newspapers - with honourable exceptions - do not cater for the enthusiastic 'ordinary' reader and book buyer, but for a small, minority audience, or perhaps series of audiences according to the often obscure subject matter of the books under review. And the book prizes, too, are not judged by the general reader and often bear no relation to what they admire and enjoy. Only Richard and Judy choices seem to relate at all to the mass of readers who are often keen members of book groups and blog regularly about books.
Notice the almost complete lack of any examples here. Why do these low-to-middlebrow types trade almost entirely in impressions and stereotypes? Perhaps because they rely on self-perpetuating prejudice rather than fact. (I've noted her literary prejudices before by the way). Of the dozens I subscribe to, not one book blog discusses Richard & Judy novels.

When I read the book pages of newspapers, I prefer to be surprised, to learn something new, to discover new writers. An old-fashioned desire perhaps. But I'm not an ordinary reader. I realise that. I don't know any one else who hangs from a trapeze holding the book upside down.

Going back to the beginning, GOB is frustrated by Sam Bourne's success because it has more to do with connections and marketing than the writing of a great book. Ironically, one of the reasons Sam Bourne is so successful is due to Richard & Judy promoting his novel, prompting large numbers of 'ordinary' readers to decide that they want to read it. Presumably they didn't invite Michael Dibdin to discuss the book. But it seems that literary criticism isn't congenial to 'ordinary' admiration and enjoyment, yet - and this the heart of their resentment - the 'ordinary' readers still crave the prestige and "recognition" offered by literary awards and coverage in book pages. Why else do they complain?

Rather than complain though, book bloggers need to champion specific books and argue why they rate them. The rest is business.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

There's more to life than books, you know

Writers hate getting stuck. Most drink tea. Some take to the bottle. Others go for long walks. A few give up altogether.
Those left write blogs.

Sophie Ratcliffe continues her review of Jane Smiley's study 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel with the background to the author's stuckness. It began after 9/11: "Fear was everywhere. Fear of anthrax, fear of nuclear terrorism, fear of flying, fear of the future." And fear of writing novels? Well, despair perhaps. To mitigate the condition, Smiley decided to read 100 novels and try to distil their essence. "Her broadest claim" Ratcliffe reports "is for the novel’s commonness". Commoness "enables a reader to relax with a novel as with another person, and also to feel as though the novelist might have something to say of relevance to the reader’s common life."

Overall, Ratcliffe finds Smiley's ideas grandiose and programmatic. Not only that but the book as a whole is "symptomatic of the worst aspects of the criticism of our climate: it sees novel-reading as a sort of salvation."

It is indeed odd to imagine salvation coming through relaxation and hearing something of relevance to one's life. Unless that something is the distance between oneself and another, and between oneself and salvation (distances which are equally common as Smiley's commonness). Perhaps that wouldn't be relaxing to the majority of readers though, because then reading would be vital rather than sedative. It is easier to turn to tea, the bottle or a long walk. Some people don't read at all. In each of these, however, not reading is no different to reading (just as graphomania is no different to writer's block); salvation comes through ignorance of the question itself.

Ratcliffe contrasts Smiley's grandiosity with Michael Dirda's "brilliant" Book by Book: Notes on reading and life:
He makes suggestions for what to put in a guest bedroom bookshelf, shares the quotations that he keeps around his desk, and reminds us that flossing our teeth is just as important as reading. 'There’s more to life than reading', he points out.
Yes. But not much more.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Help me to develop more grudges

In a discussion about writers and politics on RSB's blog, Andrew Stevens of 3AM Magazine writes that:
Dan Rhodes tried to get the other writers on the 2003 Granta Young British Authors list to participate in some joint declaration against the Iraq war. A handful made positive noises and the rest told him to fuck off. Some pundits said it wasn't the business of writers to do that sort of thing.
I didn't know about this. While I would have signed such a declaration had I been an GYBA, I also believe it's not the business of novelists as novelists to make such declarations. What interests me instead is the number of (US and British) novelists who have expressed support for the invasion and occupation. For I reserve a special kind of fascination, horror, disgust, deep loathing and hatred for these people, whoever they are. So far, I have read supportive statements from Patricia Duncker, Alan Sillitoe, DM Thomas and the incomparable Ian McEwan. It's the ninth circle for them! Any others?


The Guardian reports on the longlist for the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize.

