The wonderful city of Glasgow has been my second home for the past year or more. As that phase of my life comes to an end, it's probably worth me remembering to give a shout out to the excellent Glasgow Review of Books an online "review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow."
Currently reading Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman's excellent The Rise of Realism:
Until quite recently, almost no philosophers trained in the continental tradition saw anything of value in realism. The situation in analytic philosophy was always different, but in continental philosophy realism was usually treated as a pseudo-problem. That is no longer the case.
In this provocative new book, two leading philosophers examine the remarkable rise of realism in the continental tradition. While exploring the similarities and differences in their own positions, they also consider the work of others and assess rival trends in contemporary philosophy. They begin by discussing the relation between realism and materialism, which DeLanda links closely but which Harman tries to separate. Part Two covers the many different meanings of realism, with the two authors working together to develop an expanded definition of the term. Part Three features a spirited exchange on the respective virtues and drawbacks of DeLanda's realism of attractors and singularities and Harman's object-oriented theory. Part Four shifts to the question of the knowability of the real, as the authors discuss whether scientific knowledge does full justice to reality. In Part Five, they shift the focus to space, time, and science more generally, and here Harman offers a defence of actor-network theory despite its obvious anti-realist elements.
Lively, accessible and engaging, this book is the best attempt so far to clarify the different paths for realism in continental philosophy. It will be of great value to students and scholars of continental philosophy and to anyone interested in the cutting-edge debates in philosophy and critical theory today.
Right, time to get down to some proper reading, and Wolfgang Hilbig's The Sleep of the Righteous (out from Scott Esposito's Two Lines Press) sits atop the TBR-pile. (His novel "I", described as the "perfect book for paranoid times", out from Seagull Books, is waiting in the wings too.)
László Krasznahorkai tells us "Hilbig is an artist of immense stature" and LARB suggests he writes as "Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany."
Enough to intrigue, for sure...
Well, I've waited around a long time for this, and I couldn't be more thrilled... Zero Books have announced the forthcoming publication of my wonderfully talented friend Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space of Writing:
What does 'literature' mean in our time? While names like Proust, Kafka and Woolf still stand for something, what that something actually is has become obscured by the claims of commerce and journalism. Perhaps a new form of attention is required. Stephen Mitchelmore began writing online in 1996 and became Britain's first book blogger soon after, developing the form so that it can respond in kind to the singular space opened by writing. Across 44 essays, he discusses among many others the novels of Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the significance for modern writers of cave paintings and the moai of Easter Island, and the enduring fallacy of 'Reality Hunger', all the while maintaining a focus on the strange nature of literary space. By listening to the echoes and resonances of writing, this book enables a unique encounter with literature that many critics habitually ignore. With an introduction by the acclaimed novelist Lars Iyer, This Space of Writing offers a renewed appreciation of the mystery and promise of writing.
Those of you who notice these things will have noticed that ReadySteadyBook has been very quiet for a very long time now. Recently, Stephen Mitchelmore wrote: "The main reason I still write this blog is to maintain a contact with the need or condition that drove me to read and write in the first place; a need often misdirected in pursuit of what the industry is talking about. Long silences here report stout resistance to the temptations of disinterested reception. But what is this need?"
My "resistance" is fully compromised, as I work in the industry to which Steve refers; my "long silences" report only that I'm busy elsewhere (currently at Foyles) doing my best to champion the kind of books I first started writing about here thirteen or so years ago. I'm loath to close RSB down, however, as I'm sure I'll soon have the time and energy to report again on what really matters. That horizon keeps receding, but those books that feel vital, axes for the frozen sea inside, remain the reason to maintain this space, and will be the only reason to return back to it.
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From December 2014, BookBlast ePublishing will release ebook Classics and new writing from the outside looking in...
As I tried to make very clear in my post on Sunday, the small and contained argument that I'm advancing is not that serious and interesting writing about books is not happening online. Categorically, it is. I listed five blogs and bloggers in my original Guardian post – This Space, David Winters, 3:AM, Flowerville, Time's Flow Stemmed – and in my follow up blog, I listed several more – John Self, Berfrois, LARB and Dan Green. Very many more wonderful book-related spaces and places could be mentioned – The Quarterly Conversation and HTMLGiant both deserve a shout, as do Marooned Off Vesta, Infinite Patience and in lieu of a field guide. Without all this fine online work, the cultural landscape would be very much more bleak. Thank god for websites!
I'm really not sure how more clearly I can say this: I'm not saying interesting work is not going on; I'm not saying you can't find great writing about writing online; I'm simply pointing out the observable, and to me rather odd, fact that in very many other fields (all kinds of genre writing, political blogs, philosophy blogs, food writing etc, etc) a named individual of real skill has emerged from the blogosphere to change the debate in their respective fields. Richard Seymour fundamentally changed, and often set, the debate in his part of the Left. Graham Harman has changed the debate in Continental Philosophy regarding realism for good.
Or lets take the offline example of James Wood – via his 'criticism'/reviewing he has changed the conversation by banging on about e.g. Hysterical Realism or bringing our attention to Free Indirect Discourse. Sadly and strangely, nothing remotely like this has come out of the online conversation about books. Take also e.g. Blanchot's NRF monthly essays from back in the day – quietly and insistently his interventions changed the conversation, altered perceptions, re-routed thinking. The Blanchot example could perhaps be seen as being a little arcane, but I think it might be the best example. Blanchot's monthly essays – no requirement here whatsoever that the blogging should be daily or even weekly – slowly, via their form, percolated into the consciousness of literary France, and changed literary critical discourse for good.
Blogging has added more critical voices to the general clamour. Great. Good to have more voices, excellent to have more views. But neither in content or form has it substantively affected the wider book conversation. These days we just have lots more reviewers mimicking newspaper reviews. Plainly, noting this does not equate with suggesting in any way that blogging is dead, or that online writing is not a considerable cultural boon.
The question remains, however, why have no serious literary critics emerged, maintaining a blog, doing innovative work and gaining a following for that work and changing the wider conversation, as we have seen in plenty of other fields? Where are the lit-critical Jack Monroes, Graham Harmans, Paul Slaines, Richard Seymours, Ian Bogosts? I don't see them. And I regret the lack.
In the UK, one blogger, John Self, has become a talisman. John is a superb book reviewer. Everyone should read him. He writes straight up and down reviews in the broadsheet style, penetrating and amusing, incisive and witty, and he has rightly been embraced by the Guardian, and thousands of eager readers. He is a tremendously good writer. He is not, however, a literary critic, and his writing, on the blog, echoes the form and style of response we see every week in the newspapers. That is not a value judgment, it is a fact. And it echoes another fact: no literary critic has yet emerged from the blogosphere; no writer has yet emerged from the large and informed online writing community and changed the wider conversation about writing on writing.
You may well think that the world doesn't need literary critics. Fine response! You may well think that book reviewing suffices. It's an entirely valid point. You may well want to ignore my actual argument and tell me that great writing is happening online here, there and somewhere else. And, as I've stressed, I can only agree that it absolutely is. Wikipedia tells me the "term 'weblog' was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997." So blogging has been around for a long time. And blogging is just part of the wider online writing revolution, the vibrancy, breadth and depth of which can only be applauded; it astounds and amazes. But in very many other fields, writers have emerged from online and changed their respective fields for good. Particularly noteworthy, as I've said, is the rise and rise of speculative realism which has fundamentally changed the debate raging in modern European Philosophy and is setting the agenda for exciting work ahead. It's a wonder to behold. Has this happened in the field of literary criticism? No, it has not.
I was honoured to be invited to speak at The Literary Consultancy's Writing in a Digital Age conference yesterday. (A particular personal pleasure because I got to see Lynne Hatwell and Sam Leith again, and it had been far too long in both cases.) Huge thanks to the organisers for inviting me. Seemed to be a very vibrant and well run affair, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely.
The conference was the occasion for writing this piece (What became of literary blogging?) for the Guardian last Monday. It was the subs at the Guardian who framed the piece thus: I hoped that blogs could provide an outlet for the serious criticism missing from the mainstream media. I didn't reckon on Twitter but it doesn't give a terrible sense of my thinking.
Principally, I wanted to make the observation that whilst the book blogosphere had thrown up some fine writers (those I mention at the foot of the piece, but several others could be cited - and, indeed, the comments thread, whilst occasionally inane and dyspeptic as per Guardian comments threads, throws up some fine examples) it had not thrown many good literary critics. This is simply a fact.
