ReadySteadyBlog

Iris Murdoch fans and scholars finally have an opportunity to read between the lines as fifteen volumes of the writer’s private journals, covering the period from 1939 to 1996, become available at Kingston University. The documents – which until now have been kept privately – have been donated to the University by Mrs Audi Bayley, the widow of John Bayley who was married to Iris Murdoch from 1956 until her death in 1999.

The gift also includes hundreds of unpublished poems, manuscripts, notebooks and letters, adding to the comprehensive collection already owned by the University which encompasses the late writer’s Oxford and London libraries along with more than 3,500 letters written by Murdoch.

University archivist Katie Giles said it was impossible to overestimate the value of the archive. “We now have the most significant collection of Murdoch-related material in the world,” she explained. “This latest generous gift of her personal diaries shows that Kingston University remains one of the leading global destinations for Iris Murdoch scholars.”

Among the collection is a journal from the 1980s which is packed with descriptions of domestic incidents and accounts of dreams. Most significantly, there are hundreds of cryptic comments on philosophy, theology, literature and the writing process itself.

There was quite a difference in style between the first and last journals, Dr Rowe said. “The first journal from 1939 captures the brief carefree period when Murdoch travelled the countryside with the Magpie Players – a group of Oxford students who performed ballads and songs,” she explained. By contrast, Dr Rowe added, her last entries comprised fragments of sentences that were written when Murdoch was in the grip of Alzheimer’s – with the final pages taking the form of letters, where she repeatedly wrote, ‘My dear, I am now going away for some time...’.

The procurement of the journals heralds a new collaboration between Kingston University and the University of Chichester which, in 2016, launched its affiliated Iris Murdoch Research Centre headed up by Dr Miles Leeson.

Find out more about the Iris Murdoch Collection.

Launch of Stewart Home's new novel The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones (Test Centre) on Thursday 6 November 2014 at 6.30pm, at The Function Room, Upstairs at The Cock Tavern, 23 Phoenix Road, London NW1 1HB.

This is also the final opportunity to see Stewart Home & Chris Dorley Brown's current exhibition The Age of Anti-Ageing at The Function Room.

It’s good practice, if you are going to argue with something, to aim at the best version of that thing you are arguing with. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Terry Eagleton argues that opponents of religion like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (or ‘Ditchkins’ as Eagleton calls them) should criticize religion as it actually exists, not the lesser versions of their imagination. Reason, Faith, and Revolution, originally from the Dwight H. Terry Lectures in 2008 at Yale, finds Eagleton wading into the “religion debates” made famous by the New Atheists. As Dawkins and other New Atheists continue to tour and lecture on the topic, these debates continue to hold a place in the cultural conversation.
Read more over at Yale Books Unbound...

Fifty years ago, Terry Eagleton—one of the foremost and polemical cultural critics and literary theorists—was appointed Fellow in English at Jesus College, Cambridge shortly after graduating from the university himself with a First in English. He was the youngest fellow in the history of the college since the eighteenth century, and he hasn’t stopped working at such an accelerated pace. While accepting professorships in the U.S, the UK, and Ireland (not to mention countless guest speaker appearances worldwide), he has published more than forty books that cover topics across the board, perhaps because, as he joked to The New York Times, “I don’t actually read other peoples’ books. If I want to read a book, I write one myself.” From literary and political theory; cultural criticism; and religion to memoir; screenplays; theater; and fiction, Eagleton has nearly done it all, leaving his mark in many areas of intellectual discourse...
Read more over at the Yale Books Unbound...

Fabulous looking event:

WWTBD – What Would Thomas Bernhard Do
Talks, discussions, lectures, films, performances, concerts, parties
May 17–26, 2013 Daily 2pm–2am
Kunsthalle Wien Museumsquartier Museumsplatz 1 1070 Wien, Austria
kunsthallewien.at

As a prelude to its repositioning, the Kunsthalle Wien organizes a ten-day festival dedicated to key issues of today's society. WWTBD – What Would Thomas Bernhard Do takes up the tradition of Thomas Bernhard's critical and recalcitrant thinking, transfers it into the present, and breaks it down into various disciplines in the sense of a concise analysis of the present.

Deliberately posed without a punctuation mark, the question What Would Thomas Bernhard Do does not raise expectations of a singular answer. It rather makes room for a wide range of statements, discussions, as well as the construction of both stable and fragile investigative and intellectual edifices. What Would Thomas Bernhard Do does not only work in a scientifically logic or poetical way, but also musically, visually, and, above all, in the togetherness and confusion of a marathon without a traced-out finishing line.

About one hundred protagonists from the fields of fine art, music, literature, art theory, sociology, philosophy, and economics will participate in the performance of a spectacular and innovative play. Six to twelve acts a day will be modulated in different tempi and tonalities so that they work as singular elements, but also become part of the overall tableau developed by WWTBD in the course of its ten-day duration. The invited protagonists being confronted with each other in the choreographed sequence and in different formats and the visitors are productively involved in what happens, offering leeway for interpretation along the fault lines of society.

Lectures will be followed by performances, discussion rounds by readings, vocal numbers, or musical performances, conversations, and DJ and party events. The stage set by the US artist Barbara Kruger and an intervention by the Austrian artist Heinrich Dunst provide the two constant factors for WWTBD.

When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up alibis to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Bagdad...

Extract from Édouard Levé's Autoportrait (translated from French by Lorin Stein, published by Dalkey Archive) over on the Paris Review.

"Slowly, patiently, with unstoppable momentum, he explains in his ramshackle English that the full stop is all very well for other writers, but it is not for him..." László Krasznahorkai interviewed by Richard Lea.

If Walser’s comic dialogue with the language and gestures of literary convention is at times gleefully impish, it would be a mistake to regard The Walk as anything so self-evident or easily categorized as satire. Its vision is too opaque, its meaning too enigmatically unfulfilled, its contours edged with darkness. Walser was one of Kafka’s favourite authors, and the oneiric seamlessness of Kafka’s more surreal narratives such as The Castle or Description of a Struggle is immediately recognizable. The narrator moves from one distorted interaction to another in a kind of lucid dream, a liminal state that seems to draw from both conscious and unconscious, blurring the straight lines of the former with the associative fluidity of the latter. The persona of the narrator evaporates within this mnemonic haze, the self who took the walk irreconcilable with the self who attempts to recreate it.

Excellent stuff: Danny Byrne reviews Robert Walser's The Walk over at 3:AM.

My friend Dai Vaughan has died. I'll write more soon, but for now, Sonofabook has this:


Dai Vaughan – film editor and producer, teacher, essayist, poet, novelist, fabulist – died last night. Last October, a film-maker paid this tribute to Dai (‘the most interesting, serious and skilled editor anyone could hope to find in the UK’): ‘He was quick to laugh, and even quicker to stroke his beard when a serious thought took hold. Every day, rain or shine, Dai took a walk during lunch...’ Here is Dai in interview with Mark Thwaite: ‘The evolutionary psychologists are right: we are still chimpanzees. But do we have to remain chimpanzees? One reason for writing fiction, and this includes fiction without overt political content, is to confront people with such choices. There’s a well-worn formulation – Gramsci, isn’t it? – “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. I can subscribe to that.’

His novel Sister of the artist was published by CBe earlier this year. From the last poem in a sequence he sent to me a few weeks ago, now in proof: ‘And one counts, as with the / New-born, each breath a miracle.’

Again, A Time Machine: Stewart Home: SPACE hosts the first UK retrospective of Stewart Home’s work –

From his earliest work Stewart Home has expressed an avantgardist desire to write himself into the archive of culture. Mixing myth and polemic, with plagarism and a savage ideological critique, the parodic manifestoes of Generation Positive, progressed into the self-historicising magazine Smile, the Neoists, and finally The Art Strike – an aggressive appropriation of Gustav Metzger's strike proposal (more...)
Opening Thursday 5 Arpil 6:00pm until 9:00pm (SPACE 129-131 Mare Street, London E8 3RH.) Show runs until 20 May 2012.

St. Thomas and St. Augustine make frequent appearances in Kermode’s criticism, and he read them and bantered with them the way that most people do the sports page. He was himself a nonbeliever, but because he could give conditional assent to concepts like omniscience and immortality he could fluently translate these thinkers into the secular era and therefore mingle their ideas with those of contemporary theorists, even those as radical (at the time) as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Kermode practiced criticism during a phase of intense rupture in the academic world, when most literary scholars had divided into reactionary camps, contentiously alienated from each other, from the precepts of the past, and most of all from the reading public. Kermode’s genius was in traveling freely among these schools of thought, and even among the styles of writing, employing their competing theories but not being defined by them—and also subtly demonstrating their commonalities. He was the age’s great critical syncretist (more...)

Seer Blest: Sam Sacks on the great Frank Kermode.

Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel’s narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he’s a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits (more...)

David Winters on Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet.

Thomas Bernhard is dead. He had a terrible life, at least the early part. He was born in Holland where his Austrian mother had fled to escape the shame of her unwanted pregnancy. He never knew his father who died far away and in obscurity (and obscure circumstances). His mother mistreated him because of the shame he represented. Back in Austria he wanted to be an opera singer and studied music but caught a cold working at a menial job to make ends meet; the cold turned into tuberculosis. He was hospitalized repeatedly, his treatment was bungled, he was given up for dead, and survived just to prove how stupid his doctors were. Since opera-singing was out, he became a writer. He became a famous writer of deadpan, mordant, hilarious, difficult (modernist) novels and plays that often portray depressed characters with lung diseases (more...)

A Scrupulous Fidelity, On Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser by Douglas Glover

Back in 2005 I interviewed Dai Vaughan. Neal Ascherson once called Dai ‘one of the most imperiously intelligent fiction-writers alive’, he could have added one of the most gracious and charming too...

Great news, then, that the excellent CB editions has just published Dai's latest book Sister of the artist:


A cloaked figure sweeps towards her. It has the features of Viktor, who she knows is far away. But they are only a painted oval held on a wand, which he flicks aside to reveal, under the sacking cowl, her own double; and she hears a voice – her own? – croak, ‘Who leads in the dance?’

Prompted by the example of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, Sister of the artist addresses the injustice of a brother and sister, both artists, whose talents are respectively encouraged and thwarted by the conventions of their time and place. Their story is layered with fragments of more ancient narratives that explore the mysteries of sibling love and the wellsprings of creativity.

Sister of the artist is prefaced by two stories of a writer and her sister, guests returning from Dai Vaughan’s first novel, The Cloud Chamber (1993).

There’s a gap between literary and political responsibility, there must be. But literary responsiveness has ethical and political stakes of its own. Here, it is not a matter of producing particular values or norms, not a matter of producing a morality, but literature can enlarge the scope of what we call ethics and politics.

What does this mean with respect to the Arab Spring, and to the protests in Greece, Spain, Britain and the U.S.? These revolts all ask a question about what is allowed to count as politics, about the political as such. This question is posed by way of what you call a ‘popular resistance’ — by way of the creation of a people, the creation of a commons. And that, for me, is where politics — real politics — begins: in the opening of a space in which we can be political. This is quite different from our ordinary understanding of liberal democracy. Politics is renewed in the streets, the squares, in the open air. I think there is something similar here to the responsiveness we find in the work of Lispector and Cixous.

The Situation in American Writing: Lars Iyer

In the Haganah you give a month of yourself to working in a kibbutz. We worked inKiryat Anavim, up in the fields with the shepherds. One day there was a call that a group of new immigrants arrived from Germany. The kibbutz rang the bell for lunch and all these young immigrants scattered into the fields. They were screaming and running very fast. You could not get them to believe the bell was being rung so that they could be fed. They thought it was rung for the slaughter. They thought they would be taken if they did not hide themselves. This stayed with me all my life.

Good friend of – and regular contributor to – ReadySteadyBook, Leora Skolkin-Smith has a new short story, A Tape of Helen Gilderstein Speaking, published up on International Jewish Fiction. (For more about Leora see leoraskolkinsmith.com.)

I don’t like realistic and natural descriptions of people, even if they are magisterial like those of the 19th century, in Stendhal and Flaubert, or in a different form, like Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s. It’s alien to me. I like strong outlines, like in Romanesque art. That is to say, the outline gives form, and inside the form, the reader or observer can come to meet the person. I was searching for a different epic, for what I found as a reader of Medieval epic poems; they let me live in the personalities. I intended to contemporize them as well in My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, and in At Night Over the River Morava. These, at their core, are medieval novels, epic poems more than novels. In this sense, I don’t believe as much in the novel as in the epic, the story that comes from afar and is balanced toward the distance. In other words, I am an enemy of psychological writing.

Peter Handke interviewed by Cecilia Dreymüller...

Hystera is a haunting, mesmerizing story of madness, longing and identity, set against one of the most fascinating times in NYC history. Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant.

Leora Skolkin-Smith’s new novel Hystera: out (in the States) today!

Albert Camus, who died an atheist at 46, had – according to Robert Zaretsky writing in The Tablet – surprisingly deep ties to Judaism in his life, his political activity, and his philosophical thought:

The question of whether Albert Camus was Jewish is, of course, absurd. Born in French Algeria 98 years ago today, he was the second child of Lucien Camus, a farm worker raised in a Protestant orphanage, and Catherine Sintes, the illiterate child of Catholic peasants from Minorca, Spain. He was given communion at the age of 11 and died an atheist at the age of 46.

Camus understood, however, that the absurd reveals deep truths about the world and our own selves. Cradled between the semi-centenary of his death in 1960 and the centenary of his birth in 1913, we might take a moment to consider the question of Camus’ ties to Judaism. They are surprisingly deep and broad, encompassing not just his own life but his political and philosophical thought as well (more...)

To say that Literature is dead is both empirically false and intuitively true. By most statistical indicators, the prognosis is good. There are more readers and writers than ever before. The rise of the internet marks the rise, in some senses, of a deeply literate culture. We are more likely to text each other than to talk. More than ever before, we are likely to comment or write than to watch or listen. The oft quoted fact: there are more graduates of writing programmes than there were people alive in Shakespeare’s London. As Gabriel Zaid writes in So Many Books, the exponential proliferation of authorship means that the number of published books will soon eclipse the human population, soon there will be more books than people who have ever lived. We have libraries on our phones, books (in or out of print) available at a touch of the finger. The mighty Amazon, the infinite Feed, the endless Aggregation, the Wikiwisdom, the Recommendations, Likes, Lists, Criticism, Commentary. We live in an unprecedented age of words.

And yet... in another sense, by a different standard, Literature is a corpse and cold at that...

Brilliant essay from Lars Iyer: A literary manifesto after the end of Literature and Manifestos in The White Review.

The South African writer J.M. Coetzee wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett, receiving his degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969, the same year Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize. Thirty-four years later, Mr. Coetzee himself received the Nobel Prize for literature. Now the Harry Ransom Center, the same library where Mr. Coetzee did his research on Beckett, has acquired Mr. Coetzee’s papers. Among the more than 160 boxes and filing cabinets of material are family photographs, business correspondence, recordings of interviews, notebooks and early manuscripts for his novels and his autobiography...

More on this over at the NY Times.

You are my master, I’m inside you, just like that, inside you, you who are standing here, your hands clasped behind your back, you lean forward attentively and look, but really where do you think you are, in the zoo? a blossoming meadow? in an orchard!? Well no, no, not in the zoo and not in the blossoming meadow and not in an orchard but within your own self, you are completely alone, there where between you and me there isn’t any distance at all, because I’m not out there but I’m in here, because I was always inside you, at first just as a kind of cell, or rather something like a mistake in a cell, but then suddenly I grew and now I exist within you with all my force, you carry me everywhere with yourself, your bearing is nice, your clothes are nice, your coat is nice, your shoes are nice, nice and shiny and not even a speck of dust on them, not even a drop of mud, not even a speck of grimy slush, nothing, you are elegant, you went, you strolled, and now something stopped you, or rather you thought oh I’ll stop here, I’ll clasp my hands behind my back, and I’ll look at something, I will look and see what this thing is in front of me, that’s what you thought and that’s what you did, the only thing is, I am there inside, you carry me within your own self, it’s of no help at all, not the nice bearing with the head nicely tilted to one side, not the nice clothes, not the nice coat, not the two nice shoes neatly shining, nothing, and now you’re still thinking about nice things, thinking for example well let’s have a look at what’s over there, that looks pretty ghastly let’s admit it, you say good-naturedly and unsuspectingly, you clasp your hands behind your back, you put your two nice clean shoes next to each other, and you lean to the left and you look at me, erroneously, because it’s not me that you’re looking at, even if you think you are, because I, that thing that looks so ghastly, is within you, because I am within you, and I am watching all of your nice thoughts, as you think to yourself how pleasant it is here in the orchard, how marvelous it is here in this blossoming meadow, how enchanting it is to stroll a little now here in the zoo, and I look at all of these nice thoughts, and I’m watching how nicely you look and you think, but here I am inside, and I’m extending outwards, here I am inside, and I’m straining more and more, and always forwards, and always in an outward direction, and at one point I will break out, and that will put an end to all the nice thoughts, an end to the nice looks, and an end to the nice clothes and the nice coat and to how nicely you hold your head, and you look, because then you won’t be looking anywhere at all, you won’t even have any eyes, because I shall begin by corroding both of them, because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I always have been.

From the NYR blog, quoting from Animalinside, by László Krasznahorkai (read The Mythology of László Krasznahorkai, a wonderful essay by our friend David Auerbach) and Max Neumann, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (nice interview with Ottilie over on Conversational Reading), with an introduciton by Colm Toibin (published jointly by the Center for Writers and Translators of The American University of Paris, Sylph Editions, and New Directions press, as part of the Cahiers series.)

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) "was a beloved Brazilian novelist whose contantly surprising, experimental prose was beloved by mid-century English-language writers like Elizabeth Bishop, but little known to general readers in the U.S. and U.K., due to the fact that, according to Lispector biographer Benjamin Moser, the published English translations do not give a good representation of the qualities of her work. But that is likely to change due to a series of new translations of many of her books published simultaneously by New Directions in the U.S. and Penguin Classics in the U.K., and edited by Moser."

More on this via Publishers Weekly:

Moser’s 2009 biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, was a kind of surprise hit, garnering lots of review attention and an NBCC award nomination. The interest for Moser’s book proved that there was an English-language readership for its subject. “I knew there were little cells of people that were into her here and there and that I could help her enter the bloodstream,” said Moser, who lives in the Netherlands and also speaks Portuguese. “The problem was the books were so badly translated--most of them, not all of them--were almost unreadable in English. I got all this attention for her. I had hoped that someone like Barbara [Epler, President and editor-in-chief of New Directions] would take it upon them to re-translate her, and that’s what happened.”

New Directions has been steadily reissuing titles from its storied backlist over the past few years, commissioning new introductions from contemporary writers and hip new covers. When Moser heard that New Directions was preparing to reissue Lispector’s last novel, The Hour of the Star in its original English translation by Giovanni Pontiero with a new introduction by Colm Toibin, he contacted Epler and insisted they do a new translation: “You can’t say no to that guy,” said Epler. “He finally just put a bag over my head and clubbed me and said he’d do the translation himself in two or three weeks.”

Moser had resisted the idea of translating Lispector himself, but finally decided to do it so as not to miss the chance to offer English readers a translation he felt worthy of Lispector’s legacy. According to Epler, the original translation “also has its qualities. Ben’s version is very different. It’s much more smooth in the Pontiero.” Moser insists Lispector is “incredibly difficult to translate, and to read at times. But she has this extremely distinctive voice. She’s inimitable. A translation is at some degree an imitation. You have to find out how to do that,” said Moser.

The resulting book is filled with jagged, jerky odd, and utterly compelling prose, which is how it should be according to Moser. After The Hour of the Star, New Directions will issue four other Lispector titles next May: Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and A Breath of Life, the last of which has never appeared in English before.

Robert Musil's works fascinate me until this day ... and what I learned from him was the hardest thing: that one can undertake a work that will take decades, without knowing if one can ever finish it, an undertaking that consists mainly of patience, that assumes an almost inhuman stubbornness ..." (Elias Canetti)

For lots of Musil-related goodness, try: www.robertmusil.net

In 1921, a well-to-do Argentine family arrived in Buenos Aires on a grand transatlantic ship, the Reina Victoria Eugenia. If they were on deck to watch the city come into view after seven years in Europe and a three-week ocean crossing, they would have first seen the curved art nouveau facade of the Argentine Yacht Club at the port’s entrance, its spire evocative of a lighthouse; then they may have noted the belle epoque customs house, which rose higher than the loading cranes and warehouses of the Dársena Norte port complex; and finally, once they arrived at the passenger pier, they would have seen the crowd eagerly awaiting the ship. On that pier, if we are to trust the memory of Jorge Luis Borges, began the most pivotal friendship in Argentina’s 20th century literary history...

Macedonio Fernández: The Man Who Invented Borges

Writing the End Times – Lars Iyer at HowTheLightGetsIn 2011 (video).

Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. Two documentary films were made on her life; a special Grace Paley Award For Short Fiction was created at the annual AWP Conference of American creative writing programs; and images and quotes from Grace Paley were splashed onto political banners and posters for a myriad of causes and political organizations. One journalist, Nora Eisenberg, writing in Alternet, came close to describing the Paley charisma, writing that Paley was “small, playful, and adorable but an inimitable powerhouse, whose art, and activism shook up the world of letters and the halls of power. . . A year of memorials . . . replayed her spirited activism and arrests, her wild and wise stories, and her remarkable face, which maintained into age and infirmity a child’s quick smile and mischievous gaze.”

But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing? This raises another, perhaps more threatening, question: why, how, and to what consequence do these many “misunderstandings” add up? How did gossip supplant literary biography—and undo the power of literature itself—and what more questions does this raise? That is, does this loose and uncontested portrayal of an important writer reflect, somewhere, the powerlessness and secondary place literary work is now taking in America’s culture of celebrities? Will literature run below the pedestals of manufactured icons, and become an invisible river drying up beneath us?

The “Legacy” of Grace Paley by Leora Skolkin-Smith over at The Quarterly Conversation.

The opening paragraph of Peter Handke's Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, as translated by Ralph Manheim, is a marvel in a book of marvels. Even in English, or perhaps only in English, the sentences, not written but spoken, verify their meaning by enacting the same experience of renewal in the reader. The Afternoon of Writer is only 85 pages long and not a great deal occurs in terms of narrated event, yet the same can be said of the whole. It is a clearing in a forest of books.

When the novel was published by Methuen in 1989, with the paperback of the translation following two years later in the superb Minerva imprint, it completed a series of three consecutive clearing novels: it was preceded in 1986 by Across and by Repetition in 1988. All three are long out of print and a new work by Handke has not been issued by UK publisher since Absence in 1990. Perhaps this fact explains the reason for my sudden need to revive attention for these books and this particular moment twenty years on. The more likely reason is that I want to understand how a quiet, reticent book like The Afternoon of Writer can mean so much more than the overtly worldly and eventful novels that are published instead. How is literary renewal possible?

Three steps not beyond: Peter Handke's trilogy of thresholds

I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question...

The key issue here is the sense of what cannot be analyzed or explained. A major act of interpretation gets nearer and nearer to the heart of the work, and it never comes too near. The exciting distance of a great interpretation is the failure, the distance, where it is helpless. But its helplessness is dynamic, is itself suggestive, eloquent and articulate. The best acts of reading are acts of incompletion, acts of fragmentary insight, of that which refuses paraphrase, metaphrase; which finally say, “The most interesting in all this I haven't been able to touch on.” But which makes that inability not a humiliating defeat or a piece of mysticism but a kind of joyous invitation to reread.

George Steiner interviewed in the Paris Review.

In Berger's kitchen is an etching of the angel announcing to the shepherds the birth of Christ, which he made when he was a teenage militant left-wing activist. He says he has never practised any religion but over the years has had close friendships with many people who do, including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's brother, who was a monk in a nearby monastery in France. "And from about the age of 14 two things have coexisted within me. On the one hand a kind of materialism, which includes the Marxist view of history. On the other a sense of the sacred, the religious if you like. This duality never felt contradictory to me, but most other people thought it was. It is beautifully resolved by Spinoza, who shows that it is not a duality, but in fact an essential unity."

John Berger: a life in writing.

Excellent talk at London's ICA last night between Paul Taylor (author of Žižek and the Media) and Slavoj Žižek.

As ever, Žižek was discursive, endearing, funny and incisive. I never fail to be impressed that he pulls of that mix so effortlessly. (I had the pleasure of meeting him before the talk, and he was exactly the same talking with a group of friends and colleagues as he is up on stage.)

At the end of his talk he mentioned that he was perhaps coming to the end of his tether with playing the role of philosophy's clown (a role he accepted he invented and perpetuated in dialogue and tension with the media) and has almost finished writing a big, boring book on Hegel. I can't wait! Žižek suggested it was going to be six or seven hundred pages long, with the first hundred pages about Plato, and the next hundred or so discussing Fichte.

You heard it here first!

One I almost missed, but looks very worthy of attention: Peter Weiss's Hölderlin (Seagull; translated by Jon Swan, in collaboration with Carl Weber) –

The work of German poet Frederich Hölderlin (1770-1843) has inspired countless poets and philosophers, from Paul Celan to Rainer Maria Rilke to Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite the international renown and respect his hymns and elegies have since earned for their lyric style and innovative approach to Greek myth, his work was not widely celebrated during his lifetime. Diagnosed with a severe case of hypochondria at a young age, he was beset by mental illness for much of his life, living the final decades in the care of a carpenter. Though the details of Hölderlin's life inspired the acute awareness of the lonely human condition that is at the center of many of his poems, there has previously been no serious biography of his life. In Hölderlin, well-known German writer Peter Weiss finally brings to the page the life and times of one of Germany's greatest poets. Weiss explains that he was motivated 'to describe something of the conflict that arises in a person who suffers to the point of madness from the injustices, the humiliations in his society, who completely supports the revolutionary upheavals, and yet does not find the praxis with which the misery can be remedied'. The resulting biography is a powerful celebration of the intense and influential poems of Hölderlin and the life behind them.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka, in an interview over on MacLehosePress.com:

I have always been interested in fragility, in pain. From this starting point, I connect myself with writing, with readers. Illness, in all its dimensions and possibilities, is an experience that exemplifies human misery very well. It is when we are at our most vulnerable, searching for answers we cannot find. Even more so in these times when there is such an authoritarian pressure to keep oneself healthy and so much blame attached to illness. The obsession with health seems to replace the obsession with death. The novel tells several stories to do with this phenomenon of illness, mostly within the context of a family, who try to maintain affection in these trying circumstances and to find hope (more...)

[MacLehosePress.com is an imprint of Quercus Books for whom I work.]

Thanks to Mr Mitchelmore (whose new Tumblr blog of Resonance is very worthy of your time) and to the geoffreyhillzinger blog for bringing my attention to this astonishing podcast of Geoffrey Hill's inaugural lecture on the Keble College website (or use this direct link to the podcast itself).

In a brilliant lecture, Hill quotes Philip Sidney's (1554 – 1586) Defence of Poetry ('since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it') and brings our attention to the 'radically perjured' nature of poetry. What poetry needs is readers who will read with the care of an R.P. Blackmur and a Lionel Trilling, readers who know, along with Eliot, that poetry is 'twisted and posed' and yet that it always 'adds to the stock of available reality'

Anyway, you don't need a gloss from me, you need to listen to it!

If you want to see Hill in action, this bit of guerrilla filming on YouTube gives a flavour.

And this quote from an interview at The Paris Review is a further wonderful example of Hill's humour and intelligence:

Interviewer: What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

Geoffrey Hill: Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations... resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself...

On the 9th April at 4pm (as part of the Free the Word Festival) Gabriel Josipovici, Geoff Dyer and Dubravka Ugresic will discuss "whether the novel must evolve once again to reawaken readers to the forces that are at work in society"...


The novel was once a surprising, disruptive genre that challenged familiar ways of seeing the world. Over three centuries of evolution, it has repeatedly reinvented itself in order to comprehend a changing society. But has it become stale and conventional? And has the novel’s process of renewal come to an end? Join Gabriel Josipovici, author of What Ever Happened to Modernism? essayist and novelist Geoff Dyer and Croatian writer and academic Dubravka Ugresic as they argue whether the novel must evolve once again to reawaken readers to the forces that are at work in society.

Chaired by Alex Clark.

Tickets: £8 (£5 PEN Members and Concessions), or £25 for full festival ticket. For more on the talk, visit the event's page over at freewordonline.com

The work of César Aira was recently celebrated in the January issue of The New York Review of Books (I've just learned this from the New Directions newsletter), which ran a lengthy feature by Michael Greenberg on three of Aira's New Directions titles:The Literary Conference, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and Ghosts.

The spring issue of the Paris Review will contain a lost manuscript by Roberto Bolaño called The Third Reich. The magazine plans to publish the complete novel in four installments over the course of a year. It will be followed by a hardcover version from FSG...


More at the Paris Review blog.

I'm not sure quite how I missed the existence of this one, but it was only when ambling around the LRB Bookshop t'other week that I came across Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Linebaugh, as I've doubtles said before, is the writer of one of my all time favourite history books, The London Hanged, as well as a fascinating history of piracy (The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, with RSB interviewee Marcus Rediker).


The publisher blurbs The Magna Carta Manifesto thusly:


This remarkable book shines a fierce light on the current state of liberty and shows how longstanding restraints against tyranny - and the rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law, and the prohibition of torture - are being abridged. In providing a sweeping history of Magna Carta, the source of these protections since 1215, this powerful book demonstrates how these ancient rights are repeatedly laid aside when the greed of privatization, the lust for power, and the ambition of empire seize a state. Peter Linebaugh draws on primary sources to construct a wholly original history of the Great Charter and its scarcely-known companion, the Charter of the Forest, which was created at the same time to protect the subsistence rights of the poor.

The Poe Toaster is an unofficial nickname given to a mysterious person (or two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, from approximately 1949 until 2009, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the stone marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland in the early hours of January 19, Poe's birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would leave three roses and a partially-filled bottle of French cognac, then disappear into the night. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed. (More...)

Happy birthday EAP!

Jay Parini new novel The Passages of Herman Melville is just beginning to get noticed (see e.g. the Independent's review).


Below, in an extract from the Telegraph, Parini sketches the relationship between Melville and his great peer Nathaniel Hawthorne:


Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two great novelists of 19th-century America, were close friends at a major juncture in their writing lives, and it’s hard to imagine a more fruitful, poignant or complex relationship. For Hawthorne, it was a connection that stirred deep intellectual interest. For Melville, it was a matter of love.

After several years in Boston as an inspector at the Custom House, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, in 1850. He lived in a small cottage with his beautiful wife, Sophie, and their two children, Una and Julian. The Berkshires were dominated by such imposing literary figures as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fanny Kemble and James Russell Lowell, but Hawthorne was a shy man who rarely ventured into literary society.

In early August, when Melville was staying with an aunt in Pittsfield (six miles from Lenox), a prominent local figure invited him to meet the great Hawthorne – who had just published The Scarlet Letter to wide acclaim – at the base of Monument Mountain, a popular spot for outings.

They hiked up a trail with half a dozen others. Apparently a storm blew up, and the group retreated to a cave to drink champagne from a silver mug and read poetry aloud. Melville grew buoyant, leaping into the rain to a rocky precipice, where he played sailor, pretending to haul up imaginary ropes for everyone’s amusement. Hawthorne, in particular, admired this brash young author, who at 31 was 15 years his junior.

Two days later Hawthorne wrote to a friend: “I met Melville the other day and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.” (More...)

New on RSB, a lovely piece from Ben Granger on the no-longer-read William Hazlitt:


The tides of literary posterity crash in unpredictable ways, and the vagaries of what makes an author feted in one age, ignored in the next are often mysterious. Near namesakes Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair were considered the greatest American novelists of the early twentieth century, but are little read these days. It’s diverting to ponder which contemporary author will be read with regularity 50 years from now. I wager Irvine Welsh will last longer than Ian McEwan, spring the results of that one on me in the nursing home.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all concerns that of William Hazlitt... during the man’s lifetime everyone in literary England had a view on Hazlitt, adoration and loathing in equal measure. The name caused heartbeats to skip, whether from ardour or horror, but it certainly wasn’t ignored. So just why is the finest essayist of the early nineteenth century now so little read? (More...)

Novelist China Miéville's superb Letter to a progressive Liberal Democrat:


So it’s war. We knew it would be.

Obviously, you don’t ask the Tories how they can do this. They, streetfighters of long-standing, the current vogue for simpering head-boy bonhomie notwithstanding, are clear about their aims, interests and concomitant attacks.

Nor is this message addressed to Vince Cable or the wolf-eyed replicant Clegg. Whatever theatrics of choicelessness and discomfort the former occasionally insinuates, he, good Orange Booker, knows just what he’s up to. And the latter dispenses even with the mummery.

But you - you’re one of those Liberal Democrats who takes seriously a commitment to some kind of progressive agenda. You’re another thing. One doesn’t have to share all your politics to believe you sincere. So it has to be asked of you: WTF?

Novelist Sylvie Germain will be appearing at The French Institute, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 at 7.30pm on 8 December 2010 to promote her recent novel Hidden Lives (L'Inapercu). Tickets £5 (£3 concessions). Early reservation is recommended. (0207 073 1350 — box.office@ambafrance.org.uk)

I've just noticed that the transcript of David Foster Wallace's 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address (given on May 21, 2005) is up on Scribd:


Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious (more...)

I'm something of a Scribd newbie. Actually, I'm investigating it with my Quercus hat on, wondering how best a publisher might use such a platform — anyone use it particularly well, d'you think? Whilst I'm wandering about, if I see anything particularly interesting, I shall, of course, let you know.

China Miéville is sick of people impersonating him on Facebook, and Facebook doesn't care, so he has written them a public letter (this via Mary Robinette Kowal's Journal, but is being distributed widely):


I know lots of people enjoy being on Facebook. Great. More power to them. Vaya con Dios. Me, though: not my thing. I have absolutely no interest in it. I am not now nor have I ever been a Facebook member. Short of some weird Damascene moment, I will not ever join Facebook – and if that unlikely event occurs, I promise I’ll tell you immediately. In the meantime, though, as a matter of urgency, as a matter of courtesy, as a matter of decency, please respond to my repeated requests:

  • Please delete all profiles claiming to be me (with or without the accent on the ‘é’ – last time I looked, I found one ‘China Mieville’, and one more accurately rendered).
  • Please do not allow anyone else to impersonate me. I have neither time nor inclination to trawl your listings regularly to see if another bizarre liar has sprung up.
  • And while you’re at it, please institute a system whereby those of us with the temerity not to sign up to your service can still contact you on these matters and actually get a [insert cuss-word] answer more...

My dear friend Christian Stretton (artist, librarian, dad!) went to see author Jonathan Franzen in Manchester last week (3rd October). He reports back:


When Jonathan Franzen appears behind the lectern at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, he stops and stands amidst all the applause with a confused look on his face. Franzen is caught in a moment of time directly between the generous media coverage of his new book Freedom being recalled for pulping, and the equally extensive column inches devoted to the spectacles snatch which will occur tomorrow night.

This pregnant pause though is not due to his being at the centre of a media whirlwind. Instead, his confusion is brought about by the nature of the lectern which he stands behind. In fact, the lectern is an improvised ‘customer comments’ box and, as such, is much too short for his tall frame, and has no place on which he can rest his book. He wrestles the box onto the stage, and then shuffles it around, before looking up and grinning, as if noticing us for the first time.