I've read only one of the list: Ian Holding's Unfeeling, and I'm staggered that it has been selected. It was the subject of my first review for the TLS last year (online only to subscribers). I was particularly disappointed with the novel's predictable form. The main character sits out in the African open where "the haunting sound of a boar rose again, sticking hard in his skull like a razor-edged arrow splintering the bone, slicing cleanly into his brain." The judges could mitigate this, I suppose, as overwriting is appropriate for a prize named after Dylan Thomas.

However, when a debut novelist resorts to wordy third person narration, you know he hasn't too many doubts about the form. You might think this is a purist's complaint; only someone who has read too much would make it. For the average reader, it's an engaging and relevant story about post-colonial Zimbabwe. He or she gets to learn about this troubled land through the imaginative empathy of one of its most eloquent citizens.

Unfortunately, the form also reveals more than the author might be wish to confront. In the review, I noticed that
Each black person is a caricature, a psychopathic monster at one extreme or a grovelling servant at the other. If [the white characters] can be imagined empathetically by the author, why stop there? The lack of an original black character has ramifications which Holding is apparently unwilling to explore.
There are good reasons why awarding prizes for novels is a problematic enterprise. What, for instance, is it rewarding exactly? The usual defence is that it gets more people to read, but would they say the same thing about a BNP pamphlet going through every letterbox in the country?

Loud and clear

Each provocation and counter-provocation is contested and preached over. But the subsequent arguments, accusations and vows all serve as a distraction to divert world attention from a long-term military, economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation.
Letter in today's Independent from John Berger, Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter and José Saramago.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

TP for my bloghole

"I'm a big fan of The Simpsons, I think it's great modern art" says Austrian literary star Daniel Kehlmann. Indeed it is.
And this is great modern poetry:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Markham ... well

I've just finished one novel featuring a couple called Joe and Phyllis Markham. After the marathon of those languid 451 pages, I picked up a 142-pager expecting a complete change of scene. Yet here too there are two people called Markham. Last year, I also reviewed a novel by a Markham. What is going on?

Perhaps I should constrain all my reading to novels with at least one character called Markham. Anyone know of another?

The 'liberal' press shamed

The British novelist James Flint reviews Noam Chomsky's Failed States. He begins with an apt reference to Roth's The Plot Against America. It is a sober summary without innuendo, sarcasm or the usual accusations of "anti-Americanism" (indeed, Flint suggests Chomsky is merely following the real democratic tradition of the USA). You'd expect to see this in the so-called liberal press. Instead they produced nonsense from the astonishingly inept Peter Beaumont and the repellent Emma Brockes. Flint's review is actually in the decidedly-conservative Daily Telegraph. The world doesn't seem quite so deranged anymore.

That's us that is

We've all heard of Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil". Eichmann the bureaucrat organising from his desk other people's deaths. Now, with pictures like this one, with English comedy actress Maureen Lipman going on TV to defend the bombing of civilians in Lebanon, and the BBC being so suddenly objective in describing those civilian casualties, we should really change the phrase to "the niceness of evil".

Rewriting literary history

This morning's headline in Guardian Books: Unlikely bestseller heralds the return of lightness and humour to German literature. Are they provoking me? "For decades German fiction has enjoyed the reputation of being serious, worthy and a bit dull." Of course, that would have nothing to do with English journalists' stereotyping and publishers' reluctance to print anything contradicting a "reputation". Gert Hofmann's wonderful, final novel for example. It's an oversight that's even more ironic considering the subject matter of Daniel Kehlmann's book. Hofmann's was also about a 19th Century Göttingen scientist who gets involved with a teenage girl. 

"Already, [Kehlmann] is being compared to Nabokov and Proust". Yeah, right. As I said the other day, these comparisons are meaningless; merely hyperbolic. Do they know what it means to be compared to these writers? No doubt other author features about Kehlmann will say he been compared to Nabokov and Proust with the only reference being to this article. Hofmann, on the other hand, is incomparable. But that might be the problem. 

Kehlmann says: "I've written a Latin American novel about Germans and German classicism." Yes, what most literary journalists really want is not German fiction but sunny South American magical realism; the sentimental confections of Márquez. What's more Kehlmann "likes British writers including Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan. 'Atonement is one of the best novels of the past 30 years. An incredible masterpiece,' he says." Oh dear. 

