Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Two links, one quote and a song

Mark Thwaite reviews Aharon Appelfeld's All Whom I Have Loved in the Daily Telegraph.

Michael Roloff concludes his passionate defence of Peter Handke.

In an obituary of actress and producer Nicole Stéphane, Tom Vallance reports François Truffaut's response to her request for him to direct a film version of Proust's Swann's Way:
Having reread Du côté de chez Swann, it was perfectly clear to me that I should not have anything to do with it, that no one should. Even so, though it would be sacrilegious to adapt Proust for the cinema, there is something terrible about uttering the words: no, I'm sorry, I'm not interested.
And finally, one of my favourite songs and its lyrics (BTW, why are lyric pages always full of glaring errors?). Mmm, anyway, twang those steel gee-tars.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In the age of Handke

Michael Roloff continues his essay of McDonald destruction, this time discussing the literary side of the American Scholar atrocity. He's also a great advocate of Handke beyond the critical disdain:
Think of Handke as composer with the inclinations of a Cezanne, to create alternative verbal worlds that stand in an unusual relationship to the world that we inhabit. Handke is also a didactician, a kind of activist Wittgenstein. To live in the age of Goethe is many a Germanist's pipe dream, I am glad to live in a world that at least has one Handke. He nourishes me as no other writer does. A few pages of Handke, one good analytic essay, my friends the smart crows and I forget all about the McDonalds of this world.
Elsewhere, and I had meant to mention this yesterday, Alok of Dispatches from Zembla reports on a perplexed reading of Handke's Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia while Antonia of the wonderful flowerville (link now broken) provides the necessary rejoinder.

In my current reading, I've been revising my opinion of Handke's massive My Year in the No-man's-Bay. First time I read it some years ago, boredom reigned. Now it's something like a lucid dream of a world incandescent with signs. By-no-means as great as Repetition, but I can't think of a more beautiful book than that beyond Dante or Proust. Really.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cudgelling an author: Roloff responds

It is but the latest, albeit crudest and most ignorant and distorted, baffled as much as baffling self-righteous libel to appear in the United States on the same subject; and if it had not appeared in the medium that bears the title scholar and is sponsored by the crossword puzzle champs I can't imagine anyone paying it the least heed. McDonald's piece is but the latest installment of the forever same caricature of Handke's political position on Yugoslavia which is then employed to cudgel the work of an author that one misreads just as badly. It's the old two sucker punches in a row.
Peter Handke's first English translator Michael Roloff responds to Michael Macdonald's attack in The American Scholar on Europe's greatest living author. This, the first part, deals with the political aspect and MacDonald's niche in what others have called the Worthy-Genocide Establishment. The second part, on MacDonald's bizarre literary misreading of Handke (he has "a postmodernist aesthetic" apparently!), is to follow.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Uncle Martin in front of the Hütte

Continental Philosophy's blog [no longer extant] provides this link to a BBC documentary, from several years ago, on Heidegger. It features Hans-Georg Gadamer, George Steiner and Richard Rorty among others. Let Hermann guide you around his father's famous hut in Todtnauberg! There's also one on Nietszche from the same series. There was a predictable third, I remember, on Sartre.

Is there quicksand on Chesil Beach?

No doubt many more of us will be linking with breathless enthusiasm to this extract from Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel On Chesil Beach. When they do, I hope they also comment. What do readers really think of this? Like Florence in the second paragraph, I'm "mildly incredulous" that this sort of thing is still being written. It's not that it's bad writing. In fact, one can't deny that it's hugely accomplished. But that is, in a way, its deepest problem. In addition to the control-freakery observed by Ellis Sharp last week quoting James Wood, this extract is also cruel, prurient, patronising, glutinous and smug.

Ian McEwan is undoubtedly one of our best writers. It's just that he's not a very good artist.

Aggressive dimness: a review of Goldberg: Variations

The LA Times runs one of the first reviews of Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations. I should be pleased. It's not a negative review as such, nor is it dismissively short. Yet it also resorts to a rote intolerance to reflection, to thought, to anything not conforming to the narrow aesthetic boundaries of the contemporary novel. It's very demoralising.