If you were aware of Franzen’s work only through the copious articles and reviews which he garners, it would be easy to hate him. But to read his books, and to see him speaking confidently, openly about his writing, is another matter. Seeing him here tonight as a vulnerable, all too human writer, a gulf appears evident.

There are many questions tonight (from Dave Haslam) about Franzen’s media presence: he shifts uncomfortably in his seat when asked about the ‘Great American Novelist’ label, talks about the ‘unreality’ of these promotion tours, and even mentions Oprah. But these are not his most interesting (or revealing) answers. Only when Haslam gets down to the writing do we find Franzen exposed. When asked if he reveals his own political beliefs even when writing in character, his articulate response explains how he has many differing opinions in his head, each held to be true at the same time, and the characters that he creates are a way of resolving these differences.

Haslam clearly admires Franzen, and so his line of questioning is unlikely to provoke. Nevertheless, when he asks about Franzen’s own teenage years, the audience note a small crumble in the time it takes for Franzen to compose his answer. ‘At the start of the tour, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the meaning of the title,’ he begins, tantalisingly. The ‘Freedom’ of the title, he goes on to explain, is more about his own personal freedom from his past. This book, it seems, was his release; a way of breaking from his adolescent self. ‘I feel like I was an adolescent until about two years ago’ he smirks (Franzen is 52 years old).

There is no question, Franzen presents himself well. By his own admission, he is unafraid of public speaking, so doesn’t really see the polarity of his writing life, compared to his promotional life. By the end of the evening, we are all charmed by his answers. Yet, for all his success, I feel sympathy for a gentle, fragile man with a talent for constructing a good sentence, caught in the eye of a storm that he seems incapable of creating himself, and unlikely to enjoy.

As I leave, he shakes my hand. A confident American handshake with good eye contact. He seems to have enjoyed tonight, for all its unreality.

The Wu Ming Foundation ("a collective of novelists based in Italy, a country that's living its darkest period since the old days of fascist dictatorship (1922-1945)... authors of Q, 54 and Manituana") are in the UK and on the road:


In a recent Guardian article, ReadySteadyBook reviewer (and author of The Canal) Lee Rourke speaks to our friend Tom McCarthy about Tom's novel C, about art and culture generally, and about Modernism:


LR: You recently reviewed Gabriel Josipovici's latest book What Ever Happened to Modernism? for this paper, calling it a cure for our conservative times. What did you mean by this?

TMcC: It's a wonderful book. We've had over a century of these radical writers such as Beckett, Celan and Kafka, and in philosophy people like Bataille, Levinas and Derrida, and in psychoanalysis Freud and Lacan, and in film Godard and Lynch, and so on. It's incredibly dynamic stuff, and unleashes a vertiginous set of possibilities – not to mention the amount of anguish and trauma that's gone into producing it. I mean, Paul Celan virtually walked out of Auschwitz to write his poetry. For us to dismiss its legacy as if it was just some irritation that got in the way of an ongoing rational enlightenment is negligible to say the least. In fact, I think it's actually offensive. It's an ethical thing: to brush all this aside and to regress to sentimental humanism is almost like revisionism: it's the cultural analogue to historical revisionism, it's just ethically wrong and aesthetically rubbish. Modernism is a legacy we have whether we want it or not. It's like Darwin: you can either go beyond it and think through its implications, or you can ignore it, and if you do that you're a Creationist (more...)

Interesting post over on Named Tomorrow about the troubadors and how thinking about them can help us think about the work of Jacques Roubaud (with whom there is a fascinating interview over on Bombsite):


In the collection of essays The Troubadors: An Introduction, edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, Stephen G. Nichols argues that, though there are indeed some salient features of the troubadour lyric which support modern ideas about troubadours by harmonizing with the modern conception of the artist (such as a ‘high seriousness’ of style and the distinctly individualized voices of the poets), the traditional conception of a continuous and homogenized school of poetry is more than a little misleading in its development from ‘early troubadour’ Guilhem de Peitieu, through the golden age of the ‘classic period,’ and then on to the end of the tradition in the 13th century (more...)

Is Vasily Grossman beginning to achieve (in the English-speaking world) the recognition that is his due? I've never read him, so I actually don't know if he is even due said recognition (he doesn't feel like my kind of guy) but RSB interviewee Robert Chandler (Grossman's translator) reckons he is, so I should probably pull my finger out and give him a read. I should probably pull my finger out and interview Robert again too, as we last spoke about 5 years ago!


Recent sightings (and citings) of Grossman include: Vasily Grossman, Russia's greatest chronicler, awaits redemption (in the Guardian); In praise of... Vasily Grossman (Guardian CIF); Anti-Socialist Realism (TNR); Everything flows: Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman (Vulpes Libris); and A Russian titan revealed... (BookSerf).

Not many writers write from both the right and left brains, but Jacques Roubaud bridges that chasm much like an expert martial artist—in a way that makes it seem simple. Or not. Roubaud is an encompassing author. He writes through a full spectrum of the “simple” (i.e. his poetry for children) to mind-bogglingly dense pieces underpinned by mathematical concepts incomprehensible to many left-brained creative folks. After all, the title for his first book was a mathematical symbol—graphic and discrete, yet to explain what it means would take more words than I have been allotted.

Then there’s his life. Child of French Resistance parents. Member of Oulipo, short for the Ouvroir de Litterature Poténtialle, commonly translated as “Workshop for Potential Literature.” Inventor of the “clandestine hunger strike” during his tour of duty in Algiers and translator of Lewis Carroll. University professor of mathematics, but not “a very important one,” as he says, “I didn’t want power!” Survivor of tragedy—World War II, the early death of his wife. Writer through prodigious memory, therefore inevitably grappling with Proust, with whom one senses Roubaud has a wary relationship. But Roubaud himself is now a revered figure in French literature—a postwar writer who, thanks to the ongoing invention of “constraints” demanded by Oulipo, always seems cutting edge...

Jacques Roubaud interview at Bomb Magazine (via Sponge!)

If Gertrude Stein is ‘the mother of us all’ then Ezra Pound is our father. A strange couple, for sure, but essential to anyone coming into poetry in the second half of the 20th century with the intention to do more than write the traditional neo-romantic lyric. For me, Pound was there first – or rather right after I had found the Beat writers, Kaufman, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. His importance was immediately immense, and at least twofold. Starting to read the Cantos I realized that poetry was a life’s work of total dedication, not something one could do on rainy weekends when moved by the spirit. Pound also immediately made clear that a learned poetry, a poetry that includes not only history, but also various sets of knowledges, was not necessarily a boring ‘academic’ poetry. The range of his work was liberating. Everything from everywhere could enter the field of writing, to be energized into that multifaceted, multilayered construct called a poem. Amazing!

My friend Pierre Joris interviewed at nY-web (via wood s lot).

Ian McEwan's new novel Solar has been embarrassingly over-lauded in the Broadsheet reviews I've read. Thomas Jones, writing in the LRB, is a little more circumspect:


In a New Yorker profile of McEwan last year, Galen Strawson is quoted as saying that ‘Ian is essentially a short-story writer,’ that none of his longer books ‘has the unity of drive that the best novels have’. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The disappearance of the daughter in the supermarket at the beginning of The Child in Time (1987), the balloon accident in Enduring Love, the retreat to Dunkirk and the arrival of the wounded at a London hospital in Atonement (2001) are among the most compelling passages of English fiction of the last 25 years. The novels they’re in, however, are schematically structured, with occasionally lurching plot development, and the main themes are loudly hammered home. Solar is no exception (more...)

I'm interested in the way a whole stratum of the liberal literati (Rushdie, to some extent Ian McEwan, A C Grayling, obviously Amis and Hitchens) - the very people you'd have expected to be guardians of the liberal flame of tolerance and understanding - have, at the very first assault, rushed into these caricatured postures driven by panic. I'm very struck by how those who are making ugly, illiberal, supremacist noises about the superiority of the west are precisely the sort of literary and liberal characters from whom you'd expect more imagination, openness and sensitivity...

Terry Eagleton interviewed in the New Statesman.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Ulrich Blumenbach quotes Wittgenstein as saying in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article to describe the challenges and inducements of the six years he spent translating David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Unendlicher Spass) into German — something he did without input from the author, who refused to speak to him.

Last summer, Blumenbach finally reaped the benefits of his efforts when the novel was released in Germany to great critical and commercial success, and he was awarded the Hieronymusring for Exceptional Achievement in Literary Translation, as well as the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Prize for his work (more...)

From Publishing Perspectives.

At the launch event for Best European Fiction 2010 a few weeks ago, the Norwegian author and dramatist Jon Fosse made some wonderfully cutting and dismissive remarks about crime fiction.


Here, exclusively for ReadySteadyBook, Jon expands on his thoughts about what he calls the "pornography of death":


Literature is basically a personal, and at the same time universal, asking into the fundamentals of existence, made possible by the aesthetic possibilities of language. The more personal it gets, the more universal it becomes. When literature gets private, it looses its quality, as it does if it ends up as universal in this sense: something everyone agrees about.

Of course, one can learn about life in literature, for instance to see how life is for other persons, perhaps in another time, in another culture: in the novel everyone has the right to be understood, nowhere else. And to me dramatic literature is about getting a glimpse of the forces that somehow, in their invisible way, direct life. But more than this, literature is about learning to die, as Harold Bloom has put it.

What then about crime fiction, so highly esteemed as literature, at least here in the Scandinavian countries? Is it at all literature? No it isn’t. The aim of this literature is not to ask into the fundamentals of existence, of life, of death, it is not to try to reach the universal through the unique, it is a try to avoid such an asking, such unique universality, by stating already given answers that are not really answers, but just something one has heard before. It therefore feels as a pleasant and safe answer, and what feels pleasant and safe one could also call entertaining.

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, at least when doubled with what cannot exist without it, love, is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn't for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved.

And when even the aesthetic ambition, this never-ending process of saying it all again, seen from a new perspective, is replaced by filling out a plot with variations, how can one possibly see crime fiction as literature? Add some political correctness to this plot, and we live in a perfectly safe and stupid world.

Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one's lie. It's pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

Much in the news of late (because of the publication of his new novel The Pregnant Widow), Martin Amis has regularly used the media opportunities he's been given to spout any amount of risible bunk. Here on ReadySteadyBook, Anthony Cummins takes Amis to task for his comments about J.M. Coetzee:


What’s most revealing about Prospect’s recent interview with Martin Amis isn’t his opinion of JM Coetzee – “he’s got no talent” – but the evidence he cites to support it. (It’s hardly a surprise, after all, that the cool wit of a writer whose PhD thesis looks at the manuscript revisions to Samuel Beckett’s Watt should hold no appeal for a man whose aversion to Beckett, vented after “a couple of hundred glasses of wine”, once drove Salman Rushdie to the brink of violence.) Put to one side what Amis says about the Nobel laureate being no fun, since that’s a matter of taste, and in any case isn’t exactly an original point to make about an author whose best-known book pivots on a gang rape. Of greater interest – because it suggests how blithely Amis can pass off wilful ignorance as critical rigour – is the moment where he tries to convince his interviewer, Tom Chatfield, that cliché is the enemy of literary value (more...)

Via Sponge! (the new name for our friend Lee Rourke's Scarecrow blog) I note that Tom McCarthy has been writing in the LRB about Jean-Philippe Toussaint:


For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be – so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. Michel Houellebecq’s response has been one of adolescent rejection, or, to use the type of psychological language that the nouveaux romanciers so splendidly shun, denial: writing in Artforum in 2008, he claimed never to have finished a Robbe-Grillet novel, since they ‘reminded me of soil cutting’. Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint (more...)

More on this over at 3:AM too.

David Belbin (thanks Dave!) tells me:


On May 8th 2010, the University of Nottingham will host a celebration of the life of one of its most widely respected alumni, the novelist Stanley Middleton. The Booker Prize winning author died in July 2009, a week short of his 90th birthday. The celebration will include live music, readings from Stanley’s novels, poems and unpublished letters, together with short talks on his life and work (more...)

Dan Green on Raymond Federman:


Raymond Federman was generally associated with those American writers who in the 1960s and 70s began writing what is now called "metafiction," but there was always something about Federman's work that seemed different, its self-reflexivity even more radical and enacted in a more aggressive way. Where Barth and Coover laid bare the devices of fiction allegorically (J. Henry Waugh as "author" of his fictional baseball world) or through the occasional narrative disruption (the "author" making his presence known, as in Barth's "Life-Story"), Federman's fiction was more direct and unremitting in its undermining of narrative illusion. With its prose freed from the constraints of typographical bondage, climbing up, down, across, and around the page, and its "stories" of writers attempting to tell a story without quite succeeding, Federman's fiction as represented in Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976), still his most important books, challenged not only reader's preconceptions about fiction but also basic assumptions about reading itself (more...)

A Piece of Monologue brings my attention to two things: the fact that it is the centenary of Leo Tolstoy's death this year and, also, to a number of articles over at the Guardian related to all things Tolstoyan...


I've read precious little Tolstoy, and nor have I read Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on the lad, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. That essay keeps being quoted at me, however, so I think I'll use the fact that I'm likely to be snowed in this evening to see what all the fuss is about.

Ellis Sharp's blog The Sharp Side used to be one of the most acute and prickly blogs out there (out here!?) in the blogosphere, but either Ellis stopped blogging as much or I stopped paying as much attention as I should have been doing and he, and his blog, fell from the front of my mind. Regardless of that, it seems that Ellis has actually been rather busy...


Over at the New Statesmen Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (part of the excellent Zero Books series) -- which I'll review as soon as I see a copy -- and blogger at k-punk) reviews Ellis's new book of short stories, Dead Iraqis:


Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavented spectral rage of murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon that is "timeless", but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape justice (more...)

Joseph Frank's award-winning, five-volume life of Fyodor Dostoevsky "is widely recognized as the best biography of the writer in any language - and one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century":


Now Frank's monumental, 2500-page work has been skillfully abridged and condensed into a single, highly readable volume with a new preface by the author. Carefully preserving the original work's acclaimed narrative style and combination of biography, intellectual history, and literary criticism, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time illuminates the writer's works -- from his first novel Poor Folk to Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov -- by setting them in their personal, historical, and above all ideological context. More than a biography in the usual sense, this is a cultural history of nineteenth-century Russia, providing both a rich picture of the world in which Dostoevsky lived and a major reinterpretation of his life and work.

Simone Weil by Susan Sontag (1963; and available in Against Interpretation and Other Essays):


The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer's words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters "on the knees of his heart"—the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest's plays and tales were mined—is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet—and Simone Weil—have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction. Little Bookroom / Savoir Fare London

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary—necessary to share Simone Weil's anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their "views." As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own.

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation—like Kleist's, like Kierkegaard's—was Simone Weil's. I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil's life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Just out is a new translation, by Breon Mitchell, of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum -- to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Via the literary saloon, my attention is brought to Scott Esposito'a Q & A with Breon about the re-translation (over at Two Words).


The most powerful works of literature compel us to reread them—and often more than once. The effect they produce is a combination of linguistic artistry and richness of meaning. The Tin Drum treats universal themes (the father-son conflict, youth and art, sexual awakening, guilt and atonement) against the background of one of the most terrible moments of European history. The result is a stunning work of art—shocking and provocative, complex and innovative, richly rewarding more...

The BBC's Open Book programme looks into some Neglected Classics:


There's nothing that Open Book likes more than browsing and discovering the forgotten treasures of the literary world - books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.

With Neglected Classics we're digging out some of the lost works and forgotten authors of the world of literature.

Ten of our best known authors have nominated the books that they feel most deserve to be re-read and reinstated onto our bookshelves.

We want you to vote for the title that most appeals to you and the winner will be dramatised on Radio 4 in 2010.

A new Proust-related blog is to launch next Monday:


You know you’ve been meaning to. You’re pretty sure that you’ve got a dusty copy of Swann’s Way sitting around somewhere. You’ve probably even read the book’s famous opening line, “For a long time I would go to bed early,” and thought to yourself, well, not now, maybe some other time.

That time has finally come. Next Monday, Publishing Perspectives is launching The Cork-Lined Room, a blog devoted to the reading, discussion and study of Proust’s masterpiece of 20th century literature, In Search of Lost Time.

You may recall Luther Blissett's Q from four or five years back. Well, because the Luther Blissett "shared name" is dead, the Italian anarchists who wrote Q under that moniker now write as Wu Ming. They have a new book out, called Manituana, following their earlier 54. More details about this via the Manituana website.

Maurice Blanchot observed that there was a tripartite structure to literature: allegory, myth, symbol. A story is allegoric (always already a great big metaphor), mythic (specific; about what the story says it is about) and symbolic (or, think, subversive; about itself, about itself as a text, about itself as a written artefact; writing, on some level, is always writing about writing). A book like Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the 70s, world-conquering, self-help classic, foregrounds the allegorical aspect so much that it is clearly no longer really a novella about a big bird, but rather fully an attempt to say something (something rather cheesey, for sure) about life's big questions. Most novels emphasise their story and plot -- and, with (Establishment) Literary Fiction, especially the elegance and care with which that story is written. It will speed us to my substantive points if I am allowed to claim that Modernism, with its focus on form, was predominantly interested in the symbolic, the subversive. It is easy to see how criticism itself tends to hone in on one particular of these elements to foreground its own concerns (most book reviews of ELF titles are merely plot synopses with attitude). Where literature leads, criticism follows. This is why great, groundbreaking books teach you how to read and good books remind you how. The best book to teach you how to read Proust's ISOLT is Proust's ISOLT, and the best guide to Joyce's Ulysses is Joyce's Ulysses itself.


Summertime, J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, is a very good book. It is the third in a loose series of books of fictional autobiography following Boyhood and Youth. It is, ostensibly, so clever and playful -- and both these adjectives are particular weak in the face of Coetzee's work -- that whilst unveiling itself it seems it has already, simultaneously, done a very good job of reading itself too. The form of the novel need not detain us for too long. We are presented with a casebook of unfinished texts which themselves are presented as the working documents for a biography of John Coetzee, now deceased. A few fragments of John's notebooks occupy the first chapter, then we have transcripts of interviews between John's would-be biographer and four women and one man who have occupied important positions in John's life. Most of these interviews take the form of written Q and As, but one of the 'interviews' is presented to us, with the occassional interuption, in the form of an extended narrative -- the abstract artist reminding us of just how good at figurative drawing he still is, perhaps? The novel ends with several more fragments from John's notebooks.


Coetzee's metafiction (for want of a better term) has, it would seem, already thought about and answered all the questions most critics are likely to want to ask of it or draw out from it; especially if those critics labour under the misapprehension that this is, indeed, something called 'fictional autobiography'. Coetzee's book is, doubtless, a compelling work of auto-critique, but such critique is not hermetic; it always leaks. Freud's self-analyses tell us more about Freud than he ever knew -- as does his the whole body of his work. Any idea that auto-critique can be complete and whole unto itself falls under the anthropologist's fallacy of objectivity. The scientist always affects the results, simply by asking the questions in the first place. Coetzee, of course, knows this. So, are we really in such dangerous, vertiginous, Dante-esque territory? A lit theory hell where nominal crises arise and set in? Is this meta-auto-critical fake-real / real-fake (auto)(biography)? Well, it is both more simple and more complex than that. This is merely a novel and that is, already, already more than enough. Summertime is always tempting us to misread it as a biography of some kind (transcripts, interviewees, references to real events in J.M. Coetzee's real life, even a jacket cover photo that shows JMC at the age he was when the events we are reading about were taking place). We can enjoy it more, however, and get much more from it, if we remember that this is a novel; if we note that Summertime is very clear to remind us of this simple fact all the way down; and that it is about the very temptation it induces fully to misapprehend it.


Despite what some reviewers have suggested, then, this is not a fictionalised biography of John Coetzee because the texts we read are not yet worked up to the standard that biography (even fictionalised biography) demands. For example, when speaking to his interviewees, our would-be biographer says that he will change aspects of the interview if his interviewees are not happy with any part of what he has written; often, they are not happy, and call for changes to the text. These are, then, fictionalised transcripts presented as unfinished. This, then, isn't just J.M. Coetzee's fictionalised autobiography of his life during the 70s in South Africa when he was writing some of his most important work. It isn't just this because this is a novel and JMC knows, as a novelist, that some of all its levels of meaning, despite his care, will always evade him. Indeed, what makes Summertime such a very good book is that it is precisely that lesson that is emphasised in a careful reading of it. Despite how knowing a writer JMC is and despite how knowing he makes us feel and helps us be (and reminds us we should be in general as readers far more attentive than we habitually are) something remains outside of his grasp. Texts, like people, can never be wholly self-aware or self-available nor can they ever be fully appropriated. Therapists, recall, can be nutters too!


Indeed, the way to read Summertime I think is to see how it tempts (aware, of course, of the Freudian overtones of the word) a particular response (the response we've seen in many reviews, the response to it as fictional autobiography) which actually, over the piece, it fully counsels against. Summertime requires a creative, novelistic reading not a reductive, (pseudo-)biographical reading; indeed, is about such a reading. On a quick glance, it looks like this fragmentary 'thing' is something that the reader is being asked to bring together into a unitary whole (to finish the unfinished biographical fragments and turn the pieces into a whole biography). But that is the most dangerous misreading of them all. And that is the temptation that this particular novel (and, indeed, the Novel -- Literature as a whole, as a fragmentary history) warns us fully away from. This is what Summertime is about.


The last chapter of the book containing yet more of John's notebook entries evidences this most clearly. JMC gives us five short fragments of John's unfinished notebook materials that act as a coda to the novel we've just read. The temptation here -- and I think JMC is tempting us, and I'm not sure if this may actually be a weakening in his resolve, if he really does want to help orientate us with a Key to All Mythologies -- is to see each of these fragments as representing each of the major themes of the novel, perhaps even the themes of JMC's life itself. But life doesn't have 'themes' and only an overly simplistic reading of a novel thinks that listing a work's themes somehow 'gets it down'. We have, then, in the fragments, the father/son relationship, John's education, his relationship with women, with writing , with death (and this is the order in which they appear, tempting us to think about such themes hierarchically). But we do not, with this, capture all that the novel is about. The biggest temptation -- to return to Blanchot's formula -- is to read this novel as myth. To think that any novel can ever be read by reducing it to its themes; to think a novel is about just what it is ostensibly about, and not to see that as a possibly very conscious mis-steer, or a very easy way of reducing it to -- following Blanchot -- just one third of all it could be on a more sympathetic reading. It is not only that something always remains after we've reduced a novel to its themes -- which is a commonplace; Moby-Dick, we all know, is not just a novel about a monomaniac -- but to say that we've barely begun even to focus on what it is about even after iterating a whole list of themes, presenting a synopsis, deconstructing its ambiguities, etc.. JMC tempts us to do so, but the whole novel works to show that it would be foolish to succumb. Summertime is about the very misreadings which have subsequently happened to it. It is an ambiguous schooling in the ambiguous nature of writing (and reading) – an ambiguity that it sometimes looks as if JMC is seeking to control, but which the whole novel simultaneously shows is always one step ahead of both him and us, the readers.


To see Summertime as a failed or veiled (auto)biography, then, is precisely to fail to read it as a novel. JMC has foregrounded the Real -- it is about John Coetzee who has written novels called what JMC's novels are called and who shares many verifiable life events with JMC -- only to show the Real is never congruent with the Truth. It is not then of much interest to disentangle how much of JMC's actual biography inheres in his latest work. Rather, we should see that Summertime perpetually problematises a fixed point from which to orientate oneself about anything -- particulary about reading the Novel and particularly about reading this particularly fine example of the modern novel by one of its best practitioners.

Nice article (from the New Scientist magazine) about Virginia Woolf and science fiction (thanks Robin)


I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.

Many thanks for giving me a copy,
yours sincerely,
Virginia Woolf



This was Virginia Woolf's reply to the influential science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon after he had sent her a copy of his recently published novel Star Maker. In an earlier exchange of letters, she made it clear that she had also enjoyed previous works of his, probably including Last and First Men from 1931. These two novels, Stapledon's masterpieces, are enduring monuments of science fiction and of British literature generally. Within a decade of Edwin Hubble's discovery of the red shift, which revealed the universe to be vastly bigger than anyone had imagined, Stapledon's work compressed an entire poetic history of humanity and the cosmos into two slight volumes (more...

Thanks to Dave Lull for pointing me to this from Sam Jones:


A few weeks ago, my fellow literary obsessive and author of the wonderful blog Vertigo shared some interesting news. Bob Skinner, who began an English-language translation of Wandering with Robert Walser long before Smyth and I began ours, has shared his translation online. This is the first time that Seelig’s book has ever been available in English in (what seems to be) its entirely. Do check it out. It’s a bit of a revelation for Walser lovers.

Via wood s lot: Homage To Georges Perec: An Entertainment in Six Univocalisms (several unpublished oulipian texts by Perec's English translator Ian Monk).


Worth noting, too, that the latest edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction is dedicated to Georges Perec.

I interview novelist, critic and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Birmingham University, David Lodge, over on The Book Depository:


Mark Thwaite: Is Deaf Sentence based on your own experiences David?

David Lodge: The portrayal of the central character's deafness is closely based on my own experience, and it is exceedingly unlikely that I would have thought of writing a novel about this condition if it I hadn't I suffered from it myself. From my late forties I was afflicted with gradually worsening high-frequency deafness, the most common form of hearing impairment, which makes it difficult to distinguish consonants, especially when there is a lot of background noise. The character of Desmond's father is also closely based on my own father who died in 1999. He was also deaf, as a result of old age, but wouldn't wear a hearing aid, so communication between us was often difficult. (More.)

Thanks to Sukhdev Sandhu for bringing my attention to this:


You're Human Like The Rest Of Them is the name of a rather special event taking place this evening at London's National Film Theatre. Curated by Nigel Algar, it's a celebration of the film works of one of the most intriguing English writers of the last half century: B.S. Johnson. A dynamic and compelling figure, an advocate of experimental and avant-garde literature at a time (the 1960s and early 1970s) when naturalism and social realism dominated British fiction, he produced a number of novels that raged with passion and invention.

Building on Stephen Mitchelmore's excellent review of Hugo Wilcken's Colony, last week John Self, on his Asylum blog, wrote a very positive piece on Hugo's novel which he says his readers should regard "as a recommendation as strong as any I've given this year."


Over on Twitter, John has set up the #wilckenwatch tag (which simply means that all Tweets about Colony tagged with #wilckenwatch get organised together so that they can easily be browsed). Over on The Book Depository I popped Colony onto the homepage and made it my Something for the Weekend selection last Friday. I've also made Colony one of my June Books of the Month here on ReadySteadyBook.


All this, as John has said, is because Colony is "an exceptional achievement whose overlooked status is little short of scandalous." Hopefully, this wee blog-based campaign can get Colony more of the readers that it undoubtedly deserves.

I'm reading Stephen Mulhall's The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy which is very fine indeed. It has got me to thinking, again, about who are the other interesting academics writing about literature today (I'm thinking about those academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience). As Steve said, when he mentioned Mulhall the other day, it isn't Jonathan Gottschall!


The work of Gabriel Josipovici, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, Terry Eagleton, Paul West, A.D. Nuttall (to mention just a few critics, off the top of my head, who are important to me) will always be challenging and relevant, but I'm thinking about newer kids on the block: Franco Moretti, Nancy Armstrong, Derek Attridge, Sharon Cameron, Asja Szafraniec and the Nietzsche scholar Jill Marsden are all helping to help me think about literature afresh -- who is doing it for you!?

Anita Brookner's first novel's first line is rightly celebrated. Her debut, A Start in Life, begins, "Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature." It is a glorious, show-stopping opener, a one-line paragraph which resounds, epigrammatically, throughout the whole of her novel. It is, however, judging by its reception and repetition, perhaps too cute. When Brookner comes up in literary conversation -- not enough, in my book -- the line is often quoted. Its irony is plain to see, but it has a great melancholy weight that it is too easy easily to sidestep. Brookner is a fine comic writer, but the brutal truth is that, for Dr Weiss, that line is brutally true. Dr Weiss is an academic, the author of Women in Balzac's Novels, and her life really has been ruined by literature. She has read and read, but she has hardly lived; and the life that she has lived as been lived according to a moral code she has, quite unwisely, gleaned from fiction. Of course, we are reading about her, and she is merely the creation of a writer, so this hall of mirrors incorporates us too, and nor can we ever be out of it. The irony, then, is that when we read it ironically we miss the both the self-reflectivity and accusatory potency of Brookner's opening line.


I was introduced to Anita Brookner 12 or more years ago by a friend who suggested to me that she was seen by some as the embodiment of all that was wrong in British letters, but that he found something profoundly moving in her work. Her crime, he thought, was in producing novels that were so buttoned-up that they almost immediately seemed like a parody of themselves (and, presumably too, a parody of the certain class of English women of a certain age who populate her novels). I was undeterred: what others saw as a one-trick pony, I quickly warmed to. I saw something troubled and troubling in Brookner's pathological repetitions. Yes, all her books are the same, I thought, that's the bloody point! Brookner has never been fashionable (the Booker win for Hotel du Lac, not her best work, did little subsequently to push her on to the bestseller lists) and I know of only a few people who share my enthusiasm for her writing. A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Lewis Percy are distinct in my mind, but distinct is the wrong word here. Those books are, simply, a little fuller in mind than her other writings, like a bas relief in a room of trompe l'oeil. Distinctiveness is not, I'd argue, the point. Or, better, what distinguishes Brookner from her many contemporaries is far more important to me than what distinguishes any one of her books from the rest.


Brookner was interviewed earlier in the year by Mick Brown for the Telegraph newspaper. The occassion was her latest novel, Strangers. A Start in Life had appeared in 1981 when Brookner was 53. For more than a decade she published a book a year, but her pace is slowing now and, at 80, it is anyone's guess how long she will keep writing for. Brown's interview with her is startling -- and, for me, strangely reassuring -- because Brookner proves, I think, by what she says, that she is as singular and strange as I'd always held her to be.


Witness this exchange:


"The first sentence is easy, and so is the last. What comes between is 'terrifying'.

'It is actually quite a dynamic process, and very absorbing when you're doing it. But when you've done it, you're rather disgusted.'

Disgusted?

'Yes. Because it's all over, and you must do it all over again.'"


No sense of exhiliration, no triumphalism here. Brookner knows that she has, by writing another book, achieved nothing. Surely, those are the words of an artist? A genre writer would have, for certain, achieved something: another commodity, another object, another notch on the bedpost. But, with Brookner, it is Beckett's "I can't go on. I'll go on" that is in the air. The attitude is akin to what Eliot writes, despondently, in The Waste Land: "Well now that's done, and I'm glad its over." (And this recall, in the poem, after a sexual encounter; Brookner's word -- disgust -- is, it is worth noting, extremely visceral.)


A Start in Life has a famous opening; it's last line is never quoted. Dr Weiss's Women in Balzac's Novels is a multi-volume affair, a life's work. (Balzac's La Comédie humaine was his own life's work, so it makes perfect sense for any critical work, to do that encyclopedic oeuvre any justice, to be an equally committed business.) She writes to her publisher: "The section [in the forthcoming volume] on Eugénie Grandet has turned out rather longer than expected. Do you think anyone will notice?" The comic touch is as light and assured and pleasing as ever, but for a writer who, following A Start in Life, kept knocking novels out on an annual basis, despite the disgust, despite the lack of consolation felt, and merely because of a monomaniacal need to keep on keeping on, it is bracingly honest too. The critics noticed that she went on producing books, year after year, presumably longer and more often than anyone expected her too, but even here, in her first novel, she intuited not only the lack of fulfillment in that startling productivity (one wonders if, for instance, Joyce Carol Oates has ever paused to pause?) but the idea that such could ever come by writing. Dr Weiss knew that her life had been ruined by literature because, for too long, she misunderstood the relationship of one to the other. Laughing at her innocence is surely a very comforting way of not realising that that same mistake is so often our very own.

The latest interview here on ReadySteadyBook is with Paul Griffiths author of the OuLiPo-inspired novel let me tell you:


There was a soldier at the table. Quite still. And I could see two letters on the table, where his hand lay on them. One of them must have come from his brother, the one that had gone away some months before. All this time he had his head cast down, so I could not see his eyes. I tell you it as I remember it. Do I have to say that? I did not know him from before, this soldier at the table with his head down. I do not know where he comes from. (More...)

Gabriel Josipovici enthusiastically mentioned reading Stephen Crane in last year's Books of the Year symposium here at ReadySteadyBook: "what a great writer he was! Not just The Red Badge, which is indeed one of the great books about war, up there with The Iliad and War and Peace, even though it is less than a hundred and fifty pages long, but also such short stories as The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. In fact everything he touched he turned to gold."


Where Gabriel goes we follow; and Richard is already on the trail:


I was struck by the fact that Crane was born November 1, 1871. That is, four months after Marcel Proust (born July 10, 1871). Younger than Proust! In my mind, where Proust feels present, his concerns relevant, Crane has always seemed locked in the dusty past -- not only were some of his writings required reading in grade school, but the subject of his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is the Civil War. His association with this war is so complete, I think, that it has only served to reinforce the sense I had of him belonging to a much earlier period than he does. In truth, of course, Crane's realism was innovative in its time, and I can see now that it stands as a precursor to the writing of some of the historical Modernists, Hemingway in particular (more...)

"[T]he curious name of the protagonist, Aue (which looks like the Latin word for hail or hello), certainly didn’t strike me immediately as German, but did seem vaguely familiar. Then memory works: Hartmann von Aue, the mediaeval German narrative poet, whose major poem, Gregorius, tells the story of brother-sister love, and their incest, from which a child is born who will go on to find himself, ignorant as Oedipus, years later in bed with his mother. This is, of course, the story that Thomas Mann renewed for our time in his late novel, The Holy Sinner. So meeting Aue’s name already makes the unconscious mind of the translator, and of the reader, stir with anticipations of incest and outrage — the very emotional core of The Kindly Ones, in fact." Charlotte Mandell writes about translating TKO over on beatrice.com.

You will probably have all seen this, but in case not I'll pass on Maud's notice: "Two additional novels and a document believed to be a sixth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 have been found among the late writer’s papers."

Nicholas Murray has been thinking about Malcolm Lowry:


This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Malcolm Lowry, one of a host of Liverpool (well, New Brighton if you are a pedantic Scouser) writers who featured in my book about the city last year So Spirited A Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool. In the book I relate the well-known story of Lowry's going away to sea at the age of 17 and being delivered to the Liverpool dock in his father's Rolls Royce. Lowry senior was a wealthy Liverpool cotton-broker who paid his reprobate son an allowance all his life so that he never had to put up with that tiresome inconvenience that hampers the rest of us scribblers, a proper job. According to Lowry's brothers this Roller was one of his tall tales – he liked nothing better to play the role of an old sea dog even though this was his sole professional voyage – and in fact it was a more humble vehicle that pulled up at the dock gates (more...)

I read César Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter a couple of years back now, I think, and remember it very warmly. I need to re-read it, for sure, and I'm spurred to do so as orbis quintus reminds me that a new Aira translation is just about to hit the streets:


Ghosts, the just-released-in-translation novel by César Aira, is (like his earlier books How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter) one of the most uniquely, genuinely odd books you’re likely to stumble across. No one (to my knowledge) is doing anything quite like what Aira does in his fiction. Short books that nevertheless derail themselves, meander, drift, and stretch out while all the while remaining fascinating.

Attempting to summarize Ghosts is futile. It is set in an unfinished luxury apartment building. There are digressions on the symbolism of human self-organization, on hairstyles in Latin America, on class divisions. There are fireworks and curious children. There are ghosts. (More...)