There's more. "A lot of interesting epic art now comes from US TV", Kehlmann continues. "You have The Sopranos. It's a modern realist novel that isn't expressed as a novel. It's like modern Balzac." What did Robbe-Grillet say yesterday

The big story for the Guardian, however, is that Kehlmann's novel "has proved nothing less than a literary sensation. Since it was published last September, the novel has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany, knocking JK Rowling and Dan Brown off the top of the best-seller list." Isn't that a sales sensation rather than literary sensation? I suspect the journalist is unaware of the difference. 

By the way, Kehlmann lives in Austria, so his status as a "German" author is problematic. Austria's most famous author's work is, of course, humour and lightness itself. While it isn't magical realist or Balzacian, it is an incontrovertible literary sensation and a permanent herald.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Isolated works

You want pretention? I've just got back from reading The Beach, a short story by Robbe-Grillet, whilst sitting on the beach. It's in a 40-year-old Calder Publications edition Snapshots & Towards a New Novel that's well out-of-print. In spite of that, the observations in essays collected in the second half of the book might as well have been published yesterday. Here's the opening paragraph of the essay A Path for the Future Novel, dated 1956:
At first sight it hardly seems reasonable to think that an entirely new literature might one day - now, for instance - be possible. There been many attempts, during the last thirty or more years, to get the art of fiction out of its rut, but they have only, at best, resulted in isolated works. And - as we are often told - none of these works, whatever its interest, has won the support of a public comparable to that of the bourgeois novel. The only conception of the novel that is current today, is, in fact, that of Balzac.
Useful as it is, you don't see the word "bourgeois" very often nowadays. Whatever, let's hope there are more isolated works in future.

The real thing: Ian Rankin and Proust

Ian Rankin's appearance on Desert Island Discs (as discussed at the weekend) reminded me of a long-standing fascination of mine. What makes a novel more than a rhetorical exercise?

Up to the time when his second son Kit was born, Rankin had written seven novels. He wrote the eighth (Black and Blue) as Kit was being diagnosed with the rare neurological disorder Angelman Syndrome. As he explains in this interview:
"I was writing Black and Blue, and I think that made it a big, angry, questioning book, because I was going through this process of asking, why me? I would beat Rebus up regularly on paper.” He pauses for a moment, his usual animation stilled at the memory. “By the time you get to the next book Hanging Garden, his daughter is in a wheelchair. That was just me being petty and spiteful and thinking if my son is not going to walk, your daughter is not going to walk."
The eighth novel just happened to be his breakthrough book. It sold big numbers. Sue Lawley wondered how much the anger seeping through the novel had contributed to the book's success. The author reckoned it was probably very important.

If Rankin happened to be the reincarnation of Proust, those first seven novels might not have been published. It's well-known that Proust didn't publish the 770-page novel Jean Santeuil even though, as Blanchot points out, he so badly wanted to make a book and be considered a writer. What's more, the discarded work has many of the features and events of In Search of Lost Time: the phenomenon of reminiscence, the metamorphosis it presages (transmutation of the past into the present), the feeling that there is here a door open onto the domain unique to the imagination, and finally the resolution to write in light of such moments and to bring them back to light.
So why didn't he publish?

Blanchot argues that it is because he needed the novel to include the inspiration to which Jean Santeuil merely responds. The latter novel is perhaps closer to the actual Proust ... than the narrator of Le Temps Perdu is, but this proximity is only the sign that he remains on the surface of the sphere and that he has not truly engaged himself in the new time, which causes him to glimpse the shimmering of a changing sensation. And it is to transmit the joy of this new time for which Proust writes:
yet [in Jean Santeuil] it is really Saint-Simon, La Bruyère, Flaubert who write in his place, or at least Proust the man of culture, the one who relies, as is necessary, on the art of previous writers, instead of entrusting himself, with all its risks and dangers, to that transformation that the imagination demands and that must first reach his language.
Blanchot ends his essay by making the disturbing observation that it was only through "energy, inertia, inactivity, attention, and distraction" that enabled Proust to write the other novel which made him famous; fame which Jean Santeuil would never have matched. Hard work and craft, it seems, are not guarantees of artistic success.

This is why I am so wary of books that tend to rely on the art of previous writers, that do not make the language subject to the unique inspiration and ambition of the book it forms. They are too rhetorical and crime (and other genre) novels are, by definition, mainly rhetorical works. While Rankin's eighth novel cannot be on a par with Proust's (if only because the anger is added colour rather than intrinsic to its creation), it perhaps suggests in both cases a desire among readers for something more than routine entertainment, for more than the author to do "a good professional job for the reader". They want the real thing.

