Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spotted links

Reconstructing Mayakovsky
"Set in the future, Reconstructing Mayakovsky revisits the past to make sense of the chaotic present. Inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian Futurist poet who killed himself in 1930 at the age of thirty-six, the novel imagines a dystopia where uncertainty and tragedy have finally been eliminated through technology. Like the novel, the website uses “found“ objects (image, sound, text) and combines elements of historical fiction, science fiction, poetry, and the detective novel, to tell the story of Mayakovsky in a radically different way."

Dalkey Annual
The summer Review of Contemporary Fiction is "the second Dalkey Archive Annual ... featuring work from books forthcoming over the next four seasons". Online content includes reviews of Bolaño, Kertész and "Three Contemporary German-Language Fiction Writers".

Rock Crystal
A non-contemporary German-language fiction writer is Adalbert Stifter. A Different Stripe reports on NYRB Classics' reissue of Rock Crystal, Marianne Moore's co-translation of Stifter's beautiful novella Bergkristall.

Maurice Scève
A Journey Round My Skull looks at Richard Sieburth's Emblems of Desire, translations of 16th French poet Maurice Scève.

Abdelwahab Meddeb
Charlotte Mandell offers excerpts from Tomb of Ibn Arabi, a forthcoming book of translations of prose poems by Abdelwahab Meddeb, described elsewhere as "one of North Africa's most important contemporary thinkers".

"Blanchot l'extrême"
Philippe Sollers reviews Blanchot's Ecrits politiques 1953-1993. I've little idea what he says as it's in French. However, it does reveal that, in the wake of the fatwa, Blanchot offered his house as a meeting point for Salman Rushdie and Khomeini's successor; with himself as mediator!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What is happening?

Last month, there was a puzzling story summary in The Guardian: "Lisa Jewell wins top prize at awards set up to rebrand chick lit and bolster its literary credentials". How, I wonder, can a prize bolster a genre's literary credentials? No doubt the word is meant as a loose definition of serious fiction, and a prize surely affords that; yes, even the Melissa Nathan Award for comedy romance. "Serious" is also loosely-defined: serious subject matter, serious attention, serious sales. But shouldn't "literary" mean more than that? Or rather, don't those who use this troublesome word imply that it means more? Perhaps not. Yet, when ever I read such articles, I smell anguish; a hunger for elusive gravity. It is never far from the surface. "You feel undervalued when you write the kind of fiction I write," Lisa Jewell said after receiving the award. "So it's great to have this genre given its own night of appreciation and recognition. To win is just wonderful." One has to ask what else a comedy romance award is supposed to recognise? And what kind of value does she imagine writers of no genre feel? It's an odd situation all round as Jewell reckons her book is "neither particularly funny, nor particularly romantic." So isn't the prize instead bolstering its generic credentials; a rebranding that burns deeper into a shedding skin?

So many questions. This post isn't supposed to be another thimbleful of boiling oil against the barbarian hordes, so I'll come to the main question: what is going on? The Guardian presents perhaps the foremost literary coverage of any newspaper in the UK, and it has a formidable online presence. So perhaps this prominence contributes to the apparently disproportionate number of book news articles, blogs and reviews it publishes that smell of literary anguish. Every week you can read of writer's frustration at being excluded from literary society ("Chick lit is almost a derogatory term") or a pitiful reader dreaming of the golden age of Dickens when literary fiction was mainstream (though never as mainstream as the penny dreadfuls they themselves would never dream of reading let alone calling literary). US literary coverage does not seem to exhibit such concern let alone pain. Something, it seems, is happening. It's more than the externalisation of literary snobbery (i.e. the example-free accusations that Chick lit is "a term of abuse for some, a back-handed compliment for others") and other than playing up to a readership wishing to feel good about itself for sucking on pap: it's an increasingly fraught, self-blinding search for gravity.