I've been thinking about "French philosopher and mystic E. M. Cioran" (French?!) -- the website Planet Cioran is pretty useful:


Born in 1911 in Rasinari, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, raised under the rule of a father who was a Romanian Orthodox priest and a mother who was prone to depression, Emil Cioran wrote his first five books in Romanian. Some of these are collections of brief essays (one or two pages, on average); others are collections of aphorisms. Suffering from insomnia since his adolescent years in Sibiu, the young Cioran studied philosophy in the “little Paris” of Bucarest. A prolific publicist, he became a well-known figure, along with Mircea Eliade, Constantin Noïca, and his future close friend Eugene Ionesco (with whom he shared the Royal Foundation’s Young Writers Prize in 1934 for his first book, On the Heights of Despair).

Influenced by the German romantics, by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the Lebensphilosophie of Schelling and Bergson, by certain Russian writers, including Chestov, Rozanov, and Dostoyevsky, and by the Romanian poet Eminescu, Cioran wrote lyrical and expansive meditations that were often metaphysical in nature and whose recurrent themes were death, despair, solitude, history, music, saintliness and the mystics (cf. Tears and Saints, 1937). (More...)

As part of Jewish Book week, on Sunday March 1st at 2pm "Paul Verhaeghen and Boyd Tonkin discuss moral choices, writing history and translating one's own work into English." Verhaeghen, as you'll recall, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year with "his extraordinary novel Omega Minor, an exploration of the world of Nazis and Neo-Nazis alike, the destructive logics of The Holocaust and the Bomb, truths that kill and lies that keep alive, passionate love and devouring lust. "

Via the increasingly useful Alma Books Bloggerel:


Marcel Aymé, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world these days, is also to some extent not appreciated at his just value in France, where – although some of his short stories and children’s writing are considered undisputed classics – the rest of his considerable body of fiction and drama is now essentially ignored. He was born in rural Burgundy in 1902, spending his childhood there before moving to Paris to become a journalist. His first novel Brûlebois was published in 1927 to critical acclaim, and his follow-up, La Table aux crevés, won the prestigious Prix Renaudot two years later, but it was with 1933’s La Jument verte that his fame became widespread...

Aymé’s 1941 novel La Belle Image (which has recently been published for the first time in English, as Beautiful Image, by Pushkin Press [beautifully translated by our good friend Sophie Lewis]) uses a similar technique: its protagonist, a successful married businessman, suddenly finds out that his appearance has been transformed into that of darkly handsome stranger. This leads him to observe his friends and family as an outsider and, among other things, to seduce his own wife – revelatory experiences which lead him to question his former life of comfort and elevated social standing (more...)

Spurious writes about thinking about writing about Bolaño's 2666:


I look at my notes, wondering what I was thinking. Slog, says one. Wonders on every page, says another. Whimsically mad, says another. Keeping the wheels turning. Logorrhea - no doubt spelt wrong, and didn't I mean graphomania? But who knows what I meant. And then, literary splendour, with a dash to V. What could V mean? Ah yes, the fifth part of the book. And literary splendour, which must have been double edged. Splendour, to be sure, incidents and panoramas, wonders and splendours, all that: but of a literary kind. It was all too terribly literary: was that what I meant?

But then I enjoyed V, part five, I have to admit that. Part IV, The Part About the Crimes, was terribly boring. It must explain the word slog, and perhaps the misspelt and misused logorrhea. Admit it, you liked part five. Another note: V madness of narrative. And another V: narrative rush, anxious - where's it going?, almost too fast, almost outracing the narration. And then, so much happens anything could happen (more...)

Chandrahas Choudhury, esteemed blogger at The Middle Stage, has just put up some excerpts from his novel Arzee the Dwarf on his site. Arzee comes out in India in May.

When Tony Blair became the British Prime Minister back in May 1997 there was a genuine -- if entirely unwarranted -- belief that a caring, principled government, antithetical to the Thatcherite/monetarist dark days of yore, would summon a bright, new dawn. But, as some ancient, neglected, bearded Victorian once said, "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" -- and caring and principled never, ever come in to it; bombing often does.


Similar enthusiasm to that which Blair cooked-up has greeted Obama. There is no reason here to rehearse the understandable reasons for the frenzy and joy that has been unleashed by the election of America's first Black President -- and, you know, who isn't glad to see the back of Bush? -- but, just a few weeks in, and we've already seen a Torture Ban that Doesn't Ban Torture and Obama-sanctioned airstrikes that have killed 22 in Pakistan. The status quo remains thoroughly entrenched, and business as usual means the Obama years, like the Blair years, will be bleak for the poor and the powerless -- and full of bombs.


Chomsky's new book of interviews What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World is as useful, thought-provoking and insightful as ever, and out next week. Also noteworthy is the recent re-release of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's film on Chomsky's politics, Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky And The Media, which includes an excellent bonus disc of interviews including: a 1969 episode of Firing Line with William Buckley, Jr; a 16-minute WGBH interview with Chomsky and John Silber; a half-hour debate with Michel Foucault; a 41-minute interview with the film makers; and an hour and a half 2005 Harvard University debate between Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz.


Someone else who fought against bombs:


Long before her fame as a writer began to take hold, Grace Paley was already involved in political activism. From early immersion in supper time family political squabbles, to high school political engagement, later expressed in local politics, Grace became a constant presence in protests against nuclear proliferation, the war in Vietnam, U.S. military encroachment in Central America and was a central figure in the peace movement until her death. (More at Grace Paley: Collected Shorts.)

Maitresse interviews Charlotte Mandell:


The translator Charlotte Mandell did the heavy lifting for two of the more exciting imports from France: this year's The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, and next year's Zone, by Mathias Enard.  Mandell, who lives in Upstate New York, is also the virtuoso translator behind Proust's The Lemoine Affair, a collection of literary parodies of writers like Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, and Saint-Simon (more...)

Via the KR blog:


Although Richard Sieburth’s magnificent new rendering (available from the essential Archipelago Books) omits the date (following the latest scholarship), I still read Büchner’s unassailable Lenz every January 20th. As does the wonderful poet/translator Andrew Shields, with whom I share a favorite passage in Lenz – but could anyone really have another? Not Paul Celan, for one. Like Shields, I always follow up with Celan’s Meridian speech, which stands with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg” as an address for the ages, and is in some sense a midrash on Lenz’s famous first line (more...)

Emil Hakl will be in London this week to present his novel Of Kids & Parents. The author will appear at the following two venues accompanied by his translator Marek Tomin:


Thursday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m.
Borders Books and Music
122 Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0JR
T: 0207 379 8877

Sponsored by the Czech Centre, refreshments provided. For more info go here.


Friday, Jan. 23, 7 p.m.
Calder Bookshop
51 The Cut
London SE1 8LF
Tel. 0207 620 2900


Both events are free and all are welcome.


For more about the novel, take a look at the Twisted Spoon website. For an author profile, see the Prague Post.

Mark Sarvas has been watching Valkyrie (if you want to know more about the plot to assasinate Hitler, the Sunday Times recommends Valkyrie by Philipp von Boeselager, Germans Against Hitler by Hans Mommsen and Luck of the Devil by Ian Kershaw) and it brought to his mind "the related Coetzee/West contretemps of a few years back":


For those who missed it the first time, Coetzee used Paul West's novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg, (he of the failed July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler upon which the film is based) as a leaping off point for Elizabeth Costello's meditation as to whether the depiction of certain kinds of evil lies beyond the boundaries of art (more...)

In March, Open Letter are -- hurray! well done Chad! -- to republish Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete. Jakov Lind (1926–2007) was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 to an assimilated Jewish family:


Arriving in the Netherlands as a part of the Kindertransport in 1939, Lind survived the Second World War by fleeing into Germany, where he disguised himself as a Dutch deckhand on a barge on the Rhine. Following the war, he spent several years in Israel and Vienna before finally settling in London in 1954. It was in London that he wrote, first in German and later in English, the novels, short stories, and autobiographies that made his reputation, including his masterpieces: Landscape in Concrete, Ergo (forthcoming from Open Letter), and Soul of Wood. Regarded in his lifetime as a successor to Beckett and Kafka, Lind was posthumously awarded the Theodor Kramer Prize in 2007.

Worth looking out for in February 09, The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy by Stephen Mulhall:


In The Wounded Animal, Stephen Mulhall closely examines Coetzee's writings about Costello, and the ways in which philosophers have responded to them, focusing in particular on their powerful presentation of both literature and philosophy as seeking, and failing, to represent reality -- in part because of reality's resistance to such projects of understanding, but also because of philosophy's unwillingness to learn from literature how best to acknowledge that resistance. In so doing, Mulhall is led to consider the relations among reason, language, and the imagination, as well as more specific ethical issues concerning the moral status of animals, the meaning of mortality, the nature of evil, and the demands of religion. The ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature here displays undiminished vigor and renewed significance.

Via Public Poems:


Attention all Borges readers. Borges's great translator and collaborator Norman Thomas di Giovanni has recently posted up on his web-site his translation of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, one of Borges's finest fictional achievements. I can confirm that it reads beautifully.

Sarah Kerr writing in the NYRB on The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño:


Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic's one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño's conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it's hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile (more...)

Juan Goytisolo has been awarded the Premio Nacional de las Letras Españolas. See also Juan Goytisolo Wins Spain's National Prize for Literature at the Latin American Herald Tribune (via the literary saloon.)

Some background, via 3Quarks, on recent Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio from The Australian:


Although the recipient of several prizes recognising his vast body of work -- more than 40 novels, essays, collections of short stories and translations -- Le Clezio has at times been disparaged as a naive and sentimental writer by the Parisian literati. Through his writing and relatively infrequent media appearances, he engages with serious global issues and causes close to his heart. He speaks out against the exploitation of children as soldiers and prostitutes, whaling, environmental degradation, racial discrimination and world hunger. But he has never been awarded France's top literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, nor mooted for a place among "the immortals" in the French Academy.

He has only recently stepped into the kind of roles that a writer of his stature might normally assume. As a member of the jury for the Prix Renaudot, and the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie (Prize of the Five Francophone Continents), he finally exerts some notable influence on the French literary landscape. And now, as a Nobel laureate, that influence may extend to all the countries in the world where he was, until October 9, practically unheard of (more...)

Via the Manchester Evening News:


Work will begin early next year on the £2.5m restoration of one of English literature's most significant landmarks.

Number 84 Plymouth Grove in Ardwick is the house where Elizabeth Gaskell wrote many of her novels, including Cranford and Wives and Daughters.

Historians have been working and fundraising for the last decade to preserve the house and Manchester council has granted planning permission for the work to begin.

Janet Allan, chairman of the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which now owns the house, said: "It still has its original features, including ceiling cornices, doors and windows.

"It is a beautiful building and among the homes of women writers, only the houses of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen rival Plymouth Grove in importance." (More...)

Hungarian Literature Online have two pieces on László Krasznahorkai: János Szego's review of his new (Hungarian) story collection, Seiobo járt odalent (In essence concealed, in appearance expressed; see also the Magveto publicity page), and Ottilie Mulzet's piece Asian simulacrum: The Chinese journeys of László Krasznahorkai (via the complete review).

Via Steve, Tadzio Koelb's Irène Némirovsky and the Death of the Critic. The title rather says it all, I think.


The scope of Suite Française, had it been finished, would certainly have been remarkable, taking in the whole of the occupation, with dozens of characters, both French and German, and a storyline featuring violent murders, daring escapes, forbidden loves and more. It is not finished, however, and lasting art requires more than broad scope. Several French novels about the war have been celebrated by francophone readers but met with indifference in the English-speaking world, for example The Last of the Just by André Shwartz-Bart, a magisterial work of art and probably the best work of fiction ever written about the Shoah. Given the relative differences in popular response, we must wonder whether Suite Française would have been so favourably received in the UK had it not been for the incredible circumstances of the book’s composition, and the horrors that left it unfinished (more...)

The Auteurs' Glenn Kenny reports on Un Homme Qui Dort, Perec and Queysanne's 1974 film of Perec's book of the same name (thanks Robin):


In the early '70s Perec and his friend Bernard Queysanne, a filmmaker whose experience had heretofore been as an assistant director, teamed up to make a film of the book Un Homme Qui Dort. While much of the film's narration — which comprises the entirety of the film's verbal content; there is no dialogue — is taken directly from the novel, Perec jettisoned the book's linear structure in favor of, Bellos explains, "a mathematical construction. After the prologue (part 0, so to speak) there are six sections. The six sections are interchangeable in the sense that the same objects, places, and movements are shown in each, but they are all filmed from different angles and edited into different order, in line with the permutations of the sestina. The text and the music are similarly organized in six-part permutations, and then edited and mixed so that the words are out of phase with the image except at apparently random moments, the last of which — the closing sequence — is not random at all but endowed with an overwhelming sense of necessity." (More...)

I've just posted a nice interview with Professor David Ellis, D.H. Lawrence expert and author of Death and the Author, over on The Book Depository:


I think the story of Lawrence’s death, and what happened after it, is peculiarly dramatic and poignant (as well as on occasions grotesque), but I wanted to make its arresting details an occasion for reflection on a number of issues which matter to us all: what it feels like to suffer from a disease for which there is no cure, for example, what we feel about hospitals, the allure of alternative medicine or the powerlessness of the dead to affect how they are remembered. My aim was to write a different kind of biographical study, one which was something more than "one damned thing after another" (more...)

You will have no doubt heard about the accusations against Milan Kundera. One notes, just like every commentator who has no access to the documents and so is in absolutely no position to judge, that the accusations seem to be based on very little.


This is a good rejoinder (from euro|topics):


In the daily El País the Czech writer Monika Zgustova criticises the accusations levelled at her fellow countryman, the writer Milan Kundera, who, on the basis of secret service documents, is suspected of denouncing an anti-communist activist to the police in 1950.

"How can an accusation with such grave consequences be made on the basis of a single dubious document and use so many vague expressions? Dubious because in the Czechoslovakia of the 1950s it was routine for the police to receive denunciations, for every police official who received a denunciation could be sure of being awarded a medal ... Both the Czech and the international press were quick to comment on the article [in Respekt] and to spread the accusations against Kundera. In this way we became witnesses ... to something very grave: we were witness to massive accusations against a person in the midst of democracy, without the documents referred to even being questioned, without knowing whether there were any other documents, without hearing other witnesses and above all without listening to the accused's own version of the events."

An interesting discussion is taking place over on The Reading Experience following Dan Green's provocative wee post about A.N. Wilson's review of Rowan William's new book on Dostoevsky. The discussion is marred by the aggressive and rude tone of many of the comments -- especially following James Wood's intervention. As is so often the case, the level of unmannerly boorishness exhibited by some commenters is in a direct, inverse relationship to them having anything useful, sophisticated or insightful to add to the thread.

Writer and artist Alasdair Gray will be in conversation with novelist and artist Tom McCarthy (3pm Friday 17th October) as part of the Frieze Talks 2008. (Thanks Rowan.)

There isn't anything anywhere any more: an interview with László Krasznahorkai (author of The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War) over at Hungarian Literature Online (via wood s lot).

It’s been a week of inequality. First off, I finished Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Unjust Rewards - one of the most compelling political books of the year. The magnitude of inequality across Britain is extraordinary, the level of self-denial by the rich disgusting - and next time someone mutters something about dole scroungers to you, simply reel off the figures in here about how much tax dodging the rich do.


What’s this got to with the world of books? Well, this may be an unfair connection but with the dreadful levels of literacy of the young working class you can’t help but think that all the World Book Days won’t make an ounce of difference compared to what could be done simply providing enough funding for schools, and for pre-school help, to teach kids to read.


Secondly, Mark and I went to hear Joe Bageant talking about his new book Deer Hunting With Jesus at the Royal Festival Hall. Eloquent and fascinating, he warned about the disconnection between middle class liberals and an increasingly impoverished American working class and how the Republicans had filled the space left. Although the (mainly middle class) audience were anxious that the American poor should vote in their own interests and for Obama, it was oddly refreshing to hear an American progressive sceptical about what Obama would be able to do for them anyway. I paraphrase, but Bageant’s pessimistic view is that the US needs to reach apocalypse before it wakes up. Check out his blog.


Also at London's Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 17th September, Barbara Ehrenreich is talking with Polly Toynbee about the great wealth divide in America.

Well, this is an extraordinary coincidence! On Thursday 14th August RSB ran this post on Wyndham Lewis. Then on Tuesday August 19th, the Guardian ran this remarkably similar piece. Remember people, you heard it here first!

A recent discovery thanks to the exhibition of Alison Watt's beautiful paintings of tangled, swooping fabric at the National Gallery. The accompanying catalogue includes a poem by Paterson which led me to his excellent collection of aphorisms A Book of Shadows. Honest yet theatrical, cutting and arrogant, self-deprecating and witty, they are a joy. Delivered with concision and ruthless perception, they are often combined with the delivery of a good stand-up comedian. To be honest I've not registered the aphorism as a literary form before and Paterson self-consciously foregrounds the form within this book. Does anyone know any other good aphorists?


NB: I saw Alison Watt at a recent book launch and recognised her but had no idea where from. Always in these situations my assumption is that I've seen the person on The Bill. Which is odd, as I haven’t seen an episode in over five years.

Another criminally out of print author. Having delighted in the exhibition of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. I started hunting down his fiction and other writings. Championed by Ezra Pound, his abrasive (and politically dubious, to say the least) modernism is thrilling and singular. Hectic and hilarious prose, surreal imagery and a breathtaking use of language, you can't help but wonder if Beckett was a fan.


But I was flabbergasted to discover that almost all of his works are out of print. Some had been Penguin Modern Classics and others were made available by the heroic Black Sparrow Press but now only The Childermass, the first volume of his Human Age trilogy published by the legendary Calder Books, is still in print. I dropped a line to One World Classics, who bought the Calder list, and they are working on bringing back into print the Human Age, Tarr and one of his memoirs Blasting and Bombadiering. Good news!


(Before posting this I have, of course, ruthlessly pruned online second hand booksellers of the cheapest copies of his backlist - sorry!)

A fascinating interview with this almost forgotten writer in Saturday's Guardian. Experiencing penury on the streets of Whitechapel before finding literary success in the company of Elias Canetti and Herbert Read – and publicly attacking TS Eliot for his anti-semitism. I stumbled across him last year when I found his long out of print (as, sadly, is all his work) but wonderful novel of the Siege of Sydney Street and the radical milieu of the pre-First World War East End, A Death Out of Season. Penguin have just reissued his memoir of Jewish East End life, Journey Through a Small Planet, with a new introduction by Patrick Wright.


Even though I shall be hungrily devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it, I can’t help but feel ambiguous about this publishing trend. Once banished to the murky depths of self-publishing and vanity presses, there are now a plethora of histories, novels and autobiographies of East London and its residents. It's become a veritable sub-genre of literature: like the 'misery memoir' almost worthy of its own bookshop bay. A fashion triggered by the success of Iain Sinclair's psychogeographic explorations (although see John Barker's interesting critique of Sinclair's work), the East End now stands in for some idea of 'authentic' London. Painted as being at the forefront of social change it’s seen as multi-cultural, dynamic, violent.


But where are the memoirs of those who lived in Crouch End? Or Croydon? Or even (ugh) Clapham? And what of Nottingham? Sunderland? Norwich? All places that experienced the high-speed friction and transformation of modernity, but without popstars, YBAs and literary celebrities the histories of these places simply don’t exist.

Orbis Quintus has posted up a "choppily machine translated" of a short interview with Enrique Vile-Matas (originally, in Spanish, from Milenio).

Out of the Woods Now finds that Northrop Frye is brilliant at confronting misconceptions about William Blake:


[I]t is only by cutting out two-thirds of Blake's work that [one] will be able to wedge the rest of it in with that of the minor pre-Romantics (more...)

The Arena documentary The Strange Luck of V.S. Naipaul is available now via BBC iPlayer.

The latest book review, here on ReadySteadyBook, is Dai Vaughan's wonderful essay on Anna Kavan's Guilty:


Rhys Davies, one of Anna Kavan’s few close friends, wrote an introduction for Julia and the Bazooka (1970), a posthumous collection of her stories linked by their common allusion to her heroin habit. In it he describes a meal taken with her at the Café Royal during which she developed an inexplicable revulsion for one of the waiters, and his surprise when later he found this episode recounted in a story (The Summons in Asylum Piece [1940]) in that manner full of foreboding which, for want of a better word, people are inclined to call Kafkaesque. Having myself already come across that story, I experienced the converse of Davies’s reaction: surprise that such a sinister incident could have been experienced, by someone else, as so everyday, so innocuous (more...)

Learning from Lexington: a brief reminiscence of Guy Davenport by Marjorie Perloff (via Anecdotal Evidence).

My review of Eva Figes' Journey To Nowhere: One Woman Looks for the Promised Land is in the Telegraph today.


The review begins:


Eva Figes wrote Journey to Nowhere as a grandmother. Her head was "full of stories about the past" that were forced to the surface by the impertinent questions of her grandchildren, whose function, she suggests, is to draw such forgotten, forbidden tales into the light.

So, here is a memoir of Edith, the orphan housemaid of Figes's childhood, coupled with a polemic against Israel.

Although herself a secular Jew, Figes shares the view held by some of the ultra-Orthodox that the Jewish state should never have been created: "I do not think there was ever a time when I did not think that the creation of Israel was a historic mistake."

All nation states have founding myths, stories about the past that need unearthing and investigating, but the idea that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land" was particularly questionable (more...)

Tomorrow, I have two very small (160 word) "At a Glance" reviews in the Sunday Times. Sadly, I kinda hated both the books I was asked to comment on. David James Smith's One Morning In Sarajevo was scrappy and The Book of Dead Philosophers no more than a miscellany. I was hugely disappointed by the latter as I'm normally a pretty big fan of author Simon Critchley.

Flannery O'Connor:


I am often asked if universities stifle writers. My view is that they don't stifle enough of them.

A new review of an old classic: Thomas McGonigle takes a look at B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates ("the British author's experimental novel is made up of sections that can be changed at random so that no two readings are the same).


McGonigle's review begins:


The writer B.S. Johnson was one of a handful of modern authors -- among others, Alan Burns, Ann Quin, Zulfikar Ghose -- who extended the range of the English novel by moving beyond the innovations of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Johnson was trivialized by a ferociously traditional British literary establishment wedded to the conventional realistic novel. He committed suicide in 1973, but thanks to his very loyal readers, his novels continue to be reprinted because they are so deeply human, formally innovative and pay microscopic attention to detail.

Via the literary saloon: J.M. Coetzee and his censors.

Via orbis quintus: "Enrique Vila-Matas [has] collaborated with Blixa Bargeld to create an audio piece for Alicia Framis's Welcome to Guantánamo Museum project."


Bargeld is the driving force behind art-rock combo Einstürzende Neubauten.

I've just posted a nice chunky interview with Paul Verhaeghen (2008 IFFP winner with Omega Minor) over on The Book Depository.

Three awards for literary translations into English have gone to independent publishers in recent days (via the Guardian):


Margaret Jull Costa's translation of The Maias by the Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiroz was awarded this year's Oxford Weidenfeld prize at a ceremony on Friday evening...

Costa is a previous winner of the Weidenfeld Oxford award, her version of Jose Saramago's All the Names having taken the 2000 prize. But 2008 is proving particularly fruitful, since just weeks ago this English rendering of The Maias also secured the $3,000 PEN/Book-of-the Month club translation prize.

[Also] translator David Dollenmayer has been chosen to receive the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize for his version of Moses Rosenkranz's Childhood: An Autobiographical Fragment, an idiosyncratic portrait of Jewish life in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Words Without Borders hosts an online book club which this month is discussing Robert Walser’s The Assistant.


Sam Golden Rule Jones acts as moderator for the discussion and we’re joined by a host of Walser lovers who will take turns discussing the author and his work. Susan Bernofsky’s afterword to the book is already up, as is Sam’s introduction. Head over to the page and take a look, and be sure to check back often as we roll out work from Tom Whalen, Damion Searls, Tamara Evans, Mark Harman, Millay Hyatt, Jonathon Taylor, Bernhard Echte, Peter Utz, James Tweedie and others. We hope that after reading the commentary from our group of artists, writers, scholars, and Walser translators and aficionados, you’ll feel moved to add your own thoughts over at our Walser Discussion Forum.

Over at the interesting looking Triple Canopy magazine, amongst other goodies you can find the first complete English translation of Bolaño's 1999 speech accepting the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for his novel The Savage Detectives (translated by David Noriega).

Spurious reads Golding's The Spire and it has left him needing "more Golding - immediately. I need to read everything if only to have done with it. I need to know of what this book is part - what movement. Madness - but not a private madness. Not the malaise of one character. A kind of existence-madness, being gone mad, the boiling earth ... "


Finishing William Golding's The Spire, I felt the same way as I had done at the end of Muriel Spark's The Hothouse on the East River: a need to read about the book and about Golding if only to contain what I had read, to contextualise it. Above all, I couldn't allow the book its distance, the distance it seems to take from itself in itself such that I was never quite sure what was happening, or rather that what was happening was (in the world of the book) really happening; Dean Jocelin, with whom the narrator sticks, seemed untrustworthy - or was it that he had entrusted himself to something else, manifest as a kind of madness. That he was entrusted to a rambling, coagulating madness that had thickened itself into the narrative.

What had happened in the book? I wasn't sure. I googled 'William Golding The Spire' for study notes to help me. What had happened? I lacked the distance. No: I lacked my distance by which I could hold what I read apart from me. I was struck to its surface like a fly ... Little to say about the book itself, though. Itself: as if it wasn't too heavy for commentary. As though it were not already lost in itself, falling into itself, a book like the spire and cathedral it describes unable to sit squarely on the restless earth. A book beneath which a kind of abyss opens, an anti-spire, the stirring of the earth 'like porridge coming to boil in a pot' which means everything, therefore is as unsure as the visitations Dean Jocelin receives.

Roberto Bolaño over at YouTube (via Julian G.)

Paul Verhaeghen, who recently won the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Omega Minor (which I'll be reviewing for The Liberal soonish), has a Tuesday Top Ten list up on my Editor's Corner blog over at The Book Depository.


Also up on Editor's Corner today: 50 Open Source Resources for Online Writers and some info about the National Year of Reading.

Morgan Meis on Péter Esterházy (at 3 Quarks, via wood s lot):


If you want to talk about Péter Esterházy you have to dredge up the past a little. That isn’t always a fun thing to do, especially if you hail from anywhere in the between lands, Mitteleuropa. Still… somebody, as they say, has to do it and for whatever reason Esterházy is up to the task. Why does he do it? I think it is a simple as a line from his novel Helping Verbs of the Heart. “I’m terrified,” writes Esterházy, “yet I feel better now.” (more...)

A review of Roberto Bolaño's stunning Nazi Literature in the Americas over on The Millions blog:


It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño's sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño's protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse - not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac's Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño's fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac's: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones (more...)

This coming Thursday on Radio 4:


Screenwriter Kay Mellor explores the legacy of Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey, fifty years after it first shocked and enthralled audiences. The play brought social taboos and working-class reality to the London stage as never before. Interviews with the original cast and archive material shed new light on the play's importance for the evolution of British theatre.

Fans of The Smiths and Northerners (Delaney was born in Broughton, Salford, Lancs.) of a certain age and hue will understand my nostalgia for this slice of sociology (which was one of the first things I ever saw in the theatre).

A Common Reader takes a look at Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt:


I read The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt while relaxing in a snow-bound hotel in Northern France... I like books that create previously unheard of occupations for their main characters (Anne Tyler is also adept at this) and the concept of a shoe-tester is up there with the best - being paid to walk all day around the city of Frankfurt testing up-market shoes and writing reports for the manufacturers. Of course, the job is a pretext for a meandering dissertation on life and its unliveability - for the narrator is a true existentialist, living at the sharp-end where nothing is a given, and the everyday is seen in its remarkability as though through eyes just born to this planet ("through the open door I once again hear the little noises the birds make as their tiny feathered bodies take off with a dense and compact flutter").

A Common Reader (a blog I only found out about this morning after noticing Tom had left a comment here yesterday and which has now duly been added to BritLitBlogs) also brings my attention to the fact there are now at least three English translations of Thomas Mann on the market.


I have the Vintage Classics Manns and my copy of e.g. Doctor Faustus has an unsigned translator's note (!) and is a translation that dates from 1949 (just two years after it was published in German). I know that David Luke translated their Death in Venice, but I'm presuming that Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter who, according to wikipedia, "enjoyed the exclusive right to translate the works of Thomas Mann from German into English for more than twenty years" must have rendered the versions of Doctor Faustus, The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks that I own. The Manns that Tom brings my attention to are new(ish -- 1990s I think) translations by John E. Woods (some of which are available in lovely Everyman editions). You can find out a bit more about Woods at the Goethe-Institut USA and Random House in the States tells me:


John E. Woods is the distinguished translator of many books -- most notably Arno Schmidt's Evening Edged in Gold, for which he won both the American Book Award for translation and the PEN Translation Prize; Patrick Suskind's Perfume, for which he again won the PEN Translation Prize in 1987; Mr. Suskind's The Pigeon and Mr. Summer's Story; Doris Dorrie's Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing and What Do You Want from Me?; and Libuse Monikova's The Facade.

The good folk at Simon & Schuster (hiya Caroline!) have just sent me a review copy of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II; The End of Civilization. This, of course, is the normal run of things: publishers send books, I review them. But I'm ever so excited because I like Baker a lot ... and this particular book is signed. To me!


The dedication reads "To Mark -- Nicholson Baker" which, I grant you, isn't that exciting nor as personal as you might wish for (Nicholson, dude, where's my "love"? "Lots of love" would have been nice, you know. Was that too much to ask? Really?) But it's something. And it's a nice way to start May Day.


The book itself is quite controversial, see recent post at e.g. LewRockwell.com -- which styles itself "anti-state, anti-war, pro-market" (well, they got the first two right!) -- or see the five-part roundtable discussion at Filthy Habits or read the slamming Adam Kirsch gave it in The New York Sun (thanks Steve) back in early March. If I get a chance, Mr Baker's anti-war screed will be read this weekend.

Well, at last, the genius that is Rosalind Belben has been recognised! Our Horses in Egypt has been shortlisted for "Britain's oldest literary award" the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes ("founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband's love of literature"). Yay!


The other novels on the shortlist are: The Devil's Footprints by John Burnside; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; A Far Country by Daniel Mason and Salvage by Gee Williams (published by Alcemi "a new quality fiction imprint from" small Welsh publisher Y Lolfa).


Come on Rosalind!

Ooh, I am in a linking mood today!


Via TEV, a Julio Cortázar profile in the Yemen Times:


Cortázar belonged to the boom generation of Latin American writers who broke new ground with their works during the 1950s and 1960s. His literary career, which lasted almost 40 years, includes short stories, novels, plays, poetry, translations, and essays of literary criticism. His work is strongly influenced by surrealism with attempting to raise consciousness above reality in his fantastical short stories. He combined existential questioning with experimental writing techniques in his works and many of his stories follow the logic of hallucinations and obsessions.

I've never read Cortázar, but I understand that Hopscotch is the one to start with. That right?

Steve Coates unearths Vladimir Nabokov’s remarks about The Original of Laura, his final, unfinished manuscript (via Maud Newton).

I've just posted an interview with web-superstar Clay Shirky over on The Book Depository site (Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody, the book-puff of which runs thusly: "Our age’s new technologies of social networking are evolving, and evolving us. New groups are doing new things in new ways, and we’re doing the old things better and more easily. Business models are being transformed at dizzying speeds, and the larger social impact is in a way so profound that it’s under-appreciated. In Here Comes Everybody, one of the culture’s wisest observers give us his lucid and penetrating analysis on what this means for what we do and who we are.")


Perhaps a bit more ReadySteadyBook-ish, my Tuesday Top Ten over on Editor's Corner today is with Sharon Blackie:


Sharon Blackie is the author of The Long Delirious Burning Blue, translator of Raymond Federman's memoir of Samuel Beckett, The Sam Book, and editor of the forthcoming Cleave: New Writing by Women in Scotland and Riptide: New Writing from the Highlands and Islands. She has a croft in the north-west Highlands of Scotland and in her spare time runs Two Ravens Press with her husband, David Knowles (publishers of recent RSB Book of the Week Auschwitz by Angela Morgan Cutler).

Decent George Steiner profile in the Guardian on Saturday:


Visitors to George Steiner's house in Cambridge are likely to be greeted at the door by Ben, an enormous Old English sheepdog. Like his owners, Ben is used to dealing with the press. "Monsieur Ben, the French call him," Steiner says. "French journalists in particular are always fascinated by him." Ben has appeared, Steiner notes, on the cover of a distinguished literary journal. Is it true that he has discriminating taste in music? "Ravel's Bolero - he growls. But he is fond of Tchaikovsky." "And Duke Ellington," Steiner's wife Zara, a Cambridge historian, adds from across the kitchen (more...)

Audio from Philip Roth's 75th birthday celebration at Columbia Univesity in New York on Friday can be heard via the website or downloaded as podcasts at wnyc.org (thanks to David Bukszpan).

Sixty Years of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus by Ulrich Grothus (via the a reader's words blog):


As the subtitle says, Doktor Faustus is The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. Leverkühn is born in 1885 in central Germany. He studies the piano and some composition as a boy but first earns a degree in theology before returning to his German-American music teacher Wendell Kretzschmar to study composition in Leipzig. The very day Leverkühn arrives in Leipzig he is led to a brothel by a tour guide and first meets a prostitute whom he later revisits. She will then infect him with syphilis. The infection is interpreted as a stimulant to artistic creativity - and as a silent pact with the devil who makes his appearance exactly half-way through the novel, probably only in Lever­kühn’s fantasy. The primary infection is not adequately treated and 24 years later, in 1930, will lead to Leverkühn’s mental breakdown and paralysis, from which he will not recover until his death ten years later. The paralytic shock happens when Leverkühn has invited his friends from Munich to the nearby village where he lives, apparently for a presentation of his last composition The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, but in fact to confess his nefarious trade of love and warmth for artistic creativity.

Richard Brautigan's daughter Ianthe Brautigan interviewed (via Literary Kicks).

Via the Literature Compass Blog I note the existence of The Willa Cather Archive:


The Willa Cather Archive is team-based scholarship. Each component requires the substantial work and interactions of Cather specialists, technical specialists, graduate and undergraduate students, administrators, and more. The Cather Archive brings together the Cather Project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL, and the Archives and Special Collections of the UNL Libraries, and a full list of the individuals working on the project can be found here: cather.unl.edu/staff.html. As a scholar working on this project, I feel extremely grateful to learn so much from so many, and to create something that I feel at once is extremely useful for the scholarly community and can push that community in new directions.

Guess who is in the Tournament of Books final? Yup: Tom McCarthy ... and he could well be pitching up against Roberto Bolaño. Interesting!

Great piece on Dovid Bergelson over on Three Percent. The further reading rightly points folk to David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism edited by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh. I interviewed Joseph back in November 2005 here on RSB and hope to do so again (over on The Book Depository this time) very soon.

Are duras.ifrance.com and Société Marguerite Duras really the best the web can do for Marguerite Duras pages? Goodness. This is woeful. I needs to sort me out my minisites and knock something decent together for Ms Duras asap!


Robbe-Grillet doesn't fair much better either. John Leo's Robbe-Grillet Homepage and The Modern Word's page are the best he gets. Hmmm. Work to do!

