Friday, November 30, 2007

Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth

In the back of this week's TLS there's an advertisement for The VS Pritchett Memorial Prize 2008 run by the Royal Society of Literature.
A prize of £1,000 will be awarded for an unpublished short story of between 2,000 and 5,000 words.
Usually, I wouldn't even read any further, but this time I was reminded of Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of Roberto Bolaño's wonderful stories. Is it the first, Sensini, in which the narrator corresponds with a reclusive author with whom he shared a short story prize? My copy is back in the library so I can't check. Anyway, in either that story or the next the narrator tells of their correspondence, how they prompt each to enter short story competitions, sometimes entering the same story in separate competitions, merely changing the title. Nobody notices even if they win. It's a beguiling tale. Yet I was also frustrated with the silence about the stories themselves. Both authors seem to write them with matter-of-fact ease. What are the stories about? Did the writers care about them or consider them confections for a gullible audience? Of course these questions must be what makes it so beguiling. That and £1,000.

It probably isn't a coincidence that all Bolaño's stories, in this collection at least, are on an odd kind of cruise control, giving the impression of having being written in one go, without revision or reflection, never lingering over description, moving relentlessly forward, using initials as names perhaps to camouflage unadorned autobiography, and then stopping, as if a word count or deadline had been met. Still, for all the nagging sense of having been taken for a ride, it's no surprise the narrator won some prizes.

PS: The New Yorker has just published his story Álvaro Rousselot's Journey.

Sylvia Plath at the ICA

One of the manuscripts in the permanent exhibition at the British Library that sticks on my memory of Tuesday's brief visit is Sylvia Plath's handwritten note to a publisher about the poem attached, Insomniac. Set aside the aura of the antiquities, it evoked a sharper melancholy for marking our own time with ancient death.

By coincidence, next Monday (December 3rd) the ICA has an evening revisiting Plath's life and work "focusing on the relationship between the visual and verbal". Be warned, folk around town, that the event clashes with the one at the British Library I mentioned the other day, and that both also charge for attendance.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The question of Modernism

What has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelligent well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at university, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Française, while ignoring the work of marvellous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?
This was one of the more provocative questions from last March when at least three literary bloggers attended Gabriel Josipovici's lecture What Ever Happened to Modernism? in Russell Square, London. Read about it and the stir it caused in the audience here and at The Sharp Side. But even better, read an abridged version in this week's TLS (unfortunately not online). Alone it's worth the cover price, but you also get to read the Books of the Year choices of TLS writers. One notable choice: The Archbishop of Canterbury recommends William T Vollmann's Poor People.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leaning and peering

God, we seem to have had substantially this same thread so many times and it's still boring. Who cares what someone hasn't read?
So asks the first commenter to Stephen Moss's blog about "guilty" omissions from one's reading history. One can only concur. I've said it before: I am not ashamed. Reading shouldn't a game of cultural awareness or oneupmanship but of personal happiness (in the widest sense). But one thing does trouble me: not having read books whose pages I have turned to the end. Yes, I've read each word and even noted down significant lines, yet something remains out of reach. I sense that I need to read it again. The book still awaits me, still awaits revelation. Again, will I ever read it?

Yesterday, in the British Library, in the new and permanent exhibitions, I browsed handwritten words from famous hands: Jane Austen, Captain Cook, Sir Philip Sidney, Wordsworth, Sir Paul McCartney. People blocked my view to lean closer to the glass and study the pages. What are they searching for, I wondered. Do the printed documents conceal something revealed by their personal scribbles of ink? No, probably not. But still this leaning over, this long peering. Is it perhaps a manifestation of a deep unease, that we haven't begun to read at all?

In this space ...