Blogging has been around a good decade now, and the online writing revolution has touched every sort of genre and created well-known writers of many stripes. We've had the rise of fan-fiction (E.L. James), paranormal fiction (Amanda Hocking), women's fiction (Anna Bell) and erotica (James, and H.M. Ward); we've had food writers (Jack Monroe), political blogs (from Paul Slaine / Guido Fawkes to Richard Seymour / Lenin's Tomb) and philosophers (the rise of and rise of speculative realism and all its countless blogs and forums) all hugely affecting their respective fields; we've had wonderful book bloggers (like John Self) arrive on the scene and add sparkle and insight to the book review pages of the MSM; and we've had exciting Multi-Author Blogs (like 3:AM, Berfrois, LARB) arriving to show how broad-based, intelligent and informative online writing can be. All this shows the wonderful diversity and energy of online writing. Most all examples are to be welcomed. But despite the fine work of a few (and I should mention Dan Green here because Dan has worked hard over the years to use blogging as a means to write seriously about books and literature) good literary critical writers have not turned up in droves. I wish I was wrong about this. But it's a fact.
I'm deliberately not defining literary criticism above because by not defining it I'm hoping to keep the category as wide open as possible; I'm not being prescriptive here: if you think it's literary criticism, that's good enough for me. I think most would agree that book reviewing and literary criticism are very different (even if they can be on a continuum). And we all know the difference between a Guardian review and an essay in the LRB and a book by Gérard Genette. Many fine book reviewers have emerged from the blogosphere, but I don't think we can hide from the fact that no serious literary critics have emerged, maintaining a blog, doing innovative work and gaining a following for that work as we have seen in plenty of other fields.
I’ve suffered from depression intermittently since I was a teenager. Some of these episodes have been highly debilitating – resulting in self-harm, withdrawal (where I would spend months on end in my own room, only venturing out to sign-on or to buy the minimal amounts of food I was consuming), and time spent on psychiatric wards. I wouldn’t say I’ve recovered from the condition, but I’m pleased to say that both the incidences and the severity of depressive episodes have greatly lessened in recent years. Partly, that is a consequence of changes in my life situation, but it’s also to do with coming to a different understanding of my depression and what caused it. I offer up my own experiences of mental distress not because I think there’s anything special or unique about them, but in support of the claim that many forms of depression are best understood – and best combatted – through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and ‘psychological’. (More...)
One day last summer, a visitor came. Greedily devouring my bookshelves with their eyes, finally they landed on the only place appropriate...
(Nabokov fans feel free to reproduce these photographs, but please credit ReadySteadyBook. Thanks.)
Of Time and the City is a 2008 documentary collage film directed by Terence Davies. The film has Davies recalling his life growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s, using newsreel and documentary footage supplemented by his own commentary voiceover and contemporaneous and classical music soundtracks. The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it received rave reviews... (wikipedia)
Twenty-six years ago. Fuck...
Simone Weil's life is fascinating. Left-wing activist with a critique of both Orthodox Marxism and Trotskyism she moves ever leftwards, soon finding herself arguing for a radical syndicalism. She then finds herself at – or, better, in need of – theology. She writes herself to self-understanding coming to a heterodox Christianity which sees in Greek thought, especially The Iliad, one of the highest expressions of human wisdom. (For more on the life see McLellan's Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, Pétrement's Simone Weil: A Life, and Cabaud's Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love.)
In her life and work politics, literature and philosophy, and theology are each tested – and found wanting. Nothing of this earth (hence accusations of her Manichaeism) quite lives up to her demand for Truth, but the Truth which Weil finds in Christ can, to some extent, be found in attention and, by extension, neighbourliness. She writes: "Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance... The capacity to give ones attention... is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle."
So, these two concepts (attention and neighbourliness) can be brought together under the concept of love. Weil's god is not an apophatic abstraction (although her mysticism sometimes feels like apophaticism, for sure) but rather radically approachable, perhaps even attainable, through attention. Attention's neighbourliness brings Weil's late thought back into contact with her earlier radical syndicalism. Neighbourliness might just be another word for solidarity. Solidarity is certainly another word for love. It is a love that has to be radically honest about its object. It has to be able to critique ideology. It has to pay the closest of attention...
One part of that attention, for Weil, was directed at George Herbert's poem LOVE (III) (on George Herbert (1593-1633), John Drury's recent, lovely biography Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert is recommended). I almost think it is paradigmatic for her. Weil: "it played a big role in my life, for I was busy reciting it to myself at the moment when, for the first time, Christ came to take me. I believed I was merely resaying a beautiful poem, and unbeknownst to myself, it was a prayer."
Close reading, attention, moves here in two seemingly opposing but actually complementary directions: paying absolute attention is at the same time opening oneself up entirely. Attention on the object initially breaks it down (perhaps this is the move we see in deconstruction) but attention then allows the object wholly to be itself, allows the deconstruction to loop back from the object to the subject itself, in a move like a transference/counter-transference that we see in psychoanalysis. Transference, "the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present", from analysand to analyst, is met with feelings transferring back from analyst to analysand. The process of analysis works through the transference stage to get to the real relationship. It pays attention, and pushes past first, second, third impressions to something that is true, but a truth that has been created only after the hard work of attention. And this is work, in truth, that we all want to shy away from:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
In Simone Weil: An Introduction to her Thought, John Hellman shows that Weil's concept of attention is not simply some kind of effortful application of concentration (Weil: "Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort ... [a] kind of frowning application") but rather "the link between several aspects of her thought: her ascetic intellectualism, her love for mathematics, her concern for the poor and oppressed, her innovatively focussed politics, and her unusually empathetic sensitivity." Attention, then, is a complex, compound term with several overlapping concerns. Whilst singularity of focus and uncluttered thought are obviously part of the definition of attention, Weil also says, "Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object." Our thought, she says, "should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything." So too for prayer, of course ("prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.")
In Robert Pippin's After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism, Pippin writes: "in the case of pictorial art, the ability of painting to arrest time and thereby to 'make present' can render aspects of human action available" to us like nothing else. Life rushes past, but art pays attention. In the same footnote, Pippin goes on to write: "Hegel can also be summarized by saying that art has the task of the 'Vergegenwärtigung des Absolutes', the bringing of the Absolute to presentness."
Art – and Pippin is arguing about pictorial art here, but I'm applying this more loosely and broadly – pays attention, and gifts to us the complexity of a present moment (and the present, of course, is doused, drowned, in God; the Absolute in German Idealism is a term that is not simply a synonym for God, but that can comfortably stand in for the divine, amongst other things.) We need to be fully open to art to attend to it completely in order to hear all that it is saying. It is, perhaps, Eliot's still point in a turning world: where the dance is, where past and future are gathered, where our attention has to lay if we are ever to find the wisdom appropriate to our own confusions.
Eliot and Weil are, of course, profoundly religious writers. Hegel formulated his system within the explosion of theological debate at the beginning of the 19th Century. (And it is noteworthy that the post-Kantian aesthetics of German Idealism flower at this particular moment of theological crisis.) Using any of these thinkers to help one articulate something, anything, about aesthetics leaves its traces, of course. Or, more positively, reveals a truth: aesthetics are undergirded by the human truths contested in ethics and theology. Aesthetics isn't masquerading as something it is not, but if we pay attention it turns out to be more than we often think it is. It feels, actually, like an ethical demand. Like Levinas's call of the Other - something finally unknowable, but exigent. It cannot be ignored. Reading closely, then, is perhaps a paradigm of engaged engagement. It is about paying attention to paying attention and realising that such can take us well beyond the words on the page.
This all leads me to want to discuss Blanchot, Levinas, Object Oriented Ontology-inspired ideas about "withdrawal" and a host of other things because all of them nourish and inform how and why I read, and how and why I respond to what I read in the way that I do. But before I address such, I want to say a little more about Weil, Pippin and modernism...
I started ReadySteadyBook because I wanted to record my reading and to review books. I had reviewed for Amazon (where I had worked for a time) and was beginning to review in the TLS and for the broadsheets. RSB was to be a continuation and extension of all that. Perhaps a place where I could write at greater length, and certainly where I could engage with books that the papers showed no particular interest in. For many years it (more or less) served this purpose. Increasingly, however, over the course of the past decade, and particularly over the last four or five years, I've found reviewing books to be – well, for sure, a non-optimal way for me to respond to them...
Reviewing concentrates the mind. One reads more carefully than one might otherwise, pencil in hand, taking notes along the way - and then one makes one's evaluation. But such an evaluation always struck me as crude and incomplete. Not worthless, certainly – book reviews very often offer a fine service to the would-be reader and the rare really good book review can be a delight to read. So, I'm speaking very personally here. Book reviewing wasn't – isn't – an adequate response, for me, to the books that I read.