Circle Line jerks

The Euston Manifesto boys have arranged to have their next meeting televised by Channel 4.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A dagger to the heart: Ian Rankin and literature

Ian Rankin's appearance this morning as Sue Lawley's guest on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs revealed a variant on the usual misconception of literature.

Rankin said that he wasn't a fan of crime fiction before he wrote his first Inspector Rebus novel. He thought he was writing a dark Gothic tale about Edinburgh in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson. "So" Lawley interrupted "are you writing ... literature?" (The pause gave the coming word the gravity of a quotation). "Well, popular literature", Rankin replied. "Nothing wrong with being popular" he added, rather begging the question. Lawley pursued the question. (I paraphrase): "So crime fiction can also tell us something about the world, what the writer thinks about what's happening in the world?" "Yes, crime fiction has grown up" Rankin declared. "There's still an audience for the Agatha Christie type novels but now people are writing about what's happening in our society, except people don't notice it because it's contained within a rollercoaster storyline."

Until now I've understood - from what the genre fans have said - that the distinction between literary and genre fiction is the type of literary language used. Where genre fiction generally adopts utilitarian prose in order to foreground the characters and plot, literary fiction is overtly "poetic" and often devoid of plot; above all, it contains "beautiful" writing (the quotation marks are deliberate). Of course the two overlap, creating wrongheaded indignation when genre writers who write beautifully are overlooked for the most prestigous literary prizes. Now we have another overlap. So I can understand the indignation. The Condition of England novel is indeed a favourite of the halfwits who invaribly judge big prizes. Who wouldn't be grateful for a rollercoaster storyline to sugar the pill?

To his credit, Rankin didn't complain about not receiving the Booker. He joked about receiving, aged 45, a Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement from the Crime Writers' Association. This made me wonder what the criteria is for receiving an award for crime fiction. The site says "The award is made purely on merit without reference to age, gender or nationality" without defining "merit". One wonders how pure that merit is, i.e. how much it is due to high sales? Perhaps the members think there's something wrong with being unpopular. Or maybe one just needs to be a member of the CWA.

If not, wouldn't a novel by a Booker regular - such as Ian McEwan, one that features a crime - count as a crime novel? (Saturday has one or two doesn't it?). Is it snobbery that has stopped McEwan from receiving a Dagger?

Well, I guess we all know what a crime novel is and Saturday, I'm sure we'd all agree, isn't one of them. But it isn't quite a literary novel either. (John Banville outlines why with a different sort of dagger).

Yet if we remove beauty, craft and social commentary as necessary components of the literary novel, what's left? Well that, I would say, is a question a literary novel might address. The heart of that question, asked each time we read (by our hearts if not our heads) is: how does this invisible world relate to the visible? That is, how does death relate to life?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

More perplexity: responses to Javier Marías

As others have reported and commented, Wendy Lesser of The ThreePenny Review has begun a blog. Her latest entry is about Javier Marías' trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. On publication of volume two, she says it is "shaping up to be one of the great fictional achievements of the century".

Having just reviewed the novel for the TLS (not online), I have to express bewilderment at this statement. While the novel is objectively impressive and full of fine ruminations, it is also rather tedious and indulgent. I wonder if I'd have finished both volumes had I not been obliged to for the review. This should be a surprise considering the literary allusions peppered throughout his work and the writer to whom this project in particular has been compared.

Lesser mentions the almost-universal name-checking of Proust in connection with Your Face Tomorrow. But what do these comparisons look like? Well, at the beginning of an interview, Sarah Emily Miano says the novel is "already being compared with Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu". Yet rather than explain the implications she merely repeats the statement in the final line. This technique reminds me of those news reports in which the newscaster says "fears are growing for the Middle East peace process ..." while not actually showing or quoting anyone expressing such fear. It's just a device that assumes the peace process and/or being compared to Proust is necessarily a good thing.

Perhaps the trilogy's unusual length is the connection. But that would mean the Left Behind series can also be compared. The Review of Contemporary Fiction refers to the novel's "meditative lyricism", which is a plausible similarity. But many authors share that and they're not routinely compared to Proust.