In this space ... the real is already imaginary and detached from its truth, its identity. In this space, the plasticity of matter no longer refers to the substance to which qualities cling but to the arrested death that is the rigorous immobility of the statue. It is ambiguous space and it is the most subtle of bodies, for it is neither substance nor image but rather the liquidation of the elemental distance that separates the two. This space belongs neither to art nor to philosophy, neither to the image nor to the concept. In contrast to the philosopher, the artist is allied with the very weakness of space itself: communication or sheer communication - the pure “there is”.
from Radical Passivity by Thomas Carl Wall.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Breaking the rules

There was something slightly illicit about browsing the British Library's Breaking the Rules exhibition subtitled The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937. It was, I later realised, because someone had turned the lights out. Many of the artefacts - such as scores by Schoenberg - are protected by the gloom of the vault. It's like you shouldn't really be there. Those that weren't in the dark included one of Joyce's notebooks for Finnegans Wake, a first edition of Ulysses and an edition of Bataille's Acéphale magazine. I was particularly pleased to see these. But, generally, I'm not one for exhibitions. I have no patience just too stand and look. And as I hurried around the space, I couldn't help but sing along with our very own avant garde.

By the way, if you're in the area, next Monday evening (3rd of December), the library hosts a debate What happened to the Avant Garde? lead by AS Byatt and Gabriel Josipovici.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Spectral presences

How can a book so absorbed in the minutiae of daily life be so thoroughly imbued by a sense of loss?
Vertigo: Collecting WG Sebald asks the question of Jacques Roubaud's novel The Great Fire of London and, in another post, compares the relation of photographs in this book to those used by Sebald in his. It also includes quotations from what looks like a fascinating interview with Sebald:
I have always had at the back of my mind this notion that [dead] people aren’t really gone, they just hover somewhere at the perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits. And photographs are for me, as it were, one of the emanations of the dead, especially those older photographs of people no longer with us. Nevertheless, through these pictures, they do have what seems to me some sort of spectral presence.
Going back to Roubaud though: in a post earlier today, I mentioned the occasional value of books of the year lists. Well, it's 18 years since one in the Independent sparked my interest in Roubaud's great work. It's also four years since I posted an essay about the translation. It's good that the word is spreading.

Chris Morris speaks his brains

'Islamism'. What does it actually mean? For many it means 'political Islam'. Amis calls it a 'murderous ideology', equating it with terrorism. Now look at the following statement: 'The terrorist killings in New York, Madrid and London were wrong. They were indiscriminate, un-Islamic and based on ideas abstracted to the point of insanity.' I was firmly told this by an ex-Mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago. He was an Islamist. I strongly doubt he was murderous.
In a disconcertingly sober mood, comedy god Chris Morris looks at The absurd world of Martin Amis. It's a rare mention for a part of recent history that has been more or less airbrushed from official memory: the West's love affair with Islamic Mujahideen. Oh how I wish ITV would repeat Sandy Gall's adventures in the hills of Afghanistan following the conscript-beheading "resistance”. Now, 25 years later, he's telling another occupier that "the Afghan war is winnable". If only his Mujahideen buddies had known then of his undying loyalty to Afghani independence.

UPDATE: In the latest New Statesman, John Pilger shows how the corporate media's reporting is identical to Soviet reporting of their invasion of Afghanistan.

Listing heavily

Based on the Guardian's nice long list, here are three reasons why I like to read books of the year lists.

Gratification: Toby Litt choosing Pierre Joris' translations of three Paul Celan collections: "I find him more moving than any other 20th-century poet". I knew this already of course, but it's good that someone else is saying it in public.

Curiosity: Peter Ho Davies recommends (in part 2) the work of Charles Baxter, "a quietly profound thinker about art" who has, he says, written "perhaps the single best book about writing". Never heard of him but this certainly intrigues me (even if he looks suspiciously commonsensical).