Presumably Stephanie Zacharek ("a senior writer for") was given the job because she's a music critic, yet she mentions Bach's work only once and spends the rest of the review forgetting it. She begins by referring to chapter 11, which
consists solely of a description of a storeroom — or maybe a painting of a storeroom — containing 11 objects: Two books, a round box, seven bottles and jars (sitting on shelves and hanging from hooks) and a piece of fruit. In painstaking detail, Josipovici notes the exact position of each item, where it appears in this tableau, which of the other items it may be leaning against and which part of it may be slightly obscured by another item in front of it: Returning to the left hand side, between the bottle and the lemon hangs a brown jar, one of whose handles is clearly visible, the other just discernible in the gloom. And so forth. This storeroom, or painting, could be a metaphor for any number of things. But given the context of the book, it may be most useful as a metaphor for the British writer and scholar's brain, which is clearly a kind of interior Library of Congress holding a vast number of cultural and literary references, at least one or two of which spill out on nearly every page.
Well, the chapter is a description of a painting. Later in the novel it is viewed by a married couple - one of whom is an art critic - at a very fraught time in their relationship. The elaborateness of the description might then be seen as less a metaphor than as a means of achieving calm, just as Bach's work was meant (according to legend at least) to ease insomnia. Perhaps Zacharek has far fewer cultural and literary references in her brain, not so much a Library of Congress than the 3-for-2 stall at the local bookstore, because her cluelessness spills out in every paragraph of this review. I hate to think what the junior writers at Salon are like. She claims that the novel
aims to tease our sluggish brains into action. But many of these stories consist of ponderous, pompous blowhards sitting around talking about ideas, and their aggressive cleverness is almost immediately wearying. Is Josipovici pretentious, or is he simply drawing pretentious characters? It's impossible to tell; either way, his erudition depletes oxygen instead of letting our spirits and our minds breathe.
Her mind might have found a gasp of air if she'd considered these interludes as part of the whole. The apparent impossibility to tell might then be revised. Even if Josipovici had not referred to it in an interview, such a reading is demanded by the title's allusion. Imagine someone reviewing Bach's GVs by picking each variation apart: "oh this one was the best, and that one was the quickest, but I didn't like the slow one, it sent me to sleep". Such a reviewer would not be asked back and a real music critic would be drafted in. So rather than read the variations as part of an elusive whole (the missing arias anyone?), Zacharek concentrates on the highlighting the appearance in the novel of the great no-no of modern literary life:
[Josipovici's] store of references is broad and deep ... and he shows boundless energy and enthusiasm for applying those references. Perhaps too much enthusiasm. The book may be the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie aimed at intellectuals: You can easily imagine certain obsessive types poring over it, re-reading it two and three times to parse the meaning of every phrase and citation.
This from someone who has just forced meaning onto a simple description of a storeroom! And why this obsession with who the book is "aimed" at? "Intellectuals" means as much as "the masses", i.e. nothing, unless you're a self-hating middle-class media type. The references in the novel are never gratuitous or playful but intimate to its meaning. "Applying those references" is disingenuous. She makes it sound like a lecture, or a review by flailing critic. The novel consists of thirty chapters as various in a literary way as Bach's GV is musically (which it resembles far more than a David Lynch movie). And like Bach's piano work, it is complex on a local level yet overall is lightness itself.

"The aggressive complexity of Goldberg: Variations is more a liability than an asset" Zacharek says ending the review, begging the question of what liability and asset mean in our experience of life and art - a question discussed throughout the book and a question one could also ask of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but it is one our reviewer prefers not to be asked. Like Goldberg's insomiac client in the novel, she demands sleep whilst refusing to wake up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

For somebody who needs it

Golden Handcuffs Review (which I'd not heard about until this evening) has extracts from The Abyss of Human Illusions by Gilbert Sorrentino. His son Christopher explains the background to the work, completed "little more than a month before he died".

The current issue also features two chapters from let me tell you, a novel by Paul Griffiths, also known as a music writer. He explains that the novel is "a narrative in which the Ophelia of Shakespeare's Hamlet tells her story in her own words – literally, in that she is restricted to the 481 different words she speaks in the play (including both quartos as well as the First Folio text). Where other characters from the play speak, they are similarly confined to the words Shakespeare gave them."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Modernist vs genre fiction: another distinction

Over-subscription to Gabriel Josipovici's talk "What ever happened to modernism?" last Wednesday evening meant the small room in which it took place soon became crowded. People stood in the aisles, sat on the floor or peered in through the entrance. The bustling atmosphere contradicted any impression that this was to be a dry academic paper presented to a sleepy coterie. And when a large window was opened to allow everyone to breathe, the invasion of police sirens and the grunting of delivery vehicles added to the sense of significance, even if they also threatened to drown out the speaker.