Martyn Everett on "old school lefty" Julian Rathbone:


Nick Coleman, in the Guardian describes Rathbone as "an old-school lefty. He said so himself. His detestation of privilege and the structures which maintain it was profound. His contempt for them was expressed by turn frighteningly, wittily and sexily, and often all at once, but never, ever dully or merely rhetorically," but Julian Rathbone was more than that, describing himself in an article for the Independent as "a romantic optimist with anarchist leanings."

It was this libertarian socialist vision that suffuses Rathbone's books and makes them quite unlike those of any other modern English writer, giving them an alternative system of values and ideas which appealed to the ordinary reader.

Well, really Wood on Peter Carey and Hari Kunzru (over at The New Yorker), but it opens with this nice riff (he's good at riffs is Wood) on Conrad:


Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have all heard a lot about “the Professor,” the chilling anarchist in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who walks around with a bomb strapped to himself and one hand on the detonator. Far more attention has been paid to this ruthless fanatic—unsuggestively reprised by Cormac McCarthy as Anton Chigurh, in “No Country for Old Men”—than to Verloc, the harried, soft, pithless entity who is the novel’s actual protagonist. But Verloc is more interesting than the Professor because he is so much less confident. The Professor is an arrow; Verloc is a target, helplessly bearing the gouges of the various assaults made on him. He works for the anarchists, but he also works against them, as a double agent; he is despised by his handler at the embassy, and feels bullied into following the diplomat’s order to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a job that he fatally bungles; he is a minor London shopkeeper, who sells pornography under the table; he moves through his shabby domestic existence sluggishly, as if under water.

Verloc is vivid because he is trapped...

Menard Press author Augustus Young has embarked on "a regular webzine of new and unpublished work." He has a nice short essay on the site entitled Sacrificial Lamb discussing Bacon and Giacometti. The layout is a bit scary -- a blog would've been easier to write and much easier to read and navigate, but nice to see him online anyway!

The new issue of Brontë Studies (Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2008) is available online -- but you have to pay for most all the content! BrontëBlog provide the table of contents and abstracts.

Via TEV: "A never-before-seen-in-English interview with TEV hero Jorge Luis Borges can be found in the latest issue of the excellent journal Habitus."

Imani reproduces part of The Art of Fiction interview no.195 with Oe Kenzaburo from The Paris Review. In the article, the interviewer says at one point, "In America, literary criticism and creative writing are, for the most part, mutually exclusive." I'm not sure that that has ever been quite true but, regardless, Oe's response is perfect:


I respect scholars most of all. Although they struggle in a narrow space, they find truly creative ways of reading certain authors.

To understand literature we need the three-pronged attack that Oe outlines: submersion in the author's work; submersion in the critical response to the work (both general critical and academic); and then we need to triangulate that reading with ourselves and dwell on how this study plays with our previous reading and learning.


The interview ends with this gem: the interviewer says, "It sounds like when you travel you spend most of your time in your hotel room reading." Oe Replies:


Yes, that’s right. I do some sightseeing, but I have no interest in good food. I like drinking, but I don’t like going to bars because I get in fights.

Via Dispatches from Zembla:


two reviews of English translation of Walter Benjamin's scraps, notebooks and other miscellany in Guardian and Financial Times.

And to brighten up the evening, an excerpt from his essay The Storyteller (PDF). I like the first two paragraphs too in which he talks about how the art of storytelling has declined in the modern age in commensurate with a parallel decline in the ability to exchange experiences...

I've just posted a nice, chunky interview with Professor Esther Leslie over on The Book Depository. Professor Leslie is the author of of Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry and two books on Walter Benjamin: of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and the recent, excellent mini-biography cunningly entitled Walter Benjamin.

Carmen Callil is "entranced by Wartime Notebooks, the first drafts of Marguerite Duras's novels" over in the Guardian.


I'll review this as soon as I get my grubby mits on a copy. I'm assured by Quercus that it is "in the post" -- yay!

How lovely to read: dovegreyreader has completely fallen for the charms of Rosalind Belben's wonderful Our Horses in Egypt:


Our Horses in Egypt is an unusual, less-is-more book and I had to concentrate hard because Rosalind Belben has a unique narrative style and the dialogue often doesn't quite seem to make sense. In the early chapters I often found myself reading it aloud to really grasp the meaning and then it dawned on me, this is pure dialogue, a conversation as you would really hear it. It's pared down and spare, often unfinished, the voicing of a seemingly random thought. Here was a writer who wanted me to work.

Rosalind Belben a writer who is constantly challenging her reader to fill in the gaps and silences and make the connections for themselves.You most certainly do not get it all on a plate, the challenge of ambiguity and the potential for confusion all far more representative of real life.It is often several chapters on before one moment of confusion becomes a eureka one.

Via musicOMH.com: "In February, the National Theatre will present the UK professional premiere of Peter Handke's 1996 play, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. It is the first major London production of one of Handke's works for nearly 20 years; the last at the National was the verse-drama The Long Way Round (also known as Walk About the Villages in Michael Roloff's translation) given a Cottosloe run in 1989."

So, I have Kafka's Letters to Milena (in an unprepossessing Minerva paperback edition) and his Letters to Felice (in a nice, fat, old Penguin paperback with an introduction by Elias Canetti).


I now note that there are two other collections in the world: Letters to Friends, Family and Editors and Letters to Ottla and the Family. Are these the same? Or do I need to get both of them? Advice please!

Via Three Percent: Radio 4's In Our Time has a show dedicated to the life and work of Albert Camus.


Shortly after the new year of 1960, a small family car crashed in the French town of Villeblevin in Burgundy, killing two of its occupants. One was the publisher Michel Gallimard; the other was the writer Albert Camus. In Camus’ pocket was an unused train ticket and in the boot of the car his unfinished autobiography The First Man.

Camus was only 46 when his life was cut tragically short but had already worked for the French Resistance, fallen out with Jean-Paul Sartre, written a series of brilliant novels and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And although he has been dead for nearly 50 years, his ideas on the absurdity of life and the richness of his writing live on.

Over at Golden Rule Jones, Sam brings my attention to the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares who hit Sam's radar "because of a short book of essays he wrote on Walser". (Robert Walser that is.)


Sam gives us a nice quote from the web site of his literary agency, Dr. Ray-Güde Mertin:


Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in 1970. He spent his childhood in Aveiro in northern Portugal and studied Physics, Sport and Art. He teaches Theory of Science at a university in Lisbon. Tavares has surprised his readers with the variety of books he has published since 2001 and has been awarded an impressive amount of literary prizes in a very short time. In 2005 he won the Saramago Prize for young writers under 35. In his speech at the award ceremony, Saramago commented: “Jerusalém is a great book, and truly deserves a place among the great works of Western literature. Gonçalo M. Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him!”

I should have mentioned this a week or so ago ... the French Surrealist writer Julien Gracq has died:


Julien Gracq, décédé samedi à Angers à l'âge de 97 ans, figurait parmi les très grands écrivains francais, auteur de 19 ouvrages nourris de romantisme allemand, de fantastique et de surréalisme.

Via the Literary Saloon:


As Three Percent mentioned, Peter Handke has sold off another lot of his papers (this time from the past two decades or so) to the Austrian National Library; see, for example, the AFP report, Austria pays 500,000 euros for Handke manuscripts, as well as the official ÖNB press release, Handke-Vorlass geht an die Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

In Die Presse Anne-Catherine Simon reports (in German) on the hand-over of the papers: apparently Handke stuffed them into two suitcases and a bag, and handed them over in Cheville on 8 July; the library isn't quite sure what to do with the empty suitcases.

Dovegreyreader on Adalbert Stifter (author of Indian Summer amongst many other things, and a writer of some importance to W.G. Sebald):


Adalbert became a tutor to the aristocrats of Vienna and was held in high esteem there at least and gradually established a profitable writing career. Sadly life and his liver went into a terminal decline and with it his mental faculties until finally Adalbert slashed his throat with a razor at the age of sixty-three. He died two days later which doesn't bear thinking about and is probably best glossed over.

Like Steve, I was somewhat shocked and utterly appalled at this revelation (from the always provocative Sharp Side blog) about Dickens:


...who was better at imagining a whole cast of characters than Charles Dickens? And what happened when the Indian mutiny broke out? Did Dickens use his prodigious imaginative gifts to understand why there was resistance to the British occupation of India? He certainly dreamed of being Commander in Chief of the British army of occupation. In this role, he assured his dear friend Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”

We've already mentioned Lydia Davis twice today, now I note (via the PEN America blog) that her talk, The Architecture of Thought, "originally presented at a Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to Marcel Proust" is up on the PEN American Center site.

Via Maud Newton: at "Words Without Borders, Mark Sarvas and David Leavitt consider Sándor Márai’s The Rebels, his body of work, and intimacy between men."

John Self, over on his Asylum blog, has written an excellent review of Roth's Exit Ghost. John's review could easily grace the pages of any broadsheet, but it misses what makes Roth's book so exciting and different to the mass of adequate Establishment Literary Fiction that crowds the shelves.


James Wood gets nearer to what makes Roth special in his New Yorker article Parade’s End: The many lives of Nathan Zuckerman:


Roth has been the great stealth postmodernist of American letters, able to have his cake and eat it without any evidence of crumbs. This is because he does not regard himself as a postmodernist. He is intensely interested in fabrication, in the performance of the self, in the reality that we make up in order to live; but his fiction examines this “without sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry,” as Zuckerman approvingly says of Lonoff’s work. Roth does not want to use his games to remind us, tediously and self-consciously, that Nathan and Amy and Lonoff are just “invented characters.” Quite the opposite. Unstartled by their inventedness, he swims through depthless skepticism toward a series of questions that are gravely metaphysical, and more Jamesian than Pynchonian: How much of any self is pure invention? Isn’t such invention as real to us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality, just as Nathan once invested the opaque Amy Bellette with the reality of Anne Frank. In this kind of work, the reader and the writer do something similar—they are both creating real fictions.

Roth "does not regard himself as a postmodernist." And neither do I. The power of Exit Ghost comes from Jamesian questions, as Wood says, not postmodernist answers. The power comes from Roth's modernism.

Doris Lessing, author of many novels including The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child, was, earlier today, announced as the winner of the Nobel Literature Prize. More via Editor's Corner.

Award-winning novelist Paul Bailey and translator Len Rix talk about the newly released Oliver VII by Antal Szerb tonight on Nightwaves (BBC Radio 3 at 9.45pm).

Hellishly busy here ... as ever it would seem. But I just wanted to say something (fairly incoherent and very limited) about Philip Roth's latest work Exit Ghost which I finished reading early this morning. There is, I think, something particularly fine about the novel. And that ineffable quality, whatever it is, and I'll try to get to it in another post once I've thought some more about it, is similar in its way to what I found in Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (so beautifully discussed over on This Space recently). One particular thing struck me and that was that the bits that aren't great -- characterisation and plot etc. have all been better elsewhere reviewers tell us -- aren't anywhere near as important to the novel as what is unsettlingly superb about it. It seems to be irreducibly what it is -- indeed, Zuckerman says something about art/literature being thus in the novel, but I can't find the darn quote ... Anyway, the formidable intelligence rises from every subversive -- self-subverting, that is -- page and makes me hungry to read Roth's backlist.

Steve -- This Space -- Mitchelmore has written a superb review -- and defence -- of J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year:


Diary of a Bad Year is an exceptionally moving investigation of what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe. The short, diverse essays at the top of each page signal a diminishment of writerly power. They might evoke a hollow echo if published alone. At least one reviewer sees this as a problem to the success of the book. Yet if they were more fully-developed, they would crust over what is currently an open wound. And it is the gaping wound with which Coetzee's is concerned. Success, in this sense, would be failure.

I think Steve is pretty near spot-on with this, but I don't agree completely. I think there was a tiredness to the novel, beyond JC's tiredness; a frustration with the novel form, beyond the frustration discussed in the essays; a perfunctory quality to some of the writing, beyond the artful intent to leave the work "open": success would, indeed, be failure here, were the work to be too complete, but I still think Coetzee could have failed better.

This week's Tuesday Top Ten over on Editor's Corner at The Book Depository is from our pal Stephen Mitchelmore of This Space.


Steve chooses "ten books that defy simple classification" and they are as below -- but the full annotated list is over on Editor's Corner:


Tomorrow night (Tuesday 25th September) at 7pm at the Calder Bookshop (51 The Cut, London, SE1 8LF) Pushkin Press are hosting a talk by "acclaimed novelist Paul Bailey and award-winning Hungarian translator Len Rix, about the work of twentieth-century Hungarian master novelist Antal Szerb." This in celebration of the newly published Oliver VII.

Saturday marked the hundred year anniversary of Maurice Blanchot's birth. This Space brings my attention to a post by Pierre Joris, The space opened by Blanchot, which was Pierre's contribution to the 2004 memorial volume Nowhere Without No, and to Spurious's Common Presence: Blanchot at 100.

Computer problems meant that my five-part interview with Tom McCarthy didn't go up as smoothly as possible last week -- sorry about that. But all five parts are now online -- part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. To make things easier, I'll collate all the parts of Tom's interview later this week.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the fifth and final part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Are you dismayed by the current state of the world!?


Tom McCarthy: How could I not be? Beckett’s answer to this question was ‘Let it burn!’ – but then he has Vladimir in Waiting for Godot say ‘Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?’, which I think is the single best and most moving line ever written by any writer, ever. Everything’s political, ultimately – but I think good writing disengages from politics at a superficial level in order to experience it more profoundly.


MT: What are you writing now?


TM: Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.


MT: Anything else you would like to say?


TM: Keep on keeping up the good work. RSB’s become a staple of my daily meander through cyberspace: the criticism, the links, it’s all good – apart from the announcements of various great writers’ and critics’ deaths, which I always read first on your site. Stop killing off our heroes!

Below is the fourth part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Who should we be reading from way back when and who should we be reading who is writing now? Why!?


Tom McCarthy: You gotta read the Greeks if you want to understand how the whole symbolic order fits together; it’s like the main-frame from which all subsequent literature springs. Read the Oresteia, Oedipus, Antigone. Then the Renaissance writers, obviously. And the big modernists. Not reading Joyce if you want to be a serious writer would be kind of like not looking at Picasso if you want to paint. In terms of now, I think some of the most interesting literary figures (as I suggested earlier) aren’t necessarily writers. The films of David Lynch, for example, have an extremely literary logic; his latest, Inland Empire, is structured like Finnegans Wake or the novels of Robbe-Grillet, with a set of repetitions regressing inwards, modulating as they repeat. He’s grappling with questions of narrative and representation and identity in a way that mainstream novelists simply aren’t, and is therefore much more interesting as a ‘writer’, even if he isn’t strictly speaking one.


MT: You've established yourself as a writer, but you still see yourself as an artist -- what non-writing work are you involved in at the moment?


TM: I’m heading off to New York this week to present the International Necronautical Society’s (INS) Declaration on Inauthenticity, a joint statement with INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley, who I see you’ve interviewed on these pages in the past. It’ll be delivered in the form of a White House-style press conference, at the Drawing Centre on the 25th Sept. There are also INS projects coming up at the Museet Moderna Kunst in Stockholm, where we’re going to install an audio ‘crypt’ in the gallery, at Tate Britain here in London and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I’m also working with the artist Johan Grimonprez, who made this brilliant film called Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, all about airline hijacks, which won the Documenta prize a few years ago. He’s working on a new film about Hitchcock and the double, a theme obviously very close to my heart, and I’m writing a kind of voiceover-narrative for it.


MT: Are you dismayed by the current state of writing/publishing?


TM: Nes and yo. I think it’s a great time to be a writer; it’s just an awful time to publish. But, as I suggested earlier, a result of the closing out of literature by corporate publishing here in the UK has been that literature runs underground and bubbles up elsewhere: art, film, philosophy and so on. The borders between these disciplines get blurred, there’s hybridization, new forms emerging. That’s a good thing.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the third part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your novels? Have you learned anything from them?


Tom McCarthy: I’m interested in people’s readings of the books. A novel doesn’t end when it’s written; in a way, that’s just the beginning: the ‘meaning’ isn’t enclosed within it but emerges from its meeting with other texts, other moments – all textbook deconstruction stuff, I know, but no less true for that. Having said that, some readings are much more productive than others. Ones that interpret Remainder, for example, as a straight allegory or ‘solve’ it by suggesting that the hero’s dead but doesn’t know it yet are interesting but limited. The critic Andrew Gibson, who’s just put out a book on Beckett and Badiou, told me that my work is about ‘the radical death of the world,’ adding that this is the theme of twenty-first century philosophy. I’m not sure I understand what he means but it sounds really good.


MT: Remainder is a very philosophical novel. What first drew you to Continental Philosophy, to Blanchot et al?


TM: It’s such great stuff. The English empirical tradition is just bean-counting; it’s got nothing to do with proper thought. Real philosophy throws us radically and dynamically into the world, into language and experience, through desire towards death and so on. That’s why Heidegger, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida – and Badiou too – are real philosophers. What draws me also is the centrality of literature to this tradition. Heidegger develops half his ideas from the poetry of Hölderlin or Gottfried Benn, Derrida from exquisitely close and creative readings of Genet, Ponge and Baudelaire. Where does the ‘philosophy’ end and ‘literature’ begin? The Post Card is a love-poem to rival anything by John Donne – only it’s not a poem; so what is it? And how do we categorise Edmond Jabès’s work? Criticism? Prose-poetry? ‘Meta-writing’? In good philosophy, the question of literature is always ‘live’, and ditto the other way round.


MT: You've said that you think the novel is safer in the hands of artists than with writers -- what did you mean by that?


TM: I don’t think that’s always the case; it’s all contingent. But with mainstream UK publishing becoming just the middle-brow branch of the corporate entertainment industry, the writers promoted by the big houses tend to be ones who are using the format of the novel to serve up nicely-packaged but quite unambiguous ‘thoughts’, or pat liberal ‘questions’ that bring their own answers with them – in other words, purging literature of the slipperiness, recalcitrance, abjection and a million other things that make it literary. Conversely, art’s become an arena where these very things are valued, and artists (as I think I said in our last conversation) are becoming more and more literate – and even using text and narrative in their work. Things move in cycles; maybe in fifty years time art will be all dumb and corporate and publishing dynamic and subversive, who knows? But at the moment, yes, it’s art and its networks that are curating literature – ‘curating’ in the classical sense of keeping it safe, letting it develop.

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy. Today, Tom lists his Top Ten Novels over on The Book Depository ... and I give you the second part of my interview with Mr McCarthy below:


Mark Thwaite: What do you see as the main fundamental differences between Men in Space and Remainder Tom?


Tom McCarthy: Superficially, they’re very different novels: dispersed third-person versus monomaniacal first, eclectic overabundance versus pared-down minimalism and so on. But ultimately they’re concerned with the same things. Repetition, for example, and the idea of inauthenticity. Also, as I hinted earlier, they’re both about failed transcendence. In both novels, there are two directions, two pulls: up, and down. Things get sent up towards the sky, the heavens; they come crashing down again. In Men in Space these things are people, eras, whole societies; in Remainder it’s blue goop from a windscreen-wiper reservoir – and also, of course, an aeroplane and whatever piece of hardware fell on the hero in the first place. In both novels, there’s a battle between an abstracting, idealist tendency and a material one that leads to clutter and detritus – and in both the latter wins hands down (go and look at Yeats’s The Circus Animals’ Desertion and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about). And both end in a kind of suspension: the hero of Remainder doing aerial figure-of-eights, or Nick stuck on the roof holding the rope while history’s wheel loops round and round...


MT: What were the biggest challenges of writing MiS? How did you overcome them?


TM: How do you write a novel about disintegration that’s not disintegrated, that’s coherent? And how do you write about things you’ve experienced while simultaneously configuring it all from a novelistic point of view? In the first draft, there were episodes in there simply because they’d happened to me and seemed important at the time; then you realize that that doesn’t matter: everything has to play a role within the novel’s architecture, its staging posts, relays and correspondences. Also, more prosaically (and it is prose we’re talking about, after all), how do you get a character into and out of a room? I find that hard enough.


MT: I understand the film rights for Remainder have been sold? What does this actually mean!? When might we see a film?


TM: A partnership of FilmFour and Cowboy Films have bought the rights and are producing the movie. They’re the partnership behind the recent adaptation of The Last King of Scotland, which was a huge success and won an oscar for Forrest Whittaker. The first draft of the script has been written, by John Hodge, who wrote the script for Trainspotting. I’m not technically involved, but the producer gave me a peek and it looked really good. Next they decide who the director will be. So maybe 2008/9 for the release date. It always takes longer and costs more than you think, apparently...


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Back in July, I did a five-part interview with Dan Hind (collected here). Doing the interview over the course of a week seemed to be very well received, so now it is time to do it again, this time with our pal the author Tom McCarthy (who I've interviewed before, of course).


Tom's novel Remainder has become hugely successful. His lastest novel is Men in Space.


Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Men in Space, Tom?


Tom McCarthy: I lived in Prague in the early nineties, just after the Velvet Revolution. As though half-realising Plato’s vision of a philosopher-led state, this absurdist playwright, Havel, had come to power and filled parliament with his friends. The city was also a magnet for young would-be Bohemians from all over the world, and there were parties that went on for days, spilling from club to loft to opening to club again. Beyond the drunkenness, there was a real excitement, a sense that something new, a new Europe or new type of Europe, was emerging from the ruins of the Easter Bloc. A few years later, back in London, I wanted to write about it – or at least use it as the setting to write about something more entrenched. The image of the floating saint in the stolen icon painting that serves as the book’s ‘MacGuffin’ helped solidify some of the themes of regeneration and transcendence – or its failure – I was trying to get at; and of course the abandoned cosmonaut who doubles him in ‘contemporary’ (rather than ‘archaic’) time, orbiting above the stratosphere while the ex-Soviet states argue who should bring him down, did the same. These things came together slowly, though. There was no single Eureka-moment, like there was with Remainder when I got struck by deja-vu while looking at a crack and the whole novel was there in half an hour.


MT: How long did it take you to write it?


TM: I finished a version of it before writing Remainder, a really long time ago. Fourth Estate were going to publish that version, but the editor got blocked from above, and then the same thing happened at a couple more big publishers; so I put it aside and wrote Remainder. After that book took off I looked at the manuscript with Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books here and Marty Asher of Vintage in New York and we decided we’d do it. But by this time it was pretty old, and I wanted to rework it thoroughly before putting it out; so I spent the first three months of this year heavily rewriting, cutting loads and adding new stuff. So, to answer your question, it was written over two and a half years seven years ago and three months seven months ago. Got that?


MT: What is it about Central Europe at the moment just after the Soviet Union collapsed that you find so fascinating?


TM: An order of things disintegrating, all the old parameters being stripped away, or, to put it in drier philosophical terms, a grand narrative being fragmented (which, for the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, is the defining feature of the ‘postmodern’). It’s the vertigo, the exhilaration, the terror and the expectation – not to mention the eventual disappointment: they wanted The Republic and got Starbucks.

Over on This Space, Steve reproduces Jean-Luc Nancy's tribute to Maurice Blanchot on the 100th anniversary of his birth:


Writing (literature) names this relationship. It does not transcribe a testimony, it does not invent a fiction, it does not deliver a message: it traces the infinite journey of meaning as it absents itself. This absenting is not negative; it shapes the chance and challenge of meaning itself. "To write" means continuously to approach the limit of speech, the limit that speech alone designates, whose designation makes us (speakers) unlimited... (More.)

Over the past couple of weeks I've read three vaunted books: Bruno Arpaia's The Angel of History, J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. All three were flawed, of course, because all novels are flawed. Literature is, after all, a project of failure: "Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." The Coetzee, however, stands head and shoulders above the other books: why?


Arpaia's story of the last months of Walter Benjamin's life reads like an accomplished novelisation of the film of Benjamin's trials and tribulations in trying to protect the manuscript of Passagen-Werk (what we now know as The Arcades Project) whilst fleeing Nazi Germany and trying to cross into Spain over the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Portbou. Intertwined with Benjamin's tale, told in the third person, is the first person narrative of Laureano Mahojo, a Republican militant who fought in the Spanish Civil War. His memories of the war form the background to the focal point of the novel when, one night, he meets Benjamin, and their lives briefly entwine.


Both the first and third person narratives disappoint, but in different ways. The tone of the former is deliberately that of the storyteller. Laureano is speaking directly to someone he addresses irregularly as "my son": we, the reader, are thus spoken to, admonished, involved quite directly. Aware that the Benjamin story is what we've come for, Laureano teases us that the detail of their meeting is soon to come, but first he wants to tell his own story, lay down in full the context of that meeting (at one level of abstraction, this does nicely reinforce the fact that the Spanish Civil War was an essential precursor to the coming slaughter of the Second World War). Confidently, he gives a bravura performance telling of his part in the heroism and folly of war. But the very coherence and detail of the linear narrative undermines any notion that Laureano's memories are anything but a story created by Arpaia. The author's eloquence foregrounds a lack of authenticity that is never investigated or even recognised. There is an awful, self-assured rhetorical quality that forbids deep involvement on the part of the reader who can never forget that this is a story and is never given the credit for a recognition that needs to be shared by the writer.


The parts dealing with Benjamin himself amount to a decent potted biography of his desperate last months. But they are arch and over-dramatised. At no point are Benjamin's thoughts on the novel used by Arpaia to help him investigate what it is he is doing writing his own book about the German critic.


McEwan's On Chesil Beach is airless, arid, almost pointillist. Exact and pedantic -- the work is claustrophobic and inorganic. It never becomes an artwork because it isn't an investigation into anything: it is the laying bare of a meticulous plan. McEwan doesn't write to discover, he writes to deliver his knowledge about his puppet characters. There is no silence in the work, there is only witheld information, which is quite a different thing. Is the starched writing a kind of pathetic fallacy for his characters' inward desperation? No. McEwan eschews empathy -- his writing constitutionally unable to create it -- because of his overarching need to direct. He is, perhaps, the best exponent of Establishment Literary Fiction that we have ...


Coetzee's latest effort is infuriating and frustrating in parts, as I said in the brief review of it I posted yesterday. But its investigation into itself makes it an invigorating read. I find myself, however, at odds with what I perceive to be Coetzee's project of deep irony that underpins his recent work. The provisionality that grounds, yet undoes, all writing can be addressed in a modernist or a postmodernist way: the search for new ways of investigating the endeavour of writing; or scepticism towards the possibility of such an address. When that scepticism is wrapped inside the investigation itself, absurdity beckons.

I've just written a wee review of Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year over on The Book Depository:


In J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year an ageing writer, J.C., who strongly resembles Coetzee himself, finds himself inappropriately drawn to his young amanuensis Anya. Her partner, Alan, is none too happy about Anya's working relationship with J.C.. Anya is untroubled by what she knows to be going through J.C.'s head, but is somewhat perturbed by some of the things that he has written and that she has to type up for him.

With Elizabeth Costello, and with Slow Man, Coetzee, one of the most brilliant novelists writing today, has shown himself to have a profound interest in the novel's form. Elizabeth Costello is a collection of philosophical essays just about holding together as a novel, as the essays we read are, nominally, Costello's own writings. In Slow Man, Costello arrives on the scene again to tell the principal protagonist, Paul Rayment, that she has invented him: a third of the way through what seems a (wonderfully written) conventional novel and Coetzee gets up to all sorts of destabilizing, metafictional tricks.

In Diary of a Bad Year, the tricks aren't as disturbing, but the interest in playing with form is still highly evident. Most of the pages of Diary of a Bad Year are split into three horizontally demarcated sections: we read J.C.'s non-fictional essays; Anya's take on their relationship; and then J.C.s take on his deepening involvement with Anya and Alan.

This clever structure, however, doesn't stop the novel being unsatisfying in a number of ways: J.C.'s essays aren't fully developed enough entirely to convince; and the accompanying story of the bizarre love triangle is too thin a fare fully ever to engage the reader. Coetzee's brilliance is never in doubt and this is, certainly, a must-read book (it should be read to see what Coetzee, a world-class practitioner, is trying to do with the novel), but it is, at times, an infuriating and frustrating read.

Lee Rourke on Tom McCarthy:


Tom McCarthy leads the reader to a repeating series of ellipses that neither confirm nor deny; a feeling that humanity has been abandoned, and will be abandoned again and again. There is no 'divine mystery' to ascend towards, just a 'kind of Bermuda triangle'; a point of no return; an eternal repeating nothingness. McCarthy is fast revealing himself as a master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting territories. In unravelling the defining minutiae of an event in history, he manages to reveal to us the widening disintegration of our own present.

A very busy day here. To cap it -- exciting stuff -- the new Coetzee (Diary of a Bad Year) arrived: yay! I've read about 75 pages so far ... and, actually, I'm not that bothered as yet. There is a plainess to Coetzee's writing that is so austere that it is almost rudely unpolished. I'm not sure I'm always convinced by this.


I did manage to write a longish blog about the Sony Reader over on Editor's Corner, so that's good.


Oh: Benjamin Kunkel on Roberto Bolaño over at the LRB.


Now, back to Coetzee.


Update: This wee post was originally entitled Bolaño and Sebald. That was a mistake! An interesting Freudian slip, though. Nothing here, to be said about Sebald: it was Coetzee I wanted to mention. But I'm intrigued I made the mistake -- both writers do, I think, have a deep connection which I want to ponder on. For now, sorry about my foolishness!

Via Anecdotal Evidence, a demolition of the Cult of Kerouac in Another Side of Paradise by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple):


He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.

I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.

Later today, we're off to North Wales for four days of walking, reading, drinking and sleeping. Lola the Puppy shall accompany us, of course.


I'm not sure what I'll be reading, but it won't be Herman Abert's absolutely massive Mozart biography which landed here yesterday. It looks stunning, mind, and I'm thrilled to have received a copy, but it is jaw-droppingly huge. Almost as big as Lola, and certainly heavier! I think its 1600 pages are going to have to wait for a much quieter time in my life than now.


I reckon that Philip Davis's new Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life will come along with me, however, as it looks like a fine work. Malamud seems to have seriously missed out on the recognition and critical acclaim that Roth and Bellow achieved, yet he ranks along them both (surely better than the former, isn't he?)


My novel of choice is set to be Bruno Arpaia's The Angel of History, an "award-winning reimagining of Walter Benjamin's final days during World War II" which I don't remember noticing when it came out in trade paperback last year. Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde will probably be shoved in my case too.


Have a lovely weekend, y'all.

Ed makes The Case for John Barth:


If literary blogs exist to dredge up the underrated authors of our time, I must ask why the litblogosphere, so capable of unearthing the neglected, has remained so silent concerning the great novelist John Barth. If Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, and David Markson cut the mustard with their postmodernist innovations, then Barth likewise deserves a spot in the This Guy is the Real Deal pantheon.

I've never read Barth, but I'm intrigued. You guys know him?

I'm understandably very busy with stuff over at The Book Depository (do you like the new look? do you!?) but, if I get a second, tomorrow I'll post an article (by my pal Sophie from the Dalkey Archive Press) about the intriguing Stefan Themerson.

Ooh look: a Sebald blog!


Thanks to Michael, from the fab Boydell & Brewer, for bringing this to my attention. And this is probably a good time to bring to your attention, dear readers, the fact that Boydell will be publishing Deane Blackler's Reading W. G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience any day now:


W.G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Germany. He found his way as a young academic to England and a career as professor of German. Only between the late 1980s and his untimely death in 2001 did he concentrate on nonacademic writing, crafting a new kind of prose work that shares features with but remains distinct from the novel, essay, travel writing, and memoir forms and gaining elevation to the first rank of writers internationally. No less a critic than Susan Sontag was moved to ask "Is literary greatness still possible?," implying that it was and that she had found it embodied in his writing. Deane Blackler explores Sebald's biography before analyzing the reading practice his texts call forth: that of a "disobedient reader," a proactive reader challenged to question the text by Sebald's peculiar use of poetic language, the pseudoautobiographical voice of his narrators, the seemingly documentary photographs he inserted into his books, and by his exquisite representations of place. Blackler reads Sebald's fiction as adventurous and disobedient in its formulation, an imaginative revitalization of literary fiction for the third millennium.

I've just reviewed Kressmann Taylor's 1938 classic Address Unknown over on The Book Depository:


Address Unknown is a highly moving and deeply troubling epistolary novella. It is an account of a friendship warped and destroyed in the years of Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s. Martin Schulse has returned to Germany to pursue his business interests as an art dealer, his close (Jewish) friend, Max Eisenstein, remains in San Francisco running the Shulse-Eisenstein Gallery from the Californian end. After a couple of warm letters expressing their deep affection for one another, Max asks Martin to comment on the stories he has been hearing in the USA from Jews returning from the Continent: "I am in distress at the press reports that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland ... Write me, my friend, and set my mind at ease." Shockingly, Martin responds to Max neither with consolation nor affection, but with a request that their correspondence cease. Martin tries to explain himself, but it is clear he is in sympathy with what is going on in Germany. Worse comes: when Max's sister Griselle, an old flame of Martin's, is badly in need of help a shocking betrayal occurs. Martin has moved from being equivocal through being approving to becoming a Nazi zealot.

Profound and desperately moving, this tiny book (just 50 pages) packs a massive emotional punch. Kressmann Taylor (the pen name of Kathrine Kressmann) manages to explore the death of friendship consequent on the birth of a vicious ideology without ever becoming sentimental. Indeed, her book has very hard edges. This 1938 classic, which helped explain to America what was happening in the Germany of the day, is still an essential read.

An interesting article on Michel Onfray's atheism over at the New Humanist which contains this nice quote from Jonathan Rée:


Onfray is the kind of philosopher who is impressed by how much human beings can know with certainty, and he assumes that believers claim certainty too. I’m much more interested in the amount we have to take on trust, and in that respect I think everyone has a lot to learn from a certain kind of believer: not the dreadful dogmatist, but the shy doubter (eg Kierkegaard).

We also learn, from Onfray fan Douglas Ireland:


It’s just silly for English-speaking philosophers to criticise him for not having elaborated on his philosophical project simply because they are incapable of reading him or simply haven’t bothered. Among his 31 books, Onfray has published no less than seven in which he specifically unfolds in great and inventive detail his theory and philosophy of hedonism.

His most recent in this area, La puissance d’exister: Manifeste hédoniste (Grasset, 2006; soon to be translated into English by University of Melbourne Press), is a brilliant summing up of his unique philosophical approach and the constructs which flow from it.

Way back in November 2005, Lee Rourke reviewed Noah Cicero's The Human War for me here on RSB.


Now, Snowbooks have reissued Cicero's novella and I have reviewed it over at The Book Depository:


Reading Noah Cicero's angry yet affecting and unsettling novella The Human War, it is difficult to know whether his artless prose is part of the effect or what, finally, limits his book's effectiveness. Cicero has been compared to Bukowski, but a better comparison might be to the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine or rather to Celine's misanthropy. The two writers, however, are in vastly different leagues; where Celine investigates, Cicero merely rants, often quite clumsily. Cicero is far, far from being accomplished and this is a raw, untidy book where, through lack of attention to detail and to the nuances of tone, earnestness slides unwittingly into farce and back again to trite teen angst; darkly absurd one moment, laughable the next.

However, the monotonous rhythm has an unarguable drive, and the gap between hope and the empty lives Cicero's characters lead, intelligence and their scope for action, is clinically -- if sometimes rather boorishly -- attended to. There is something profoundly moving about the frustratedly articulate main character and his trailer trash girlfriend. Mark, furious and confused about the war in Iraq which is just about to start, has sex with Kendra, drinks coffee with his friend Jimmy and then goes to strip club and gets very, very drunk. All the time venting about the emptiness of his benighted existence. Whilst one shrinks from Cicero's bitter and destructive ennui, one recognises its truth and its humanity. Cicero's rage doesn't make for a polished work, but it does make for an enthralling if very uneven read.