Revelation: After reading the dismaying first sentence of Geoff Dyer's entry, I realised why, at the end of his fine book on US American photography, the inclusion of James Nachtwey's work seemed so incongruous and ill-judged.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Spurious disengagement

Spurious attempts a 'reading biography':
I read, now, in response to what fascinated me in the interval into which reading, meaning seemed to plunge. It was books in which I'd find that same plunging that I sought - books as they were ringed around a waterfall, the fall of reading into itself.
I am comfortable in the company of such mannered obliqueness. Colm Toibin says we read Henry James because he was "not given to frankness or indisputability" and I read Spurious because of a corresponding disengagement. You won't find "debate" here - what really should not be called debate but the received rhetoric of the herd. But this time disengagement is mentioned explicitly: "there is the surprise" he writes "that I would never involve myself in the clash between what is called literary and what is called genre fiction". Of course, I'm disappointed, but disappointment is disingenuous as Spurious' post merely reverses into the clash. Nor would he "feel a proud vindication, seeing Ballard revered, or Dick; or Crowley receiving his due, or Wolfe" because (it is clear) genre is not the purpose of his reading. His reading is thereby literary. This is as much as should be said. But I have to go on. All works form a genre in coming into existence. Vindication would both justify and remove that genre's worth. Otherwise all works of genre are vindicated and the particular erased. Resistance to genre marks the literary. Hence perhaps Spurious's recognition that many of his admired authors
have a small pallette of concerns, of moods, of characterisation, of plot. A small palette, painting dark grey on black - but that is enough, for it is in the wearing away of plot, of character, in the exacerbation of mood that I find I can discover [a] kind of non-reading, the inward waterfall that draws me to its edge.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My other car sticker is funny

Wendy Lesser in BookForum: While you are reading The Leopard, and particularly while you are rereading it, you are likely to feel that it is one of the greatest novels ever written. If this sense fades as you move away from the book, it is only because one's memory cannot fully retain the pungent artfulness of Lampedusa's brilliant sentences.

And this from Book World: I had a slight reluctance to picking up The Stone Gods after a rest from it. Somehow although I was enjoying it, the thought of it was hard. [Yet] every time I opened it again I loved it again and wondered why on earth I hadn't been racing back to it.

Why do so many books seem - excuse the pun - lesser once there is a distance from the reading experience? When this question first arose, when I was noting my favourite books of year, I knew there was something profound to say. Nothing to do with memory. Not pungency. Not art. Probably nothing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Amis rivals Dickens

The Sharp Side points out the weakness in Ronan Bennett's otherwise welcome response to Martin Amis' non-literary opinions. It takes issue when Bennett commends Ian McEwan's "truthful, moving and humbling" words about the human imagination.
But McEwan's point of view ... also illustrated the limitations of anguished humanism. The hijackers were bad people because they did not consider the humanity of the people they killed. The same criticism could be made of the RAF pilots who drop bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan, but you would never find McEwan making it.
Indeed, and look what happens to public figures who do make it. The Sharp Side ends with a (to me) shocking revelation about Charles Dickens's response the Indian mutiny. Again, Kafka is proved right to recognise "a heartlessness behind [Dickens'] sentimentally overflowing style".

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Kafka challenge

The quotation below is apparently from Kafka. But I can't find it.
If it could have been otherwise it would have been otherwise.
Does anyone out there know where it comes from? Please either leave a comment or email me (at the address just above the blogroll below). Many thanks in advance.

Into the unknown

Foolishly, he'd assumed he'd get a job at Saint-Laurent as a gardener. Such stupid faith in your hopes and dreams is one of the dangers of prison life. The past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert - so you retreat into a fantasy world, where finally you're in control. Among the lifers he's known, Sabir has seen the syndrome time and time again. You lose yourself in grandiose plans, unrealisable dreams, until life becomes a mirage. And escape can be the worst dream of all.
Of course, it's ironic that, as we read of Sabir's realism about escape from a South American prison colony, we are ourselves seeking a form of escape. The novel is the dream.

Hugo Wilcken's Colony is a compelling flight into the unknown. In this it has the same relentless quality as Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Yet, unlike that novel, Colony also begins to unravel the dream.