However, the comparison is legitimate. In another review for The Times' Andrew Staffell says
Marías’s narratives are not dramatic or action-packed: they are slow-breathing, measured ruminations, introspective and philosophical. The few events that occur in the narrative “present” are broken up by long, Proustian passages of recollection and speculation.
It's good that somebody has made the effort! And also like Proust, Marías' narrator Jacques Deza is concerned with time. In his case though, it's our potential knowledge of the future with which he's concerned. I wrote that this is a promising inversion of Proust's project of recovering of the past and that
in Deza's night-time anxiety about his children, one can't miss the echo of Marcel in Combray tracing the ghostly sequences of his own mind as it moves in and out of dreams. But where Proust's novel revolved around redemptive epiphanies, here such moments are darker, more obscure, often indistinguishable from neurosis.
While all this is certainly intriguing and far more worthwhile than most novels so far published this century, the reading experience is not on a par with the Parisian neurasthenic.
If Proust also sent us on long journeys without too many fullstops, his sentences at least clarify and enrich the context of a specific observation. In Your Face Tomorrow, they tend only to accumulate superfluous qualifications and synonyms. Indeed, the series itself seems to be one of accumulation rather than development.
Sometimes it's better to constrain the work. In preparing for the review, I also read All Souls and was moved by its modesty and humour. It has the beguiling melancholy of Sebald's novels and is only 220 pages long. Unfortunately, unique novels like this tend to be overshadowed by their bloated, more ambitious companions.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A way to be free

I wrote about Bill Callahan's solo performance, this song in particular, in my last In Writing blog.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Betjeman not Beckett

To celebrate his centenary, the BBC is dedicating a month of programming to the work of Sir John Betjeman. There will be contributions from those well-known literary figures: TV comedian Griff Rhys-Jones, TV historian Dan Cruickshank and TV chef Rick Stein.

All very nice, I suppose. But it makes me wonder why there wasn't a similar series to mark Beckett's centenary. While Radio 3 ran a few programmes, there was nothing on BBC TV. Isn't the BBC supposed to be highbrow and elitist?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with well-crafted, sentimental light verse. (Nothing a blowtorch couldn't fix anyway.) So what's the problem?

Well, no doubt Betjeman's fans will concede that he was not a major poet of the century. His name cannot stand beside Eliot, Yeats or Stevens. Not even Beckett the poet. They might even insist on it. They'd tell you proudly that in his poetry readers won't find any of that pretentious mysticism and "experimentalism" of the modernists. He's accessible. He doesn't alienate the reader. He's popular (apparently the Collected Poems has sold 2 million since 1958).

And if they insist on it - or at least do not claim any great import to his work - why is that as soon as anyone in authority takes the logical step and excludes him and English versifiers who have followed (Roger McGough, John Hegley, Ian McMillan) from prestigious awards rewarding those who take poetry itself forward, there are mutterings about snobbery? If, on the other hand, Betjeman can be regarded in the same breath as the great modernists, then something more than craft, humour and popularity has to be revealed. Maybe the TV chef will be able to rustle up something.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Documents of barbarism

Wood s lot has a few Walter Benjamin links today, which is a very minor coincidence. Today I took volume one of the Selected Writings from the bookshelf to try to begin to read, once again, all four volumes in turn, rather than just reading the odd essay.

Two of the links above focus on Benjamin's death in Port Bou in September 1940. Well here's another: an extract from Michael Taussig's imminent book Walter Benjamin's Grave, a collection of essays that the author says share a "love of muted and defective storytelling as a form of analysis. Strange love indeed; love of the wound, love of the last gasp."

My favourite Benjamin essay is The Storyteller. It speaks of the last gasp of storytelling and its replacement by the mere communication of information. "Nowadays no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations".

A good example of what this means is revealed if one compares the TV commemorations of the 7/7 bombings in London with the coverage of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. One can't help but be moved by the terrible stories of the first, no matter how mawkish the coverage. No explanation is necessary.

However, search for "Afghanistan" on the BBC News website and you'll struggle to find any mention in the headlines of similar sufferings. I got to page 39 before giving up. There were mentions of Women's Rights, fashion shows and even a golf course opening, yet next to nothing about civilian casualties. We know, of course, that many people have died. The information is not withheld, as such, it's just that we can't recognise it. For instance, yesterday we read that "US led-troops and Afghan forces have killed more than 40 insurgents in a raid in southern Afghanistan". The information is a form of explanation.