Bronte Blog informs me that the "Edinburgh Evening News reports that a permanent memorial to Dame Muriel Spark is to be created in Edinburgh":


The memorial stone in Makar's Court, just off the Royal Mile, is seen as a suitably "dignified" tribute to the Edinburgh-born writer, who died in April last year. The simple stone slab will feature either a quotation from one of Dame Muriel's novels or her autobiography.

At the Makar's Court, she will take her place alongside Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, who are also celebrated with inscriptions outside the city's Writers' Museum.(...)

The Muriel Spark Society has been planning a tribute to the author ever since her death, but has struggled to find funds.

But now, following a "generous donation" from an anonymous donor, the plans can go ahead.

I was going to read Noam Chomsky's Interventions over the weekend, but on Friday Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History (Penguin) turned up. I read it in about two sittings. Very compelling; commendably well done. Nothing about the African campaigns and, obviously, plenty of other gaps too (weirdly, too much battle detail in parts and, overall, not nearly enough (geo-)politics). I'll review it later today or tomorrow on The Book Depository (currently down because of the Gloucester floods).


I've just got stuck into Adam Tooze's Wages of Destruction. I think this summer, history books are going to dominate.


My favourite history books? Top five might be as below. What are yours? I'm especially keen to know what you'd recommend next on WWI and WWII.


Dan Hind, who I recently interviewed here on the blog over five days (first part, second part, third part, fourth part, fifth part), is on Start the Week this morning.


Update: To make this a lot easier for y'all my interview with Dan Hind is now all together in one place. Tidy!

I've just published a great interview with Tamar Yellin, author of The Genizah at the House of Shepher and Kafka in Bronteland and other stories, over on The Book Depository site.

There is a new Noam Chomsky title due in August, op-ed pieces "adapted from essays ... distributed by the New York Times Syndicate":


Interventions is Noam Chomsky at his best. At a time when the United States exacts a greater and greater power over the rest of the world, America’s leading voice of dissent needs to be heard more than ever. In over thirty timely, accessible and urgent essays, Chomsky cogently examines the burning issues of our post-9/11 world, covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush presidency and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is an essential collection, from a vital and authoritative perspective.

This landed here with me yesterday and I'll no doubt read it this weekend. I do think it is worth noting, however, that this is printed on really grotty, low-grade quality paper (nothing to indicate that this is recycled paper). It is a little, boxy hardback which seems a hell of price at £12.99 to me. And there seems little chance of Asda offering this as a loss-leader for a fiver either!

Kafka biographer, and RSB interviewee, Nicholas Murray now has a blog. Visit him at The Bibliophilic Blogger.


Nicholas -- welcome to the 'sphere!

I should've mentioned this a few days ago: Ellis's To the end of everything: Ann Quin’s 'Tripticks':


One of the very few critics to respond to Quin’s work is the American critic Philip Stevick, in his essay Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction ... Stevick usefully draws attention to three aspects of Quin’s writing which doubtless account for resistance to her work: the instability of the narrative voice/s, a narrow, ahistorical focus on the inner turbulence of a self in conflict with others, and indifference to storytelling and the manipulated patterns of a plot.

According to The Kenyon Review blog:


... the lost Alexandre Dumas novel The Last Cavalier will be released by Pegasus in October, reports Publishers Weekly. The book was found in the National Library in Paris two years ago by Dumas expert Claude Schopp, who also added a conclusion to the unfinished novel. The book, published in France in 2005 as Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, “gives a full account of the Battle of Trafalgar, which explains that the hero of the book was responsible for the death of Lord Nelson.” According to BBC News at the time, the novel “has been described as ‘indescribably brilliant’ by scholars.”

I wonder which scholars called it ‘indescribably brilliant’? I somehow can't imagine very many having the balls to call it ‘indescribably crap’!

The latest article here on RSB is by the excellent Kit Maude and is about Scottish/Swiss born -- then naturalised French -- writer Blaise Cendrars (pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser; 1887-1961).

Daniel Green, of The Reading Experience, reckons that Tom McCarthy's Remainder is "not only the most impressive debut novel I've read in a very long time. It's one of the best novels I've read recently, period."

Over on the Kenyon Review blog, Jerry Harp has been Rereading Harper Lee. I'm not convinced I need to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, however. For all the social significance of its homilies it never really felt like more than a good children's book to me. Actually, I think I probably enjoyed the 1962 Gregory Peck film.


As readers of Harper Lee will recall, a central point–perhaps the central ethical lesson–of the novel occurs when Atticus tells Scout about the importance of climbing into another person’s skin and walking around in it, a lesson that Scout puts into practice in her dealings with her brother, Jem, and then with other persons such as Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley, persons who have been marginalized, made “into ghosts,” as Atticus puts it when discussing Arthur Radley with his children.

For a wee while, back in the mid-nineties, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, I used to work in an idyllic, small secondhand bookshop at the top of Hardman Street in Liverpool called Atticus. I'd often have a bottle of red wine on the go and get quietly pissed over the course of an afternoon, listening to Radio 3. Good times.

Author Michael Otterman has a blog over on his American Torture site. His book, also called American Torture, which was one of my Books of the Week back at the beginning of May, is out now from Pluto Press:


Michael Otterman reveals the long history of US torture. He shows how these procedures became standard practice in today's war on terror. Initially, the US military and CIA based their techniques on the work of their enemies: the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese. Billions of dollars were spent studying, refining, then teaching these techniques to instructors at military survival schools and interrogators charged with keeping communism at bay. Along the way, the US government produced torture-training manuals that were used in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. As the Cold War ended, these tortures -- engineered to leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars -- were legalized using the very laws designed to eradicate their use. After 9/11, they were revived again for use on enemy combatants detained in America's vast gulag of prisons across the globe -- from secret CIA black sites in Thailand to the Pentagon's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

There is a detailed overview of the work of Elfriede Jelinek by Tim Parks over in The New York Review of Books: he isn't that impressed!

Last week, I dedicated much of the blog to a five-part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part and fifth part) interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). I devoted so much space to this feature because I think Dan's book, though flawed, is a very important response to much of the nonsence currently being poured forth in the name of so-called reason. Also, I really liked the format! So, a question to you guys: did you like the format too? Is this something I should do again with other authors? Do, please, let me know.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the fifth and final part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). Threat was very favourably mentioned in of the book in the Spectator yesterday; good to see.


Very many thanks to Dan for taking the time out of such a busy schedule to answer my questions:


Mark Thwaite: You end The Threat to Reason with a call for a re-energisation of the public sphere. Isn't this a kind of naive amalgam of Habermas and Internet optimism?


Dan Hind: Well I am not that naive about the emancipatory potential of new technology. The internet has great potential as a way to widen participation in research and debate; that is, I think, already being demonstrated and we are only at the start of that process. But it is also a great venue for peddling misinformation, violent pornography, and corporate advertising.


Habermas and I mean different things when we talk about the public sphere. Habermas is describing a history of modern society, which he traces back to eighteenth century England. He is talking about how individuals and institutions create a space for discussions about the 'public interest'. I follow Kant in seeing the public sphere as a realm where individuals and groups abstract themselves from their institutional roles and try to achieve a state of total autonomy. Collaboration, of course, but an acute sensitivity towards, and suspicion about, the distorting effect of institutional power on the free exercise of the intellect. This runs against the idea that one can be entirely free to inquiry in the context of one's institutional life (a claim that academics and journalists sometimes make). Kant's conception of the public/private divide is a good deal more exotic, and more radical, than we usually recognise. He is very far from Habermas in this regard.


MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?


From the Enlightenment, Hume is an extraordinary figure and in many ways a sympathetic one. I'd like to read more Diderot and more Madison over the summer, too, now I think about it, but I wouldn't call them favourites. It won't come as a great surprise that I admire Noam Chomsky a great deal. His book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, is still news. Joel Bakan's The Corporation is a model of how to deliver an unanswerable polemic. It is calm, concise, devastating, and it achieves precisely what the author intended. As far as reading for pleasure I have recently been introduced to graphic novels. Two that stand out are Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Joe's Matt's The Poor Bastard. In their very different ways they are exceedingly fine.


Can't claim any great authority or knowledge about fiction. I don't think anyone would regret taking the time to read Bulgakov's The Master and Magarita (I read Glenny's translation) or Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there is something about The Iliad that I can't stop wondering about. Christopher Logue's re-workings of it are a good place to start. Not so much a favourite as a puzzle I can't solve, and wouldn't want to.


MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?


DH: The main point I'd like readers to take away is that the Enlightenment doesn't belong to a small group of experts. The Enlightenment was a public debate about the fundamental issues in society; who should rule, how should their power be limited, how do we agree on a common account of reality? We can take useful things from the historical Enlightenment, and use them to help us in the work of becoming more enlightened now. Without becoming lost in the thickets of the history of ideas, we can draw on the work of figures like Bacon and Kant and learn from them about the possibilities and dangers of a campaign for knowledge. I believe that only a world more fully understood can be made more just.


But don't take anyone else's word on faith. What the Enlightenment was, what it might be now, these are questions for us all to try to answer.


MT: Thanks so much for your time Dan. All the best with the book!

Jeremy Noel-Tod briefly reviews Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969) by Paul Celan (translated by Ian Fairley) over in the Telegraph (thanks Steve!)


A more colloquial Celan might be imagined - and has been, in America, by Pierre Joris. But the consistent texture of these translations makes for a very satisfying volume to read whole, as Snow Part's psychodrama progresses from privation and sexual surrealism to public poems for troubled times (1968) and, finally, hi-tech apocalypse: "In the entry hatches to truth / the scanners are praying."

This is a great volume but, for me, we need Hamburger's, Fairley's andPierre's translations. Taken together, they help us to read a fuller, truer Celan than we would have in English with just one version.


Mention of Pierre is timely: he very kindly sent me some of his recent publications a couple of weeks ago and I need to report back on them. I'll do that in the next week or so.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the fourth part (first part, second part, third part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Yesterday, there were good reviews of Dan's book over on Lenin's Tomb (where the latest Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great, is also soundly dismantled) and at the Socialist Review. Right, onto the interview:


Mark Thwaite: Now, postmodernists! They're a rum lot aren't they? Lots of anti-foundationalist mumbo-jumbo. Surely they are a threat to reason!?


Dan Hind: Well, some of them would certainly like to think they are. It's dangerous to generalise, though. The post-modern impulse to cast doubt on the legacy of the Enlightenment has a strong historical justification. Ideas and language we associate with the Enlightenment have been used repeatedly by European powers to justify aggression and state terror. The Americans in the Philippinnes were bringing progress to the region, as they are in Iraq now. So it is quite right to question the uses made of the Enlightenment. Now I don't agree with some post-modern positions, and some I plain don't understand. I think it is wrong to dismiss the ideas of the Enlightenment outright because of the use that has been made of them in the past, which is sometimes a temptation. 'Radical' critiques of reason and morality can, I think, lead to a withdrawal from the work of knowing, and of trying to change, the world.


Still, even at their most radically anti-rational, post-modernists pale into insignifance as a threat to reason. A philosopher might tell a journalist that they can never report truthfully on a situation; this might give the journalist pause, it  might even undermine his or her self-confidence a little. But politicians and businessmen have journalists killed when they stumble on a story, or simply when they are in the wrong place. Now it is not a subtle point, but it is worth making; post-modernists don't kill journalists as part of their efforts to derail Western metaphyisics. What is a more serious threat to your capacity to make reasoned judgments about the world - academics who claim that reason is a chimera, or institutions that use violence to suppress information that might have a disruptive effect?


MT: I'm been particularly dismayed recently by the so-called "bombing left"? How do you respond to them and their (ir)rationalism?


DH: You're talking about Christopher Hitchens, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, I guess, the enlightened supporters of intervention in Iraq. One of my main aims in writing the book was to try to gently prise their fingers off the Enlightenment. So in a sense the book is my response to them. They wanted to claim that US-UK military intervention in the Middle East had an 'objectively' enlightened quality, somehow; to side with America was to side with progress. This is an idea that depends on a very eccentric understanding of what the Enlightenment itself was about, and a wilful reluctance to find out what was going on in 2002-2003. Plenty of people were able to see that the invasion was not about promoting democracy, or confronting religious tyranny, and that it was likely to be a disaster for the Iraqi people. Interventionist liberals thought they could see a bright shining future. Clearly the people who protested against the war had a better title to the Enlightenment than the 'bombing left; they had the courage to use their own reason and weren't suckers for any old mood music that the White House put on.


Power is very adept at finding reasons why we should stand by and let them do what it wants. The language of Enlightenment was part of that process in 2002-2003. It is time to put an end to this blackmail - 'either you're with us or you're against the Enlightenment', not only in our dealings with state power, but also with the corporations. States and corporations are very dangerous, and if you ever hear them talking about the forward march of progress and the triumphant possibilities offered to us by modern science, then you have to start worrying.


MT: What are you working on now Dan?


DH: I am working on a longish article about the possibilities and opportunities presented by new technology. I am not a techno-utopian, by any means - posting on the Guardian's Comment is Free is enough to cure anyone of that. But I am interested in looking at the potential of new technology. And I am also writing a proposal for a new book. When I say writing, I am mostly staring at a blank piece of paper and then checking the Amazon ranking for The Threat to Reason. I mean, I am only human.


I am also trying to do some work at the day job, at Random House.

I've been arguing with the fabulously-named Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky over on the excellent Kenyon Review blog about the literary worth of Salman Rushdie's work. I'm not a fan, Sergei is:


I see The Satanic Verses as Rabelaisian in style and intent: a satiric excess that reflects what happens to language when empire makes it both an official language of power and a language of immigrants. The secret of empire is that you never truly conquer another people: you marry your children to them. That’s also true in language. You don’t teach those you conquer to speak your language; instead you find yourself speaking Anglostani on the streets of London or Calexican on the streets of L.A. To me, Rushdie’s linguistic excess is funny, and the inconsistencies in his tone reflect the clashing of worlds. That’s the most important narrative of our time, and if the writing sprawls and lacks purity, that’s exactly the point.

During our debate, Sergei brought my attention to some great old reviews of Moby Dick that can be found via melville.org. One, from the London Literary Gazette (December 6th, 1851) reads in part:


This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive. The author has read up laboriously to make a show of cetalogical learning... Herman Melville is wise in this sort of wisdom. He uses it as stuffing to fill out his skeleton story. Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea...

Via Books, Inq., Joseph Epstein on The intimate abstraction of Paul Valéry.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the third part (first part was Monday, second part was yesterday) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Mark Thwaite: In one sense, your book is all about asking people to ask themselves what are the real threats that are out there. The world is not a bad place because of homeopathy! Is that correct?


Dan Hind: Yes, that's an important theme in the book, definitely. This comes back to your earlier surprise about my surprise at the need to make the case I make in the book. If you believe something like Dick Taverne's The March of Unreason, you would end up thinking that a sinister alliance of New Age aromatherapists, animal rights activists and NGOs were about to destroy western civilization. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World played a similar tune. Part of me finds it baffling that people can take this sort of thing seriously, but clearly they do and that has serious consequences.


We have already talked about fundamentalist religion a little. The point here is not that it doesn't have any threatening aspects  (it is more threatening than homeopathy, say). But we need to investigate how it relates to other forces. The alliance between the Evangelicals and elements in the Republican party should be explored, of example. But this line of inquiry leads us away from fretting about metaphysics and towards the messiness of facts; it becomes a matter of Enron consultancies and casino shakedowns.


Let's try to order problems rationally, in line with their objective significance. Let's investigate them on rational lines, by inquiring into their structure. And then let's develop responses that are based on a clear-eyed understanding of them. Some people might really think that Greenpeace is a more serious menace to public understanding than, say, Exxonmobil. Well, that's up to them. I think most people can see that a large transnational energy company is more likely to be able to estrange us from reality than a relatively tiny NGO.


MT: Isn't this all a bit conspiratorial? Are you really suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry are putting profits ahead of people and allowing countless folk to die!?


DH: Well the pharmaceutical companies do put profits ahead of people and countless people have died as a result of this profit orientation. Some of this is a matter of secret, coordinated efforts to suppress unwelcome trial data and keep lucrative drugs on the market -- these efforts might be legal, in the sense that no one ends up going to prison, so I would hesitate to use the word conspiracy. But I talk a little about the controversy over SSRIs and Vioxx in the book; what was happening simply boggles the mind.


More generally, the structure of corporations leads them to ignore the public health and safety, if they can get away with it, and if there is an incentive to do so. They will also deceive the public if it serves their interests and they can get away with it. Now I don't propose to know what to do about this fact about corporations, but it is a fact. And if we take the "threat to reason" seriously, we should bear it in mind. Ideally I'd like every news bulletin to end  with: "And finally, today states and corporations told thousands of lies that resulted in death, injury and misery for millions of people around the world." Is that too much to ask?


MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?


DH: Well, partly I wanted to reach people who get upset and angry about the threat posed to secular liberal society by religious fanatics, postmodernists and New Age crystal healers. I wanted to suggest that they were possibly being distracted from some other issues that are a sight more serious, and that we had some way to go before we could claim to be enlightened.

Yesterday, Steve reminded me, was Franz Kafka's 124th birthday. Steve quotes from "the final paragraph of Ernst Pawel's biography from 1984 with the winning title: The Nightmare of Reason." Reason, and what reason means, is very much on my mind at the moment, of course, with my ongoing Dan Hind interview.


Admitting that the quote (below) is a "little excessive perhaps," Steve says, "I'd say his "innermost self" was his innermost non-self too and that giving shape to anguish is the opposite of anguish. Anyway, for Kafka, reason was as problematic as faith" --


The world that Kafka was 'condemned to see with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable' [a quotation from Milena's obituary] is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction. His work is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because, being human and therefore having failed to find it, he refused to settle for half-truths and compromise solutions. In visions wrested from his innermost self, and in language of crystalline purity, he gave shape to the anguish of being human.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Below is the second part (first part was yesterday) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Yesterday, Dan had a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog. Goodness knows why, but the Guardian blog always seems to attract some right nutters on its comments threads. Anyway, over to my continuing conversation with Dan ...


Mark Thwaite: Speaking with you, in one sense you seem surprised that your book even needed to be written. I'm surprised you're surprised! It seems to be that - particularly since 9/11 - the ruling elites of the UK and US have become dangerously tyrannical and that is obvious for all to see.


Dan Hind: Certainly our rulers have become more authoritarian since 9/11. What surprises me is the ease with which they have been able to claim that their project was in some way enlightened. The idea that the Enlightenment can be re-staged now as a showdown between (Western) reason and (Islamic) faith has gained a measure of respectability that is in a way rather amazing.


MT: The current political climate seems to suggest that every single Muslim in the world is potentially bad and evil and that our brave politicians will wage a war without end against them. How has this nonsense managed to gain any foothold?


DH: The honest answer is that I don't know. History shows that people can be made to be frightened of pretty much anyone. Effective propaganda works with what it has, it generalises from the particular in ways that suit its purposes. Aggressive campaigns to promote prejudice often pose as self-defence. Isolated incidents and a tiny minority of extremists can be made to define whole communities, if the conditions are right. Certainly many people who should know better have gone along with this, even contributed to it. There is an alternative, we can change the subject; it is up to us to step outside the story we have been given, a story that we are tempted to tell ourselves, that evil is external and simple and our leaders are only trying to keep us safe.


MT: Is the War on Terror a racist war, an imperialist war or something else? Are terms like imperialist even very useful to describe the dreadful mistake that was the invasion of Iraq?


DH: Well, last week BBC radio referred to 'the so-called War on Terror'. That was a bit of a breakthrough, though it happened before the recent run of scares. There is a very lively debate about American global policy going on and you can find a wide range of answers to your questions.


We do know that the prime movers in the Iraq invasion were a coalition of imperialists and militarists who were in a hurry to exploit America's 'unipolar' moment. They were backed by a network of institutional interests who could see the benefits of a move to a war footing. Forty percent of America's tax income is spent on defence; that kind of money can change your life, or end it if you are in the wrong place. Readers who are interested in this might want to look at Ismael Hossein-Zadeh's The Political Economy of US Militarism for a detailed recent treatment of this subject.


I am not sure we can expect an entirely adequate explanation of what is going on in a useful timeframe. We can get a reasonable sketch. It is at least as important to try to figure out how to stop it.


Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason


Here is the first part of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):


Mark Thwaite: Dan, thanks for submitting to my questions and agreeing to this! So, for starters, what gave you the idea for The Threat to Reason?


Dan Hind: After 9/11 I noticed that the word Enlightenment seemed to be cropping up much more regularly - one source suggests that the phrase "enlightened values" cropped up four times more often in broadsheet newspapers in Britain in the period after the terrorist attacks in the US. People started to claim that we had to defend enlightened values from Muslim fanatics. This made me wonder what the Enlightenment was as a set of historical events, and what we could learn from it now. The book came from out of that curiosity, and from an impatience with what some liberals and progressives were saying, especially in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.


MT: How long did it take you write it?


DH: I started writing some notes in the summer of 2004. Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was kind of the last straw... I wrote a first draft Autumn 2005 - Spring 2006, which I sent to publishers And I wrote the final draft in the Autumn of last year when Verso) signed me up. Apart from that final re-write I was working full-time, so the book came along quite slowly.


MT: Lets get back to basics: what was and is the Enlightenment?


DH: What was the Enlightenment? That's big question! Put neutrally it was a period of philosophical and political upheaval between the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution around a century later. If I had to give a more substantial definition, I'd say it was a collection of attempts to describe the world more accurately, by replacing dogma with experiment and open debate. A world understood more clearly could be improved. That was, I think, the characteristic hope of Enlightenment. That's what it was, at least seen in one light. There are other ways to describe it and I talk a little about them in my book. But that is a useful definition to start with.


MT: Why is it perceived to be under threat? Is it?


DH: Well a number of movements consciously or implicitly reject the ideas that we associate with the Enlightenment; most spectacularly some religious fundamentalists insist that science cannot challenge the authority of scripture. More complicatedly, postmodern philosophers have sometimes seemed to argue that Enlightenment universalism is only ever a cover for imperialist land grabs.


In my book I argue that the enlightened inheritance really is under threat and that it should be defended, but that its most significant enemies usually pose as its friends. Science is under constant, corrupting pressure from the institutions that fund it, or example. All the time these institutions pose, sometimes very convincingly, as the defenders of science. Angelina Jolie perhaps alludes to this with her tattoo, 'What nourishes me destroys me'. Too often defenders of the Enlightenment engage in a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy show, a formal confrontation between faith and reason, say, where everyone happily talks at cross purposes and hits each other with rhetorical sticks. Reality doesn't have the same, reassuring, seaside-knockabout form. Enlightenment is a much more unsettling subject than most of its self-appointed defenders are comfortable admitting; the word itself demands a state of constant vigilance in those who presume to use it.


The Threat to Reason


Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso) comes out today. It is also, you'll note, one of my Books of the Month this month. Despite its pastiche pulp cover, Dan's book is a serious and important contribution to the current debates about the War on Terror, postmodernism, and religion versus secularism and atheism.


I really want to get behind Dan's book and see it do well. So, to that end, this week is going to be Dan Week here on RSB. Breaking from my usual interview structure, I'll be asking Dan 3 questions every day this week on the blog. Hopefully, this will create a decent amount of debate -- Dan will be about to respond to any questions/responses you have to his answers via the comments so do, please, get involved.


Update: d'oh! I failed to mention that Dan also has a blog at thethreattoreason.blogspot.com.

I've been away to Big London. Mostly, I was meeting publishers with my Book Depository hat on (although I did also mananage briefly to attend a very pleasant bloggers bash organised by Penguin).


I'll be spending the weekend catching up with myself, walking Lola if it ever stops raining, and reading War & War. Might I suggest that if you have a moment you read my interview with Robert Macfarlane? Or read Ellis Sharp on Malcolm Lowry?

Ellis Sharp on Tom McCarthy:


Alex Good is enthusiastic about Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – but to my mind, oddly so. To me, the book isn’t at all self-consciously literary. Its virtues include its plain, stripped-down qualities rather than any nudging of the reader in the direction of influences. I’ve read The Collector several times, and not once was I reminded of it when I read Remainder. And while Ballard may be a more plausible influence, he’s not an overt one and I didn’t once think – hmm, this reminds me of Crash – when I read the book. Lots of novels remind me of other novels. Not so Remainder, which struck me as utterly and brilliantly original. Whatever the influences may have been, they have been absorbed, filtered and made invisible.

Always a good thing: a new John Berger book came out yesterday:


Hold Everything Dear is John Berger’s vital response to today’s global economic and military tyranny. From Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and 7/7, to resistance in Ramallah and traumatic dislocation in the Middle East, Berger explores the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and memories that occur in the course of political resistance to empire and colonialism.

(Oh, and if anyone is counting, this is the 1000th post on RSB's blog. Yay!)


The handsome and hirsute Mr Anthony Trollope, via Edward Samuels


Penguin has launched an Anthony Trollope minisite (to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Barchester Towers no less!) I've never read Trollope. Should I!?

FYI, the last ten author interviews over at The Book Depository have been with John Marks, John Ray, Christopher Robbins, Martin Stephen, Julie Maxwell, Mikael Niemi, Adele Geras, Jeremy Blachman, Michael Muhammed Knight and Catherine O'Flynn

Sam, over at Goldenrule Jones, has set up a bibliography of the Swiss author Robert Walser (1878-1956) -- thanks Dave. Excellent job Sam.

So, the summer finally landed! Lola the puppy, Mrs Book and me went away this past weekend and visited the splendid Woodfest Wales. Happily, not much reading was done, but I did manage to finish Antonio Tabucchi's excellent Pereira Declares (which I've just quickly reviewed over at The Book Depository):


Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares  is set in the hot summer of 1938 in Salazar's Portugal. Franco and the Spanish Civil War, as well as the politics of everyday life in Portugal itself, haunt the pages. Dr. Pereira, with 30 years experience as a crime journalist, is now in charge of the culture page at Lisboa, a "second-rate evening newspaper." He studiously avoids politics and contents himself with translating 19th century French stories. But politics is very difficult to hide from. He reads an article by Monteiro Rossi, a young graduate, about death and decides to contact and hire him to write write advance obituaries on great writers for his culture page. Rossi and his girlfriend Marta are politically active pro-Republicans and slowly Dr Pereira gets drawn into helping them, mostly by advancing Rossi money for polemical, unpublishable articles. Despite his protestations, politics have wheedled their way into Pereira's blindly cultured life. An astonishingly vivid portrait of one man and his growing consciousness, Pereira Declares is wonderfully astute about the lies we tell ourselves. It is never quite clear whether the book, which peppers the text with the declarative intervention "Pereira declares...", is a police/bureaucratic report of Pereira's involvement with political undesirables or whether it is Pereira himself declaring himself to us. But the rhythm this recurring phrase adds to the book is vital: it brings our attention to the text as text and to the ever-present possibility of unreliability in everything that we read -- and the resonances of this back to Pereira hardly need underscoring. Exceptional.

News from Habitus magazine:


An exclusive essay by acclaimed novelist Aleksandar Hemon is now available online from Habitus: A Diaspora Journal.

The essay, entitled "Sarajevo Is..." is one of two pieces that Hemon contributed to the just-released second issue of Habitus, devoted to writing from and about Sarajevo. Other contributors include David Rieff, Courtney Angela Brkic, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Muharem Bazdulj, and photographer Simon Norfolk.

Chris over at Splinters points me to an essay in The New Yorker by Gunter Grass entitled How I Spent The War. This will be how I spend my evening!


Lovely, German Buddenbrooks cover (via Charkin's Blog)


Aah, a long weekend ahead. So, what to do? Well, check the weather forecast and walk Lola the puppy for starters. But after that, thoughts inevitably turn to reading. No doubt I'll finish Antonio Tabucchi's It's Getting Later All the Time (translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen; New Directions), but then I think I'll move on to something by Thomas Mann. Been years since I read Mann. I picked up a nice, old copy of The Holy Sinner t'other day, so maybe I'll read that. Buddenbrooks will have to wait until the summer.

A link: Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder being discussed on RTE Television's The View.

Lee "Scarecrow" Rourke is reading with Toby Litt this evening in Big London. More information via 3:AM.

I've just posted a great interview with Rosalind Belben: go read!

Scarecrow boss, Mr Lee Rourke, has a nice piece on Ann Quin over at the Guardian:


Quin was born in 1936 in Brighton, one of our more interesting seaside towns (she died there too in 1973: swimming out to sea one morning by Brighton Pier never to return to our shores again). Four books were published in her lifetime: Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969), and finally Tripticks (1972). Berg is her most famous (and possibly my favourite). It is a paean to the Nouveau Roman of writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, eschewing the literary trends of her day: those angry, realist campus yawns that put the British working-class voice on the literary map. Ann Quin's was a new British working-class voice that had not been heard before: it was artistic, modern, and - dare I say it - ultimately European. It looked beyond the constructs of our society. It was fresh, alarming, and idiosyncratic. It wasn't static; it moved with the times.

A nice pile of books arrives from New Directions, one of my favourite publishers. Included are César Aira's How I Became a Nun (whose Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter I enjoyed so much back in October) and Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt ("This brief and poignant novel from Germany explores existential questions as its 46-year-old narrator reflects on broken relationships and other failures, and struggles to come to terms with life.")


Also included is Roberto Bolaño's Amulet. Bolaño is getting a lot of press at the moment for The Savage Detectives (out in the UK in July from Picador). Here is a quote from a recent review in the Washington Post (via 3 Quarks):


Bolaño not only wrote exactly what and how he pleased; he also viciously attacked figures such as Isabel Allende and Octavio Paz, accusing them of being conformists, more interested in fame than in art. In poems, stories (some of them included in his Last Evenings on Earth), novellas (such as Distant Star and By Night in Chile), two mammoth narratives (one under review here and 2666, scheduled for publication next year in English translation), and an essay collection (called, in Spanish, Entre paréntesis), he cultivated such a flamboyant, stylistically distinctive, counter-establishment voice that it's no exaggeration to call him a genius. 

The Savage Detectives alone should grant him immortality. It's an outstanding meditation on art, truth and the search for roots and the self, a kind of road novel set in 1970s Mexico that springs from the same roots as Alfonso Cuarón's film "Y tu mamá también." Its protagonists are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, fringe poets professing an aesthetics they describe as "visceral realism." Their hunt for a precursor by the name of Cesárea Tinajero takes them to the Sonora Desert, portrayed by Bolaño as a land of amnesia.

Richard, over at The Existence Machine, tackles Thomas Bernhard's Frost:


For those of us who care about such things, the publication last year, for the first time in English (translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann), of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, was a major literary event -- of significantly more importance than most of what seems to set the book world atwitter. Frost was originally published in 1963, twelve years before Correction (which is the earliest of the other Bernhard novels I own). Flipping through the book, right away differences are apparent: actual paragraph breaks! Rarely a paragraph longer than two pages! And, at 342 pages, the book is considerably longer than his other fiction (100-150 pages longer than Correction and The Loser, more than twice as long as both Old Masters and Concrete). In other ways, however, it quickly becomes clear that Bernhard's concerns in this novel were of a piece with his later fiction, though he had not yet refined his methods.

Tom McCarthy has dropped me a line to tell me about an event he is involved in at the London-based British Film Institute this evening (starting at the very specific time of twenty to seven!):


What is the cultural logic of repetition? Is repetition the same as re-enactment? What role does trauma play in all this? Are these questions, by their very nature, inherently political?

Writer Tom McCarthy, whose novel Remainder sees an obsessed Everyman re-enact increasingly violent situations in a bid for 'authenticity', and artist Rod Dickinson, known for his large-scale re-enactments of the sermons of cult leader Jim Jones and the Obedience to Authority experiment of psychologist Stanley Milgram, discuss these issues with each other at the BFI, London. (18:40, £5, £4 concs).

Here are some Leonora Carrington web links via Victoria over at Eves Alexandria who calls Carrington "woefully undernoted". In the same post, Victoria brings my attention to "Susan Aberth's excellent book on her, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, which is well worth the cover price."

Worthy of lots of clicks: Edward Champion has got together a great list of web-based Vonnegut resources.

My review of Aharon Appelfeld's All Whom I Have Loved appeared in the Daily Telegraph t'other day. Its been cut. Annoyingly, that happens! I'll put a much fuller, unmangled review online here at RSB in a day or so, but in the meantime my Telegraph review will have to suffice, although it doesn't even begin to explain how moving I found Appelfeld's latest work, and its lack of substance as a piece rather embarrasses me. How slight, awkward and flimsy next to Appelfeld's lambent rigour.


Indeed, reading the latest Maurice Blanchot collection, A Voice From Elsewhere (wonderfully, unfussily translated -- as ever -- by our friend Charlotte Mandell), I've been wondering again about the worth of the kind of evaluative reviews one reads here on RSB and in the broadsheets. Blanchot has this astonishing ability to think along with (to abide with) the writers about whom he is writing. There is the assumption of good faith, and the shared endeavour of communication and its attendant impossibilities. But Blanchot, quite rightly, only spends his time thinking along with and writing about writers who deserve a reader as astute as he was. In the first eponymous essay from A Voice From Elsewhere, Blanchot references Giacometti, Henry James and Mallarmé, to help him think/write about Louis-René des Forêts; later, "trying to understand the Lyotard text called The Survivor, while continuing to meditate on the poems [of...] Louis-René des Forêts", Hegel, Proust and Levinas aid in the enquiry.


Under the profundity of a gaze like Blanchot's most writing withers. The majority of what gets published today is shockingly trite. Reading Blanchot reminds us of the challenge of being a good reader, but that has to start with having decent things to read. Aharon Appelfeld is 75. I hope he has many years of writing ahead of him. Authors are ten-a-penny, but there are precious few writers in the world.

The excellent writer and music critic (and RSB contributor) Paul Griffiths (whose The Substance of Things Heard I heartily, nay vigorously, recommend) is featured in the latest Golden Handcuffs Review. The issue features two chapters from Paul's latest novel let me tell you (the full work is out next year with Reality Street Editions). As Steve noted, Paul 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."

I attended a fascinating, wonderful, incisive (just think very positive adjectives!) talk by Gabriel Josipovici on Wednesday evening -- entitled Whatever happened to modernism? -- at the Commonwealth Institute, Russell Square, Big London. And I wasn't the only one: excellent report on the evening from Ellis Sharp and also from Steve at This-Space.

Chandrahas, over at The Middle Stage, has a great post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (including lots of links to a "crackling discussion of the questions raised by Hirsi Ali's book ... on the European website Signandsight here, with pieces by Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur and Ulrike Ackermann among others. Another piece, by Christopher Hitchens, is here").


I was vaguely aware of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but it was only reading Ian Buruma's excellent and measured Murder in Amsterdam this last weekend that I really began to understand what a controversial figure she is. Buruma's argument is a little light on the wider global and historic context of Amsterdam's recent difficulties, and whilst its even-handedness might be judicious, a strong opinion would occassionally be appreciated; regardless of this, it does a good job and I'd commend it. I've not read Ali's book Infidel (nor the follow up The Caged Virgin) but they are on their way to me ...