Certain friends – Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters – offer a solution. Both these enviably talented, incisive and intelligent writers seem to be able to respond, diligently and inspirationally, to the particular book under review whilst, at the same time, contributing to their wider project (each essay seems to reveal yet more of their weltanschaung). Both seem to be able to see the trees in all their glory and yet simultaneously cultivate their wood; I only ever seemed to misapprehend the tree and build nothing beyond it. I found myself alone, feeling foolish, looking in dismay at the blunted axe I'd just been wielding: destruction that was anything but creative.
My own failure in this regard is particularly upsetting because I do see each book I read as being both sui generis and yet part of a... call it "ethical whole" that I'm trying to deal with. Each and every book is a challenge. The first challenge is: how do I respond fully, properly, carefully to this? I think the answer has to be in writing. But for me it is not via something called "reviewing". I think Simone Weil's concept of the primacy of attention may help me explain this a little better...
In October last year, ReadySteadyBook had its tenth anniversary. I let the date pass without comment not only because the anniversary was not particularly noteworthy – plenty of websites have been around for as long or longer – but also because RSB has been pretty quiet for a long time now and so the anniversary didn't quite feel earned.
Regardless, time has passed. And what I conceived of ten years ago as a "book review website" has come to mean much more to me than that. What exactly it means, though, I'm still not quite sure. And that is because what is means is so intimately interwoven with what reading means to me and how reading or, rather, my relationship to it, has altered over the last decade.
I will, then, over the next coming weeks, attempt to write about those shifts and the (re-)engagement with philosophy they have occasioned, and try to indicate what those shifts and twists in my thinking mean for my ongoing engagement with reading and writing, and my despair at much of the "culture of response" I see (and read) around me.
Goodness! Nothing from me for almost three months. I think that's my longest spell of blogging silence ever. I've been working too hard and playing far too little, and that looks set to continue for a while. Regardless, I have a few fine articles stacking up from kind contributors that need to see the light of day forthwith. So, expect them, and a few minor interventions from me, too, over the coming week or more.
Writing in The Quietus, Nix Lowery gets it spot on, calling 'Subterraneans' Bowie's "most po-mo moment on Low, and also arguably the most beautiful":
'Subterraneans' is a multi-layered and celestial piece, a sonic painting brimming with referentiality and subtext. With a reversed bassline taken from his rejected The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack, Bowie references his attachment to the film, to his character Thomas Newton, and to the general sense of a man out of step, and out of time, with his surroundings – allegorically explored earlier in his work through his 'Major Tom' character. The main melody, a sweeping and encompassing phrase, contains a melody audibly mirroring Edward Elgar's 'Nimrod' from his Enigma Variations. Whether coincidental or deliberate, there are subtexts to be read here. 'Nimrod' is part of a series Elgar wrote in which each piece obliquely referenced one of his acquaintances. 'Nimrod' referenced Augustus J Jaegar, who convinced Elgar, when in a moment of great despair, to continue writing music, citing the German composer Beethoven as an inspiration. Bowie, too, was surfacing from a period of disillusionment, despair and drug induced creative drought – perhaps Visconti and Eno were his Jaegar? Or perhaps the idea of Berlin, and its isolated idealists, was his muse? The shimmering ethereal backwards melodics combined with synth-strings recall Eno's solo work significantly – on 'Subterraneans' more so than on any other Low composition. Lyrically, Bowie echoes the cut-up style of beat poetry, and a lone jazz saxophone answers the lyrical call, summoning surrealism and the creative fire of Burroughs and Ginsberg. Regardless of the replete referentiality of this track, its real beauty is that it works emotively, a contemplative and fragile beauty like ripples on a lake, Subterraneans' melodies flow organically. Ripples too, of its magic can be discerned in Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack, and most audibly in Angelo Badalamenti's collaborations with David Lynch – Subterraneans reaches towards futurity with a surreal and mystical architecture.
Paul Virilio says the title of his book The Administration of Fear "sprang to mind right away as a direct echo of the title of Graham Greene's well-known book, The Ministry of Fear... I use the expression "administration of fear" to refer to two things. First, that fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. It occupies and preoccupies us... [it] also means that States are tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear... When I read Graham Greene's book, I found the expression "ministry of fear" to be particularly well chosen because it carries the administrative aspect of fear and describes it like a State."
Fear, then, is a product of the State, part of the modern mood; something the State contributes to, sustains and extends through its activities - and often especially through the activities it pursues to counter fear's epiphenomena. The administration of fear, then, is the administration of fear that the State causes and makes perpetual by its actions. The administration of fear pace Graham Greene is a Catch-22 situation.
Asked by his interlocutor Bertrand Richard "isn't it inappropriate to use the same expression for both the tragic historical events of the Second World War and what we Westerners are experiencing today," Virilio replies that he does not think so. A brief discussion of Hannah Arendt and an overview of his dromology, his politics of speed, is followed by a fascinating thought: when "Henri Bergson, the theorist of duration, and Albert Einstein, the inventor of relativity" met in Paris (in April 1922) they were not able to understand one another - a unique rendez vous, a moment of fate, happened but did not take place. Science became part of the "military industrial complex" and philosophy failed to think a political economy of speed.
Dissident Trotskyists once argued that the Second World War never really ended, just morphed; certainly, today, war is ubiquitous. The war on terror was a response to fear that has created an ever-present climate of anxiety, the administration of which only makes more plain to its makers the need for it - and clearer to the rest of us that the situation is both manufactured and all too real: this is hell, nor are we out of it.
Virilio takes a novel to furnish him with a metaphor with which he can think about the present. This is one of art's tasks. Perhaps another, however, is the administration of fear itself. Art doesn't just provide metaphors. As a matter of actuality, it works with words to administer, to oversee, to organise fear. Fidelity to our metaphor must make us ask, however, whether, as with the homologous activity of the State, the very fact of this administration doesn't itself add to and extend the reign of the regime of fear art portrays itself as the antidote to. What if The Ministry of Fear ministers to fear, furthers fears aims and objectives? What if The Ministry of Fear is not only the name of a novel but a name for what novels are?
A novel organises material to augment itself, prove the worth of its story, prove the fact of its own requirement, prove the worth of its own solution (a novel is the answer to its own question). Or it subverts itself, shows the worthlessness of its form and instantiates, in that move, the humanity of its humility (refuses to answer the question it has itself posed). A novel administers fear, pretends lack away, narrates with hubris, brings up the bodies and declares that all shall be well - narration as order, as good governance - or it dismantles itself, not allowing itself ever to be itself, allowing itself only to be the motor of its own disruption: not to be the sum of its parts, and to have parts that disrupt its sum.
Crudely stated, Virilio thinks that speed equals terror: "the question of global finitude... the enclosure of consciousness is happening in a world limited by the immediacy of nano-chronology - the acceleration of reality is a significant mutation of History." The novel has always concerned itself with time. Virilio believes only a meeting of new Bergsons and new Einsteins can save us. Perhaps...
American poet Ben Lerner's overpraised debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, has its hero, Adam Gordon, an American poet on a year out in Madrid, wonder whether, on seeing someone weeping in front of a painting, he has ever himself had "a ‘profound experience of art’". In such a mediated world is an authentic, immediate, profound experience even really possible? At the beginning of Leaving the Atocha Station the thrill for the reader is whether Lerner can sustain this investigation into the administration of, the separation from, authentic feeling that Gordon is trying to work through, in his poems and his life, in the novel. But it soon becomes clear that the investigation - which if it is authentically to be a process of thought about the way thought can preclude authentic feeling - has to fail to succeed. Sadly, it only succumbs to its own logic. After a promising start, Leaving the Atocha Station becomes a dull book about a rather precious young American poet abroad. The question, at whatever 'meta' level it is pitched, of whether it is possible to have a profound experience of art was rightly joined, in the novel, to the question of how to make the art of having a profound experience of one's own life without becoming an alienated spectator of it. The novel fails, however, not because it sets that existential question against the backdrop of the profound and real tragedy and crime of the bombing of the Atocha Station, but because it loses its nerve and becomes merely a bildungsroman.
The fear that Adam Gordon - has he ever had a ‘profound experience of art’? - and our own experience of the novel are weakened by the inability of Lerner to communicate the alienation his hero feels because the novel he writes is itself so very sure of itself. In a world where a bombing like the one that killed 191 people and wounded 1,800 at the Atocha Station can occur, we're served badly by a novel that doesn't recognise that the disaster is not something a novel reports on - however well, however badly, however obliquely - but something that structures and disrupts its very being. To have a profound experience of art is not possible inside the administrative space of the contemporary novel of fear - most especially because the contemporary novel is not nearly afraid enough of what it can do, of what it is.