For brief stories of other deaths, of people with names rather than labels, visit the Afghan Victim Memorial Project with its list of individual victims. A random example being Koko Gul, a 25-year-old mother of two who died on October 27th, 2001.
In the village of Ghanikhel in the Shomali Plains. KoKo was sewing in the second floor when the U.S. bomb destroyed her mud brick home. Nearby bombing by the U.S. killed another 6-14 civilians. A U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighter jet dropped a 500 lb JDAM “precision” bomb on KoKo Gul’s home.

Monday, July 10, 2006

To write, not to win

Watching, for the umpteenth time, another nation win the World Cup instead of England hollows out a void within my chest that can be caulked only with so much patient routine and forgetfulness.

What can one expect with answered prayers anyway? Failure, searing regret and relentless defeat aren't so bad. They inject an emotional numbness that only empathy and joy can penetrate. Great!

I'm guessing.

And talking of failure, Joseph Joubert never wrote a book. He wrote all the time but never published a book. What a loser, eh? Well, not according to Blanchot.
Joubert had this gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, resolutely seeking the right conditions that would allow him to write it. Then he forgot even this aim. More precisely, what he sought, this source of writing, this space in which to write, this light to define in space - demanded of him, asserted in him characteristics that made him unfit for any ordinary literary work, or made him turn away from it. He was thus one of the first entirely modern writers, preferring the center over the sphere, sacrificing results to the discovery of their conditions, and not writing in order to add one book to another, but to make himself master of the point whence all books seemed to come, which, once found, would exempt him from writing them. (From The Book to Come).
Read some more of Charlotte Mandell's translation of Blanchot's extraordinary essay (which, I have to say, I don't really follow, but that isn't always necessary with Blanchot) and then perhaps order The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert published by NYRB Books. A book? Yes, for as Blanchot also writes, elsewhere: Not to write - what a long way there is to go before arriving at that point.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Why write?

In one of the latest Tales from the Reading Room, Orwell's "great motives for writing" are adumbrated:

Sheer egoism
Aesthetic enthusiasm
Historical impulse
Political purpose

Once again, then, I find myself - where Orwell and writing is concerned - left aside. These mean nothing to me. If a political impulse is apparent, it's really an impulse to get away from politics; writing an impulse to have done with writing.

In the blog's comments, Emily Barton adds the necessary fifth motive: I think some of us are just ... compelled to [write] ..., the way others are compelled to something like dancing, and we just can’t help ourselves. Litlove herself indicates the advantages of such a compulsion: If the work goes well, I feel nothing, no hunger, no thirst, no sense of myself whatsoever.

Such is the balance between life and where we live.

Painters experience the same thing. There's an impulse merely to cover a page; to decorate it with ink. At this point I would have posted an image of a yellowing A4 writing pad of mine. Two pages on either side of the ringbinder covered in handwriting. Nearly two-thousand words in all. But the camera isn't working. (I've thrown it across the room once already. Something has to be done.) What is written there is less than useless, but I have kept it, all fifty pages covered like that. There is aesthetic enthusiasm here, I suppose, but perhaps not what Orwell meant by the phrase.

Write in order not simply to destroy, in order not simply to conserve, in order not to transmit; write in the thrall of the impossible real, that share of disaster wherein every reality, safe and sound, sinks. (page 38)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

MS Word? I would prefer not to

Last year I wrote about writing software for Mac. Since then, for longer pieces, I've stuck with Word. But now I've discovered Scrivener. It has a notes field (there are numerous screenshots on the link), which is particularly handy as all my notes are spread across several pages of a notebook. Best of all though is the Full Screen mode. No chance of being distracted by that new email or new blog feed as one composes the magnum opeless.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Three years of silence

As Britain remembers this day last year, Ellis Sharp counters the three-year silence about other atrocities:
As Chomsky famously remarked, one good way of deterring terrorism is not to participate in it. Which for Britain means pulling our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, ending our lavish military, diplomatic and economic support for Israel, and terminating our leading role in the arms trade. But somehow I doubt that these topics will command much, if any, coverage on British TV or radio today.
Meanwhile, Richard Seymour describes the coverage.
Back to the warmly lit studio where Dermot and Sian pore over the obvious. Pre-recorded interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses (in one, Kate Silverton solemnly asks the driver of the exploded bus if he believes he had a "guardian angel" on "that day" since he survived). Still photographs of carnage accompany the interviews. Tim O'Toole, the staff-cutting boss of the Underground, explains his determination to keep the tube safe. Ian Blair, the Destroying Brains Instantly Utterly head of the Met Police, intimates that the police have stopped three attacks already since 7/7. Sian holds a door open for a wheelchair-bound survivor, and smiles warmly.