Infidel is subtitled: "The Story of My Enlightenment". And "enlightenment" is, here, not used innocently. It refers partially to The Enlightenment, of course. This is interesting. Regularly, Enlightenment values are held up as what we should be fighting for (against what exactly? and fighting for whom exactly when/if we do this?) So, I'm keen to read Daniel Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso) which is due in May:


Today's media commentators and politicians constantly enlist the language and prestige of the historical Enlightenment to defend western science and rationality from its irrational enemies — Evangelicals, post-modernists, and Islamists, are on the march, they say.

Yet, in exploring how the Enlightenment continues to operate as a powerful guiding principle in Western politics, The Threat to Reason reveals how the truly pressing threats to free inquiry reside within the allegedly enlightened institutions of state and corporation. In their hands, the potential of Enlightenment ideas is implicated in the maintenance and furthering of neoliberal market values, while the permanent war envisaged by American state planners transforms the Enlightenment into a resource for establishing information dominance. By default science becomes what corporations want, and progress becomes what the US military can impose on the world.

T'other week I read Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza (Schocken; part of the excellent Jewish Encounters series co-published with Nextbook) which was an absolute joy -- if you have any interest at all in Spinoza, get yourself a copy. Today, I did a wee review of the book over at The Book Depository:


Rebecca Goldstein's quite wonderful Betraying Spinoza is an absolute delight. So, why does the author think she might be betraying the great philosopher? Well, as Wikipedia tells us: "Benedictus de Spinoza or Baruch de Spinoza (lived November 24, 1632 – February 21, 1677) was a Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin, considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy and, by virtue of his magnum opus the posthumous Ethics, one of the definitive ethicists." As a great rationalist Spinoza eschewed the biographical and the personal, but Goldstein thinks that that very silence in his work can be traced to his belonging to the embattled Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam (whose history Goldstein admirably and fluently traces). After first describing her own (Jewish) upbringing, and how she -- an analytic philosopher by training -- became entranced by Spinoza, Goldstein goes on to recount the fascinating history of the Jews who called themselves La Nacion, Spinoza's excommunication from them, and the studies he undertook to come to his positions on a post-Descartian philosophy. You will not read a better introduction to this still vital thinker; Goldstein's book is a triumph.

The first chapter of A Voice from Elsewhere, Charlotte Mandell's latest Maurice Blanchot translation, is now online. The book, as you'll have noted, is one of my Books of the Month this month:


A Voice from Elsewhere represents one of Maurice Blanchot’s most important reflections on the enigma and secret of “literature.” The essays here bear down on the necessity and impossibility of witnessing what literature transmits, and—like Beckett and Kafka—on what one might call the “default” of language, the tenuous border that binds writing and silence to each other. In addition to considerations of René Char, Paul Celan, and Michel Foucault, Blanchot offers a sustained encounter with the poems of Louis-René des Forêts and, throughout, a unique and important concentration on music—on the lyre and the lyric, meter and measure—which poetry in particular brings before us.

There is an interview with the peerless Gabriel Josipovici over at Cruelest Month. (Gabriel's novel Goldberg: Variations is just out with Harper Perennial in the States; also worth noting once again, Gabriel's website):


It is all very well setting a short story in an earlier period, but I had no desire to ‘research the period’ as I would have had to do if I was to write a whole novel set in it. I not only do not particularly like historical novels (with a very few maverick exceptions, such as William Golding’s The Spire), I don’t believe in them or think they are a viable road for the modern writer to go down.

When I say Coetzee and me, I don't mean to pretend a link between the great man and my 'umble self (excerpt that we both seem to have a soft spot for the beasts of the field;  Coetzee's latest speech in defense of animal rights is excerpted at the Sydney Morning Herald [via TEV]). What I meant to suggest was the first part of this post would be about JMC (done!) and the second part (coming up) would be about me ...


So, its been very, very busy around here of late! Do, please, forgive the paucity of posting. Last week I had a review of Rosalind Belben's marvelous Our Horses in Egypt in the TLS (not online, although there is a short version of the review over at The Book Depository, and I'll post a full version here on RSB sometime very soon) and I've just sent "filed the copy" for my review of Aharon Appelfeld's new one, All Whom I Loved, with the Telegraph. Again, I'll post a version of that here soon. It's a wonderful and very understated novel.


This Thursday, World Book Day you'll note, I'll be down in Big London Town, talking to the creative writing students at Roehampton University. And on Saturday, I'll be addressing the delegates at the Independent Publishers Guild conference. So, busy, as I said!

There is an obiturary of Jakov Lind (born Heinz Jakov Landwirth; 1927-2007) in today's Independent (thanks Tony):


The writer Jakov Lind chronicled the nightmare of Nazi Germany. He once defined himself as one of "the literary unicorns who worked in two languages like Beckett, Nabokov and Conrad", having written dazzlingly original works first in his native German and later in an idiosyncratic English. His collection of short stories Eine Seele aus Holz (Soul of Wood) does indeed place him in that exalted company through its blend of surrealistic humour and narrative power. It should be compulsory reading for anyone seeking insight into the sources of political sadism.

I've just posted a nice interview with punctuation guru Lynne Truss over at The Book Depository:


Dickens and Chekhov are my two greatest heroes. I was telling someone the plot of Uncle Vanya the other day in a pasta place in Brighton, and by the end of it we were both in tears.

78 year-old Elie Wiesel, author of Night, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, was dragged out of an elevator in a San Francisco hotel earlier this month by a Holocaust denier who berated and attacked him. I don't think Elie was badly hurt; hopefully he's doing fine now. (More on this, in a rather shrill piece, via the New York Observer.)

A reader (hi Katherine) has just sent me this:


I read your info about the William Morris Internet Archive and wondered if you'd be intrested in adding a link anywhere on your site to keepourmuseumsopen.org.uk [this being the William Morris Gallery & Vestry House Museum]. Waltham Forests Labour Council are trying to close the gallery and this website details their plans and information about contacting them.

You may have noted this mentioned on Booksurfer -- a still-growing William Morris Internet Archive:


Not yet complete but still an amazing online resource -- it will eventually provide free access to "virtually all written material from William Morris that was published in his lifetime." Most of the material in the archive was provided and transcribed by the late Nick Salmon (author of the William Morris Chronology). In particular the website includes many articles and talks that are difficult to locate including Morris's contributions to Commonweal, as well as the remarkable Socialist Diary, edited and annotated by Florence Boos (originally published by the History Workshop Journal in 1982). This is a website to bookmark and return to again and again.

I've just posted Daniel Frank and Aaron Manson's foreword to Philip Rieff's latest and last book Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Thanks go to both Daniel and Aaron for allowing me to reproduce their essay here on RSB.

Our pal, Tom McCarthy, has a "music-related" list over at Dusted Magazine. He suggests that My Bloody Valentine's Loveless is "the best album ever? Maybe." And he's probably right. Tom's novel Remainder is just out in the States.

Charlotte Mandell has put her essay Blanchot in America (which was written after Blanchot's death) up on her website. It joins another shorter essay on Blanchot, A Language of Absence (via Burhan).

The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive is "a site for researching and discussing Proust. It provides a searchable database of all church-related passages in the Recherche along with related images." (Via the Institute for the Future of the Book.)

On Sunday, February 18th at the KGB bar in New York there is going to be a tribute to the fiction of Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989). Readers will include poet Wayne Koestenbaum, Ben The Age of Wire and String Marcus and Dale Hatchet Jobs Peck. Needless to say, I shall not be there, but rather will be tucked up by the fire here in snowy Stockport, perhaps vicariously joining in by reading Jonathan Long's The Novels of Thomas Bernhard.

You'll have noticed, no doubt, the press concerning Norman Mailer's latest book, The Castle in the Forest, his first novel in ten years. My copy has yet to arrive (whilst I chew my fists in bated anticipation, I'll finish The Dawkins Delusion?, Alister McGrath's disappointingly shrill response to Richard Dawkins disappointingly shrill atheist bestseller The God Delusion), but I understand that it is on the way. In an interview with Robert McCrum at the weekend, Mailer said that people are "going to have a shit fit" about the work: I wonder if anyone will bother to concern themselves with whether the 84-year-old's latest effort is well-written or not or whether the content --  Mailer "imagines the early life of the 20th century's foremost representative of evil, Adolf Hitler, as narrated by one of Satan's minions" -- will be the sole concern of our "literary" journalists? If you can bear it, Nextbook have a podcast/interview with Mailer where he talks with Nermeen Shaikh.

The Independent newspaper have published an obituary of Malcolm Bowie:


Many readers of Bowie will have a special affection for Proust Among the Stars, published in 1998 and awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2001. Although Bowie describes this as an introductory volume, written "in schematic and accessible form", it is, in fact, a distillation of accumulated, long-pondered, critical wisdom about a writer who seemed able to draw out of Bowie what was most precious to him and in him. Here, Bowie is the consummate moraliste and himself an indispensable spiritual companion.

The first obituary (that I've seen) of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has just appeared in the French newspaper Liberation:


Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe est mort d'insuffisance respiratoire dans la nuit de samedi à dimanche, à l'hôpital Saint-Louis à Paris. Philosophe, germaniste, traducteur et homme de théâtre, professeur d'esthétique à l'université de Strasbourg, il avait 67 ans.

Scanning the pages of The Bookseller magazine, I note that Harvill Secker has acquired a new JM Coetzee novel, called Diary of a Bad Year, which is due out in the UK in September. Not as long to wait for thankfully, we also have, coming in March, Coetzee's Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005.

Ayn Rand is joining the Penguin Modern Classics list for the first time with Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead both due out in February. Penguin say, "Rand wrote what are seen as the manifesto of Objectivism, but they're also political thrillers that keep you gripped. And Angelina Jolie is to star in the film version of Atlas Shrugged, which is coming out in 2008."


All I (think I) know about Ayn Rand is that she was rampantly right-wing (Objectivism, according to the wikipedia, is: "the pursuit of one's own happiness or "rational self-interest" ... the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual human rights, embodied in pure, consensual laissez-faire capitalism"), but I've no idea whatsoever if her books are any use. Any of you good folk read them? Any good?

A play featuring sketches of fourteen of Harold Pinter's works opens at London's Haymarket Theatre next week. There are pictures over on the BBC's Today website.

Back almost exactly a year ago, the literary saloon noted that the translator Charlotte Mandell's name was, quite shockingly, not mentioned anywhere at all on the Random House version of her rendering of Bernard-Henri Levy's American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.


The book that Charlotte translated is now out in the UK with Gibson Square. And guess what? No mention of Charlotte's name anywhere! I wrote to Gibson Square a couple of weeks ago now asking them to explain themselves, but I've still not heard anything back in reply. This is quite, quite out of order.

A Proust/Vermeer dissertation at the Essential Vermeer site (via Moleskine Modality). Quoting from Anthony Bailey's study, The View of Delft:


Through Vermeer Proust meditated his own end. In May 1921 the exhibition of Dutch painting at the Jeu de Paume was attracting crowds, drawn to see among other things, Vermeer's View of Delft and Girl with a Pearl Earring. According to George Painter's biography of him, Proust had read in the Paris press articles on the Vermeers by Lèon Daudet and Jean-Louis Vaudoyer. At last he decided he had to go and see them. At nine one morning, a time when he is usually just going to sleep, Proust sent a message to Vaudoyer asking him to accompany him to the Jeu de Paume. Leaving the apartment he had a terrible attack if giddiness, and recovered from it and went on down stairs. At the exhibition, Vaudoyer steadied the writer's shaky progress towards the View of Delft. Proust was apparently revived by Vermeer for he managed to go on to the Ingres exhibition and then to lunch at the Ritz before returning home, though according to Painter he was still 'shaken and alarmed' by the attack. He never went out again.

I'm not quite sure how I missed this but, on Wednesday, Harold Pinter was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French prime minister, Dominic de Villepin (more in the Guardian).

In my last post I said, "Whilst on a continuing lookout for new fiction that is 'intelligent, edgy, and interesting' I mostly find mediocrity or much worse." Sayed Kashua's Let It Be Morning is a particurly good example of just exactly what I mean.


I was asked to review Kashua's second novel (his debut was the well-received Dancing Arabs) for the FT. (My review should be published very soon; indeed, it may well have already seen the light of the day. After the sub-editor and I wrangled over every line, goodness knows how butchered it might be when it appears!) In the inside cover of the book there are several glowing notices from US and German newspapers, as well as one from Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper that Kashua works for. One of the US reviewers quoted is Laila Lalami, whose often very fine blog, which used to be called Moorish Girl, you may well know. Laila is quoted as writing, "the text is rendered quite beautifully and the absurdity of the events [Kashua] describes so unflinchingly brings to mind Kafka". On Saturday, reviewing the book in the Guardian, Maya Jaggi wrote: "disturbing and powerfully accomplished ... Let It Be Morning is reminiscent of Orwell and Kafka". Wow! Sounds great, doesn't it? It isn't.


My review of Let It Be Morning was my first for the FT. The initial draft was very elliptical as I didn't want to condemn the book too strongly, but the FT's sub-editor, quite rightly, seemed to want me to be more forthright and direct. I still held myself back even in the finished piece, however, simply stating, "Let It Be Morning reads as a rather prosaic documentary. It dutifully reports on the quotidian miseries that occur because of the barricade [the novel is about what happens to an Arab Isreali village when surrounded by Isreali tanks], but the writing itself never moves beyond the commonplace." One word would best sum up the novel and that is adequate. It is fine. It would be difficult to render a narrative about the difficult, liminal status of Arab Israelis totally boringly, but Kashua, a journalist, brings us nothing but a journalistic recounting of events. The glowing reviews seem to think that the fascinating content and context of Kashua's work is enough to make his book noteworthy, but that simply isn't good enough. The book is mediocre through and through.

From the website 201 Stories by Anton Chekhov (found via Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence):


About Anton Chekhov: One of Russia's greatest writers, Chekhov began his career writing jokes and anecdotes for popular magazines to support himself while he studied to become a doctor. Between 1888 and his death he single-handedly revolutionized both the drama and the short story. Near the end of his life he married an actress, Olga Knipper. He died from tuberculosis in 1904, age 44.

About this project: Constance Garnett translated and published 13 volumes of Chekhov stories in the years 1916-1922. Unfortunately, the order of the stories is almost random, and in the last volume Mrs. Garnett stated: "I regret that it is impossible to obtain the necessary information for a chronological list of all Tchehov's works." This site presents all 201 stories in the order of their publication in Russia.

About the notes: I have added notes to explain both the cultural practices of 19th century Russia and the occasional Britishisms that Mrs. Garnett used in her translations. Passages marked in blue have an explantory note at the end of the story. I am particularly indebted to Edgar H. Lehrman's A Handbook to 86 of Chekhov's Stories and Ronald Hingley's notes in the Oxford Chekhov (Volumes 4-9). A complete list of Constance Garnett's translations of Russian literature is here.

A very fine post from Steve, over at This Space, about Craig Raine's new book on TS Eliot's poetry (see excerpt) which is one of my Books of the Week this week.


Also, Seamus Heaney, who is currently recovering from a mild stroke, has been named winner of the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry:


Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has been named winner of the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, collecting a cheque for £10,000. He won for his latest collection, District and Circle, which draws on his travels to work on the London Underground in his younger days. The prize was presented by TS Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot, at a ceremony in central London. (More via the BBC.)

Over at Hungarian Literature Online, Tim Wilkinson reviews László Krasznahorkai's Satan Tango (via the literary saloon). Once you've read that, mouse over to HLO's interview with Krasznahorkai:


Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation at any point of the world invariably reminds me: if you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write? This is a subtle way of asking why I don´t shoot myself in the head right there and then and, indeed, why I hadn´t done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence.

Anne Fernald, who blogs at the wonderful Fernham, and who I'll be interviewing soon in her capacity as the author of Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader, writes:


Tillie Olsen, a leftist, feminist novelist who was targeted by McCarthy-era smear-tactics and wrote, too, of the struggles of writing while also working and raising children died two weeks shy of her 95th birthday.

Her granddaughter commented on my blog and let me know about a really great tribute planned for this Saturday:

"the family requests that on her birthday, January 14th, people whose lives have been touched by Tillie gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together. We would be comforted to hear from you about your celebrations. Please email us: tillies_family@childpeacebooks.org"

It would be wonderful if people from the feminist blogging and litblogging community could take a few hours out, on this upcoming Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend, to her.

You can visit the family's memorial site here: tillieolsen.net

I would really be excited to think that we all could re-read (or read) I Stand Here Ironing or some other great story and inform the family about it.

You know, I've never read anything by Anthony Trollope. I should probably remedy that soon. Anyway, if you fancy a bit of theatre, you can have "an evening with one of Britain's most loved and most prolific authors, Anthony Trollope. Edward Fox takes on the mantle of the novellist and brings alive some of his most loved characters for an evening no fan of Trollope's work will ever forget." The tour starts at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on the 10th January, and moves around the South of England until it arrives at Marine Theatre, Dorset on the 24th March.

I mentioned the sad passing of Tillie Olsen back on Wednesday, but I know little about the writer herself. Happily, Anne has written a wonderful appreciation of Olsen over at Fernham.


Good friend of RSB, the publisher and writer Anthony Rudolf, contacted me when he heard of Olsen's death. Anthony knew Tillie and had recently written to the TLS championing her work in a letter that they didn't print but I reproduce below:


Two missing titles so astonished me in Claire Harman’s review of Myles Weber’s Consuming Silences – “a study of famously stalled or one-hit writers” -- that I reread the piece to make sure my eyes had not skipped a few sentences. No, I was right first time. I am referring to Tillie Olsen’s wonderful but supposedly unfinished novel Yonnondio: from the Thirties (Faber, 1975) -- the confused manuscripts turned up in the early 1970s and she reworked them nearly forty years after writing the book (1932-1936) -- and to Ralph Ellison’s second novel Juneteenth, also unfinished (he lost years because part of the manuscript was consumed in a fire) and which received a mixed critical reception. For me, Yonnondio is no more unfinished than Schubert’s symphony.

Unfortunately, there are two possibilities concerning these omissions: either Myles Weber did not mention the two books, which raises severe doubts about his research and his conclusions, or Claire Harman herself has failed to mention them. If Weber did not mention them, Harman should have rebuked him, assuming she knew of their existence. If he did mention them, perhaps she was unconsciously seeking to improve the story of silence on the part of two prose fiction writers who, on the strength of their first books, Tell me a Riddle and Invisible Man, count as major figures in American literature. As indeed does Henry Roth, whose late and prodigious flowering after decades of silence – although he wrote essays -- surely muddies the waters of Weber’s thesis more than Harman allows.

As for Ellison, not only did he write a second novel, he also wrote many extraordinary essays. Since when is a writer obliged to write only in one genre? To judge by Harman’s account (or her account of Weber), you would think Ellison did nothing for decades but worry about Invisible Man. In respect (or rather disrespect) of Tillie Olsen, Claire Harman vilifies and ridicules Silences, a classic work about creativity and its associated problems. Finally, Harman (or Harman’s Weber) is simplistic when it comes to Olsen’s class politics, which have to be read and understood alongside the legendary long silence of a great poet, her near contemporary George Oppen.

This is a good opportunity to ask your readers if they can help me concerning the provenance of a brilliant and appropriate phrase Tillie Olsen uses in Silences, namely ‘trespass vision’, as applied to Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills, and which she herself puts in quotation marks. This suggests she has borrowed the phrase from another writer, but unusually she does not give a reference.

The Thomas Gray Archive is a ...


virtual archive for the study of the life and work of English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771). It consists of two major sections: the Primary Texts section and the Materials section. The former contains searchable electronic editions of Gray's complete poetry with critical apparatus and extensive collaborative commentary, selected prose works, a browsable calendar to Gray's complete correspondence, a concordance to the poetry, a digital library of primary sources and audio-visual media, and a finding aid to Gray MSS. The latter section is comprised entirely of contextual materials, such as criticism, a biographical sketch, an introductory chronological table of Gray's life and work, a glossary of names and terms, a select bibliography of print materials, a picture gallery, and links to related online resources.

This morning, at 9am, on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time, there is going to be a programme on Borges:


Jorge Luis Borges is one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, best known for his intriguing short stories that play with philosophical ideas, such as identity, reality and language. His work, which includes poetry, essays, and reviews of imaginary books, has had great influence on magical realism and literary theory. He viewed the realist novel as over-rated and deluded, revelling instead in fable and imaginary worlds. He declared “people think life is the thing but I prefer reading”.

Translation formed an important part of his work, writing a Spanish language version of an Oscar Wilde story when aged around 9. He went on to introduce other key writers such as Faulkner and Kafka to Latin America, liberally making changes to the original work which went far beyond what was, strictly speaking, translation.

He lived most of his life in obscurity, finding recognition only in his sixties when he was awarded the International Publishers' Prize which he shared with Samuel Beckett. By this point he was blind but continued to write, composing poetry in his head and reciting from memory.

I first came across Michel Onfray back last December. Then, in September, I noted that Serpent's Tail will be publishing Atheist Manifesto, his first book to be translated into English, early next year (Traité d'Athéologie, Grasset).


And I've just noticed that, in the Toronto Star last Sunday, Brad Spurgeon ran a piece about "France's best-selling philosopher". I remain intrigued.


He is a self-described hedonist, atheist, libertarian, and left-wing anarchist ... in Atheist Manifesto he dismantles and condemns as dangerous and archaic not only Islam, but Christianity and Judaism as well ... And after more than 30 books, he is finally seeing his ideas spread far beyond his native Normandy. His 2005 book, Traité d'Athéologie, became a best-seller not only in France, where it has sold 230,000 copies, but also in Italy and Spain, and has sold well in other Latin countries, and even in Germany and Asia ... he says that believing in religion's "children's stories for comfort" deflects from the real problems of existence and thus exacerbates them, he does not despise the believers. As a rebel against all manner of authority, he aims his ire at those who impose and organize religion and its ethics, morals and customs.

The matchless Stephen Mitchelmore has just written a wonderful piece on Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy for our edification: The sea closes up, and so does the land. Do take the time to read it, it is, as you'd expect from Mr Mitchelmore, a brilliant essay.


I must admit that Richard Ford has never really appealed to me, but John Banville's recent admission, in Salon magazine, of his fondness for the writer, coupled with Steve's tremendous article, has made me think I should, perhaps, reconsider. Banville said:


I'm becoming a little embarrassed at my enthusiasm for Richard Ford's novel The Lay of the Land, but it does seem to me the finest piece of fiction out of America in a long time. Its two predecessors in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, are marvelous works, but this new volume is remarkably fluid and accommodating in an almost Proustian way -- and it's laugh-out-loud funny, too.

And a taster of what Steve has to say:


The reviews take it for granted that this is a novel like any other, only much better than most. Yet right from the start Bascombe consigns his literary career to the past. He won’t be writing a novel again. This will be something much less than that. It will be enough for his to speak in “a voice that is really mine” as he says. The manuscript of his first novel got lost in the post. Soon after he wrote a collection of stories which weren’t. Indeed they got published and were well-received. The film rights were then sold for a lot of money. Using that foundation, he settled down to write another novel. Half way through his son died, and so did the novel. “I don’t expect to retrieve it unless something I cannot now imagine happens.” That ambiguity of that unimaginable something resonates throughout The Sportswriter. It suggests that the novel must find a connection to life that it now apparently lacks.

Tomorrow, Carcanet will host a lunchtime event to celebrate the publication of The Shepherd's Calendar by John Clare, from 1-2pm at Manchester Central Library:


For the first time in nearly 180 years, this is a book that presents, side by side, two major versions of one of John Clare's most celebrated poems, The Shepherd's Calendar. The final manuscripts of the poem that Clare composed are placed against the published version in a parallel text; and some fascinating poetic differences, as well as similarities, between the two versions emerge. These changes and continuities are examined in a challenging introduction that charts the development of the poem, and that explores the imaginative strengths of both versions, as well as their limitations. The presentation of this material is enhanced by a series of beautiful woodcuts by Carry Akroyd, evoking the natural and human landscapes about which Clare wrote.

The event will include a talk by the book's editor, Tim Chilcott, a renowned Clare expert, readings of Clare's poems and a display of artwork by Carry Akroyd, who illustrated the book. Carry will also discuss her artistic interpretations of Clare's poetry.

Something else to watch for in the New Year: a new novel by Aharon Appelfeld, All Whom I Have Loved, is due out from Schocken at the end of February. (For more on Appelfeld, don't forget Lars Iyer's wonderful RSB essay Experience IV - Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life.)

Due to the happy circumstance of soon giving up my current day-job to begin, in the New Year, to work full-time as the web editor of The Book Depository (and, yes, one of my first jobs will be to sort out the look and feel!), I am now a subscriber to The Bookseller magazine. Hopefully, what this will mean going forward for RSB readers, is that I'll be able to keep a better eye on what is about to land in our bookshops.


Most of what The Bookseller reports is of little interest, but some publishing news is noteworthy. I was happy to see, for example, that in January, Penguin are releasing newly repackaged Kafka titles, including new translations, by Michael Hofmann I understand, of Metamorphosis and Other Stories (this volume incorporates "a fascinating occasional piece and The Aeroplanes at Brescia, Kafka's eyewitness account of an air display in 1909").

A couple of weeks ago, a reader wrote asking me where JM Coetzee took the quote "little enough, less than little" from in his novel Disgrace. It sounded like a corruption of Beckett to me, but I didn't know. Well, I'm informed today that the Coetzee line is taken from (inspired by) 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature-winner Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning. Her lines read:


Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

As for Wislawa Szymborska, I'm afraid I got nothing! Shamefully, I'd never heard of her until my correspondent suggested to me that she was probably the source of Coetzee's quote. Faber have a Poems - New and Collected, 1957-97, Norton have Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, so one of these will no doubt be my next stop. If anyone reading can tell me more, shoot.


UPDATE: Dave Lull (thanks Dave!) has just brought my attention to a blog Patrick wrote over at Anecdotal Evidence, back in August, about Szymborska's selection of prose pieces Nonrequired Reading:


Nonrequired Reading is unlike conventional collections of reviews in that the books she chooses, with few exceptions, are unabashedly unliterary. For decades Szymborska has written about books for newspapers in her native Poland, but she chooses her subjects from the sad stacks of rejects that accumulate in a book editor’s office – popular science and how-to books, celebrity biographies and volumes with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Wallpapering Your Home and The Private Lives of Three Tenors. Szymborska says she tried writing conventional reviews: “…that is, in each case I’d describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others.” Then, happy woman, she realized she had little interest in or gift for such writing.

At school, if another child encouraged me to do something stupid, doubtless a teacher would upbraid me by saying something like, "Well, if Charlie told you to put your hand in the fire would you do it?" Of course, one was supposed to be chastened: no, certainly one wouldn't place one's hand in a fire on Charlie's behest. And, yes, I'll admit, what I've just done was probably almost as stupid: I'll consider myself rebuked. Sorry, Miss.


As I've got older, however, there are one or two people whose judgement I trust so implicitly that, yes, if they told me to put my hand in the fire, I just might.


So, if Gabriel Josipovici says something is good, it is. Full stop. Here he is blurbing RSB's Book of the Month, Peter Hawkins' Dante: A Brief History:


Peter Hawkins' knowledge of and passion for Dante shines through every page of this elegantly written book. He writes, moreover, with passion and precision. This is not only a superb introduction to Dante, but a work which will move and enlighten those thoroughly steeped in a poet who remains, seven centuries after his death, still very much our contemporary.

Carole Angier on Elfriede Jelinek's Greed at the Literary Review (via 3 Quarks):


If you have read Elfriede Jelinek's most famous novel, The Piano Teacher, you'll know what to expect from Greed. First of all, pathological characters, rendered with glassy fury: traditional Austrian self-hatred, like that of Kraus, Canetti and Bernhard, but - I know it's hard to imagine - even more hateful. Second, something you don't find even in them: a great deal of violent, sado-masochistic, four-letter sex. In sum, a horrifying vision of human nature ('friends, that is, greedy beasts') and nature itself ('fundamentally evil'), in which human beings are objects, and objects are human - days stretch their limbs, valleys grin, handkerchiefs 'are quite stiff from everything they've had to swallow in their lives'.

Patrick Kurp (and Dave) bring my attention to Golden Rule Jones' work on Robert Walser (1878-1956), the Swiss-German writer who "led a life of obscurity but whose admirers included Kafka, Hesse, Musil and Walter Benjamin":


In memory of Robert Walser, who died 50 years ago on Christmas Day, Golden Rule Jones has undertaken a shamefully belated act of homage on behalf of the English-speaking world by translating from the German, with a friend, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. Walser spent more than 20 years of his life in mental hospitals. Seelig was an admirer and eventually the guardian of the great Swiss writer, and visited him once or twice a year from 1936 until Walser’s death. Seelig accompanied Walser on long walks in the mountains surrounding his sanitarium at Herisau. By 1936, Walser had stopped writing but Seelig worked to keep his friend’s work in print. Seelig’s book, published the year after Walser’s death, chronicles his visits, but so far as I can tell this intriguing and valuable sounding book has never been translated into English.

Mark M Anderson has a piece in the new Bookforum entitled Fathers and Sons: WG Sebald (thanks Dave) and Rob Spillman has a piece on Cormac McCarthy called Book of Revelation. I'm off to put the kettle on, make a nice cuppa, and then read them both!

RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy will be talking about his novel Remainder on Matthew Crockatt's Lit Bits show later today (between 3-3.30pm GMT) on arts radio station Resonance FM.

‘Now Miss Hudson,’ said Rhoda, ‘has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures.’
-- The Waves


‘Odd, that they [The Times] should praise my characters when I meant to have none’
-- Virginia Woolf, 5th of October, 1931.


Surely, a good novel must be peopled by realistic figures, have fully-rounded characters? Characters that you can believe in (believe really could exist) doing believable things, responding to other characters believably: that, surely, is a key requirement for a successful novel? For characters to be two-dimensional, to be merely mouthpieces of their author, not to act, within the novel's presented situation, in an authentic way this, surely, damages a novel, hobbles it? Indeed, many book reviews seem to suggest that believability is essential to the novel and that believable characters are the hallmark of a good writer. Well, I don't think characterisation is that important. Not at all, in fact. And Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves (and all of the Woolf novels I've recently read) has allowed me to think about this aspect of the novel again.


Of course, endowing a character with complexity is very much dependent on the relationship of the text with the reader. If we read of a character responding aggressively on one page and then, later, acting warmly, we can and do endow a third dimension to the text: we believe these two situations create a roundness to the character that we are reading about. We presume a characterfulness because different scenarios have been presented to us and the reactions to those situations have been, in some way, recognisable, identifiable. But what happens when such "characters" are not invented and such situations do not occur? Can the novel work well without such scenes?


In The Waves we most certainly don't get characters -- we get barely distinguishable (and distinguished) voices that, over the course of the novel, in some subtle ways, distinguish themselves from one another. Towards the end of the novel Bernard, the storyteller, is allowed to expatiate at length in his voice on his voice and the voices of the other names within the work. He underscores how tentative we should be about calling these cyphers characters and of endowing these names with substance. He reminds us that we are reading and that final judgements and good art do not ever belong together. He reminds us that these voices are writing and that Woolf is writing about writing with every word in her great(est) novel.


The voices, here, are, in no way, believable. The writing is poetic -- could only ever be writing; the voices are not naturalistic, not intended to be mimetic of how anyone naturally speaks. (At best, one could imagine this as a script for a play, and one is perhaps encouraged to do so by the simple repetitions of "Susan said", "Jinny said", "Louis said", etc., but the play would be very stiff.) The voices ebb and flow together (as a reader one has to be very aware when the voices shift because they are almost indistinguishable -- they aren't "characterised"; beyond the eg "Neville said" often we have few clues in the words to separate one voice from another): they have different trajectories; but they aren't clearly differentiated as characters by Woolf by her giving to each -- in the writing -- different inflexions. But characters (or sets of behaviours that, when they are reported, seem in some way correctly to be attributed to eg Rhoda rather than Susan) do emerge. At the end of the novel these non-characterised voices have almost become archetypes (Susan, wife and mother; Jinny, lover; Rhoda, suicide; Neville, homosexual; Louis, outsider; Bernard, storyteller). "Character" has, in some sense, returned to the novel; has, clearly, in a certain sense, never been able to be entirely left behind (perhaps because the reader can never be entirely left behind). One might say, that the impossible search for characters is what structures the work. And this line of argument might be said to be embodied in the one character who never appears on the novel's stage.


Percival is central to the The Waves. He loves Susan, is loved by Neville, and is beloved by all the voices. And he dies. His lack is reinforced, later, by his total absence. But his, also, is the absence of absence; both because of his constant presence in the work (he is constantly referred to by the other voices) and because of the death that defines him and defies the destiny that all the other voices had hoped for him. He never appears in the novel, but he never leaves it either.


Is Woolf breaking the novel here? Only in as far as she is immediately remaking it. And she remakes it via the traditional elements she is interrogating at the very moment she uses them to write her book.


But, perhaps, Woolf's exercise in "high modernity" is no example whatsoever to use. It is so singular (or, perhaps better, so much a part of a moment) that using it to think about the work other novels do is innappropriate. Certainly, this could be argued. But perhaps it would be better to think about the limitations of the realist novel that Woolf was working against and, more positively, of the art she was working to produce, and ask why she needed to forestall the drive to complex characters and instead produce such a beautiful (and complex) piece of writing.

I've just finished reading another Virginia Woolf novel. The Waves was wonderful; every bit as good as To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. (Worth noting: the University of Adelaide Library’s collection of Web books [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/] has the entire text of The Waves online as well as lots of other goodies.) I'll think and write about the book over the weekend. In the meantime, this from an essay by Lisa Marie Lucenti:


Pamela Caughie writes that "Woolf's characters and narrators do not present a consistent theory of self and world. Instead, they make us self-conscious of theorizing about self and world by making the narrative strategies self-conscious." With such slippery characters to work with, it is perhaps less important -- or even feasible -- to try to define the form of Woolf's subjects than to trace a few of their paths and crossings. To do so is an even greater challenge when, as Bernard says in The Waves, "We melt into each other with phrases.... We make an insubstantial territory". In this novel, six "characters" or voices alternate between acceptance and rejection of their own insubstantiality. And, Woolf would have us realize, her characters are not alone in this struggle, since they are caught within the most basic and most irresolvable questions of ontology -- what it means to be and how one goes about that business.

Eris Ormsby reviews Thomas Bernhard's poetry (In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon translated by RSB-interviewee James Reidel):


The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard took a mordant glee in outraging his countrymen. The Austrians have a name for such troublemakers. Bernhard, they said, was a Nestbeschmützer, a man who fouls his own nest. But for Bernhard, the nest had already been fouled, and long before ... The poems are quiet, almost whispery in tone, displaying none of the virtuoso antics of the prose: no glittering cascades of insult, no manic swerves from tenderness to savagery. The shock comes from their unabashed religious fervor. Though they sound like prayers "to the unknown God," they are, nevertheless, prayers, by turns meditative, anguished, and almost perversely devotional.

(Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Alok Ranjan's has posted Susan Sontag's essay on Sebald A Mind in Mourning on his Dispatches from Zembla blog. Alok says:


This essay by Susan Sontag is perhaps the best introduction to W.G. Sebald that I have read. It first appeared in Times Literary Supplement in 2000 and contains the appreciation of three of his books which were published at that time.

Usefully, Alok has also reproduced Cynthia Ozick's review of The Emigrants (first published in The New Republic).

Pierre Joris's translation of Breathturn by Paul Celan has just been reprinted by Green Integer. (Pierre has translated, quite wonderfully, three volumes of Celan's late poetry: Breathturn, Threadsuns, and Lightduress, all with Green Integer.)