Rather than outline Josipovici's argument, which Ellis Sharp has done already with impressive speed and accuracy, I want to pick up on what interested me in particular. Ellis mentions it:
Josipovici then went on to talk about genre. A genre is like a family – you take it for granted. You feel comfortable there. Things are familiar and comforting. But confidence in a genre can wane in the same way that a family can come to seem deadening. He cited an example from Dr Johnson, who criticised Milton for responding to the death of a friend by writing a pastoral elegy. The generic form was false, not natural.
He compared the popular genres of Johnson's time with the emerging novel which pretended to be something else: a true story. For this reason it became hugely popular, taking over as the dominant literary form. And no wonder. Here was an infinitely flexible vessel in which one could pour experience of the world. To become a famous writer, one no longer had to chew through the brittle paper of the literary law of genre. This was also the time of the French Revolution in which political and social emancipation spread throughout Europe, so it seems the practise of art travelled in parallel.

Freedom in the form of expression, however, has its problems. Josipovici provided the relevant anecdote via Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus: Haydn produced 100 symphonies while Beethoven wrote only nine. According to Mann's novel, this was due to the latter's "demonic subjectivity" taking over what had only a few years earlier been a tried and tested template. Haydn had simply filled in the form. But after Beethoven, composers were left to explore their subjectivity only, usually one not as demonic as Beethoven's. Writers were in the same position with the novel.

From this, the question that jumps out is: so what has changed since then? Well it's clear the novel in general has settled into a genre itself. Daily readers are assailed by injunctions not to dismiss - out of snobbery or pretension - the pleasures of genre fiction. Every time the Man Booker Prize comes around the opinion that literary fiction is itself a genre like any other is given an airing. It deserves no higher regard we're told. Yet, in the light of the novel's history, such assertions are evidently products of bad faith, usually shared even by those who feel inexplicably compelled to resist the peacemakers at the gates. The reason why they are made is due to the faith those who make these pronouncements have in the emancipatory qualities promised by the novel (and art in general). We're meant to respect and even celebrate the new confinement in the name of freedom!

For many, the familiar comforts of genre give more pleasure than the truth at whatever cost, and they object to being labelled philistine or as lacking judgement. This occurred in Josipovici's lecture when he expressed astonishment at the ecstatic reception given to Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. At least three attendees thought it unfair to scorn a novel recovered from a literal holocaust. But Josipovici never said she was a lesser writer than the modernists to which she was compared, only that Némirovsky, like 99% of contemporary authors, were and are simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what they were and are doing. The air of authority they adopt - that given to them by the form - betrays the freedom given by the breakdown of genre.

Josipovici concluded the lecture with customary evenhandness (which made the criticism of a sacred cow like Némirovsky all the more surprising and, in my opinion, necessary) by wondering aloud whether attachment to such freedom is pathological - part of the rootlessness propagated by the political changes over the last 220 years - or advantageous in allowing us to see something that would otherwise remain hidden. While no answer was supplied, he did end by saying this was a very modernist question. It's a question I'd like to highlight by summarising Maurice Blanchot's great short essay "The Gaze of Orpheus".

Modernist vs genre fiction: Blanchot and the myth of Orpheus

Less than a week before Gabriel Josipovici gave his talk in London, the novelist Hilary Mantel gave a lecture called Orpheus Speaks ahead of a production of Monteverdi's opera, Orfeo. She appeared very briefly on BBC R4's Start the Week to tell Andrew Marr about the famous myth and it interpretation down through the centuries. Mantel said she thought it was a profound myth about art itself but her talk would also be about how the myth affects us in our everyday life.
I want to talk about mourning, memory and the work of salvage, from the point of view of a writer who is deeply concerned both with retrieval of the personal past and with the work of bringing history 'back to life'. It is a universal human impulse to try to retrieve what is lost, to want to go back into the past and change it. But we create underworlds in our own lives, by the keeping of secrets and by consigning parts of our experience to the realm of the forgotten.
Few of the examples in Mantel's talk were revealed in advance but one was the story of Natascha Kampusch, which has also inspired Peter Handke recently.