The Ministry of Fear could very well be the title of Kafka's collected works. For Graham Greene it was the title of a novel of war and faith - great narratives both. For Lerner, ennui and irony - late capitalism - stop Adam Gordon from feeling. But perhaps ennui and irony are already profound experiences of their own. Only a novel could explore that, but only if it didn't administer the answer.
How does Freud define the unheimlich (in his famous essay here)? The question is important – and we should be clear we know what it is asking: the question is not, what is Freud's definition, but rather how does he go about defining the word? What is his method? What needs noting is that Freud's process of (arriving at a) definition, his attempts at clarity, problematises the very idea of a fixed and final definition. And this paradox can be used to gain some insight into how a novel opens itself up to the problem of its own subject matter, how the novel deals with the self-undermining fact of itself.
The unheimlich – crudely, the uncanny, or the opposite of what is familiar – itself points at something beyond definition and suggests language – and the particular kind of conversation that psychoanalysis is – is always in excess of itself. As Bifo Berardi argues this excess is what makes (poetic) language (potentially) revolutionary. And it is what makes fetishising the mot juste a reactionary step. Freud's etymology is scientific or pedantic, depending on your sensibility, but quaint, dogged and laughable regardless – and it echoes in this essay in miniature the insightful purblindedness of his whole weltanschauung. The unheimlich essay (available in volume 14 of the old Penguin Freud Library, Art and Literature but not the new replacement to that volume; I hear the editor Adam Phillips didn't want it included for some reason) begins with an extensive trawl through many complimentary and contradictory dictionary definitions. We see the word pulled and pushed and extended and bent to move between meaning unhomely or undomestic to ghostly, haunted and on to secret, concealed. Page after page of yet more exact definition and one finds only that exactness and definition have proved illusory. Uncannily, unheimlich is a word that contains secret worlds and will not settle down. Uncannily, unheimlich names something that can just about be named but barely owns its own definition. In a sense – and we read in the essay its multiple senses – it is the word for what poetry is always concerned with: nomenclature – naming with absolute precision what absolutely has no precise meaning, naming what always wriggles free of being named and held down, naming what is always beyond language in language, naming what is left behind, unsaid, unheimlich, after language has got close, moved nearby, danced around, scented, approached...
Once Freud has waded through a number of definitions of unheimlich, dissatisfied he walks us through several definitions of its antonym heimlich. He finds something deeply strange, something unheimlich, during this work: secretly, heimlich is not the antonym of unheimlich at all, but rather its sometime synonym; their secret sharing is that they secretly share the same meaning: "What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich... Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich." Heimlich shivers with an an unheimlich quality. Unheimlich finds in its opposite only itself. Specifity – a scientific trawl through the dictionaries – has led us back to an unheimlich place. Specifity has proved itself merely to be a mode of obscurity. The domestic is weird, very weird at root. Underneath the heimlich, the homely, the unheimlich is. It takes Freud a few pages of dictionary-sourced entries to prove this; it takes Karl Ove Knausgård a novel.
The finest novel of this year, A Death in the Family (the first volume of six, the series entitled My Struggle) is a novel of the unheimlich and an unheimlich novel. It was so far beyond anything else published this year because of its engagement with the fact that quotidian dreariness, everyday pain, and something numinous that lies just beyond sight, beneath grief, certainly lies always beyond language, is precisely what the novel at its best yearns to reach, knowing it will ever fail to reach there. This is not a typical bildungsroman – life's untaken paths are not the novel's concern. Cliche, commonplace and unremarkable constructions abound. Language's untrodden paths are not a concern either – the path language is always already taking, the path we're never not on, is suffused with the unheimlich: the yearned for mot juste doesn't get us any further than just our everyday yearning, The subject here is death – and whether writing/language has anything to say about this commonplace disaster that haunts and harries and shapes us everywhere we turn.
The novel begins, before it gets caught up in a sometimes pedestrian if always hypnotic retelling of a young man growing up, with the unheimlich. Knausgaard the author writes directly about death's ubiquity (the first line, in Don Bartlett's translation, is: "For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.") Knausgaard the boy is then described seeing, on the TV news, after a disaster, a face in the sea. Beneath the whole novel something is stirring, something unheimlich that can't be said. After Knausgaard's father dies, the key event in the novel, the huge, overwhelming presence he was in Karl Ove's life continues. As Knausgaard and his brother clean the filthy detritus his dead drunken father has left behind in a house become hovel, he realises that he has to write this, has to write of this, write out of this, write about the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment because the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment is never all there is – things are always in excess of themselves, and in this way things are like words, are like icebergs, and their excess isn't captured by words but mirrored by them.
If, uncannily, words, sometimes, mean the very opposite of themselves; if poetry, language at its most distilled, at its finest and most dense, is at the same time language freed from crude referentiality; if and when, as Freud shows us, unheimlich can mean heimlich – what can we make of words? And what, so labile, can words make? And why might this – call it porousness, call is slipperiness, call it irony – why might this unreliability of language be something either to celebrate or, more, even to find radical or potentially liberatory? Can we even agree with Bifo that it is? Doubtless, language, used instrumentally, used to pass along (messages about) value, used as info-exchange, is language as reaction, but is poetry really other to this? Millennia of poetry hasn't saved us – but perhaps millennia of poetry has prevented us finally from fully falling? Perhaps Knausgaard's struggle is our struggle – to see that the unheimlich is the heimlich, that the unfathomable death of a father might actually be, in reality, both the same as and at the same time the opposite of the clumsy symbol and actual tragedy it is in and out of a novel. And perhaps the separation of in and out of a novel finally fully collapses here – and collapses the only place where it can: in a novel.
You'll have guessed – I've been very busy. Hopefully, back now!
Sad to hear of the death of critical theorist Mark Poster:
It is with deep sadness that we share the news that our esteemed colleague Mark Poster, Emeritus Professor of History and Film & Media Studies, passed away in the hospital earlier this morning. Mark Poster was a vital member of the School of Humanities, and for decades one of its most widely read and cited researchers. He made crucial contributions to two different departments, History and Film & Media Studies, and played a central role in UCI's emergence as a leading center for work in Critical Theory...
Mark Poster was a major figure in the rapid development of media studies and theory in the USA and internationally. While as an intellectual historian he could draw on Frankfurt School thought as well as on cybernetics, he was particularly interested in the potential of poststructuralism for media studies. From his translations of Baudrillard to his dissemination of Foucault, Poster played a highly influential role in the study of media culture, including television, databases, computing, and the Internet; he continued to offer crucial commentary on the relevance to technology and media of cultural theory, and his numerous articles and books have been translated into a number of different languages. Reflective of the breadth of his interests and expertise, Poster held courtesy appointments in the Department of Information and Computer Science and in the Department of Comparative Literature. First hired at UCI in 1968, Poster had recently retired after 40 years of service to the School and the Campus (more...)
There used to be a UK (Glasgow and Leeds-based, if memory serves) Situationist-inspired magazine called Here and Now (published between 1985 and 1994). I'm looking for back issues... please email me if you can help. Thanks!
... as soon as soon as you have a conversation if there’s a diagnosis in pregnancy for Down syndrome, you see that metaphor, you don’t see the person. That’s the problem – it’s always a dehumanising exercise when you’re perceived as something else. Otherness and stigmatism mean that you’re not seen as human. And that’s where it starts to have real effects on people (more...)
Michael Faber recently rather dismissively reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family. The novel has been widely praised elsewhere, and led another reviewer to write: "I started writing reviews in  and had not
read an author entirely new to me that I believed was
a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle,
I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get." There is a
big difference between Faber's the "bulk of the text, however, consists
of mundane family life described
in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would
omit, Knausgaard leaves in" and Mitchelmore's "something remarkable
emerge[s] from darkness and silence". What accounts for it?
To be fair, Faber's incomprehension ("half the book's bulk seems devoted to activities such as lighting cigarettes, drinking beer, going to the newsagents, making small talk") is not idiotic – it did, however, amuse me that Lee Rourke tweeted: "This review is beyond wrong-headed; utterly, utterly, utterly wrong"! You can see (a version of) Faber's case against the book as soon as you begin reading: it does seem to be no more then lots of cliches plus lots of banalities ("infelicities in the text... merciless specificity", Faber states). Detail piles upon seemingly inconsequential detail, not a lot goes on, but the clue to the fact that this is a misreading is spelt out within the text itself. Faber's cluelessness does, however, show very clearly what the critical priorities of most novelists and reviewers are: the tyranny of the well-turned phrase and bon mot; the realist's dream of the fully rounded character. They are all bastard children of Flaubert and Dickens who seem to think that literature can be equated with good manners. It is like a lover of classical music going to a punk concert and reporting back that it was a bit shouty. It is not an opinion one should take seriously.
