Monday, March 31, 2008

"Life is merely terrible"

Despite my resolve to write review-essays, here's another news and chat post.

Since Amazon UK has reinstated the Publication Date filter on its search engine, I've been looking for forthcoming books of note. First up is Louis Begley's The Trememdous World I Have Inside My Head, a "biographical essay" on Franz Kafka. Great title. Of course, it comes from Kafka's Diaries. Peter Mailloux used one from there too for his 1989 biography A Hesitation Before Birth. Even better. Publishers Atlas & Co offer a PDF of a sample chapter "Life is Merely Terrible", a line from his letters to Felice.

Imagine a library made up only of books with titles taken from Kafka. I open the Diaries at random: "The unimaginable sadness in the morning". Autobiography.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Festival questions again

The event at the Oxford Literary Festival mentioned here two weeks ago takes place tomorrow. Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press?

No doubt these questions were designed to provoke debate rather answers, but I want to resist them anyway. The advantages of each are also drawbacks; a blog's freedom from editorial constraint for example. Unfortunately, while its judgements might be developed and qualified over thousands of words, it will always lack the weight and consequence of a newspaper review, even the briefest and least competent. The question then becomes: who decides what is meant by 'a better job'?

The choice of that final word loads the question. It implies reviews exist to supply a service; a consumer guide. If this was the case, debate could then be focussed and the bloggers and academic reviewers on the panel replaced by readers' anecdotes. Perhaps this is why literary blogs - even this one - consist less of reviews and criticism than news and chat. After all, who has time for literary criticism when frowning over the three-for-two stall?

As I suggested in the earlier post, the hidden question of the debate is the nature of criticism. So it might be instructive to read the review one panellist has in the festival sponsor's paper. John Carey has read Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul and offers a straightforward summary and appreciation. Excruciating examples of Naipaul's unpleasant character are given as if to save us the trouble of reading the book. Nothing wrong with that. It's what the review doesn't say that's fascinating. What relevance the examples have to Naipaul's novels is not discussed. Carey says only that the biography shares the "truth-telling and ruthless objectivity" of Naipaul's work. He's reviewed biographical works like this before and, while it might entertain Times readers lounging in the conservatory, it ignores the main issue arising from the book.

By coincidence, in recent weeks various blogs have debated this very issue. Nigel Beale provides the links and then takes us back to Sainte-Beuve and Proust. I wanted to correct his interpretation of Proust's words but Svetlana Correa did it for me:
The essence of art, the essence of true creativity, what makes Proust Proust and Bach Bach is, according to Proust, something that can never be found in those facts about an artist. It is something that an individual creates as if ex nihilo… That is why a "crude" person can create a sublime art, and a most refined be sterile…
How can we approach this essence and how might it help us in this destitute time? As I recovered from my recent misfortune on a country road, these questions became less pretentious and more urgent. Perhaps it was the painkillers. Anyway, for this reason I resolved to write reviews rather than these kinds of blog posts. I may be some time.

Sweet FA

Until the 18th of March, there were two people on Earth who were fans of Samuel Beckett, Gabriel Josipovici and Portsmouth Football Club. Once Anthony Minghella died, I was left alone. His first production was a musical version of Josipovici's story Mobius the Stripper and he contributed Play to the Beckett on Film series. One consolation is to know that, ten days before he died, he would have seen Pompey play Manchester Utd in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. The club hadn't won at Old Trafford since 1957 and had only recently lost 2-0 there in the league (I listened to it while in hospital). It was 0-0 when, with a few minutes left, we got a penalty. As 70,000 ManU fans looked on booing and whistling, Sulley Muntari had a chance to redeem 50 years of hurt. A Pompey fan happened to be recording the event from the stands.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Talking Thomas Bernhard

More joy for New Yorkers. In February last year, the KGB Bar in the city hosted an evening of readings from the work of Thomas Bernhard. Dale Peck was among the readers that night. He's also involved in The Art of Failure, a panel discussion about Bernhard to be held at the Austrian Cultural Forum during the 2008 PEN World Voices festival; the evening of Thursday, May 1st to be exact. Reservations are required, so best use the email address provided on the site.

Peck's co-panellists are Paul Holdengräber, Fatima Naqvi and Horacio Castellanos Moya. The latter is author of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador and Senselessness, both of which, I'm told, borrow a Bernhardian style in confronting Salvadoran political violence. Senselessness is forthcoming from New Directions (something I'd usually expect to say of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). In the meantime, Words Without Borders has an extract.

The discussion will be moderated by Jonathan Taylor, organiser the KGB event, which provides an opportunity to repost a link to Admiration Journey, his charming account of a trip to Bernhard's country home.

But that's not the last of Bernhard news: in June, the University of Delaware Press publishes Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard by Thomas Cousineau.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Festival questions

Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press?
These are two questions to be addressed at the Oxford Literary Festival on 31st March by a panel of two book bloggers and two academics. Questions worthy of discussion of course, if only to define some of those terms. However, it looks to me criticism itself, rather its location, is the concealed issue. In responding to James Wood's new book How Fiction Works, one panellist has already expressed discontent with the established approach:
It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.
It's a question unlikely to trouble many "book lovers" but, if there are critics willing to address it, right now there's only one medium offering space to do so.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Wonderful insidious prose"

It is not just in the Anglo-Saxon countries that publishers have assumed that readers crave "accessibility", that is, being told what they know already.
Jonathan Meades is King Cnut (sic) to the tide of philistinism risen even higher since the death of Robbe-Grillet. He read the late author's novels untouched by the rote populist judgement.
I thus didn't know there was no psychology in his work, because the depiction of impotent jealousy in La jalousie seemed horrible, painful and psychologically acute. I didn't know there was no characterisation because the pimp or protector in 'Immortelle was immediately recognisable as a hideous character. I didn't know there was no emotional affect because the soldier's plight - lost, mistrustful, seeking shelter in a snowbound city - in Dans le labyrinthe is so vividly realised, so elemental that it's harrowing.
While you're here, don't miss Meades' gloriously singular documentary Magnetic North hidden away last week on BBC4. The walk through the shrouded forest on the island of Rügen (episode 6/6 here) is alone worth a thousand and one Michael Palin travelogues.

Better dead than read

In The Times, John Carey reports (link broken) on Julian Barnes' horror of death: "He wakes in the night, beating the pillow with his fist and shouting, Oh no Oh No OH NO."

How odd – I feel the same way about The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Roubaud in London

On the evening of Wednesday, March 19th, Jacques Roubaud - novelist, poet, mathematician and member of OuLiPo - will give a reading (in English) at Foyles bookshop in the Southbank Centre. Among other things, he'll read from his major prose work, of which only volume one - The Great Fire of London - has been published in English. However, volume two - La Boucle - is said to be on its way. The event starts at 6:30pm and admission is free.

You can read more about all six volumes in Dalkey Archive's Casebook on the series.


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