I don't how to find out, but I would like to know if Mantel used, or even knows of, Maurice Blanchot's short essay The Gaze of Orpheus (in The Space of Literature translated by Ann Smock). It is here that Josipovici's concluding question about the nature of our artistic freedom - whether the impulse to retrieve what is gone is pathological or whether it enables us to enter realms previously denied by deadening genre - takes the form of a dynamic paradox.

Blanchot begins with the simple fact that art allows a certain retrieval, what he calls "the harmony and accord of the first night". This we might characterise as the straightforward evocation of that which is lost. Orpheus, however, wants more. He wants Eurydice in her "nocturnal obscurity, in her distance ... when she is invisible". For Orpheus, "Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach. [...] She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night." He wants that other night.

The problem is that, despite being a supreme artist, Orpheus is not allowed to look at the essence of night. Eurydice is condemned to remain in the shade. When he turns towards her, he ruins his work. The gaze is the turn from the solidity of genre to the liquidity of freedom.
All the glory of his work, all the power of his art, and even the desire for a happy life in the lovely, clear light of day are sacrificed to this sole aim: to look in the night at what night hides, the other night, the dissimulation that appears.
This is why literary modernism so often concerns itself with failure, with desire for what is beyond art, sacrificing an easy omniscience for uncertainty and subjectivity. Not out of hatred for the world but out of respect.

For conservatives, happy with the daytime gifts of art, condemn Orpheus' gaze as a form of madness, of vanity, at least of impatience. We read such criticism and contempt almost every day. Yet Blanchot says the ruining gaze is necessary to the work.
To look at Eurydice, without regard to the song, in the impatience and imprudence of desire which forgets the law: that is inspiration.
In order for the work to live, it must renounce the guarantee of daytime success and instead forget the rules: "as if what we call the insignificant, the inessential, error, could, to one who accepts the risk and surrenders to it without restraint, reveal itself as the source of all authenticity." Such forgetfulness, however, has unexpected consequences:
Had [Orpheus] not looked at her, he would not have drawn her toward him; and doubtless she is not there, but in this glance back he himself is absent. He is no less dead than she - dead, not of that tranquil worldly death which is rest, silence, and end, but of that other death which is death without end, the ordeal of the end's absence.
The artist, by embracing failure, is still condemned to eternal separation from what inspired the work. And to protect itself, the work demands the refusal of the ruining gaze even though that is its origin. How familiar is this experience for the artist: the completion of the work depending on a betrayal of its inspiration, an inspiration that remains embedded, nagging away, awaiting a new work? That betrayal is founded upon turning away from the work's origin.
Before the most convincing masterpiece, where the brilliance and resolution of the beginning shine, it can also happen that we confront something extinguished.
But this is inevitable. "Writing begins" Blanchot says at the end of the essay, "with Orpheus' gaze". To write, one must be impatient, but "impatience must be the core of profound patience"; "To write, one has to write already."

When Gabriel Josipovici asked his very modernist question at the end of his lecture, the answer became the space opened by the question just as writing opens a space to write in Blanchot's paradox. And like Blanchot's essay, it is not itself art. At least, it isn't our notion of art. It merely enables a sharper awareness of where the art we might need might be. But the same could be said for the myth of Orpheus. It is not Orpheus' song. We don't hear the beautiful sound of his voice lamenting Eurydice's absence. The myth is a story about song, a story about stories. Writing about writing. In this way, it is a very modernist myth.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Peter Handke's greater life

The first part of Peter Handke's Repetition presents the memories of Filip Kobal's early life. It ends with an epiphany in a railway station. The second part begins like this:
What I have written thus far about my father's house, about the village of Rinkenberg and the Jaunfeld Plain, must have been clearly present to my mind a quarter of a century ago in the Jesenice station, but I couldn't have told it to anyone. What I felt within me were mere impulses without sound, rhythms without tone, short and long rises and falls without the corresponding syllables, a mighty reverberation of periods without the requisite words, the slow, sweeping, stirring, steady flow of a poetic meter without lines to go with it, a general surge that found no beginning, jolts in the void, a confused epic without a name, without the innermost voice, without the coherence of script. What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurred but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly, I look on memory as more than a haphazard thinking back - as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention. (Translated by Ralph Manheim)
With this in mind, listen to Michael McDonald froth at the mouth over Handke's quiet resistance to US hegemony, an attack he extends to the fiction.
By concentrating with surgical precision on the physical details of life, Handke can paint a horrifying image of the mechanical numbness of everyday habit. But is what he describes really life? Literature is many things, but it wouldn't be worthy of our attention if it didn't have something to do with human psychology — from which Handke clearly wishes to escape.