Faber sees something praiseworthy in how the novel starts: it "begins with a grand meditation on post-mortem microbes worthy of Jim Crace's Being Dead." It begins, in short, with a clear attempt by the author to help the reader attune to what will follow. A Death in the Family does not begin startlingly well and then just descend into trivia. The odd, disconcerting, haunting opening, immediately foregrounding Knausgaard's focus on death and his relationship with his father, plays on through the rest of the quotidian exposition like a minor chord, a discordant humming, constantly in the background, beneath the banal. The detail, here, quivers with what Freud called the unheimlich. Inside and underneath "mundane family life described in microscopic detail" is the mundanity of death; a mundanity which, in its specificity, undoes us all, and which this shockingly good novel makes its theme whilst, simultaneously, holding the detail of life in rare and lucid focus.
During a recent trip to the London Review Bookshop, I spotted a copy of Iain Sinclair's Blake's London: The Topographic Sublime in a gorgeous, limited edition, little grey hardback. I have mixed feelings about Sinclair's work to say the least, but considerable interest in Blake. And some degree of interest in Swedenborg too...
Back in 2006, Richard Lines wrote a lovely piece here on RSB about Swedenborg – Henry Sutton: Poet, Journalist and New Church Man, and he was mentioned on the blog, again in 2006, when Lars Bergquist's definitive biography came out.
Nice list here of writers influenced by Swedenborg (including Borges) on The Swedenborg Society website.
But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? (More...)
On an unseasonably warm November night in Manhattan on our way to get ice cream, we stumbled upon what appeared to be a vintage shop, brightly lit display window and all. As we began to walk in, a man sitting out front warned us that we were welcome to explore, but nothing inside was for sale. Our interests piqued, we began to browse through the collections the man out front had built throughout his life. This is a story of a man and his home...
Philosophy. Book after book after book. The usual suspects read and reread. And looking for what? For answers, for sure, but more: for better questions, different questions, more penetrating questions. Looking to see what questions have been asked previously, trying to emulate them, trying to learn to be able to ask them. To ask them of an object, a phenomenon, a text. Feeling inadequate in front of them – the questions and the books – but seeking out their company regardless, both dwarfed and stretched by it. Feeling immoderate by the scale of one's exposure. Looking to learn to read, again, and with yet more care, more rigour, with eyes less wide, benevolent yet untrusting.
But what, then, of literature? Of fiction and its questions? Of its registers? What it knows, what it claims, what it questions, and what its questions are?
Can one only seek literature by avoiding literature? For how long must one walk away from literature in the hope of one day finding it again? And when one returns, one returns knowing so little, antipathetic to its arcane workings. Astonished, actually, by its arrogance. What can it know!? How can it proceed knowing it knows so little, claiming so much so solipsistically, flaunting its limitations?
What is this thing literature that knows but only through a perpetual process of disavowal? How must one approach it? How can one question it appropriately? How can one learn what it knows? What does it know? How can one listen more carefully?
There are strategies: a careful reading pays heed. Content and contradiction can be explained, complications approached and untangled, tensions revealed – and revealed to be essential or accidental. But after this, what does one know? Only what is overt: structure and narrative; nuts and bolts.
Or become a humanist! Either our author or the work's characters, or both, are there to teach. Claims for veracity, for three-dimensionality, are made. Lessons should or could be learnt from the behaviours on show. Mimetics is ethics, or could be.
But this rings false. The vivisection fails – the thing is dead. We ripped out the beating heart to see what made it beat. We learned little in the process except for our might and our clumsiness.
Blanchot asks: how is literature possible? We are presented with an aporia: its presence and its impossiblity. (It reminds one of love, or God.) Language oscillates between the commonplace - the communicable - and the private. But neither banality or cliche nor the neologistic is de facto literary. Literature is not a presentation we can account for. Literature is a singularity.
Literature makes sense only in and of itself. Its solipsism is its self-grounding: it is the story it tells about itself. It is the answer to the question it has set itself about itself. Literature, in this sense, is always after Kant. It is always Modern. And it is as ancient as modernity has to be. Pace Socrates, it knows nothing, and that is a very great deal, of very great value. It proceeds not knowing; one reads approaching this loss.
Paul Celan is a limitless poet; a poet who requires our full attention, and our quiet patience. His dense, recondite work has challenged readers since the 1950s. His poetry keeps giving because, in truth, at first, it gives so little... For obvious reasons he sees through a glass darkly, but his shadow-drenched lens seems to disconcert and distort so much at first that we can't get a foothold on exactly what his poetry means.
But then we realise something. Celan's words are limpid, but appear so only if we adjust our expectations, allow his words to adjust our expectations: only if we are prepared to listen. Celan’s exactness clashes with what we think of as exact: the everyday is not exact, it is a cliché; realism requires vertiginous originality. But how can one be exact about what is truly unspeakable? One can only write knowing that one approaches and approximates, and that language fails you the while; you run after exactness, but the world gets away and your words fail. Beckett taught us about this failure because he knew failure and writing were synonymous.
I have a post over on the Carcanet blog, Celan and the Demand of Reading, written as a response to Correspondence: Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs which I've recently been reading, and thoroughly recommend.
It is a rather slight piece, for sure, but not too shoddy, I hope. For a much fuller recent post on Celan, let me direct you again to Stephen Mitchelmore's superb essay on The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, by Paul Celan.
Useful chunky and descriptive review by Tony Mckenna of S.S. Prawer's Karl Marx and World Literature (long a favourite of mine, so great to see Verso bring this back into print recently) over on Marx & Philosophy Review of Books:
Prawer’s book, Karl Marx and World Literature – a reprint of the publication which first appeared in 1976 – represents a significant undertaking. This book endeavours to chart the vast array of literary works which most profoundly influenced Marx, and to show how these were channelled through the prism of his political philosophy as it developed over time.
The difficulty of such a project cannot be overstated. Marx was a polymath; a voracious reader who moved easily and swiftly between philosophy and economics, politics and natural science, while his tastes in fiction and poetry were no less diverse. To try to map such movements across the panorama of his life and to exhibit their necessary but often invisible interconnection makes for a daunting task. Nevertheless it is one Professor Prawer has approached with the tenacity of a bloodhound, aided by his own encyclopaedic knowledge of literature and an indigenous familiarity with the German literary milieu...
Prawer’s incisive descriptions and connections of Marx’s reading of Shakespeare stand out. It is not unknown that Marx had a fondness for Shakespeare; and yet part of the beauty of this book, written in the 1970s, shows in detail just how Marx registered in Shakespeare an intuitive, mystified understanding of the nature of the society which was coming into being at the time of his writing, and which Marx would later relate to the nineteenth century providing a more forensic diagnosis – Timon of Athens would describe gold as making ‘Wrong, right; base, noble; old young; coward, Valiant’ – and so Prawer draws attention to a similar passage in Marx only one which springs from his scientific methodology – ‘I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful woman … I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous, dull-witted man, but money is honoured and so is its possesor’. (77) There is not a causal connection between the two, as Prawer is sometimes liable to suggest, but rather it is the culmination of classical German philosophy applied to British political economy by Marx, which allows him to perceive, and quite correctly so, those elements in literature which anticipate the true nature of a society underwritten by the commodity form...
Back in 2003 when I started ReadySteadyBook the Booker Prize was something I had a modicum of interest in. Whilst the books on the list were never quite my cup of tea they did, I thought, represent a fairly good place to start with what was out there that was deemed a contemporary meaty read. With some scepticism, I bought the line that the Booker prize was a decent guide to the modern British novel.
Over the past eight or so years, my opinions on lots of things have modified and changed, but Booker fiction (which I've since rather pejoratively called Establishment Literary Fiction) continues, for me, to be the fairly "decent guide to the contemporary British novel" that I thought it was back in the day. And it is for that reason that I have so very little interest engaging with it here.
ReadySteadyBook has changed considerably over the last few years. I started it thinking I could maintain a kind of mini-Amazon – offering short reviews of lots of books across numerous genres. Very quickly I realised that I couldn't keep up with the slew of new books that get published each week and, moreover, that I didn't have anythig like the energy or commitment to review even a tiny percentage of them. So my focus sharpened and I began – as the site's tagline still declares – 'reviewing the very best books in literary fiction, poetry, history and philosophy.'
Not long after, I added a blog to the site and my 'online literary journal' started to have a relationship to and with the burgeoning blogosphere. And for a while I really enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow book bloggers. ReadySteadyBook grew, I loved the feedback, got a little bit better at blogging, and began to articulate a little more clearly my feeling that 'literary fiction', whilst an often hugely entertaining genre, was not what I meant by – or required from – literature.