Jenny Diski, author of Skating to Antarctica and On Trying to Keep Still amongst many others, angry about Bush and Blair's criminal mendacity, from her blog Biology of the Worst Kind:


So I am furious that Blair, Bush and the network of self-interested parties who have caused such havoc in Iraq that no one seems to have a solution for it, are going to get away with it. Again and again and again. I am also furious with myself for not having grown up enough to understand that they will always get away with it and for finding no better response than to be furious. It's the anger of the impotent, but impotence is no excuse.

Fairly widely linked to this, but it was nice to see: Lucy Ellmann (whose latest novel is the unappetisingly entitle Doctors and Nurses and whose work I don't know)applauding "the tireless, scathing fury" of Elfriede Jelinek when reviewing the Nobel prize-winners' latest novel Greed (translated by Martin Chalmers):


What is killing the novel is people's growing dependence on feel-good fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. With this comes an inability or unwillingness to tolerate any irregularities of form ... For anyone who wants to write or read daredevil, risk-taking prose, therefore, it was tremendously encouraging that Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel prize for literature in 2004 ... Jelinek's work is brave, adventurous, witty, antagonistic and devastatingly right about the sorriness of human existence, and her contempt is expressed with surprising chirpiness: it's a wild ride.

“...we were walking along that silent blue street with the scaffolding. I saw all the violence and unreason crossing in the air; ourselves small, a tumult outside, something terrifying: unreason...”
Virginia Woolf’s diaries. London, May 25, 1932.


Septimus Warren Smith kills himself because he cannot cope with what he has seen in the Great War. Shell-shocked, the world doesn't understand him. Having seen industrial society at its most brutal, in the trenches, Septimus is unable to deal with life's banalities and normalities. The bombastic, ineffective Dr. Holmes believes he should simply pull himself together; Sir William Bradshaw, pompous, but a better diagnostician, knows he needs "rest, rest, rest" in a sanatorium away from the pressure of friends and family. There are moments of lucidity, certainly, but his wife Lucrezia knows she is losing Septimus as fast as he is losing himself. As Clarissa Dalloway buys her flowers one Wednesday in June in 1923, Septimus Warren Smith remembers his first love Isabel Pole, recalls and envisions his friend Evans, killed in Italy shortly before the Armistice, realises his own insanity in a final moment of clarity, and then kills himself.


As much as Mrs Dalloway is about the eponymous heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf's novel is about Septimus. And about Septimus's suicide. The Great War has been over for a few years, but its legacy dominates the novel, and that legacy is encapsulated and reflected (one might even say instantiated) in Septimus's madness. Throughout the novel's day, Big Ben chimes. We count down to Clarissa's party, but the great clock tolls ominously for all Woolf's characters. Septimus and Clarissa never meet. Indeed, their only connection, outside of the novel's world which holds them together, is William Bradshaw. Sir William attends the party and comments on a case he is treating. Unbeknownst to him, his case is already closed, his patient has already killed himself. Clarissa hears of the death and is perturbed. Death isn't welcome at the party but, of course, welcome or not, it prevents us everywhere. Septimus's death is, for Clarissa, almost enviable. He has, by killing himself, affirmed something eternal about himself, something Clarissa fears she will never affirm and is constantly in danger of losing: her self; her soul.


Peter Walsh wonders about his plan to marry Daisy, the young wife of an Indian officer who already has two children with the other man. One wonders, as a reader, whether his plan to organise the divorce and take Daisy as his own wife will go ahead. Walsh has never really stopped loving Clarissa who chose not to marry him all those years ago. Clarissa may be the perfect hostess, but she is, she knows, she hopes, more than this. Throughout the day her mood shifts back and forth. She is excited about the party, but sad and regretful over Peter (who visits her briefly in the morning before the party) and over her marriage to the dull, dependable, but undoubtedly decent Richard Dalloway.


Woolf wrote in her diary that she wanted to sketch “the world seen by the sane and the insane.” Clarissa's sanity is society's sanctioned sanity: she is the perfect hostess, who married Richard because she was afraid of her own sensuality. She may have depths (Peter sees them and he still half wants Clarissa because of them, and we are privileged to read them), but Richard doesn't understand them, her daughter Elizabeth doesn't believe them (hence her -- already crumbling -- attraction to the auto-didactic and rather dour spinster Doris Kilman) and the once wild Sally Seton, Clarissa’s old friend (whom Clarissa idolised and, probably, loved), now married to Lord Rosseter, would consider them frivolous.


Clarissa it is, however, who hears about and, quietly, as the party goes on around her, and as she simultaneously frets about whether it will or will not succeed, responds to Septimus's death. She affirms his life in her attraction to his death. He becomes a lodestone for her seriousness; he bequeathes to her -- and to this wonderful novel -- something wholly substantial.

Nice piece yesterday, over at 3Quarks, about 1980's Nobel Prize in Literature winner Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) and Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969):


I’m tempted to make the rather bold assertion that the most interesting duo in Western literature of the 20th century is Czeslaw Milosz and Witold Gombrowicz. I say duo because you really have to take the two of them together. When Milosz zigs, Gombrowicz zags, when you’re feeling one way, Milosz expresses it for you, and when the mood shifts, there is Gombrowicz waiting in the wings with a change of pace.

The twentieth century was insane. We forget to remember that. For us, it’s what made us what we are and therefore it has taken on a sense of inevitability, even naturalness. But looking at it from the other way around, from the perspective of those who were going through it and for whom its twists and turns were anything but a foregone conclusion, the century is filled with so many shocks and amazements it is difficult to comprehend. And that, of course, was one of the great, if not the great, themes of literature from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the outbreak of WWI to the effective finale to the 20th century in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reuniting of Western and Eastern Europe.

Further reading: back in February Penguin released Milosz's New and Collected Poems 1931-2000. This is a huge 800-page doorstop, so if you want an easier way into Milosz try Ecco's Selected Poems 1931-2004.

On Sunday, Steve told us:


... at last, news that FSG is publishing Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, Krishna Winston's translation of Peter Handke's 2002 novel Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos. But contain yourself, it isn't out until next Summer.

Also, next year, but (happily) in January, Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution (Verso): "A radical new reading of Samuel Beckett, by the author of The World Republic of Letters":


In this fascinating new exploration of Samuel Beckett’s work, Pascale Casanova argues that Beckett’s reputation currently rests on a pervasive misreading of his oeuvre, which neglects entirely the literary revolution he instigated. Reintroducing the historical into the heart of this body of work, Casanova provides an arresting portrait of Beckett as radically subversive, doing for writing what Duchamp did for art, and in the process providing the key to some of the most profound enigmas of Beckett’s work.

Jeffrey Wainwright (author of the excellent Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill) writes to tell me that Roy Fisher is reading at Manchester Metropolitan University (in the Geoffrey Manton Building, on Oxford Road, Manchester, opposite the Aquatics Centre; £5/£3 concessions) this Thursday coming at 6.30pm:


Roy Fisher was born in Birmingham in 1930 and is not only one of England’s senior poets but one of the very best. He has published many books of poetry in a wide variety of forms and formats. His work includes major long poems such Wonders of Obligation and the epic-scale works A Furnace and City. His interests and influences range through American modernism, painting and jazz – he has been a professional jazz pianist – and his myriad subject-matter includes the subtlest of transitory perceptions, the post-industrial world and the foibles of the contemporary arts scene. In all his topics and styles he is witty and acute. Asked to describe his perfect reader he replied: "she would be a woman who would nose around the back of a row of lockup garages to see what she could see, without making a song and dance about it". His collected poems The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 is published by Bloodaxe Books. This reading, his first in the North-West for many years, will be a major occasion.

The latest issue of the Green Integer Review is now online. It includes some poetry (including four poems by Christopher Middleton), Douglas Messerli on Harry Mathews' My Life in CIA and Brian Evenson on Jon Fosse's Melancholy (which Max Dunbar reviewed recently here on RSB and hated!) Messerli also writes on the Polish novelist and dramatist Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969).

Last week, The Bookseller kindly asked me to write a 200-word piece for their Reading for Pleasure section. I chose to write about Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood Around 1900. The piece was slightly cut for the magazine, as so often happens, and it isn't online, so here it it is, below, in full:


In Berlin Childhood Around 1900 one of the twentieth century's most incisive literary minds turns to his own earliest memories. Walter Benjamin, the celebrated German translator of In Search of Lost Time, wrote his minor counterpoint to complement Proust's Olympian masterpiece. Benjamin (along with Rilke) was one of the first to recognise the revolutionary nature of Proust's writing, but he was concerned in his own investigation into how memory creates and confounds us not to ape either Proust's unique style nor his philosophy. In beautiful, compact, stand-alone paragraphs, Benjamin becomes again the flaneur of his own bourgeois childhood. He finds a city in which he can lose himself. Losing oneself (as one does when reading) being the beginning of discovery (learning to get lost is a vertiginous skill). And writing, almost in fragments, he disturbs the teleology of autobiography. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need Benjamin's nuanced radicalism. Despite his Marxism, he knew human beings could not be reduced to avatars of their class, but were irreducibly complex. He knew the Messiah would only come to save us if we recognised the social system that is destroying our humanity as surely as it destroyed the Berlin of his childhood.

Its difficult to keep up with all the glowing references to RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy and his debut novel Remainder, but two recent mentions are noteworthy.


Richard, over at his excellent blog The Existence Machine, says:


Repetition plays a major role in this novel. The re-enactments are repeated over and over again. The narrator's singlemindedness creates restlessness in the reader (or, well, this reader): what, I wonder, is the purpose of these re-enactments? Or, where is this going? Indeed, expectations of "story" are continually raised and then thwarted. But the re-enactments are the point: he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.

And, today, Dan Wagstaff posts the first part of his interview with Tom over at the Raincoast Books blog.


RB: Is ambiguity a virtue?

TM: For sure. If you were simply communicating a message you were certain about it wouldn’t be any good as literature.

Yesterday, I posted Ismo's massive interview with comics supremo Alan Moore. It is an excellent piece and the best interview I've read with Moore in years. Alan, as you may know, has just finished writing Lost Girls with his partner Melinda Gebbie. An interview with Melinda will be up on RSB next week.

Dr William Large, author of Maurice Blanchot (Routledge; the best introduction to Blanchot you are ever likely to read is this) and Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of Writing (Clinamen), has a website which contains a number of his excellent essays, on aesthetics, Kant, phenomenology and, excitingly, Blanchot, all freely available to download.

One of my Books of the Week this week is Chushichi Tsuzukis' biography of Edward Carpenter. Carpenter (1844-1929) is a fascinating figure: "a utopian gay man who lived for much of his life in a large rural house amongst a group of his friends and lovers. EM Forster described him as 'a poet, a prose writer, a mystic, a manual labourer, an anti-vivisectionist, an art critic'" (quote from the Edward Carpenter Community website).


Edward Carpenter was a pioneering socialist and radical prophet of a new age of fellowship in which social relations would be transformed by a new spiritual consciousness. The way he lived his life, perhaps even more than his extensive writings, was the essence of his message. It is perhaps not surprising that his reputation faded quickly after his death, as he lived much of his life modestly spreading his message by personal contact and example rather than by major literary works or through a national political career. He has been described as having that unusual combination of qualities: charisma with modesty. His ideas became immensely influential during the early years of the Socialist movement in Britain: perhaps Carpenter's most widely remembered legacy to the Socialist and Co-operative movements was his anthem England Arise! but it is his writings on the subject of homosexuality and his open espousal of this identity that makes him unique.

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, edited by Professor Janet Todd, have just arrived with me. These are beautiful books. And they are the first fully annotated scholarly editions of Austen's complete works:


This is a full scholarly edition of the works of Jane Austen: the six published novels, two volumes of unpublished work and a volume setting Austen's work in its literary, cultural, political and social context. Each volume of published and unpublished work will contain the text itself, with an introduction giving a full publishing history of the work, together with explanatory notes and textual apparatus, and relevant appendices.

The "volume setting Austen's work in its literary, cultural, political and social context" is Janet Todd's cleverly entitled, and very useful looking, Jane Austen in Context:


This collection of essays covering many aspects of Austen's life, works and historical context provides the fullest introduction in one volume to the life and times of Jane Austen. Jane Austen in Context is a generously illustrated collection of short, lively contributions arranged alphabetically, and covering topics from biography to portraits and agriculture to transport. An essay on the reception of Austen's work is also included, showing how criticism of Austen has responded to literary movements and fashions. The volume emphasises the subtle interactions between Austen's life and times and her novels. This is a work of reference that readers and scholars of Austen will turn to again and again.

On Monday, I mentioned enjoying the BBC's latest adaption of Jane Eyre. This subsequently brought to my attention a couple of Brontë blogs ...


The Brontë Parsonage Blog bills itself as a "Web news magazine from the Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire."


BrontëBlog has lots and lots of very entertaining Brontë frippery and much information about TV-adapations and the like.


Also useful is Eyris blog which has extensive reviews of episodes the aforementioned BBC-adaption.


The good folks over at 3:AM are organising a tribute to Scottish almost-Situationist Alexander Trocchi (author of, amongst other things, Young Adam and Cain's Book; for more see A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi).


White calves, black ski-trousers will be held at The Three Kings pub, Clerkenwell Close, London EC1 (Farringdon) at 7.30pm this Thursday. RSB interviewees Tom McCathy and Stewart Home will both be in attendance. Should be a good night.


Well, you won't need me to tell you this I'm sure, but Kiran Desai last night became the youngest woman ever to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize.

Marjane Satrapi, the author and artist behind the Persepolis graphic novels, about growing up in Iran, hits the nail firmly on the head in an interview in the Independent:


"A Labour politician?" she goes on. "My arse. George Bush is a buffoon, manipulated by people much smarter than he is. I can forgive Bush because he is a bloody idiot. But Blair isn't stupid. And with the intelligence he clearly has, to have legitimised this warmongering is unforgivable."

PEN talks to Elif Shafak, recently acquitted of charges of “insulting Turkishness” in Turkey. Under Turkey’s laws, at least eighteen other authors are awaiting trial for “insult.” (via the excellent KR Blog). In English-translation, from Elif, we have The Flea Palace and The Gaze (both from Marion Boyars; both soon to be reviewed here) and The Saint of Incipient Insanities (from FSG). Next year, the book that caused the recent fuss, The Bastard of Istanbul, is out in the UK, in April (with Penguin imprint Viking). Congratulations too are due: Elif gave birth to Shererazade Zelfa the Saturday before last. Wonderful news!

From The Independent today an overview of Levi's Auschwitz Report (Verso): "Primo Levi's earliest account of the Holocaust was not a memoir or a novel but a document detailing what happened inside the Nazis' most notorious death camp. Compiled in collaboration with a fellow survivor at the request of their Soviet liberators, the Auschwitz Report is a work of extraordinary restraint and lucidity. As it appears for the first time in English, we tell the story of how it came to be written, and publish extracts."

I've just posted an interview with Hilary Spurling (author of The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master) and an interview with Luke Brown of Tindal Street Press (one of the smallest publishers ever to reach the Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour) over at The Book Depository (which last night "fought off competition from Amazon's Advantage scheme and BIC's e4books initiative to take The Nielsen BookNet Supply Chain Initiative of the Year": yay! This is an important "industry" thingy: see the BookSeller for more).

Lots and lots of interesting bits of author information over at the OUP blog (OUP USA this is). Today, it says, amongst other things (today's things being an excellent piece on Women and Literature):


Happy Birthday wishes go out to author, socialist, and human rights activist Upton Sinclair, who was born on this date in 1878.

Moral philosophy's firebrand Ted Honderich was on the telly last night (on Five's Don't Get Me Started). The programme was entitled The Real Friends of Terror and it rehearsed the arguments in his recent Continuum title Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9-11, Iraq, 7-7. Honderich argued clearly and convincingly that Blair's moral barbarism is atrocious, and that the real cause of the 9-11 and 7-7 attacks is the ongoing situation in Palestine. The programme was good polemic and it is always nice to see Blair (and Bush) condemned so trenchantly. But Honderich's argument is maddening.


If you jettison politics in favour of "moral philosophy" and the (very questionable and hubristic) "principle of humanity" (the principle Honderich uses to ground his argument, a principle, in short, that everyone should have "good lives") you concede to politicians the very ground you should be fighting them on. Politicians aren't (just) morally stupid; they are also CEOs of countries that have political and strategic ends to follow by whatever means. Throwing politics out of the window, and blaming politicians for moral stupidity, means no questions are asked about oil and arms, about realpolitik. Engaging with Blair's arguments as a moral philosopher flatters a politician's spin as somehow worthy of being taken seriously. There is a spurious War on Terror and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians because of oil, power and money. Moral failings may certainly stem from the hunger for these "resources", but they are not the cause of the wars fought to capture them.

Good pal of RSB, Blanchot translator Charlotte Mandell has been working her wonders again. Charlotte's translation of A Voice from Elsewhere (Lydia Davis says, "This welcome new volume, beautifully translated, is an essential addition to our library of Blanchot in English") is due out from SUNY Press in February. So, Valentine's Day gifts are not going to be a problem next year then!


A Voice from Elsewhere represents one of Maurice Blanchot’s most important reflections on the enigma and secret of “literature.” The essays here bear down on the necessity and impossibility of witnessing what literature transmits, and—like Beckett and Kafka—on what one might call the “default” of language, the tenuous border that binds writing and silence to each other. In addition to considerations of René Char, Paul Celan, and Michel Foucault, Blanchot offers reflections on Lyotard’s work, together with a sustained encounter with the poems of Louis-René des Forêts and, throughout, a unique and important concentration on music—on the lyre and the lyric, meter and measure—which poetry in particular brings before us.

The matchless Dalkey Archive Press have just released their latest Gilbert Sorrentino novel, Red the Fiend: "a recasting of Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, this is the story of how a child becomes a monster: of how Red the boy becomes Red the Fiend."


This reminds me that I never mentioned Derik A. Badman's online comic Elegy for G.S. (which is in the latest The Quarterly Conversation). And it also reminds me that I need to do some work on the RSB Gilbert Sorrentino minisite and on my other minisites too.

Been a wee while since we heard from Milan Kundera here in the UK. Well, good news is that Kundera's The Curtain (originally published as Le Rideau, in French in April 2005 by Gallimard) will be published in English in February 2007 by HarperCollins. The Curtain is "a seven-part essay by Milan Kundera, along with The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed composing a type of trilogy of book-length essays on the European novel." Goodness knows if and when we'll be getting another novel, though. The last one was Ignorance (written in 1999 in French and published there in 2000; translated into English in 2002 by Linda Asher).

Happily working my way through William C. Carter's Proust in Love, and soon to turn to The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust's Swedish Valet, and afterwards probably returning to finish Richard Davenport-Hines' Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris, I realise that I'm always in the mood for some Proustiana! And then, yesterday, Slightly Bluestocking brings my attention to Henri Raczymow's Swan's Way. The publisher's blurb reads thusly:


What begins as a meditation on the fictional identity of the elegant "swan" of Proust's In Search of Lost Time becomes, through a series of turns and twists, an ingenious investigation of the character's real-life counterpart, Charles Haas. Part novel, part essay, part literary sleuthing, Swan's Way is a critical tour de force. Through an inspired reading of Proust's text, Henri Raczymow gradually unravels the multiple contradictions of Charles Swann's personality, brought into focus by the fault lines in Proust's narrative method. The author traces Swann's evolution and the multiple ways in which his Jewish identity keeps peeping through the veneer of respectability of this sophisticated dandy. Through a parallel inquiry into the history of the Jockey Club--to which Haas, a Jew, was, like Swann, exceptionally admitted--and the transformation of the German-Jewish Haas into the fashionable British Swann, Swan's Way evolves into an examination of the question of personal identity and posthumous survival. Charles Haas's Jewish identity is the invisible thread that guides Raczymow through the maze of Proust's work, which serves as a backdrop against which fin-de-siècle French society enacts the ugly drama of anti-Semitism. Blurring the boundaries between life and fiction, Swan's Way leads the reader ever deeper into the unresolved question of literary and personal character.

A RSB reader writes asking:


I would really like to get the best versions of Thomas Bernhard's work. I have not read him before, so (1) could you recommend the books (ie translation etc.), and (2) the order that I should read them in!"

So (as they say) I decided to ask an expert and consult Steve: who advises:


There are no versions to worry about. Only one novel has two translations (Cutting Timber/Woodcutters). Order ... well, chronologically is the easist, though reverse order would probably give the better impression: Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, Yes, Concrete, Gathering Evidence (not a novel, but ...), Old Masters, The Loser, Cutting Timber, Extinction. I've left out one or two minor works but Three Novellas is great. See also thomasbernhard.org/works.

Worth noting that Gargoyles and The Loser are being re-issued this November and next July respectively (by Vintage USA) and remembering, too, that Michael Hofmann's new translation of Bernhard's Frost is due from Knopf in October.

News from good friend of RSB Leora Skolkin-Smith:


In response to the current crisis in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon, a group of authors have organized a benefit reading, with donations and book sale profits to go to Seeds of Peace, a non-profit which brings together teenagers from conflict zones, especially the Middle East, to teach skills aimed at advancing reconciliation. The reading will be held September 18th at McNally Robinson Booksellers, 50 Prince Street, New York, 7 pm. Fifteen authors will read in all, and the current list includes: Diana Abu-Jaber, David Gates, Masha Hamilton, Natalya Handal, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Bernie McFadden, Wendy Orange, Evelyn Shakir, Joan Silber, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Cathy Sultan, and Katharine Weber. Grace Paley and Robb Forman Dew are helping organize the event, and Skolkin-Smith, whose novel, Edges: O Israel, O Palestine, was published by Paley's Glad Day Books, will serve as committee chair and MC. Sue O'Doherty, writer, and clinical psychologist in NYC, is head of the organizing committee.

The sad news of the death, at 85 years of age, of social ecologist Murray Bookchin comes via Booksurfer:


Author, activist, pioneer of social ecology and libertarian municipalism Murray Bookchin died on Sunday. Writing under the pen-name of Lewis Herber in the 1960s he was one of the first people to draw attention to the developing ecolological crisis in his book Our Synthetic Environment (1962). He also wrote about the breakdown and potential of urban living in The Crisis in Our Cities (1965) the same year in which his influential Post Scarcity Anarchism was published. He was author of the widely influential polemic Listen Marxist! and Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism in which he restates the case for anarchism as a movement for social revolution and not simply a lifestyle choice. The Press Association obituary is rather thin on detail, but there is a detailed biography of his life on the Anarchy Archives, with links through to a slightly dated bibliography.

Pierre Joris translates some of Raoul Vaneigem's stanzas (from Vaneigem's Journal Imaginaire):


The necessity to adapt to the surrounding environment for survival is an animal behavior. The primary human action consists in creating an environment that is favorable to the development of life.

Pierre says, "of the core Situationists, Vaneigem has always seemed to me at least as interesting and often more so than his ex-companion, Guy Debord". I can't agree. The vaguely hippy quality of each of the six stanzas that Pierre quotes is, for me, precisely why Vaneigem was never as interesting, insightful or essential as Debord. Good to know about the Journal Imaginaire, though. Its existence had quite passed me by.

New Zealand novelist Nigel Cox died yesterday. From the Scoop obituary:


One of New Zealand's best writers, Nigel was recognised at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards on Monday evening when his novel Responsibility was named a runner-up for the Fiction Award. Nigel's eloquent and moving acceptance speech was met with a standing ovation from his family, friends and colleagues in the writing, publishing and bookselling community.

Author of five published novels, Waiting for Einstein, Dirty Work, Skylark Lounge, Tarzan Presley and Responsibility, Nigel had recently completed a wonderful new book called The Cowboy Dog which Victoria University Press are proud to publish later in the year.

Nice review of WF Hermans' Beyond Sleep (out from Harvill; who now, very kindly, seem to be sending books over to RSB again -- thank you!) by Michel Faber in the Guardian this last weekend:

Why has Willem Frederik Hermans's large and varied oeuvre failed, over half a century, to establish his place in the pantheon of Dutch writers recognised by the British? The author himself might have grinned ruefully at the thought: he was an arch-pessimist with a wry sense of humour. However, he suffered no shortage of acclaim, most of it from Germany, Scandinavia and his native Netherlands.

... Beyond Sleep is an engaging yarn once it hits its stride, intermittently thought-provoking, frequently funny, well worth investigating. But there are darker, stronger Hermans works still waiting for their chance to cross the Channel.

Toucing on Ina Rilke's translation, Faber notes:


In the original Dutch, Hermans's prose is bracingly lucid and straightforward, justifying his reputation as a champion of unadorned style. Ina Rilke's translation is fluent and finds clever solutions to tough challenges (such as preserving the comic effect of conversations in which English is the foreign language), but overall the tone is more formal, more prim than it should be. Occasionally, unintentional ambiguities are introduced, such as when Alfred steps "into the void" instead of stepping off a rock. Still, the protagonist's increasingly febrile determination is well conveyed, and the numerous humiliations of travelling ill-provisioned in a hostile landscape are detailed with satisfyingly grisly care.

Anecdotal Evidence brings my attention back to "Robert Walser, a strange, unclassifiable, utterly lovable Swiss writer":


Walser, born in 1878, entered a mental hospital in 1933, when he stopped writing, and remained there until he died in 1956. This Christmas will mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Walser was an inveterate walker – many of his stories begin as walks – and his body was found that day in the snow. He had suffered a heart attack. A visitor, who had asked why he no longer wrote, quoted Walser as saying, "I am not here to write but to be mad."

Last week, the TLS reported that a 20-page pamphlet with a 172-line poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which no-one has read since 1811, has recently come to light ("the Poetical Essay is ... remarkable for its unexpected emergence and for the insights a full study of it will give into Shelley’s development as a poet and political thinker.")


Professor Henry R Woudhuysen, Professor of English at UCL, reproduces a few lines of the poem in the TLS, but why don't we get to read the whole thing?


Man must assert his native rights, must say
We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway;
Oppressive law no more shall power retain,
Peace, love, and concord, once shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a suffering world;
Then, then shall things which now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway,
And error’s night be turned to virtue’s day –

The writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen has written to me saying:


It seems to me incredible that a major poem has been found by a major poet and we can't read it. This is the poem that almost certainly got Shelley chucked out of Oxford. It is also a clear example of an anti-imperialist poem by a writer when it's often been stated, by Edward Said no less, that none of the liberal or left writers ever distanced themselves from the British Empire. As it happens, Ernest Jones did on many occasions, but Shelley clearly did in this poem if the extracts are anything to go by.

Can we please start a little enquiry as to why this poem is being held back from public view? Presumably so that someone can make some money out of it!

So, Irvine Welsh, the "chronicler of the chemical generation", shock-jock writer of Trainspotting, has come out as a Tory. I don't know why anyone is in the least bit surprised about this. It seems obvious that the innate conservatism of his books -- and of so much "cult fiction" -- reflected an essentially conservative mind. One can only hope that more readers will now realise that writing about smack, or porn, or other drearier aspects of the quotidian, does not a revolutionary make. Transgressive writing is rarely progressive and rarely very good.


Nice: Protesting All Fiction Writers! -- Tom Bissell on the Underground Literary Alliance (via Wet Asphalt)

The obituaries have started arriving for Raja Rao (1908-2006), the Indian writer who died aged 97th on July 8th: Daily Telegraph; The Guardian and The Times (via the Literary Saloon).

The very fine ads without products blog points me towards TJ Clark's response to Perry Anderson's The Origins of Postmodernity and Jameson's The Cultural Turn (which originally appeared in the New Left Review back in 2000).


I like TJ Clark. His Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism is superb; he was involved with the essential Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War and his latest, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, looks great (sadly, it is with Yale University Press so we have next to no chance of seeing a review copy!)


Last week, the National Portrait Gallery very kindly sent on some lovely volumes (including the handy wee The Irish Literary Revival Movement). One of which was Anthony Bond's Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary. A gorgeous book, this too has an excellent essay by Clark (as well as fine pieces by Ludmilla Jordanova and Joseph Leo Koerner) called The Look of Self-Portraiture (where Clark argues for a version of self-portraiture "in which seeing would be pictured as itself a form of representation"). Oh, if you've not seen it, Koerner's Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape is matchless.

The Friday before last, I mentioned that author Elif Shafak "is being charged with transgressing Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes denigrating Turkishness a criminal offense." Actually, it is Elif and her publisher and her translator who are all facing trial. More details via Elif's British publisher Marion Boyars. (For those who can read German, see this interview with Shafak in the Berliner Zeitung magazine [which, actually, is also available in English!])

Franco Moretti's The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography, and Culture and The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes arrived last week. With a thud. These are big, big boys. But, as I mentioned at the end of June, and as the Literary Saloon mentioned, these are not as big as they should be:


The American publishers -- a university press (non-profit, public interest, academic standards ...) -- was so afraid it wouldn't sell that they tossed half of it out. And the part they tossed out is the international part -- the part which Americans are most in need of information about. And to rub it in, there will be full translations into Korean and Portuguese, but not English.

I've asked Princeton UP why they didn't translate the whole shebang -- and I'll let you know their response when they get back to me. In the meantime, for more Moretti, see these articles from the New Left Review: Conjectures on World Literature and More Conjectures

According to signandsight (thanks Steve), Robert Gernhardt was one of Germany's most-loved poets. He died in Frankfurt at the end of June:


Born in 1937 in Reval in Estonia, Gernhardt studied painting and German in Stuttgart and Berlin. From 1964 until his death he lived in Frankfurt, where he worked as writer, painter and caricaturist. His lively cross-genre publishing activities soon made him the leading figure of the New Frankfurt School of writers and artists behind the satirical magazine Pardon in the 1960s and 70s and after 1979, Titanic. Here is a small selection of his poems translated into English by Ursula Runde, some of which have appeared in Poetry Magazine, and sketches from Gernhardt's German Readers series.

Definitely worth taking the time to look around signandsight's literature features too whilst you are at it.

Imre Kertész's Fatelessness (Harvill) has won the 2006 Wingate Prize ("established in 1977 by the late Harold Hyam Wingate, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize is now in its 29th year. The prizes for fiction and non-fiction are each worth £4,000 to each category winner, with £300 also awarded for the runners-ups in each category"):


At the age of 14 Georg Koves is plucked from his home in a Jewish section of Budapest and without any particular malice, placed on a train to Auschwitz. He does not understand the reason for his fate. He doesn’t particularly think of himself as Jewish. And his fellow prisoners, who decry his lack of Yiddish, keep telling him, “You are no Jew.” In the lowest circle of the Holocaust, Georg remains an outsider.

The genius of Imre Kertész’s unblinking novel lies in its refusal to mitigate the strangeness of its events, not least of which is Georg’s dogmatic insistence on making sense of what he witnesses–or pretending that what he witnesses makes sense. Haunting, evocative, and all the more horrifying for its rigorous avoidance of sentiment, Fatelessness is a masterpiece in the traditions of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski.

Let us hope that this will mean all of Kertész's other titles will get translated.

Bad news about the Turkish writer Elif Shafak from the highly appealing (if a little confusing) website The Ledge ("an independent platform for international literature. At the heart of the site is a series of interviews with authors, translators and critics from around the world" -- thanks Wah-Ming):


Turkish ultranationalists have once again filed a complaint against the Turkish writer Elif Shafak (1971), author of The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Gaze and The Flea Palace, charging her with ‘insulting Turkishness.’ The complaint focuses on two passages from Shafak’s latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Like Orhan Pamuk, whose statements about ‘the Armenian question’ in a newspaper interview raised the ire of the nationalists, Shafak is being charged with transgressing Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes denigrating Turkishness a criminal offense.

For more information, please contact Fran van den Bogaert at fran@degeus.nl

Put the name of the Czech writer Hermann Unger (rendered Ungar by his UK publishers Dedalus) into Google and the second entry you get is for the The Hermann Unger Literary Teahouse (Literární Cajovna Hermanna Ungera)! How fine is that!?


Winningly, the Teahouse gives a nice gloss on Unger's life:


The teahouse is named after a native of Boskovice whose writing was sometimes compared to that of Kafka. Hermann Unger was born in Boskovice in 1893 and grew up speaking German and Czech. While at school in Brno he became active in Jewish politics, and went on to study Hebrew, Arabic and law at university. The studies were interrupted by war and Hermann was dispatched to the Russian front from where he eventually returned wounded and with a silver medal for valour. His writing career began in 1920 with Boys and Murderers, and continued with The Maimed (1922) and The Class (1927). Unger became friends with some of Prague’s most famous Jewish-German writers: Paul Kornfeld, Ernst Weiss, and Franz Werfel, and was a contemporary of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

He died of acute appendicitis at the age of 36 in December 1929, but has not been forgotten by the tea-connoisseurs of his hometown.

Jerzy Ficowski's only book of his own fiction Waiting for the Dog to Sleep (Twisted Spoon Press) is one of my Books of the Week this week. There is a useful short obituary for Ficowski over at Forward.com which gives some background to this important Polish writer and expert on Bruno Schulz. (For more on BS, see Mark Kaplan's tribute to Bruno Schulz.)

Responding to my interview with the poet and Celan-translator Pierre Joris, the writer and publisher Anthony Rudolf (of the excellent Menard Press) has written me this lovely note, which I'd like to share:


I would like to gloss Pierre Joris's comments on Celan translations and exclusivity, made during the fascinating interview posted on RSB. I'm glad he put the word 'official' in quotation marks concerning Michael Hamburger for, during the nearly forty years I have known him, Michael has always insisted that he is against exclusivity on principle when it comes to poetry translation, although he can see why other considerations enter the frame with a long prose book.

Gisèle [Celan-Lestrange], herself a distinguished print maker and artist, exasperated by the amount of time she had to spend dealing with copyright questions, anthology requests etc, asked me in the early 1980s if I thought Michael would agree to be the exclusive translator of her late husband; it would simplify her life no end, she said. I told her about Michael's honourable attitude and that what she proposed was not the solution.

Allow me to mention a memory triggered by this communication. Gisele and I were friends for a number of years, but we lost touch, as sometimes happens. Later, I attended the funeral of my friend Edmond Jabès at Père-Lachaise in January 1991. I half-recognised a woman who looked ill and strained, a shadow of the beautiful and elegant person she had been. I went up to her, and said: Gisèle? There was a pause -- as if to complete my half-recognition and make it whole -- and then a reply: Anthony? We embraced. Less than a year later, she was dead.

Two more comments: Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès were close friends. One day, perhaps, Celan's heavily annotated copy of Le Livre des questions will be published facsimile with a commentary (Pierre is surely too busy to edit it). Lastly, for those with the requisite French, the two-volume boxed edition of Paul's correspondence with Gisèle, published by Le Seuil in 2001, is essential reading.

PS a pertinent extract from a draft memoir:

Some years ago, I was about to publish my own translations of Claude Vigée’s poetry and prose. As an old friend, I had long known about his version of Four Quartets, which had lain untouched in a drawer for half a century because T.S. Eliot had agreed to exclusive rights in the translation by Pierre Leyris about three weeks before he read (and admired) Vigée's translation. I told Claude that the time had come to mount a campaign to find a publisher for his version. There was no problem at Faber and Faber, and Valery Eliot and Kathleen Raine wrote supporting letters. But the French publisher of Leyris was adamant that there could not be a rival version in France. I said what about Menard, which is a UK publisher? To this suggestion, they said yes, but only if Leyris agreed. Naturally, I wrote to the master translator of English poetry (Eliot, Hopkins, Shakespeare etc) in appropriate and respectful terms. He replied with the sweetest letter, saying that it was impossible for him to say no but that I should make sure that Vigée drew a distinction between “durée” and “temps” when translating the word “time”. And so the book was published, with the bonus of one of Gabriel Josipovici’s best essays, which was specially written for this book and translated into French for the occasion. He later published it in English in PNR, as I recall. The Menard book also contains a previously unpublished letter by T.S. Eliot.