Sharp on Josipovici on Modernism

Ellis Sharp gives his account of Gabriel Josipovici's debate-provoking talk "What ever happened to Modernism?" given earlier this evening in Russell Harty Square, London. Mark Thwaite of RSB was there too. What an array of litblogging talent in one small room!

I would like to give my account too, but I've just got in, it's past midnight and I've got work in the morning. However, before I climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire, someone did ask the speaker - was it Ellis? - whether he thought there was a popular literary novelist who was aware in his or her work of the issues raised in the talk. Josipovici asked the questioner to suggest one instead and he offered the name "John Updike". If that was you Ellis, I was the one choking two yards in front of you. Actually, I wanted to say that I thought Richard Ford was a better example - only he seems to be either unaware of the modernism seeping into the Frank Bascombe Trilogy or unwilling to disabuse reviewers and interviewers of their assumptions about its All American Realism.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Night moths

Last night I fell asleep listening to Words & Music, a new programme in the Sunday schedule of BBC Radio 3. It's a simple idea: "a sequence of classical music, interspersed with well-loved and less familiar poems and prose read by leading actors". And it worked well. You never know what's coming next (unless you check the playlist first). It can be replayed from the archive up until next Sunday night.

This week's theme was night and dreams, getting off to a great start with Schönberg's stirring Verklärte Nacht. But I wasn't so keen on the way the actors read the poetry (Longfellow, Blake, Auden, Larkin, Shakespeare, even Margaret Attwood (sic) among others). They had a tendency to emote, often ending lines with breathy wonder. It's so much more effective to hold back, to read them coolly; something Schönberg seems to have discovered once the Romantic turmoil of Verklärte Nacht had passed.

Offhand, I can't think of any poems from my favourites that would have suited the programme. But I did think of Kafka's line We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west, and then something I read on the company forum recently, written by someone who had lived in Prague: "In the Czech language nightmares are called nocni moucha, night moths". So, I thought, might we say Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis lived the dream?

"It was no dream" says the story. But that's not the same thing. Did Gregor's inner life, with its potential for imaginative release from the binds of his family, manifest in the world as this repulsive and crippling creature from the transfiguring night?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Failed reviews: introducing The Liberal

The Liberal is a new magazine to me, yet it was "first founded in 1821 by the Romantic poets Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt". It claims to be "committed to regenerating Romantic Liberalism and reinvigorating the public sphere". The burgeoning online edition features Simon Jarvis on Slavoj Žižek, Christopher Hitchens on the Leni Riefenstahl of Bush's America and Stephen Hart on César Vallejo. Most welcome however is Michael Hofmann on Brecht's poetry:
Poetry was for Brecht something he did on the side, almost a vice, a peccadillo. He didn’t want it to be his living, but was helpless to prevent it from remaining his primary expression. It was his mode of thought, of scrutiny, of play. This, I think, is what he meant when he said that the best argument against his drama was his poetry: the one deliberate, stylized, engineered and engineering – Brecht endlessly revised his plays to bring them ideologically into conformity with what was expected of them – the other anarchic, intelligent and trustworthy.
Like Prospect Magazine, The Liberal is Brecht without the poetry. A prime example is contributing editor Simon Kovar's review of Chomsky's Failed States. One can enjoy the familiar strains of ideological conformity as it tries to neutralise anarchic intelligence.

After token respect for some minor "compelling points" in the book, Kovar spends the rest of the review disguising his over-reading, impressions and suspicions as holes in Chomsky's logic.
Chomsky argues that post-9/11 American foreign policy displays a 'basic continuity' which reflects the interests of dominant domestic sectors, namely private business corporations. State power does not serve ideals, but rather the interests of concentrated power. 'Rationality' and 'logic' therefore dictate that any claim on, say, the moral imperative of humanitarian interventionism cannot be taken seriously. But if US policy-making is simply and predictably dictated by underlying structures of power, where does that leave the moral judgment (and therefore culpability) of individual politicians who are simply obeying the logic of the system in which they find themselves?
It leaves moral judgement where you left it Mr Kovar. Chomsky is merely pointing out that actions speak louder than words. While Chomsky is not a Behaviourist, neither is he a mind-reader. It's up to the citizens of the relevant countries to determine culpability (in an election if not a courtroom).
Most crucially of all, what room is left us in Chomsky’s analysis for the crucial distinction between liberal democracies – however flawed – and totalitarian tyrannies?
The distinction, as Chomsky makes clear so often you would have thought the reviewer might have taken note at least once, is that in the former we can change things using rational argument rather than fear and aggression. The significant flaw - hidden by Kovar's glib admittance - is that this depends on an independent political media to challenge power and inform the electorate. Unfortunately it spends most of its time defending power and disinforming the public. In this review at least The Liberal continues this sad tradition.