Possibly some kind of sanity or intelligence will peep through the cracks in this maudlin production, but this will make it all the more evident that seriousness of purpose and human sympathy has nothing to do with the ritualised dramaturgy that passes for 'memory'. The blogging commentariat will doubtless include those who wish to mimic the media produced hypostatisation of Grief, Anger, Determination and every other emotion an actor can display. [..] Like the media they seek to imitate and be like when they grow up, they will do your sentimental leg-work for you.

Middle-class philistinism, part 384

Sarah Crown of the Guardian writes about the choices in the Summer reading lists of various authors.
For me, one of the annual delights of the summer reading lists is the spectacle of the great and good of the books world indulging in an unseemly bout of literary one-upmanship, with the battle on to come up with more and still more worthily abstruse submissions.
She then provides an example:
For a truly breathtaking example of how the game should be played ... look no further than this year's list from Alain de Botton, who hits it out of the park in the very first sentence with the claim that he is "looking forward to reading Gabriel Josipovici's new collection of essays The Singer on the Shore". Essays: tick. Little-known (but highly respected) author: tick. Foreign (Josipovici was born in Nice): tick.
(Mark has already highlighted the factual elision here.) Despite her cynicism, Crown excludes crime writer and Newsnight Review regular Ian Rankin from contempt because he chooses novels by Jilly Cooper and Elmore Leonard:
At last: holiday reading recommendations that bear some resemblance to what will actually be lying beside our sunloungers this summer.
It doesn't bear any resemblance to what I've been reading this summer. But then again, I'm not as obsessed with fashion as Sarah Crown. I read what I need to read; that is, what gives me pleasure (but what is pleasure? Maybe that's the key question here). But even if she's right, why is Rankin's choice excluded? In the comments to her blog, Toby Lewis asks Isn't Rankin being equally pretentious claiming to be one of the people...? Well, who's to say? We make our mind's up reading these things. However, I didn't need it to tell me that Rankin is pretentious (and a boring writer according my crime novel-reading friend).

It amazes me that people who claim to love books assume that we're all secretly reading or secretly wishing to read trash. Immediately above Mr Lewis' comment is one from Serraphin: I'll take no shame in admitting I'm a big SF fan he announces. Who's ever said it's shameful? There is some great SF fiction. I never read anyone saying the opposite. Where are these highbrow snobs? Please, let me read them!

I come from a working class background and reading Proust over the summer 1987 gave me immense pleasure AND gave me new horizons. I can't forget it, unlike many hyped novels of the time. At that time, when I first started reading, I took no interest in what middle-class snobs thought I should be reading or what I secretly wished to read. I read what appealed to me. That's why I sat for hours on my own reading Josipovici's essays; not because I thought it was cool. I read them because they spoke about what was most important to me. Alain de Botton is probably looking forward to reading them because he feels the same way. A single essay can say more about the joy of fiction than a year's supply of Guardian Reviews. Take a look at his essay on Borges from the latest collection, which Mountain 7 rightly calls "fabulous" [both website pages offline now].

Other writers feel the same way: Gabriel Josipovici is a deeply perceptive critic, always rewarding with a wide range of reference. The Singer on the Shore is a beautifully written and enjoyable book. But perhaps Sarah Crown believes Muriel Spark read the book on her deathbed merely to show off too...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Unresolved anger: the movie

Slavoj Žižek's documentary The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema currently running on More4, has been instructive and fun, particularly as I'm not drawn to the cinema or psychoanalysis. I don't watch many films (and have not read any of Žižek's books). I hate being led by the hand into a story with twists and turns. Let's just go on, I plead silently. No twists and turns! I'm fed up with so many twists and turns. Just sit here with me and look. But no, always a fucking story.

Many of the films Žižek discusses I have yet to endure, probably for this reason. But it helped me appreciate why such cult movies - Blue Velvet, The Matrix etc (er, both of which I have seen!) - are so publically beloved by those around me. I used to assume it was their camp nature; enabling consumers to pose as innocent and knowing at the same time. It seems that I was right.

I remember an ex-colleague saying he did Media Studies at university so that he could read comics for three years. He got to write about how they reflect society, as if he was remotely interested in this or its implications for art. It's just another paradoxical pose (this time of laziness and engagement) designed to allow the abdication of any responsibility for its implications. It also enabled him to demand that comics be "taken seriously", as if reflecting society was art's sole purpose (and as if comics are art).