Recently (indeed almost since Lee did such a great job on RSB's facelift), I've allowed RSB's blog to become almost like a Tumblr: a place where I record the occasional apposite quote or link. ReadySteadyBook as an online 'journal' has continued to thrive (with excellent recent highlights including David Winters' review of Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960, David Auerbach's excellent essay on Hans Blumenberg, Barry Baldwin's review of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation and Dai Vaughan's breathtaking essay on Jean-Pierre Melville). But as blog I'm not sure it is cutting the mustard. And, you know, that is ok. It is ok because I no longer want the RSB blog even to be a "literary blog"...
When Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? landed I was pretty taken aback by the bile directed towards it by many reviewers. But I was also amazed by their ignorance of the philosophical underpinnings of Josipovici's astonishing essay. After reading countless reviews, one couldn't help but be shocked by how many reviewers simply hadn't understood what Josipovici was trying to do. Now, Josipovici wears his philosophical learning pretty lightly, so it is only right not to read his work as an academic treatise, but philosophers like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, critics like Blanchot, historians like Eamon Duffy, haunt his work. What Ever Happened to Modernism? engages with an argument that has been raging at least since Max Weber first articulated his notion of the "disenchantment of the world" and uses that as a rubric to see what is so exceptional in the work of writers as widely geographically and temporally separated as Cervantes and Beckett, Wordsworth and Borges, and works out what sensibilities they shared in the literature they produced. But the reviewers of What Ever Happened to Modernism? just didn't seem to have any idea about this.
The book's reception made me, again, realise that my own interest in literature is really what it does philosophically and is philosophically. Actually, I'm deeply uncomfortable with that phrasing – not least because I think that the thing that literature does (and is philosophically) is... literature. But the point is that that argument needs unpicking. And it needs unpicking slowly and methodically.
So all of this no more than a preamble to say that I'm currently working on a long paper, a paper that might become something more than that, that attempts at length rigorously to work through a problem that the idiot reception of Josipovici's finest work has made me want to contemplate much more fully. And some bits of that contemplation are going to end up here. Here on a blog that categorically has no interest whatsoever in the Booker furore, but as fervent an interest as ever in literature and what it means and what it is.
In the year 870, Ingolfur Arnarson left Norway to found the first settlement in Iceland. He soon had company: dozens of petty chieftains and small landholders, fleeing the tyranny of Harald Fairhair, first king of a united Norway. In 930, the Icelanders established a parliament, the Althing. From then until 1262 flourished what historian William Pencak calls "perhaps the closest approximation of an anarchist or libertarian republic that the world is likely to see."
Shortly after the fall of their republic, the Icelanders began writing the Sagas.
"The Icelandic Sagas are concerned with many things," says Pencak, "but one of the things they are really concerned with is, Why does the Icelandic republic deteriorate? Why after almost 400 years does Iceland turn from a republic to a dependency of the Norwegian monarchy, which the Icelanders had fled to begin with?
I was recently in Iceland, and have become fascinated by the Sagas. This is a nice wee article on William Pencak's book The Conflict Between Law and Justice in the Icelandic Sagas. I'm really intrigued that the Sagas were written "after the fall of their republic": that is, in times of conflict and need, and that they are such a sustained meditation on law and morality.
Great to see that Love’s Work, by my old teacher Gillian Rose, has just been reissued by NRYB Classics (with a short introduction by Michael Wood, and with Geoffrey Hill's In Memoriam: Gillian Rose as postscript):
Love’s Work is at once a memoir and a work of philosophy. Written by the English philosopher Gillian Rose as she was dying of cancer, it is a book about both the fallibility and the endurance of love, love that becomes real and lasting through an ongoing reckoning with its own limitations. Rose looks back on her childhood, the complications of her parents’ divorce and her dyslexia, and her deep and divided feelings about what it means to be Jewish. She tells the stories of several friends also laboring under the sentence of death. From the sometimes conflicting vantage points of her own and her friends’ tales, she seeks to work out (seeks, because the work can never be complete – to be alive means to be incomplete) a distinctive outlook on life, one that will do justice to our yearning both for autonomy and for connection to others. With droll self-knowledge (“I am highly qualified in unhappy love affairs,” Rose writes, “My earliest unhappy love affair was with Roy Rogers”) and with unsettling wisdom (“To live, to love, is to be failed”), Rose has written a beautiful, tender, tough, and intricately wrought survival kit packed with necessary but unanswerable questions.
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."
Don't suppose any of you know whether La Genèse du romantisme allemand by Roger Ayrault was ever translated into English, do you? A quick search online isn't helping much. Thanks!
In October 2003, ReadySteadyBook coyly appeared on the Web, in clothes I rashly designed myself. About three years later, a new look was already desperately required, and Lee Kelleher, Kelle Link and Liza Lemsatef Cunningham helped style RSB for the noughties.
But fashion dates, and RSB's regalia has been looking rather raggedy recently. As ever, Mr Kelleher – friend, confidante, crack coder! – could be relied upon to come up with the goods, and the new look RSB – very classy and pared-back, easily navigable, and with an engine that simply purrs – is up and running because of his kindness, excellent eye and hours of hard work.
Lee, I salute and thank you. RSB-readers, I commend our new look and feel.
Each year the Guardian "asks publishers which books deserved a better reception, and which book they wish they'd bagged." The article acts as a nice round-up of the books that publishers think shouldn't have tanked and a way for them to pat other publishers on the back for books that were comparatively succesful.
Like other end of year round-ups, such lists help bring one's attention to two things: the books that one has missed along the way, of course, but also the astonishing fact that one has missed them! Books are my life. I work in publishing, I have a book blog, my friends are bookish. At the end of a working day, I read on the tube back home, get in, eat... and read. Yet still, each year, I seem to miss – or forget I've noticed – many good books along the way.
Part of my job is book marketing, so thinking about this problem, and what digital solutions there might be to it, is part of what I'll be up to in the coming year. If even bibliophiles are constantly missing books that they might love, how can publishers make sure their books aren't missed, and how can readers and bloggers make sure they don't miss them? (If you have any good ideas, use the comments box!)
Last year, I somehow managed to miss (or forget) that Michael Wood had written a book on Yeats (Yeats and Violence, OUP; reviewed in the New Statesman). Astonishingly, I also missed Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography by John A Hall (Verso). In my own end of year round-up, Lee Rourke brought my attention to Quilt by Nicholas Royle. And Rob Young's Electric Eden (Faber), published in August, only jumped into my consciousness right at the end of the year (to compensate, it is this month's book of the month; Rob has a blog – last updated 25th November – at electriceden.net).
So, what did you miss!?
I'm a lucky man. I work in publishing, so I get a lot of free books. ReadySteadyBook has been going for a long time (seven or more years), so I get sent a lot of free books. But I'm also a greedy man, so I still buy an awful lot of books too...
In July of last year, I started a new job at Quercus Books, but for the decade before that I'd worked for both Amazon and The Book Depository. As you can imagine, that meant that over those years I hardly ever bought a book from a 'bricks and mortar' bookshop.
As part of my initial training at Amazon, I spent some time packing books in their warehouse along with a bevvy of other new recruits. Before we put a book in a package, we were told to examine it properly. If it wasn't mint, then we should discard it, and pack another copy. Over the past decade of ordering from Amazon (and later The Book Depository) it struck me that this lesson must have been well-learned by all those who followed me through the doors of the distribution centre: whenever a book came, it was in perfect condition.
I'm not sure what has changed, but my recent online book orders have all arrived in, well, not mint condition. It is, I suppose, quite difficult to define damaged. Perhaps a creased back cover, a bashed spine, and/or a scratched/dirty front cover isn't really damaged. But it is damaged to me! None of the books has been damaged enough for me to want to bother with the faff of returning them, but enough damage has been done to them – and to my confidence in online shopping – that my dollar votes have recently been cast at the London Review Bookshop where, if I'm lucky, I can often find what I'm looking for shrink-wrapped!
Has anyone else noticed this? Or have I just been a particularly unlucky man several times in a row!?
Well, my two big novel reads this year were The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (which I wrote about here and here; Stephen Mitchelmore's review is magnificent) and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Spurious on 2666: wonderful!). Both books have been written about widely; both reminded me that more sometimes really is more; both deserve all the plaudits they've received. Neither were new in 2010: sorry 'bout that!
Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves (published by my employers, Quercus) charmed and informed; a lovely book that any bibliophile would surely fall for. Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands was the most beautiful book object I clasped all year. Milan Kundera's Encounter was an effortless, provocative delight. How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Carl Cederstrom's book of interviews with Simon Critchley, reminded me that I was not the only tinnitus-blighted Scouser to be fighting the good fight for "Continental" philosophy!