Like the clownish Peter Beaumont last year, Kovar thinks he has caught the great man out. "Chomsky seems reluctant to hold despotisms to the same moral standards he applies to liberal democracies." How many times has this canard been wheeled out?
The American, British and Israeli governments are readily condemned as being in violation of the standards of international law; but when Chomsky suggests that Syria and Hezbollah are not implicated in terrorism, or that Slobodan Milosevic wept for Bosnia’s Muslims, or that the West coerced Serbia into carrying out atrocities in Kosovo, one wonders if the same standard is being applied across the board.
Rather than "condemning", Chomsky is again merely holding these governments up to their own stated moral standards. It's Kovar who believes Chomsky is condemning them. They condemn themselves. And the "suggestions" he then lists are only that. They demonstrate the flexibility of perspectives available to the logic of the system, the perspective dutifully delineated at the drop of a hat by its loyal servants (e.g. a sudden concern for women's rights in Iran and innumerable uncritical reviews of Reading Lolita in Tehran).

Why does Kovar choose to read all this as apologetics? As a radical muslim, he might assume the first opinion, as a rationalist he'd be more likely take the second. So why does he read Chomsky so defensively? An answer appears in a revealing paragraph toward the end of the review:
It is important to remember that although Chomsky quotes liberal-democratic norms in support of his arguments, he is himself not a liberal in politics. Thus when he argues that the United States is not a “functioning democracy”, we ought to remember that liberal democratic theorists never pretended to be “democratic” in the sense that Chomsky understands the term. This is not simply because such individuals were out to protect property rights; rather, they held a genuine concern about the tyrannical potential inherent in popular democratic politics. When Chomsky quotes public opinion – making extensive use of polling data – and cites Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s popular support as evidence of their legitimacy, he displays precisely that tendency which those early liberals warned against: popular acclaim does not equal moral legitimacy. Perhaps Chomsky’s favoured analogy with Nazi Germany can at least be quoted in support of this point.
Again, Kovar seems to think pointing out contradictions in liberal-democratic argument is itself "an argument". It is simple empiricism. If the stated aim of a liberal-democracy is to "spread democracy" in selected countries, then logically democracy is the measure of that aim. And if Chomsky refers to democratic opinion (and its repression when it fails to deliver the "correct" result, as in the case in Palestine) then he is surely following such logic. This explains why he seems to Kovar to be "at one with politicians as drearily moderate as Menzies Campbell and Kenneth Clarke". But of course, he's different from Campbell and Clarke in that his analysis results from turning the logic of liberal democracy back on itself, thereby revealing that tyranny is not just inherent to popular democratic politics but currently extant. And rather than oppose it, the drearily ineffective Menzies Campbell has lately been talking up the occupation of Afghanistan as "winnable". After all, those with "moral legitimacy" know when to show genuine concern when the public sphere is invaded by innocents who take democracy seriously. How significant is it that the young man the elderly Campbell replaced as leader of the Liberal Democrats addressed the two million-strong march against the invasion of Iraq on February 15th, 2003?

Friday, March 09, 2007

No, don't shut up

Ed Champion complains about Michael Silverblatt's gloriously elongated introduction to the latest Bookworm (with Vendela Vida). The real problem is that 30 minutes is not long enough for such rapt attention to the written word (rather than the life of the writer).

The presence of Bookworm amplifies the question: why the hell doesn't BBC Radio 3 have an equivalent programme? Its arts podcast is a minor consolation.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fear of literature

Today I picked up the programme to this year's Brighton Festival (May 5-27). What literary greats are going to appear this year? I turned to the relevant pages. The first four faces one sees are Gordon Brown, Andrew Marr, Shami Chakrabarti and David Dimbleby. Did I get the wrong page? No, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a civil rights campaigner and two BBC political commentators constitute the headline acts of the literary branch of the festival!