While Guy Dammann's report above finds ballast in metal and moneybags, a previous winner finds it in a surprising location: "a novel doesn't have to be unremittingly gloomy to be true to life" says Marian Keyes. Perhaps explaining why she no longer reads Anita Brookner novels, she adds: "I was sick of reading about women in huge shoulder pads striding to the boardroom and having sex on the table. [...] This is not my life." So then: a work is literary to the degree that it is true to life? This would be a turn-up: the work itself must be literary! Keyes' life comes as a surprise:
"I'm a recovering alcoholic and suffer from depression," she said. "I wake up every morning frightened. Fear is a primary emotion for human beings. I haven't drunk for 14 years, but some days getting out of bed and washing my hair is as much as I can manage. I feel incredibly afraid of being alive."
Anita Sethi's blog reports that Keyes "draws on the dark periods of her own life" for her fiction. She has "also challenged the stigma of mental illness in our society: To have a mental illness is a taboo, which doesn't do us any favours. It is far better to embrace it than deny it." This is promising not because it suggests her novels "tackle" dark subjects but that they inhabit not just the sentences but the form. She seems to striving for more than fantasy wish-fulfilment: "[the genre] is about the 'dissonance between the self we present to the outside world and what is inside - the hopes, memories and longings that are rarely exposed.'" Would then fictional truth to life be this dissonant music? No wonder, as Lisa Jewells claims, "these are books that people don't just read, they devour them - they stay up into the early hours because they want to devour them." Real life might now be recognised as real only to the degree that it is like one of these books. However, we're told there's a boundary Keyes never crosses in her fiction.
Whatever horror, trauma and pain there is in her work, it is always balanced with lightheartedness, even in a novel that tackles domestic violence. [...] Keyes' sunnier view of life is just as realistic as the unrelenting misery of much contemporary literary fiction.
Now who's using derogatory caricatures? Where are these unrelentingly miserable novels? I know that many of them make me miserable but not because of their subject matter. It's because they lack dissonant music; a lack caused, I think, by that conscious act of balancing. The writer's eye is on the reader rather than the truth or the logic of the novel. This has led to the calcification of genre and the so-called literary novel; not in respect of their immanent qualities but as art; their kinetic energy; their gravity.

Evidence: Last week, The Guardian reported that Stef Penny won the Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year Award despite her novel's status as a mainstream literary novel. One of the judges explained that "the distinction between crime and literary fiction is becoming increasingly blurred and irrelevant". And that must be right, yet only because the literary fiction as she understands it - and how it is generally understood - isn't literary at all. Remember, Robinson Crusoe, often recognised - as it is here - as the first English novel, is not a novel by Daniel Defoe but an account told by Crusoe himself. Nowhere on the original title page does it say "novel". It doesn't even give Defoe's name. Among other things, this tells us the novel emerged from the rejection of genre - or, perhaps more accurately, the invention of a new genre. It explains VS Naipaul's recent expression of weariness with contemporary novels and his belief that the great writers who before might have written novels have now moved on to other, non-fictional forms. While this has been interpreted as the death of the novel, it might better be read as a herald of its rebirth.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Warwick Prize for Writing

As Mark has already revealed, his alma mater the University of Warwick has this week announced a £50,000 prize to be awarded biennially to "an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form on a theme that will change with every award".

Details of the inaugural theme can be found by visiting the director David Morley's blog, while the rules about eligibility and nominations are available at the Warwick Prize for Writing website.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my scepticism about book prizes. What makes this prize very promising - in addition to its cross-disciplinary brief - is that, as its name implies, it rewards writing. No strictures here about conformity to a genre; no novel/novella debates; no border controls. In fact, it is conceivable that work published online will be nominated. With this in mind, I'd really like to know what you think should be appear on the longlist. Unfortunately, plans for that new gazebo on my country estate remain on hold; as one of the five judges, I'm ineligible.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