Fans of Gabriel Josipovici were blessed with three books this year: What Ever Happened to Modernism? (by a mile, my book of the year; I wrote about it here); and two fiction titles - Heart's Wings and Only Joking. I loved them each; regular readers will have already gathered that.
John Lanchester's Whoops! is matchless at explaining the immediate causes of the credit crunch and subsequent banking crises: angry and funny, and yet not that great on the deeper, embedded structural causes. For those, David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital is your best place to start, and probably your best place to start with the excellent Harvey too...
Normally, the end of year lists in the broadsheets bring to my attention a few books that I've missed, but this year nada -- so please let me know what you've loved (and loathed) in the comments box...
And, very kindly, I've just been sent some gorgeous looking copies of the beautifully designed The Devil's Artisan magazine.
Over the past twenty-eight years, I read, the focus of the journal has broadened somewhat "from an early technical interest in the craft of fine printing to its current role as A Journal of the Printing Arts. The magazine has, however, remained committed to its constituency – and hence is released in the spring at the Wayzgoose festival of the Book Arts in Grimsby on the Niagara peninsula, and in the fall at the Ontario College of Art & Design Book Arts Show on McCaul Street in Toronto."
I'll feedback with a review anon but, must be said, first impressions are very favourable:
The Devil's Artisan first appeared in 1980 under the editorship of Paul Forage, William Rueter (University of Toronto Press) and Glenn Goluska, latterly of Coach House Press (Toronto) and currently print design consultant to Phyllis Lambert at the Centre for the Study of Architecture in Montreal. The magazine was founded 'for the purpose of presenting to Canadian readers information on the craft of printing and bookmaking, on bibliographic and historic matters, and on communicative, sociological, and technical subjects related to printing.'
Ficton Uncovered invited me to contribute to their site. So I wrote about Gabriel Josipovici's fiction...
(The Ficton Uncovered has been down since the weekend, so I'm now reproducing my article in full below...)
In the summer of this year (2010), a critic of some standing (and with over 25 books under his belt) suddenly seemed to cause a silly season media storm for saying in his latest book what he’d said in all his previous ones, and what he’d dedicated a lifetime to articulating. The academic in question is Gabriel Josipovici, the controversial book was What Ever Happened to Modernism?. In it, Josipovici argued that modernism wasn’t confined to the period of Official Modernism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, that literary art always needs honestly to face modernism’s perennial questions, and that many of today’s most vaunted writers of literary fiction are woefully overrated. I couldn’t agree more strongly with Josipovici in his overall analysis. The media was less convinced. What it particularly seemed to find galling was that an “unknown” academic had the nerve to tell writers how they should write, and implicitly accuse literary journalists of not realising that their novel-writing emperors were inadvertently wandering around without any pants. What, they growled, did a dusty academic really know about fiction?
The question is idiotic, of course. Critics of all forms of art don't have to be practitioners to have useful things to say; indeed, if that was the case, none of us would be allowed to respond to anything. Whatever your view of, say, Brian Sewell, I think we can all agree that he probably can't paint as well as Rubens! The bile directed at Josipovici was yet more idiotic because, firstly, he was not in any way unknown -- countless books, a longstanding contributor for the TLS, JQ etc, and a regular reviewer in the Irish papers to boot. Secondly, and arguably more important, he too is a writer of fiction! Josipovici, it turns out, is a practitioner of some considerable note, with 13 or so books of fiction published over the last few decades. What we have here, then, is precisely the kind of critic the media so often call for: one who really knows what he is talking about, and from the inside.
It is true, however, that Josipivoci is, as a novelist, comparatively unsung (he did win the Somerset Maugham Awards back in 1975). This is a real shame. Whilst his critical work is peerless, it feeds into and comes out of his work as a practitioner. A subject close to Josipovici's heart is that of authority. In short, artists from the dawn of time worked as craftsfolk within a tradition. When tradition began to splinter -- and it is ever-splintering, so choose your own moment of Fall -- artists had to ask themselves: who/what gives me the authority to speak, to write, to paint. Rabelais and Sterne asked this of themselves when, no longer community storytellers, they knew that the printed book would see their words take wings and reach a much wider audience than ever before: but what of their responsibility to their 'audience', now unknown, now so detached from direct contact with them? A connection had been broken in this brave new world. TS Eliot felt the same lack of connection to a world in pieces after WW1. Why should someone listen to Prufrock's woes?
Art without authority forces the question of the responsibility for art back onto the artist. Why am I saying this? To whom? What right do I have? These questions can't be answered archly. These aren't the ingredients for postmodern insouciance. But they are the questions that serious literary artists have to know hang in the air as they write. Of course, heavy questions don't always need earnest answers. Josipovici is a delighfully light, funny and engaging fiction writer. A comedian in the fullest sense: intelligent, knowing, sly. As he punctures others' pomposity, he also laughs at himself. His critical bombshell, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, landed earlier this year, but it followed last year's novellas After & Making Mistakes (published together in one beautiful volume by Carcanet Press) and is followed this autumn by two more books. Hearts Wings and Other Stories collects together a lifetime's worth of short fiction; Only Joking (CB Editions) shows the author at his comic best.
So, Josipovici the critic is someone I'd say you really must read if you want to think carefully about what writing fiction means, but Josipovici the novelist is someone you must read to know what delightful, considered, modern writing actually is.
Last Friday, I was very kindly asked to chair a seminar, organised by Verso, with André Schiffrin on the future of the book trade. Shiffrin was recently described by The Bookseller as the "legendary Pantheon publisher of old and independent firebrand of now with the not-for-profit house The New Press." He is a publishing hero to many, myself very much included, having put luminaries such as Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Juliet Mitchell, R.D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P.Thompson into print in the States. The excuse for the occassion was the publication of Schiffrin's latest book, Words and Money, a follow-up of sorts, a decade on, to his excellent The Business of Books.
The format of the session was pretty typical: Schiffrin gave a synopsis of his argument, then I interviewed him (a first for me, hugely enjoyable and a massive privilege) and then I took questions from the floor. Schiffrin's argument is essentially that "big-business congolomerate publishing in its current form is doomed... Investors are demanding as much as 15% returns on a business which, Schriffin argues, can only offer 3 or 4%." Widening-out from this is a cultural argument, of course: why is a business seen to be a failing concern if it is profitable, but just not massively so? This is a particular concern because, whilst publishing serious books can be profitable, it isn't often hugely so. This kind of publishing, runs the argument, is already always anti-intellectual.
An excellent comment (from HugoIgoNogo) over at The Bookseller takes up the argument, and brings our attention to its limitations (essentially, Schiffrin hasn't really got to grips with the Internet):
For books, the first decade of the 21st century has seen one of the great cultural earthquakes. Go back 10 years, or perhaps 20, and the landscape is barely recognisable. No Amazon; no Google and no ebook. Wherever you look: writers, agents, publishers and booksellers transacting literary business like their great-grandparents. Since the millennium, the relationship between words and money has undergone almost total inversion. On the demand side, publishers recklessly drove up profit margins from a comfortable 3% to a suicidal 15%. As for supply, a privileged minority of "content providers" (AKA authors) reached audiences and made fortunes that started at six or seven figures. This takeover sometimes had the air of a gold rush, but it has not been a bonanza for everyone. At the end of the second world war there were more than 300 bookshops in New York City. Today there are fewer than 30. The astonishing scale of this transformation has left many observers as disoriented as the survivors of a natural disaster. A new genre of books, cultural survival kits, has emerged to supply emergency road maps through new terrain: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and No Logo by Naomi Klein. Each one of these bestsellers is animated by a need to make sense of the new and troubling questions provoked by global capitalism and the viral power of the internet. Less flashy, and more humane, André Schiffrin, a distinguished former New York publisher, has been throughout this decade an indispensable, if rather pessimistic, guide to life after a cultural apocalypse, first in the much-admired The Business of Books (2000) and now in Words and Money (Verso). He has spent the last decade puzzling over the annihilation of the business he loves by conglomerate visigoths such as Vivendi (a French water and sewage company turned media giant). Actually, while the old contract between words and money was being torn up a new one (entitled "free") was being written, mainly by geeks in California. It is a measure of the profound disorientation experienced by seasoned professionals in this new environment that nowhere in Words and Money does Schiffrin really get to grips with the so-called Google Print Initiative, the biggest copyright heist in history. Nor does he tackle Amazon's burgeoning role as an internet publisher. Sometimes the cultural analyst who puts himself in the middle of the information superhighway ends up looking like Bugs Bunny in the path of a runaway Mack truck. There's a lot that's passionate and useful in Schiffrin's anguished analysis. He is right to identify a healthy market as the key to a vital culture and vigorous democracy. His heart is certainly in the right place, but strangely, for a book entitled Words and Money, he never fully addresses the thorny question of "free", as articulated by Anderson, James Boyle (The Public Domain) and Lawrence Lessig (Free Culture). I wish he had because this goes to the heart of the crisis faced by print at the moment. Books, like newspapers, are an essentially middle-class phenomenon whose market is the self-improving professional. As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus. Johnson went straight to the point with: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Johnson was right. Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim. California's "free" movement wants to argue that literary copyright is an intolerable restriction of the public's right to access information, and that words should be free. That's a profound threat to the western intellectual tradition. I hope that André Schiffrin, having raised the alarm about the demise of serious publishing and journalism, will urgently turn his attention to the new, possibly darker, threat of digitisation and its consequences.