It's a curious thing that most of those who, like the above ex-colleague, devour popular culture, are also pathologically obsessed with "life". They are desperate to "live". They talk about it all the time. Live for the moment, Live life to the full they intone without ever questioning what this might mean; as if it's already been decided. They follow a round of "hedonism" in contrast to the numbing drudge of work: drinking, smoking and snorting to excess as often as possible in order to have a life that, paradoxically, they can only speak about later in some vague narrative of clichéd events assumed to be that fabled "life". Only it's the narrative that is all-important here. It's why they are also quite happy to spend hours and hours watching DVDs of cult movies and then discuss them for hours and hours. What they call "life" is an imitation; the play of a child (false innocence and false knowing again).

Žižek began his series by asserting that there is nothing spontaneous or natural about human desire, and that cinema tells us how to desire. It is the "ultimate pervert art". Well perversion is a minor form of solipsism, so that would explain the attraction. The vicious circularity of solipsism is well described here by Ian Penman in his pitch-perfect imagining of Julie Burchill's likely response to such an analysis.

Žižek's "fundamental question" at the beginning of the second part came after we see Keanu Reeves emerging from his pod in the Matrix. "Why can't we just enjoy life directly? Why do we need this virtual supplement of fantasies?" His answer is that our enjoyment needs an illusion to sustain itself. Hence our greedy consumption that seems so necessary yet also seems only to be on the road to enjoyment; on the road to life.

My fundamental question following this would be: what would it mean for art to be aware of this need; this contradiction? How would it manifest in the art itself? The answer, I would suggest, is the art we should seek (if not also desire).

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Handke: a footnote

I'm a classical writer. I'm a conservative classical writer.
So says Peter Handke of himself in this brief but profound NYT interview. What does that mean? asks Deborah Solomon.
With a lot of air in it. With a lot of snow flurries and summer breezes in the books.

I like the accompanying picture too - Handke barefoot, just in from the writing shed; his feet not just on the ground but caressing it. The photo reminds me of the imagined significance of Bill Callahan's barefeet during his awesome live acoustic set a couple of years ago. His ex- Cat Power was also barefoot on the David Letterman Show the other week too. What is going on?

Also worth noting about the interview is Handke on a forthcoming novel in translation:
It's very difficult to translate. It's called The Loss of the Image. It's a medieval novel about modern times. The hero is a woman banker who is starting to forget herself in the Spanish mountains.
Anyone with any news on the identity of the publisher, please write to me or add a comment. Farrar Straus Giroux published the airy My Year in the No-man's Bay in 1998 but seem to have air-brushed it from the archives.

Modest books to come

Browsing publisher's forthcoming titles, reading the blurbs, is, more often than not, an experience of mild alienation. Do they really think we fall for the nonsense? Am I the only one who sees through this? No, thankfully. Robert McCrum isn't fooled either.

An exception today is New Directions. Three novels, go on and count them - three, attracted me. All translations. César Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter gets a review in this morning's LA Times. Then there's Wilhelm Genazino's thrillingly-entitled The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. We don't get many new novels in German translation, do we? There's a longish extract which I haven't read yet (for fear of spoiling my good mood).

Finally, and perhaps most interesting of all, is Antonio Tabucchi's It's Getting Later All the Time. His novel Declares Pereira stands out in memory, although standing out is all it does such is the quality of my memory. Confusingly, New Directions' translation is called Pereira Declares, which might cause problems as about all I remember apart from it standing out is the repeated phrase: declares Pereira. Will it work the other way around?

Even if each of these novels is a disappointment, it's encouraging to have a publisher willing to publish novels that aren't 800-pagers taking on the history of the 20th Century or isn't a titillating roman à clef appealing to the schadenfreude of an audience trying to mitigate its indifference to the world by reading "this summer's hottest novel".

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Last week the TLS ran an excellent (offline) review by Matthew Treherne of several new Dante-related books, yet not Barbara Reynold's or Peter Hawkins'. I presume we can look forward to a review of them later this summer. It's great being a Dante nut.

Meanwhile, Danteworlds adds to the rich Dante resources online. It is "an integrated multimedia journey - combining artistic images, textual commentary, and audio recordings - through the three realms of the afterlife". The audio is particularly welcome as it confirmed that my three-syllable pronunciation of 'Beatrice' isn't an affection.


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