Page two of the booklet advertises three more features: discussions about Baghdad and Chernobyl and, at last, something about literature. The poet Tony Harrison, it says, "is Britain's leading theatre and film poet" (what ever that means. I know him as a poet alone, such as A Cold Coming from 1991). So he's going to discuss poetry? No. "He is also a writer who firmly believes that poetry should address the great issues of the day". Ah, we know what that means don't we? Isn't poetry a great issue? Apparently not. He's talking about a film about Hiroshima.

It looks like I'll be keeping up the tradition of not attending a single event. Even the one vaguely interesting literary event has to be mitigated by current affairs. Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng discuss the book about the latter's life in Sudan.

This fear of books is catching. Today's TLS has an advert for the Bath Literature Festival. The eight pictures feature: a TV historian, a TV psychiatrist, an actress, a TV cook, an illustrator, a philosopher, a crime writer and just one (rather photogenic) novelist. There might well be others appearing, but they're keeping very quiet about it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

An idea for an Anglican revival

Peter Cole tells Mark Thwaite about what inspired him to produce The Dream of the Poem.
I am not religious in the conventional sense, but every Friday night/Saturday morning the first year I lived in Jerusalem, I went with an Iraqi-Jewish friend to these middle of the night sessions which simply blew the lid off of any notion I had previously held of what poetry was and might do. Traditional and religious Jews from a variety of Eastern countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Bukhara, and elsewhere, would gather at 3 a.m. between the autumn holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and the spring festival of Passover and, for some four hours, sing intensely beautiful, kaleidoscopic and sometimes mystical poems along a variety of Arab scales and modes, with soloists stretching the lines in the aural equivalent of arabesque fashion and the ragged, informal chorus (of which I was a part) joining in as the solos trailed off.

This “devotion” — though the English word hardly begins to get at what was happening — was accompanied by whiskey, snuff tobacco, boiled potatoes with salt, pepper, and fenugreek, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, cardamom-spiced tea, and much more, including the occasional fistfight. That first year in Jerusalem showed me not only a new kind of poetry and a new notion of literary reality, but a new kind of Judaism.

Monday, March 05, 2007

An instant of extreme happiness

Last month I was slightly hasty in heralding the release of A Voice from Elsewhere, a collection of late essays by Maurice Blanchot, beautifully translated by Charlotte Mandell. However, I understand it is now available. SUNY Press even offers a PDF of the first chapter. It reveals a rare Blanchot moment as he begins with a biographical reference.
When I was living in Èze, in the little room (made bigger by two views, one opening onto Corsica, the other out past Cape Ferrat) where I most often stayed, there was (there still is), hanging on the wall, the likeness of the girl they called "The Unknown Girl from the Seine", an adolescent with closed eyes, but alive with such a fine, blissful (but veiled) smile, that one might have thought she had drowned in an instant of extreme happiness. So unlike his own works, she had seduced Giacometti to such a point that he looked for a young woman who might have been willing to undergo anew the test of that felicity in death.
He then goes onto discuss the poems of Louis-René des Forêts which also refer to this mask.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

New Handke novel (in German)

According to a German site (new to me) dedicated to Peter Handke, the greatest living Austrian writer had a new novel published last month. The title Kali: Eine Vorwintergeschichte is translated by publisher Suhrkamp as Potash: a Pre-Winter Story. It seems to have elements of the story of Austrian schoolgirl Natascha Kampusch. But the book description in Suhrkamp's comedy English makes it no clearer.

Existence and "guilty" pleasures

When Bloglines updates with an array of new posts to read, there are a few I always go to first. The Existence Machine is one of them. And it's one year old tomorrow. I hope it continues to gather the readers it deserves.

Such anniversaries can cause problems though, as Richard of Baltimore discusses. At some point, usually after a year, the blog takes on an identity separate from its author, and the need to speak which gave birth to the blog in the first place finds the blog has become an obstacle instead.

So, my own blog now refuses to allow overtly political posts, and the kind of philosophical/confessional posts Spurious has made its own, also seems beyond it. Hence the short, sharp posts here of late. There are only so many times you can say the same thing. But here I go nonetheless, mistakenly.

The regular blogosphere references to "guilty pleasures" has really irritated me of late. Take a look at this cartoon in the New York Observer which has doing the rounds recently: the Guilty Pleasures of the Literary Greats. It shows William Faulkner greedily watching TV and offers the caption: "In the early '60's, William Faulkner would, without fail, excuse himself from his dinner guests to enjoy his favourite T.V. sitcom: Car 54, Where Are You?".