One book in the grave

In need of something to brighten a dank early morning before work, I picked up Grave Matters, a collection of photographs of authors' graves. I was expecting the long introduction by the philosopher Mark C. Taylor to be a relatively dry essay on the relation between writing and death. As a Blanchot scholar, he will know the line: The writer, his biography: he died; lived and died. But it isn't dry at all. It's quite unsettling. In it Taylor connects the family secrets he uncovered as a child and the rubbings he has since taken of the gravestones of philosophers; two in particular.
[In] Kierkegaard I detected traces of graves I had visited years earlier and heard the melancholy voice of 'unhappy consciousness' which drove my mother into the silence from which she never emerged even, or perhaps especially, when she spoke. And I came to realize more than ever that in Hegel's worldly philosophy, I sought a way out of the interminable mourning of unhappy consciousness. Kierkegaard and Hegel have never been merely theologians or philosophers for me; rather, they and their writings represent alternative forms of life or modes of being-in-the-world between which life is suspended.
This either settled or reaffirmed my own uncomprehending recognition of the regular flounder between Blanchot and Bernhard, Proust and Kafka, Stevens and Celan from which this blog is suspended.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The anguish of farewells: The Guardian on Coetzee's Disgrace

Three years ago, the TLS ran review by Gabriel Josipovici of a new edition in English of folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. It concentrated on the changes made to the many editions produced by the brothers. One passage was quoted by at least three bloggers (Waggish, The Mumpsimus and me). It's worth repeating even out of context:
What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of "revision" was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew "how to be a child" [according to Kierkegaard, the way an adult might read stories to children]. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.
I was reminded of the final line as I read Sam Jordison's reaction to JM Coetzee's Disgrace in his Looking Back at the Booker sequence in The Guardian, or rather some of the comments responding to his contention that the novel "isn't so much a narrative as a thesis" and that it "just isn't a good *novel*". Like a teacher at the end of term, Billy Mills writes: "I think Coetzee is a wonderful writer and has it in him to be a great essayist, but he is not, for my money, a great novelist because he seems incapable to either dispense with plot or make plot work." Steven Augustine says this "hit it right on the noggin" despite earlier claiming that "it's all about *taste*, and taste is *purely* subjective". If it's all about taste, all subjective, as Jordison agrees it is, then where is the "noggin" for anyone to hit? It doesn't stop Jordison providing criteria for judging: Scene-setting: "Coetzee provides a compelling portrait of a man"; Morality: "the suitably unpleasant seduction of one of his students"; Psychology: the author is "unwilling or unable to provide anything approaching human motivation for the females". Whatever the criteria and however subjective one's taste, the problem remains that "Coetzee fails to make it real". His readers need to believe is unfulfilled and the writer is blamed. Hence the emperor's-new-clothes tone of many of the comments; indeed, their childishness.

The solipsism-lite on display unwittingly discounts the value of the debate even as the thread seeks to guarantee it. Not only that, it questions the status of the novel under discussion without appreciating how this destablises the novel as a genre. Again, the author is blamed. If there is problem with Disgrace, it is that it bridges the gap between the stark power of his early novels with the darkly playful nature of recent years. The anguished farewell to wishful thinking is too much for some readers. The novels that follow – Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) – do address what it means to write in the modern world; its relation to the world and what follows: our own relation to the world. I covered this in a brief review of the latter novel, proleptically rebutting Augustine's impatient reading of the novel as "a lazily postmodernish wedding of occasionally worthy essays to consistently second-rate screenwriting". He might think the reason why they're "occasionally worthy" is all about his "purely subjective" reading yet it doesn't take long to realise the erratic subject matter and quality of the essays are both necessary to the logic of the novel. Another, far subtler commenter provides a useful link in which Coetzee suggests the essays and ideas expressed in novels are there (and not in a collection essays) for a reason: "If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?". He won't scrap fiction because there something urgent to say and fiction is the only way of saying it. We won't read another like Disgrace, at least not from Coetzee. Perhaps it's no coincidence that not one of the novels since have even made the Booker shortlist. Leave that to those who know "how to be a child".