By using what might be, in other hands, a generic tale of prison life and intrigue between guards and inmates, Wilcken has dramatised - Beckett-like - the threat lurking within the uncanny power of storytelling. It's a terrific read.

I had wanted to write a full review because the novel deserves attention, but that would involve outlining the plot. While this usually isn't a problem with the books I tend to review, in this case it might spoil your own discovery. So instead, just read it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Handke update

FSG is to reissue Michael Roloff's 1972 translation of Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. That novel was made into a film and, should anyone be casting for a biopic, I've just noticed the ideal candidate to play the author.

For the record, I read less than half of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, the most recent novel to be translated, before giving up. I hope the as-yet-untranslated and, above all, shorter novels he's published since counters the career trajectory Ellis Sharp recognises in other fine writers, because "excruciating tosh" is about right in this case.

Everything comes good

The excellent new blog Scarecrow Comment ("Literature can never be the same for me again") and the more established Tales from the Reading Room ("It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time") have both just read my favourite fiction of last year.

UPDATE: The latter has now posted a fuller appreciation.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Much thicker in the middle

Toby Lichtig reviews Adam Thirlwell's new novel Miss Herbert and apparently quotes the author's description: "It has recurring characters; with a theme, and variations . . . It just has no plot, no fiction, and no finale." "In other words" says Lichtig "it is a book of literary criticism, which makes us wonder why Thirlwell couldn't come right out and say it."

I write "apparently quotes" because, from Philip Hensher's review, it's clear that the novel is full of such statements:
Thirlwell's manner is full of phatic gestures, ones intended to announce an approaching weightiness that never quite arrives. "To begin again, at the beginning." "In my opinion that is enough." "This book is about…" (repeatedly). Over and over again we are told, by a writer perhaps too young to remember Anne Elk, that "I have a theory…"
Yet, if it is classed as a novel, statements like these become problematic; one can attribute them to the narrator, yet not so readily to the author. In novels, the author cannot come right out and say anything without immediately having it taken away by the novel. This theory does not belong to me.

Beyond painting

Painting lives only through the slide towards the unknown in oneself.

My pictures are also an annihilation.

I am a watered down being.

I am on the side of weakness.

The artist has no role. He is absent.

Painting doesn’t interest me.

I paint the impossibility of painting.

What I paint is beyond painting.

Spurious posts a selection of lines spoken by Bram van Velde (1895-1981) taken from this remarkable and genuinely sad book.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bard celebrates Blanchot

On the evening of Thursday, November 15th, the French Studies Program at Bard College in the Hudson Valley (two hours north of New York City) presents an evening to celebrate the centenary of Maurice Blanchot.

Beginning at 7pm with "A Brief Introduction to Maurice Blanchot" by Éric Trudel, the programme of events includes George Quasha on publishing Blanchot in America, Pierre Joris reading from his translation of The Unavowable Community (a new edition would be nice guys!), Charlotte Mandell reading from her translation of A Voice from Elsewhere and the poet Robert Kelly reading P. Adams Sitney's essay On Blanchot.

In intervals between readings, Bard's Conservatory of Music will provided music referenced in A Voice from Elsewhere: some Schumann and a movement from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Void keeping

For anyone browsing The Gaping Void, a dumpsite of web-reviews, essays and blogs I've written over the years (years that have indeed been well and truly written over), I want to point out that, since reformatting my PC and re-installing the web-building software, I have been unable to access the site. (Nor can I access it from my iBook). This means the blog archive page not only cannot be updated but the broken links to the defunct In Writing typepad blog cannot be removed. Whatever.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Odd content

A discomforting reading experience is re-reading a favourite novel, one I've already read a few times, only to discover something unexpected, something that fades its aura of formal perfection. Example: Thomas Bernhard's Concrete. On page 67 the narrator Rudolf visits Niederkreut, a veteran Cavalry Officer from the First World War. Soon talk turns to Niederkreut's Will. The old man explains that he intends to leave his fortune to a name chosen at random from the London telephone directory.
I open it at random ... and with my eyes closed, I put the index finger of my right hand at a certain spot. When I opened my eyes I found that the tip of my finger was resting on the name Sarah Slother. I don't know who Sarah Slother is - her address is 128 Knightsbridge.
While the name is only odd and the address plausible (Knightsbridge is a road as well as a district), it appears to me as a false note. Perhaps I should regard it as Reger regards the flaws he seeks in Old Masters in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum: an imperfection necessary to art. But I'd rather it wasn't there. Any other examples?