Matthew Pearl (author of the bestselling The Dante Club and now The Poe Shadow, a thriller centered around Poe's mysterious death) recently picked his top 10 books inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Scott Peeples' The Afterlife of Poe stands out. Pearl reckons:


Peeples, president of the Poe Studies Association in the United States, chooses a perfect framework for a study of Poe. Poe did not really become the Poe we know until after his death. Peeples expertly examines responses to Poe's writings as well as his life in the century and a half since his death. His chapter on Poe's death, and the way it has been perceived, stands among the very best texts on the subject.

The Afterlife of Poe is kindly being sent on by the publisher, Camden House, and I'll review it as soon as I can. The Poe Shadow is published by Harvill Secker so that probably won't get reviewed: getting review copies from Harvill Secker is, sadly, like getting blood from a stone.

Interesting article: Primo Levi and Translation by David Mendel. (He quotes Levi: "An author who is confronted by one of his own pages translated into a language he knows, feels in turns - or at one and the same time - flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, planed down, violated, embellished, killed.")


And, remember, there is always quality stuff over on Languagehat when it comes to translation and language issues.

Nice: RSB interviewee Michael "OBE" Schmidt on Foxe's Book of Martyrs (thanks Max).

RSB contributor (and my good friend), the poet, publisher, academic and critic, Michael Schmidt has been awarded the OBE: "For services to Higher Education and to Poetry". Huge congratulations Michael!

Its funny how you find things out: all the Herman Broch titles that were printed under Penguin Modern Classics are now out of print. I was shocked to learn this only about an hour ago. And how do I know this? Well, RSB contributor Paul Griffiths has written (back in 2003) a fine book on the serialist composer Jean Barraqué, called The Sea on Fire, which I was talking about with his publisher, Boydell & Brewer, only this morning. I was surfing for more information on Barraqué and remembered that he was a friend and lover of Michel Foucault's who had planned to write a collection of pieces based on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, but who only completed two of the projected parts (Chant aprés chant (1966), and Le temps restitué (1957/68)) before his death.


Anyway, this got me thinking more about Broch and about possibly featuring him and his work here on RSB. Maybe even doing a minisite. But Penguin tell me that he is out of print. So ReadySteadyBroch is going to have to wait until I chase down some second hand copies. (If any of you have any Broch's lying about that you don't want please email me!)

A fascinating read this (originaly presented at the Princeton Conference on Magic and Cinema back in March): ADAMAGICA: Magic and Iconolatry in Film by the poet Robert Kelly: "Magic is what the mind comes back to time and time again to right itself."


For those interested to know more about Robert ... well, you can wait until our forthcoming interview or -- and I'd advise this for now -- you can read this wee extract from an interview with Robert in the Modern Review (the site says this is just an excerpt from the 44-page interview in the magazine itself, but I've not seen a copy of it yet): "So that’s what poetry could be. All the pleasures I had from reading, fantasizing, learning, music: all in this one strange thing, this alien, incomprehensible, but immensely sensual event."

Language Hat brings my attention to Professor David Graeber. I knew I recognised his name, but due to a shocking dereliction of duty, I note with regret that I've not read his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press) despite it having been sat on the TBR-pile for a long good while. I shall remedy this very soon (and endeavour to review some of the other excellent Prickly Paradigm pamphlets too). By all accounts (see, for example, his interview with Joshua Frank in Counterpunch), David is having serious problems with his bosses at Yale.


Further reading might include: Anarchism in the 21st Century an article by David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic; The New Anarchists; Give it Away - an article about the French intellectual Marcel Mauss.

Populist as ever (!), you'll notice that this week is Piotr Rawicz week here on RSB. My two Books of the Week are the astonishing Blood from the Sky (Elliott & Thompson) and Anthony Rudolf's incisive reading of that work, Engraved in Flesh: Piotr Rawicz and His Novel "Blood from the Sky" (Menard Press). I'm also thrilled to have been allowed to reproduce Anthony's Afterword to Blood from the Sky here on the site, which is just about the best introduction to Rawicz that you'll find anywhere.

Thanks to our friends at Coffee House Press we've added some more goodies to our Gilbert Sorrentino minisite. Now on RSB we have some great excerpts from his work. These are: A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles from The Moon In Its Flight; Pair of Deuces from A Strange Commonplace; Sea of Cold from Lunar Follies and The Tomato Episode from Little Casino.

You may have noticed the sad death of Jerzy Ficowski (October 4th 1924 - May 9th 2006) last month. The Polish poet, translator, and scholar was well known for his essays on the life and work of Bruno Schulz and was "one of the best Holocaust poets" according to Yala Korwin (for more see The HyperTexts). I know little of his work, but I'm boning up. 


The excellent Twisted Spoon Press have just released Waiting for the Dog to SleepFicowski's only collection of prose, which is wending its way to me as I blog. Twisted Spoon is "an independent publisher based in Prague. Focusing on translating a variety of writing from Central & Eastern Europe, our list includes some internationally recognized names as well as up-and-coming authors who are having their work published in English for the first time." They have a great list, so if RSB goes all Eastern European over the next month, you'll know why.

The Guardian newspaper finally gets around to a Gilbert Sorrentino obituary. More on GS on the RSB Gilbert Sorrentino minisite.

I'm hearing good things about the fabulously-named Temple Grandin and her book Animals in Translation (Bloomsbury.). Horizon have made a TV documentary about her which is due to air in the UK on BBC2 on Thursday night at 9pm. It's called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.

With the help of the good folk at Coffee House Press and the Center for Book Culture, I've started to build a Gilbert Sorrentino minisite. There is some unique content including: Robert Creeley's Afterword to GS's Splendide-Hôtel; The Act of Creation and Its Artifact (from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1981); Something Said: Hubert Selby Jnr on GS (from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1981) and Two extracts from Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. These articles all need a bit of tidying, which I'll sort once I've got through my recently acquired backlog of emails!

Gilbert Sorrentino, interviewed by Alexander Laurence back in 1994, on the Beat writers:


The beats can only be understood as a single manifestation, in the fifties, of the general dissatisfaction, among young, unknown artists, with the given norms of art then in ascendance. They have been distorted out of all reality by the popular media, probably because they make "good copy," but they were no less distorted at the time they emerged. Some of them did good work, some not, but that is the case with all "movements." That they were especially iconoclastic is an idea that will not wash, when one considers the remarkable innovations, the formal attacks on the norms of literature present at the time, by such writers as Olson, Creeley, O'Hara, Spicer, and so on. Strangely enough, some of the most compelling beat writers are more or less forgotten now -- Ray Bremser for one, and then, of course, there is Irving Rosenthal, whose single book, long out of print and almost impossible to find, Sheeper, is perhaps the most elegant single work to emerge from that era. To talk about the beats without acknowledging these writers is to assume that the propaganda about that era is the truth about that era. This is all further complicated by the historical blurring that occurs when non-beat writers are lumped in with beat writers, when we are told that such writers as Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, even Gary Snyder, are beat writers. That's like saying that Raymond Roussel was a surrealist. Again, to understand the beats, you have understand the general cultural ferment that was going on in the arts in the fifties, the restlessness, the boredom, the unintentional comedy of an era that proffered Randall Jarrell as a very important poet and that valorized Robert Frost to the detriment of William Carlos Williams.

More sad news: Gilbert Sorrentino has died, aged 77.


There are few details: he had been diagnosed with cancer late last summer and he died on Thursday, May 18th, at a hospital in New York. More information can be gathered from the Center for Book Culture press release and there is also Dalkey's biography.


He was the most important novelist of his generation, inventing and reinventing styles and forms with each new book. A comic genius who was also able to write what is perhaps the bleakest novel in American fiction, The Sky Changes (1966) — a novel about divorce in America, and his first—Sorrentino set himself challenges with each new book, generally indifferent to how critics would react.

The range of his work and his absolute dedication to inventing and exploring character are unequalled by any of his contemporaries. Although oftentimes facilely grouped with such writers as Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, and John Hawkes, Sorrentino was, unlike these writers, never embraced by academics and was usually overlooked by the critics. His singular aesthetic and his lifelong tendency to criticize the very authors who could have helped his career placed him outside both the mainstream and the fashionably avant-garde.

Undoubtedly one of the finest voices of his generation, Sorrentino was sadly underrated. However, his winning the 2005 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award did bring his name to the attention of new readers (the bloggers have helped too: good stuff here from MadInkBeard and remembrances from Dan and Richard) and his star did seem to be waxing again. The New York Times had said he was “like a reckless heir to Borges, Barthelme and Groucho Marx, [who] co-opts the language of critical discourse to subvert his audience’s preconceptions and, in so doing, redraws the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ art”.

With Jacques Roubaud's The Shape of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart (Dalkey Archive Press), a selection of 150 of his poems, and Poetry, Etcetera: Cleaning House (Green Integer) both out this summer (and Jacques Roubaud and the Invention of Memory by Jean-Jacques F. Poucel (University of North Carolina Press) due out in December) my thoughts have been turning to this French poet and mathematician, member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and president of the Association Georges Perec.


Steve's review of The Great Fire of London is a fine place to start reading about Roubaud and I've also just stumbled across Marjorie Perloff's long essay, over at the excellent Jacket magazine, “But isn’t the same at least the same?”: Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and Jacques Roubaud. You can also read Roubaud's Poetry Two Thousand and Two: A Defence? at Poetry International Web.

Just out from OUP is Stéphane Mallarmé: Collected Poems and other verse (new translations by EH and AM Blackmore; parallel French text). Mallarmé (1842-1898) is known to be one of the most radical and innovative and nineteenth-century; his work still strikes as magnificently modern. He is also known to be difficult. Leader of the Symbolist movement in poetry with Paul Verlaine, and at the centre of a group of Paris-based writers like Proust, Gide and Paul Valéry, Mallarmé infuriated his peers, and his friends like Edgar Degas, with his insistence on his theories of "pure poetry". More to follow on Mallarmé when I've read this and read up!

Who knew? (via adswithoutproducts)


The English edition of Madame Bovary hosted by Gutenberg was translated by none other than Eleanor Marx ... Karl Marx's youngest daughter. I had no idea. I probably should have known, but I didn't.

"Read it! He took a perfect sentence, the bastard, and he made it even better."


I've just finished reading Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. The quote above comes from an article by Elisabeth Sifton Editing Saul Bellow. After reading that astonishing voice, I'm in no mood to read anything else. So much else is so wooden, so lifeless. But Bellow is never "perfect"; indeed, it is his viscous, crowded, Yiddish-inspired, slang-rhythmed, rolling, greedy sentences, his imperfect sentences, that make him such a great writer. Perfection is for second-raters.

More fabulous stuff on Aharon Appelfeld over at Spurious. The post reminds me that I need to put my hand in my pocket and shell out for a copy of Michael Brown and Sara Horowitz's Encounter with Aharon Appelfeld. The volume brings together critical papers, a number of Appelfeld's short stories, a long interview and a complete bibliography of Appelfeld's works and secondary sources (well, complete at time of publication, which was 2003).

Faber and Faber have announced the projected publication of a seven-volume edition of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, under the General Editorship of Ronald Schuchard and an advisory board comprising Warwick Gould, Archibald Henderson, Sir Frank Kermode, Edward Mendelson and Christopher Ricks. The edition will be published jointly by Faber and Johns Hopkins University Press in the United States:


TS Eliot was one of the most prolific and wide-ranging prose masters of our age, and the collections of essays published during his lifetime have had an immeasurable impact on literature, culture, and the humanities. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, the majority of Eliot's prose (over 700 essays and articles) remains uncollected or unpublished, nor are there critical editions of those collections published during his life. For the past fifty years, most assessments of Eliot's work and thought have been produced with little access to these materials, which remain scattered in numerous libraries and institutional collections around the world.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, author of Voices from Chernobyl, talks to Sonja Zekri (over at Sign and Sight) about the new face of evil and the lessons to be learned from the reactor catastrophe:


Svetlana Alexievich is obsessed by Chernobyl. For years she has travelled to the "zone", the radioactive area, talking with firemen and soldiers, with "liquidators" who cleared out the radioactive rubble from the ruins of the power plant, with survivors and people who have returned to their homes. Her findings are collected in a book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. It is an echolocation of the catastrophe. Svetlana Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Belarus, lives in Sweden. We have yet to understand Chernobyl, she says. It is a foreign text.

I failed to mention, back on Beckett's birthday on the 13th, that the British Library have just released Samuel Beckett: Works for Radio. Steve Cleary, British Library Sound Archive Curator of Literature and Drama reckons: “Beckett was emphatic that his works for radio were conceived for aural reception only, and was disinclined to permit their presentation in another medium such as the stage, even as unadorned readings. They are works of art in themselves, presented here in their original incarnations, as their author intended.” This is a 4-CD set of the original BBC broadcasts and it is the first time these recordings have been made commercially available:


These rarely-heard historic recordings were originally broadcast by the BBC and feature the five works created by Beckett expressly for the broadcast medium: All That Fall, Embers, Words and Music, Cascando and Rough for Radio, together with the rarely heard curio, The Old Tune - Beckett's translation of Robert Pinget's La Manivelle - and the monologue From an Abandoned Work. The broadcasts span the period 1957-1976.

Via Lance Mazmanian, I hear the good news that Sian Heder and RSB-interviewee David Newsom have been asked to take their short film Mother to the Cannes Film Festival's Cinefondation Competition, May 2006. Theirs is one of just eighteen shorts selected from more than 1500 submissions.

Marilynne Robinson, author of the much-vaunted novels Gilead and Housekeeping, recently spoke at the University of Kentucky about contemporary writers’ disdain for their readers. "Much of today’s literature, she said, seems to be written on an intellectual level that assumes the reader did not progress beyond childhood. ‘If a grocery store were stocked on the same principle, it would carry only Fruit Loops,’ Robinson said." (via Maud).

A long, discursive, demanding, wonderful post from Mr Spurious, Hillcrests and Valleys, on Aharon Appelfeld's For Every Sin.

Ooh, now I am excited about this: Freud's Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk (Continuum) by Matthew Von Unwerth (director of the Abraham A. Brill Library of The New York Psychoanalytic Institute & Society, and coordinator of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination, no less!) The book is billed as an exploration of Freud’s ideas "on creativity and mortality and their roots in his history" and a search for "broader lessons about love, memory, mourning, and creativity."


Written in 1915 during winter and wartime, Freud’s little-known essay On Transience records an afternoon conversation with 'a young but already famous poet' and his 'taciturn friend' about mortality, eternity, and the 'sense' of life. In Freud’s Requiem, the philosophical disagreement between Freud and his companions - who may have been the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his muse and former lover Lou Andreas-Salomé - becomes a prism through which to consider Freud’s creativity as a response to his own experiences, from his passionately curious, lovestruck teenage years to his death after a long struggle with cancer in 1939. Drawing on a variety of literary and historical sources - Homer, Goethe, as well as Freud’s own writings, including his letters - Freud’s Requiem is both an intimate personal drama and a spirited intellectual inquiry.

For more on similar, Lou Andreas-Salomé's memoir of Rilke You Alone are Real to Me (Carcanet) is thoroughly to be recommended.

I seem to have become a bit of an amateur Germanist over the past few weeks. I've been thoroughly enjoying Georg Heym'a Poems and Georg Trakl's Poems and Prose (both from the wonderful Libris) and Michael Hofmann's The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems is never far from reach at the moment. It was this book that reminded me, again, how much I like Bertolt Brecht's verse. So, next to be read is Hanns Otto Münsterer's The Young Brecht (also Libris): Münsterer was among a group of Brecht’s early friends, the appendix here includes versions of Brecht’s verse not to be found elsewhere. Whilst I'm thinking about Brecht (1898-1956), The International Brecht Society looks like a mine of good information (including a useful Brecht in English Translation page).

The 75-year-old Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo is profiled by Fernanda Eberstadt in today's New York Times magazine (via Rockslinga).


Goytisolo's most recent book in English-translation was The Blind Rider (Serpent's Tail), which I've yet to read. I can, however, heartily recommend State of Siege and The Marx Family Saga. For those interested to learn more, this Guardian profile from August 2000 is good background reading and there is an excellent interview over at the Center for Book Culture.

Obituaries for Dame Muriel Spark can be found at:



More Muriel Spark links at the Literary Saloon.

Sad news: Muriel Spark has died, on Thursday, aged 88, in the small Tuscan town of Civitella in Val di Chiana where she had lived for the last 27 years. Probably still best known for 1961's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark wrote 24 novels, short stories and some fine poems. Born Muriel Sarah Camberg, in February 1918, in Edinburgh, to a Jewish father and Anglican mother, her last novel, The Finishing School, was published in 2004; in the same year Carcanet published All the Poems.


According to a Houston Chronicle report: "Spark had quirky writing habits. She wrote longhand, with little if any revision, in spiral-bound notebooks she got from a stationer in Edinburgh. She never used a pen anyone else had touched."


The film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith, and bringing her a best actress Oscar in 1969, seems to have masked just what an experimental and fine writer Spark actually was. Her short books are acid sharp and whole, like the very best short stories.


Some Spark links (thanks Jenny): Guardian profile from 2000; Muriel Spark Archive at the National Library of Scotland; Spark in conversation; Contemporary Writers Spark page (includes decent bibliography and critical overview); James Wood review of The Finishing School.

RSB interviewee Ken Worpole takes a look at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s world: "The landscape artist Ian Hamilton Finlay created an extraordinary fusion of sculpture, inscription and philosophy in his Little Sparta garden."


Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died at the age of 80 on 27 March 2006, was one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. His output was marked by intense political controversy.

His early works, poetry and short stories, developed in the early 1960s into an engagement with the world of concrete poetry, an artistic form first popularised in Brazil, though Finlay's variant was self-generated and contemporaneous (like that of his Scots compatriot Edwin Morgan, whose 1966 poem observed of his friend "you give the pleasure / of made things"). Some of this was exhibited at an international exhibition of concrete poetry at the Brighton festival in 1967, where I first saw it, and it made an immediate impact then – principally one of delight.

The Literary Saloon tells of an Arno Schmidt exhibition at the Schiller-Nationalmuseum in Germany. Devoted, obviously, to none other than Arno Schmidt. Who hell he!? Well, the complete-review's own Arno Schmidt page is a very good place to start to find out more. And, whilst you are browsing the second issue of the Green Integer Review, you could pop into the main Green Integer site and look up Schmidt's Radio Dialogs I, Radio Dialogs II and The School for Atheists.

RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy, whose novel Remainder (Metronome - see 3:AM's interview with Metronome boss Clementine Deliss) so impressed our reviewer Lee Rourke last year, has been snapped up by Alma Books in the UK (and Random House in the US). Tom's novel will be out, with Alma Books, in July.

Published on Tuesday, but only in the US for now, is A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (not that that means you can't buy it very easily from anywhere!) This is the "largest and richest volume of poetry by [Fernando] Pessoa available in English, featuring poems never before translated alongside many originally composed in English." The poems are translated by the unlikely-named Pessoa expert Richard Zenith (translator of the wonderful, eccentric and baggy The Book of Disquiet and who edited and translated The Education of the Stoic: The Only Manuscript of the Baron of Teive). Zenith provides a useful introduction and notes and good information on Pessoa's "heteronyms". "There is nobody like Pessoa" is something WS Merwin once said, by the way. But, you now, I could've said that!

Ooh look: a Reading Middlemarch blog! I remember reading George Eliot's wonderful work when I was marooned in an hotel in Munich about six years ago. Polished it off in about three days. And loved every minute of reading it. (More on Eliot at Victorian Web and via Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka's website. Or read "George Eliot" by Virginia Woolf - this article by Virginia Woolf being first published in the Times Literary Supplement on the 20th November 1919.)

You will, no doubt, have noted the sad passing of both poet/artist/gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay and "Polish satirical and philosophical science fiction writer" (most famously of Solaris) Stanislaw Lem. There are lots of links and information, on both these writers, at many sites, but wood s lot and Pierre's blog are good places to start learning more.

Gabriel Josipovici, who I recently interviewed here on RSB, has kindly allowed my to republish his wonderful essay Borges and the Plain Sense of Things, from his recent collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. As always with Josipovici, Borges and the Plain Sense of Things is a beautiful, nuanced and exceptionable piece of work from one of our very, very finest critics.

I recently interviewed Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at the University of East London, and author of the acclaimed Blood Relations: Menstruation and The Origins of Culture. Chris made some controversial remarks about Noam Chomsky in our interview which he has now expanded upon in an essay he has written exclusively for RSB entitled Noam Chomsky: The New Galileo?

Who doesn't like a bit of Sterne!? Laurence Sterne in Cyberspace is a linktastic site full of Sterne-stuff including a full text HTML version of Tristram Shandy and a Hyper-Concordance to the Works of Laurence Sterne. The site put me on to The Shandean ("an annual volume devoted to Laurence Sterne and his works") published by the Laurence Sterne Trust. Sadly (and stupidly) none of the articles from The Shandean are online! No matter - plenty of links to good reading at the Open Directory Project.

Via Brian Sholis, a couple of Franz Kafka essays: the first, by Robert Alter, a review essay of Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years, which first ran in the New Republic and is now reprinted online at Powells.com; the second, by Jeff Fort, is in the current issue of The Believer.

Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion, The Powerbook and (most recently) Weight, will be reading, talking and answering questions at Manchester Metropolitan University at 6pm on Wednesday 22nd March. This event, which is free and open to the public, is hosted by the MMU Writing School. The reading will take place in Lecture Theatre 7, on the ground floor of the Geoffrey Manton Building (directly opposite the Manchester Aquatics Centre on Oxford Road). For further details about this event, contact Andrew Biswell, the Academic Director of the Writing School.

Marek Kohn, author of the fascinating A Reason for Everything (Faber), and upcoming RSB-interviewee, critically reviews Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. (Lots more on the controversial Dennett if you follow all these links on 3Quarks; also see this Guardian interview.)

Wilfred Owen prize-winner (for poetry opposing Iraq conflict), Franz Kafka prize-winner, Nobel prize-winner, and now the winner of the Europe Theatre prize ("a recognition of one of the greatest living playwrights"), Harold Pinter speaks to Michael Billington (from yesterday's Guardian) about his work.

I don't think that my admiration for the work of Gabriel Josipovici is any secret whatsoever. So, as you can imagine, I'm absolutely thrilled to have just published an interview with Gabriel here on RSB. (Thanks to Steve with his help and advice on some of the questions.) One of our very, very finest critics, and a wonderful novelist in his own right, Gabriel Josipovici is one of the few writers working in English today who seems to have thoroughly understood the ongoing challenge of Modernism.


Asking him about the quality of "lightness" that he had once remarked was vital to the success of The Iliad, Gabriel answered:


For complex reasons art before the Romantics could be both profound and ‘light’. Homer’s and Shakespeare’s plays are cases in point. After the onset of Romanticism it’s as if depth had to entail solemnity, weightiness. Contrast Mozart and Beethoven, Pope and Wordsworth, Fielding and George Eliot. I love many works written after 1800, but I wish it were lighter. And I can’t stand those great nineteenth century works that take themselves so seriously and try to found a new religion, like Mahler’s symphonies. That’s why I love Stravinsky: for me he has everything: wit, lightness, precision, yet a plangency that is deeply moving. He remains the artist I would most like to emulate (one can have ones dreams). I love some of the novels of Bellow and Nabokov and Muriel Spark and Thomas Bernhard because I think they laugh at themselves and their own pretensions even as they burrow into the depths. I love some of the novels of Aharon Appelfeld because they say what they have to say in the simplest way and then stop, and what they have to say moves me deeply. But I could go on and on, with a list of my favourite modern novels – which would include works by Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke.

Ellis Sharp has written a provocative article entitled The Complicity of Paul Celan:


John Felstiner’s book on Celan no longer seems to me as admirable as it once did. And neither does Paul Celan. It is dispiriting to perceive how the great poet of loss and suffering was silent about Israel’s victims. And Celan’s silence about Jews as persecutors and their victims appears to be reciprocated by everyone who writes about him.

According to a report in the Guardian this morning, "after three and a half years' research, and the detailed examination of six paintings, the National Portrait Gallery has concluded that the so-called Chandos portrait shows the true face of Shakespeare - probably."


The Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the Wolfson Gallery (part of the National Portrait Gallery) runs from today until the 29 May 2006 and features six portraits of the Bard, including the Chandos portrait which is deemed to have the strongest claim to verisimilitude.

Octavia Estelle Butler (1947-2006), "the first African-American woman to gain popularity and critical acclaim as a major science fiction writer", died on Saturday after suffering a fall on the pavement outside her home. There is a lot of obituaries and memories all over the net - the Octavia E Butler homepage is as good a place as any to start for more information; wood s lot has a lot of links too (scroll down to the entries dated 02.27.06).

Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi (1934-2006) has died, last Thursday, of cancer. One of the outstanding Russian poets of the 20th century, his most important works remained virtually unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, by which time he had been published and translated in more than 20 countries and several times nominated for a Nobel prize. See the Guardian obituary and more background from Nomadics.

Widely linked to this, but worth another shout I think: Robert Birnbaum interviews Andrew Delbanco, author of the very fine Melville: His World and Work.


Moby Dick astonished, delighted and thrilled me when I read it a few years back, but if you haven't got the time or inclination (I mean, really, you should have!) do find time to read Melville's astonishing Bartleby the Scrivener (our friends at Melville House publish a lovely edition).


Jodi, over at her wonderful I Cite blog has been talking about Bartleby recently, with reference to Žižek's new book, The Parallax View:


At the end of The Parallax View, Žižek presents Bartleby's "I prefer not to" as the key figure of a new politics, a politics that moves past "the politics of 'resistance' or 'protestation,' which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation."

You can read all of Jodi's on Žižek at Long Sunday.

Beckett once said to a friend, "All I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante". "Ass"? Surely Beckett would have said "arse"? Anyway, Beckett centenary a timely reminder of a lifetime of artistic integrity, by Rachel Campbell-Johnston, in today's Times (via the literary saloon) reminds me, again, of the upcoming Beckett centenary events and that James Knowlson's Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Uncollected Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him (Bloomsbury) is out in the UK March 6th (Arcade's version has been out in the US since January).


Thinking of Dante, fans of Italy's finest son should certainly remember The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies (issuing out of the University of Notre Dame Press). Part of that excellent series is John A Scott's remarkable Understanding Dante, which was Book of the Week here on RSB a month ago.

It has come to my attention that Paul Avrich (1931-2006), the noted historian of anarchism, died on the 17th February (via Normblog). Avrich was born in New York City on August 4, 1931. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize several times and in 1984 he won the Philip Taft Labor History Award. The Library of Congress houses the Paul Avrich Collection, a collection of over twenty thousand manuscripts and publications on American and European anarchism that Avrich donated to the library. Amongst his works are Kronstadt, 1921, The Russian Anarchists and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. More from anarkismo.net and Interactivist Info Exchange.

Green Integer are about to release Last Living Words: The Ingeborg Bachmann Reader, translated from the German by Lilian M. Friedberg with an introduction by Dagmar C. G. Lorenz (the book should be available, in the UK, in July). Bachmann was a close friend of Thomas Bernhard's and appears as a character in Extinction (so Steve tells me). Green Integer have previously published her early work Letters to Felician.


This Ingeborg Bachmann Reader consists of works of poetry and fiction published during the life of the great Austrian writer. Brilliantly translated by Lilian M. Friedberg ... Bachmann is no longer the frail and tortured writer presented in so many previous translations, but is a writer who stands as a strong woman and major literary figure. Born in Klagenfurt, Austria on June 25, 1926, Ingeborg Bachmann studied law and philosophy at the universities of Insbruck, Graz, and Vienna ... Over the next many years, she produced numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and radio plays, including Anrufung des Großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear), the collections of stories Das dreißigse Jahr (The Thirtieth Year) and Simultan, and the novel Malina.

Yesterday (thanks Pierre), Charles Bernstein's wrote:


Barbara Guest died last night in Berkeley. I got the news this afternoon from her daughter Hadley. For now, I want to recast some remarks I made on the occasion of Guest receiving the Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America in 1999:

I want to thank Barbara Guest for a lifetime of poetry for which we, as readers, have been unprepared - to thank her for continually testing the limits of form and stretching the bounds of beauty, for expanding the imagination and revisioning - both revisiting and recasting - the aesthetic. For we are still unprepared for Guest: she has never quite fit our pre-made categories, our expectations, our explanations. She has written her work as the world inscribes itself, processurally, without undue obligation to expectation, and with a constant, even serene, enfolding in which we find ourselves folded.

More information on Barbara Guest at: Electronic Poetry Center, Jacket Magazine and Penn sound.

Poet Barbara Guest (1920-2006) has died (on Wednesday, I believe). I don't have any more details than that (but there are more links over at wood s lot). When I do, I'll update this post - what we do have is a nice appreciation of Guest by Ron Silliman. (Guest's most recent book was the lovely Red Gaze [Wesleyan University Press].)


Pierre reproduces the verse, below, from Biography:


A single seeming blinded object
    a sentence    a voice
          the throat
then the rushing. Sound rushing
dramatic
away from its disability
there's a note selective.

Passage without a pen
through the hurricane
  whorl    shell    Shade

Fictions dressed like water.

Geoffrey Hill will read his poetry tonight at Manchester Metropolitan University at 5.30pm (Lecture Theatre 3, Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond Street West, Off Oxford Road, Manchester city centre). Presented by the MMU Writing School and Carcanet poet Jeffrey Wainwright, this is a rare opportunity to hear Hill read in the UK, marking the recent publication of his new collection, and recent RSB Book of the Week, Without Title (Penguin). Admission is free; no advance tickets necessary. For more information contact Jeffrey Wainwright. Hill's Selected Poems is being reissued by Penguin in June.


The complete-review Geoffrey Hill page is a good starting place to learn more about Hill (as is the Geoffrey Hill Study Centre and the The Geoffrey Hill Server):


Not a simple poet, and not for everyone, by any means. Moral, Anglican, traditional (hidebound, some might suggest), Hill can easily be off-putting. He wins us over on the strength of his verse - he has a fine ear for the English language - and the rigor to which he subjects his ideas ... His subject matter is often obscure, but there are rewards there for the reader willing to work with the text ... It is poetry that provokes thought and that lingers.

From Melville's Marginalia Online:


The acclaimed writer of Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Sailor and other revered works of American literature was also, as might be expected, a great reader of books. Yet few even among American literary scholars are familiar with the scope and variety of Herman Melville's personal library, and the profound influence of his reading on the growth of his intellect and on the composition of his own fiction and poetry. From youth onward Melville educated himself through rigorous, systematic reading, a habit of life and mind he assumed after the bankruptcy and death of his father required him to withdraw from formal schooling. By the time of his death in 1891, Melville’s library numbered some 1,000 volumes before being dispersed among friends, family members, and second-hand book sellers in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The enowning blog brings my attention to a blogcasted conversation with Andrew Mitchell about the philosophy of Heidegger. (More on Stanford podcasts.) Mitchell is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University with research interests in contemporary continental philosophy, philosophy and literature, and he is in conversation (the programme is called Entitled Opinions and it has a great archive, with programmes on Robert Musil, Michel Tournier, Virgil, Proust, Camus and more) with Robert Harrison (author of the superb The Dominion of the Dead).


enowning itself has recently had some interesting things to say about the provocative John Gray. For me, Gray's anti-humanism is leaden and unsophisticated and you can sense that the bloke was once scarily right-wing, but he seems to be what passes muster as a public intellectual these days so I'm glad to see enowning bothering to read him carefully:


Gray is here following a common pattern: Heidegger is considered an important philosopher by those who have read him; I don't understand him; Heidegger was a Nazi; Nazism is universally condemned; I'll simply dismiss Heidegger's way of thinking by ascribing his politics to it. It is, of course, Heidegger's own fault that his critics can avail themselves of this excuse, but it doesn't say much for the critics either.

This weeks' Books of the Week are Christine Brooke-Rose's last and latest novel Life, End of (Carcanet Press) and James Williams' Understanding Poststructuralism (Acumen). James, you'll also note, is this week's RSB interviewee. I'll be publishing an extract from his excellent Understanding Poststructuralism later in the week.


As I mention in my interview with JamesUnderstanding Poststructuralism is bound to be sold as an introductory text for students, but it is actually an awful lot better than many such books are. James is obviously in full command of his material and his very clearly written book mounts a strong defence of the importance of poststructuralism and some of its key thinkers. I'd highly recommend it.

I've just discovered Night Haunts, an ongoing, online, nocturnal journal, by Sukhdev Sandhu (who I'll be interviewing here on RSB very soon) and Artangel. In Whatever happened to the London night, Sukhdev ponders:


There was a time, well over a century ago now, when it was considered one of the finest Victorian inventions. Before then, the onset of darkness had spelled an end to the day. It represented its outer limits, its polar extremes. The night was seen as lawless, foreign territory teeming with rogues and banditos who took advantage of what Shakespeare called its 'vast, sin-concealing chaos' to revel in an orgy of depravity and pestilence. It snuffed out the civility and social etiquettes of daytime and brought back trace memories of an older London dense with eldritch forestry.

Raymond Geuss's Outside Ethics (PUP) has been hanging around my TBR-pile for a few months now. Monday Musing: Liberalism's Loss of the Skeptical Spirit, a nice piece on 3 Quarks Daily yesterday, has pushed it up to right near the top:


I recently completed Raymond Geuss’ Outside Ethics, a collection of essays from various talks on contemporary Western political and moral philosophy. I’ve been a fan of Geuss’ work ever since reading his very thin but insightful book The Idea of a Critical Theory, which Ram once described as lacking an unnecessary word, and after taking his course on continental political thought in my first year of graduate school. For the most part, Geuss' concerns have been on continental philosophy and continental thinkers, to which he brings an (for lack of a better phrase) Anglo-American analytic clarity.

Pierre Joris's fine blog, Nomadics continues to be the source of much interesting stuff. A few days ago he mentioned Mikrolithen sinds, Steinchen, the volume of Paul Celan's posthumous prose writings that came out in 2005 (Pierre, as you'll recall, is a skilled translator of Celan's poetry).


More pressingly, last Thursday, and again today, Pierre reports on the plight of Gennady Aygi, the major Chuvash poet of our times, now in his early seventies, who is very ill.


PEN — which is already helping Gennady with a gift from their emergency fund — would be happy to collect and pass through additional contributions from individuals [the] deadline for contributions ... February 15 ... money sent to PEN for this purpose should be clearly earmarked for the "FTW emergency fund/Gennady support." Send donations to:

PEN American Center
FTW emergency fund/Gennady support
588 Broadway #303
New York, NY 10012


PEN in Germany has set up a donation account to help Ajgis family with the hospital bill:

Commerzbank of Darmstadt; Germany
IBAN: DE 3750 8400 050 - 130808907
BIC: COBADEFFXXX

Yesterday, wood s lot reminded me, was the anniversary of Adeline Virginia Stephen's birth (January 25th 1882 - March 28th 1941), daughter of Julia Jackson Duckworth, a member of the Duckworth publishing family, and Leslie Stephen, a literary critic and the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. (Her life-span [1882-1941] is, I note, exactly that of James Joyce.) I had planned that this year would be my "Virginia Woolf year" (Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life whetted my appetite late in 2005) as I've only read Orlando. Maybe I should join The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain? No. I'll be fine. But I should, at least, read The Waves and Mrs Dalloway.