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"I am beginning to despise the young writers": Peter Handke in Kosovo

As translations of Peter Handke's recent novels are unlikely to appear very soon, reissues will have to do. Next year NYRB Classics publishes Short Letter, Long Farewell (1971) and the trilogy Slow Homecoming (1979-81). I hope this leads to the reissue of his three best novels - Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, all published in German between 1983 and 1987 and all out of print in English.

However distracting the recent fuss over Handke's defence of Serbia and disappointing the quality of last year's Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, both emphasise why he remains a writer worth following. Like his fellow countryman Bernhard, he walks in his own direction. Maybe Jonathan Littell does too - we have to be patient for next year's The Kindly Ones - but his recent condemnation of Handke suggests otherwise.
When a family is sitting it its house in Foca and suddenly someone bursts in with a machine gun, chains up the daughter to the radiator and rapes her in front of her family, this is no laughing matter. Okay, you might say, the world is like this. But you don't have to go up to these criminals and start shaking their hands. This is obscene and yet it is precisely what Peter Handke has done. He should keep his mouth shut. He might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy.
Where is the evidence for Peter Handke shaking hands with this criminal? If true and done with prior knowledge of the crime, it would be shocking and unforgivable. But it's also no laughing matter to make things up. And if Littell is using the handshake as a metaphor for Handke's heresy, then why "precisely" ("genau" in the German)?

One only has to read this recent interview with Tommaso Di Francesco to recognise that Handke's concern is to go beyond the thought-limits set by NATO bombers and to find out what is happening on the ground.
Handke: I was in Kosovo in April and I have been there four other times recently. I remained truly struck by what I saw in the enclaves of Velika Hoca, a village with a large Orthodox church, and then in Orahovac. They are two enclaves near each other and there one understands how the Serbs are living, how they spend their time, robbed of every possession, forced to go out only at four in the morning, terrorised all the time. [...] During my "winter trips", I have been many times in hotels which house refugees, in Negotin, Fruska Gora, Bor, Nis. I have written a long report asking among other things for the journalists to tell the story of the Serbian refugees. When you enter one of those hotels you see people seated crosslegged on the ground, the whole day in a daze, until they resort to drink. With the old women who strive to keep their dignity and that of the children around them. They are waiting to die or to flee, living like the emigrants of the last century in America. And despite this there are some young people who paint, to eat and to describe existentially what they have become. If I were a journalist I would live for months with those people, like Ryszard Kapuscinski did. No-one’s doing that. In Germany there are study grants in some cities for young writers who as guests describe their experience for a year. I have made this proposal: let's send them for a month to be among the Serbian refugees. Not a single writer has put himself forward, they prefer to get a prize of two thousand Euros for talking about cookery. I am beginning to despise the young writers.
Remember: "He should keep his mouth shut". The interview inevitably turns to the scandal that enveloped Handke in 2006.
Di Francesco: You have been accused of having put a red rose on Milosevic's grave and of having approved of the Srebrenica massacre, haven't you?

Handke: It’s a complete fabrication. The Paris Tribunal has found the Nouvel Observateur guilty of defamation for these claims: they had alleged that I had declared I was only happy when close to Milosevic. Those who know me know that I hate all men of power. [...] As for Srebrenica they have made a mockery of my words. I have condemned the crimes committed by the Serbs, however I recalled that it is all incomprehensible if one does not take into account the earlier slaughters ... perpetrated by the Bosnian Muslim forces led by the Srebrenica leader Naser Oric in the villages around Srebrenica: Kravica, Bratunac. These deeds were authorised by President Izetbegovic. It was a brutal interethnic and interreligious war to be denounced as much as possible.
Again, "He should keep his mouth shut". Elsewhere Handke remains accused of denying the Srebrenica massacre, now apparently it's "approving"! As Di Francesco says, it's all very Kafkaesque.

Littell's comments are all the more perplexing as he has deep knowledge of the work of Blanchot, himself often caricatured as an anti-Semite.


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