Friday, November 09, 2007

A different kind of success

The Sharp Side tells the seductive story of Rimbaud the modern poet, the story he sought to end:
The inner logic of modernism is silence. But whereas almost all modernists attempt to write about their engagement with that logic, seeking out 'a different kind of failure', Rimbaud accepted it. He gave up on literature.
Well, to paraphrase that old rejoinder to people who say they are not interested in politics, Maurice Blanchot says literature is interested in Rimbaud's silence. The silence depends on an interest in literature; indeed the most passionate interest and engagement in the promise of communication offered by literature.

Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry is, it seems, his supreme literary act. And he's a modernist first and foremost because literature mattered to him; mattered enough to provoke such a revolt.

I've quoted from Blanchot's essay before and, having forgotten about it until reminded by Google, wish to quote from it again. The wish is due not to Rimbaud's poetry - with which I'm not familiar - but with a preoccupation with what is revealed by literature; what it promises to reveal and the contradictions this preoccupation evokes.

Blanchot discusses the contradictory movements of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, asserting in typically paradoxical fashion that though the latter may have been written last, they are anterior to the former. The poems of Illuminations, he writes, have as their movement the most direct and most decisive attraction toward a possible centre; a lightening flash that in illuminating draws back to its originary site.
The Season on the other hand, a simultaneous affirmation of all the contradictory positions held to and an ordeal undergone with the most acute contrariety, is the experience of a thought driven and expulsed from its centre; a centre it discovers to be 'the impossible' and to which it draws impossibly near, precisely in the divergence that pushes it away, dispersed, toward the outside.
The impossible being everything we want literature to reveal, the centre to which we wish to draw closer. By not writing, Rimbaud merely approached the centre differently; in part by imposing silence on his work to the utmost degree. Is it ironic that our fascination with this silence demands that we break it?

Links that get longer

"Some of us cannot help but follow the natural rhythm of what we enjoy doing." Ed Champion writes movingly about his famous blog in connection with a shamefully edited book.

Dinah Burch tells us that Arthur Conan Doyle was a "founder member of Portsmouth Football Association Club's team" and that "he also played cricket well into middle age. Other ventures" however "were more serious". What on earth could be more serious than Portsmouth Football Club?

James Longenbach reviews the Hollanders' new translation of Dante's Paradiso. He calls it a "clear, untroubled guide" but then says "if you want to read a poem ... then you're wise to revert to the blank verse translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867) or the terza rima translation by Laurence Binyon (1933)." I'm not sure if this is wise. Apart from the content, what caused me to feel that Dante was my poet and not some "great" I had to read to gain intellectual brownie points, was the relatively simple or colloquial language used by the modern translators. Such antiquated versions lack the exigency of Dante's journey. Of course, Dante broke with tradition himself by writing in the vernacular; hence perhaps the need for new translations. And you know, Christmas isn't far off.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sickening words

I can't forget Ted Hughes' private comments about how he believed writing prose had weakened his immune system. No matter how nutty it seems when the connection is made so plain, I can't help but imagine language has a physical power. A friend once referred to my *visceral* response to novels, the way novels are written; on a sentence-by-sentence level and by the framing - or lack of it - of the narrative. Visceral seems right. It's why I tend to stop reading literary novels after a few lines. It's also why I'm suspicious of genre fiction, because it relies on conventional elisions to maintain itself rather than by undoing the elision.