Setting aside the unnecessary apostrophe (why do people think that to pluralise a number you need to give it a possessive apostrophe?), where is there any evidence that Faulkner felt remotely guilty about his enjoyment? I mean, if he felt it, wouldn't he hide the reason for leaving his guests?

Of course, this philistine drivel flows from the assumption that Great Art is a Platonic realm and good for you like a sermon, while "guilty pleasures" are what we'd all prefer to engage in instead. When I read litbloggers on this subject, for example the otherwise excellent LitKicks just the other day, it's like they've been taken over by the Nick Hornby hypnotoad. It isn't about snobbery but making the distinction between an ephemeral need and what is needed at the deepest level. How many times does it need saying? If a mass-market, blockbuster paperback offers to fulfil the latter need, then please tell us about it!

This is why I read litblogs, to find the books I need to read on a very personal level. As I don't read mass-market, blockbuster paperbacks, I'm open to convincing suggestions. I'm not a snob you see. I'm happy to "confess" that I watch lots of trash TV. Top Gear and Most Haunted are among my favourites (even though I don't drive or believe in ghosts). But if I'm going to write here about what I watch, I'd prefer to write about Eloge de l'Amour. Not because I'm "ashamed" of the others or because I'm trying to put up an intellectual front, but for the same reason restaurant critics write about eating the finest food and not about shitting it out.

Formal desperation

When we think of Saul Bellow's work what we think of is a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.
So begins Gabriel Josipovici's introduction to The Portable Saul Bellow. This alone is why I love reading Bellow and also why he is more than just an "essayistic" novelist of ideas or of "period pieces" as suggested by Dan Green in his perplexing appraisal of Bellow. It's good to see the Library of America is continuing to collect the novels, with the latest trio reviewed by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in the LA Times.

In fact, thinking about it, the imperative of that tone of voice applies to all my favourite authors. Formality on its own - the literary novel, for example, as practised in this country - is suffocating, a dead end, while desperation on its own - what might be called Cult writing - is a hollow substitute for the raw life it seeks to communicate. Absence is everything.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A song for BS Johnson

The Pernice Brothers, a band I quite like a lot, has a song called BS Johnson on Live a Little, their latest LP (which I have yet to hear). The chorus goes:
You were gone by 42
There'd be no rigid form for you
Jammed into a plot where you never would fit
A tiny manuscript with a hole cut in it.
You can hear how good it is on the band's AV page. The LP also reworks Grudge Fuck, one of Joe Pernice's best songs, written when the band was The Scud Mountain Boys. The original is much better.

Bookshop chat

This is a 15th Century bookshop in Lewes, north of Brighton, called, er, The 15th Century Bookshop. Lewes is an oasis in philistine southern England. Virginia Woolf owned a house a hundred yards or so away from the High Street, where this picture was taken. And, this week, on a stall outside another bookshop nearby, I saw copies of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Delillo's Mao II and a book called Torture in the Eighties. Unfortunately, I had to report the shop to the authorities for failing to display the obligatory tattered Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Applying restraint

I've just read All Whom I Have Loved, the latest Aharon Appelfeld novel to be translated. Like all his books, the simple rhythm of the prose makes it easy to continue reading. Aloma Halter's translation - despite the awkward title - has the quality of invisibility achieved by Dalya Bilu, the best of Appelfeld's various collaborators. It is also easy to regard him as "an interesting minor novelist". The limits of his novels, their silences, suggest a lack "more important" or "ambitious" novelists have the ability to fill. The latest novel is no different. It is narrated by Paul Rosenfeld, a nine-year-old boy, living in the aftermath of his assimilated parents' divorce and the shadow of growing anti-Semitism in 1930s Europe. We've been here before in his two best novels, The Age of Wonders and The Healer. And, as in both of those novels, there is an idyllic holiday with the mother while an artistic father flails about in a culture increasingly hostile to Jews. For these reasons, All Whom I Have Loved seems contrived. Yet I still find it exhilarating to read a novel with such restraint. Nothing is psychologised. The boy reports what happened without a controlling knowingness, without any sentences reporting the thoughts and feelings of anyone except himself. In reading novels by Appelfeld, the world becomes mysterious, frightening and wonderful all at the same time. Imagine what contemporary fiction would be like if this constraint was applied universally.


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