It's also why I've stopped following the news, if I can help it. The other day, the morning news headline on BBC Radio 5 was that President Musharraf of Pakistan had gone on TV "to explain why he had introduced emergency rule". So the story is not about his latest assault on democracy but whether or not he is right or wrong; that is, whether there is an "emergency" or not. Compare the respect and calm on this with the hysteria displayed when a re-elected leader removed a seditious, coup-plotting TV station from terrestrial availability.

There are examples daily. This, again from the BBC: "Civilians have often been the victims of the violence in Afghanistan - not only in attacks by insurgents, but also in strikes by the foreign NATO and US forces in the country." Of course, there's a subtle difference between an "attack" and a "strike", but not one the victims can detect.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Fresh air from France

Lucy Dallas' wonderful review of five French literary novels published recently gives a enticing flavour of a parallel universe; so different from the stifling conservatism of the British scene. I wonder what the Booker committee would make of Louise Desbrusses's Couronnes, boucliers, armures? It tells the story of two sisters, neither of whom are named (which is a fine start):
The novel is structured round three main episodes ... during the course of a large family celebration. The narrative voice hovers around the two sisters and captures their thoughts; the language is richly worked and dense. Desbrusses inverts word order and uses repetition and rhyme, which gives the text an almost poetic quality. The claustrophobic, hostile nature of the family's obsessions and prejudices is revealed little by little...
The central subject of each of the ten chapters of another of the novels is "a discarded shoe". As the reviewer says: It may take only two hours by train from London, but Paris is still a world away.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Gray vistas

A friend has been reading John Gray lately, and has told me the book he was reading, while generally unremarkable, is also full of statements that are either fatuous or just plain wrong. An academic, I was told, should be ashamed of writing such things. Until today I hadn't read anything by Gray but wood s lot links to his review of a biography of John Cowper Powys, who has, he says, "an intensity reminiscent of Proust".
As in Proust, Powys's central protagonists are introverted, almost solipsistic figures, who find relief from the sense of being 'contingent, mediocre, mortal' in sudden epiphanies, which they try to preserve in memory. However, whereas Proust's epiphanies occur always indoors in a self-enclosed human world, Powys's were found in the open fields and coastal vistas of his native Dorset - a more-than-human landscape that frames his greatest novels.
So, we can only assume the car that nearly knocks Marcel down in the Guermantes' courtyard, causing him to step back sharply on the uneven paving-stones and to experience another epiphany, was driving indoors.

Individual acts of reckoning

When you consider how the work of bloggers echoes the more-or-less personal essays of Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion, you can see how the individual act of reckoning the world through writing poses many of the same challenges as literary creation, and also provides a foundation for substantial political and philosophical debates.
Joseph Kugelmass expresses something I've long suspected. His post is part of a series on academic blogging, mentioning me along the way. He says I write "in a style reminiscent of the great literary reviews of the 20s and 30s". Which is nice. I've not yet read any reviews from that era! And I'm not quite sure if it is understood that I am not an academic. But I'm open to job offers ...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Relating to another

In A world about to be lost The Existence Machine has followed up a superb post on the work of Gabriel Josipovici with a response to On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, in particular the chapter on Shakespeare.

These links remind me that I should have posted one to Ismo Santala's review of Josipovici's novel The Inventory nearly 40 years after its publication! But it's more than a review; it's a call to the act of creation.

For a more recent work, the first issue of The International Literary Quarterly has a very short piece He Contemplates a Photo in a Newspaper. Among many others, there's also work by Lydia Davis and Daniel Gunn.

Finally, news has arrived that a play by Peter Handke - an author I happen to know Josipovici admires - is scheduled for its British premiere: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other from 1992 requires 25 actors to play 450 characters. Oh, and there's no dialogue. The director says:
The script is a long, beautifully written stage direction detailing life in a town. Handke's theory is that all stories are happening elsewhere. It's about how we don't relate to one another.


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