What is left, for me, of The Kindly Ones now? I finished Jonathan Littell's astonishing book (wonderfully translated by Charlotte Mandell) two weeks ago, and I could, I'm sure, knock-out a half-decent review of the book if I was so minded. But reviews abound (as so often, Stephen Mitchelmore sets the standard; Carey Harrison's review here on RSB is not too shabby either) and, anyway, I'm more interested, at the moment, in wondering what it means to have read it, what the reading has left me with, what it has done to me...
But to investigate, however cursorily, the phenomenon of having read, one is inevitably drawn towards making a balance sheet of the book in question. One moves towards writing a review in order simply to discover what one remembers of the now-finished novel. To describe TKO, two writerly adjectives come to mind. I want to say that the book is Proustian, and also that it is Sadeian. Proustian, because this is a novel presented as a memoir, because it investigates memory by way of showing us everything that our principal protagonist, SS Officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, remembers and forgets; but more so because its weight and detail, its heft and extent, never add up to it being any more than a fragment. As with Proust's work, one is deliciously confronted with the ambiguity (an ambiguity that, say, Don Delillo plays with in Libra) that no matter how many facts one gets down, reality is overwhelmingly complex in the face of one's inevitably pathetic list. As one reads on, with page after page of detail piling up, one is confronted with all Aue is leaving out, either on purpose or has forgotten: Littell's brick of a novel counter-intuitively remains a testament only to all he does not say. The absence one is left with weeks after reading (indeed, even as one is reading) echoes the absence that the book's presence can never hide from sight.
The novel is Sadeian, of course because of the sexual details (of which, actually, there are precious few: Aue is coprophilic, and at the beginning and end of the novel incestuously priapic, but you'd be hard pressed to be able in any way to thrill to his own thralldom: the novel is a million miles away from pornography) but, more specifically, it is Sadeian in the encyclopeadic sense. In France between 1751 and 1772, Denis Diderot oversaw the creation of a 35 volume encyclopedia. As wikipedia will tell you, "Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu." The Enlightenment held knowledge as sacred, and the world was further desacralised by its endeavours as information piled up in ever-increasing volumes. De Sade's own project was inspired by the same animus: to get everything down. The 120 Days of Sodom is an excruciating (and to be honest, tiresome) list of every perversion Sade can enumerate, but something comic, something self-cancelling, issues from all these facts: boredom and forgetting structure the sexual excitement (come before it, after it, and are never eliminated by it), pleasure is predicated on tedium, and extremity seems to be an instantiation of an awful, corroding detachment, a horrifying lightness of being. As Aue is promoted within the Nazi hierarchy, as he learns more of the brutality of its system, he focusses on his own professionalism. He is a functionary, deeply involved, but somehow never an actor, never a player. Like us, he watches; sometimes in horror, but mostly divorced from what is going on: he is the reader of his own life, not the author.
Littell seems to have a rather Foucauldian reading of Nazi power. The idea of the banality of evil is mocked by Aue within TKO's pages (Eichmann is a key figure), but what we see is evil reigning, evil at large, but so implicated within the Nazi structure that responsibility for particular actions always lies elsewhere (power is productive, unbounded, fluid, ubiquitous but untouchable). Aue fights corruption within the ranks — principally by writing reports — but the corruptness of the regime as a whole rarely bothers him. Only occassionally, just out of view, just off the edge of page, do we glimpse Aue glimpsing, grasping the wider truth. Essentially, he is all about the detail. We too, as readers, drown in those details, are appalled by those details, but forget them as we plough on fascinated by them. Only one or two stand out: a corpse here, a rape there. Aue implicates us even as we think ourselves to be so utterly unlike him. Indeed, tragically, we are all very like him, and we prove ourselves inhuman, prove ourselves guilty, even in that most civilised process: reading, reading and forgetting.
Looking over some of his old essays, a friend suggested to me that he didn't recognize very much of what he had once written. More than that, he often didn't even remember writing them. Rereading old essays of my own, I wonder who I was when I wrote them, I wonder where that 'I' -- once so utterly focused on the subject under discussion, once seemingly so self-aware -- has now gone. Actually, I'm sure that that is part of why we write: as much to forget, to purge, as to remember. Proust's huge meditation on memory is so profoundly moving because it fully fleshes out the commonplace that life is forgetting, yet memories are, quite literally, also who we are: our self is what we remember of our self and of others. Life is the accommodation we make, or is made for us, between holding on and letting go. But who makes the accommodation? Ourselves? But who is that self, and why should we trust it when it proves itself, in the very process of remembering, to be based on such vistas of absence, to be so insubstantial, so untrustworthy?
Via Borges (Funes the Memorious), we know that to over-remember is to fail to live fully, but to forget is to inhabit a void. Too much information and we can't move, can't breathe; too little and we're equally stifled, but this time via a conspiracy of contextlessness. The Novel itself replicates this, in a sense. Pierre Bayard's surprisingly stimulating How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is, as much as anything, an investigation into memory: what does it mean to say that one has read a book if days, weeks or months later one can remember nothing about it? Does some homeopathic traceless residue somehow remain? Has an altering occurred with the reading? A substantive shift that once achieved doesn't need the memory of content to pertain? Or has the event, even though we live in its aftermath, now failed to have occurred?
Even as we move through the pages of a book -- especially a large book; I've just read Jonathan Littell's 1,000 page The Kindly Ones, so I'm particularly aware of this -- we are constantly forgetting the detail which defines it. A novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story. Some claim there are only seven basic plots; a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare will confirm that Will got most all of them boxed-off, and repeated a fair few, in his 30-odd plays. But particularities are the very things that we forget as we move through and are moved by any story. The novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story, and reading is the process of forgetting those details. A novel is defined by being too much to hold in our mind all at once: in a sense, it is unreadable, and always remains unread.
My good friend Sophie Lewis (freelance publisher and literary translator from French to English; translator of Stendhal’s On Love for Hesperus Press and various books for Pushkin Press) explains the story behind the new publishing venture And Other Stories:
“Heady experience”… “utopian stuff”… “well thought-out and radical”… “shamelessly literary”.
Who’s that attracting all the old-school praise? And Other Stories! We’re a publishing collective that you can join, if you like the sound of what we’re doing.
Launched earlier this year by translator Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories is a Community Interest Company, which in our case means that we’re a not-for-private-profit publisher. We gather circles of people, virtually and physically, who are also into reading powerful and unusual literature from around the world; we track down books in some of the languages that we can read between us (Spanish, French, German, Lithuanian, more soon); we translate samples and pass them around; eventually we pick the best, the novels and stories that we think good enough to demand full translation and publication in English.
We’re already near the end of this process with our first book – about which I can tell you nothing because the fine print is being worked out in Frankfurtas you read this. But soon you’ll hear all about it and the other three books we’re planning to publish next year.
Apart from our democratic editorial process, another feature that distinguishes us from the mob of publishers currently going down the pan is our subscription-based sales method. As well as choosing what we publish, you subscribers are the first to receive copies, contribute to our website and general decision-making, attend all our talks and parties for free – and should be proud to be supporting one of the most economical, outward-looking and broad-minded publishers in existence (please notify me of any competitors and I will move quickly to wipe them out). But truly, if you’d like to subscribe, please look here andotherstories.org/join-us and get in touch with Stefan.
And Other Stories really is an exciting new venture. It makes a fascinating combination of the traditional: the joy of simply meeting and sharing great literature; the Victorian satisfaction, verging on smugness, that comes with subscribing – and the avant-garde: the literature itself is certainly not about best-selling or crowd-pleasing taste, and looking beyond the Anglophone world seems radical in itself these days. This is why I’m involved.
But I almost forgot to add – it’s good fun getting into publishing, if you don’t have to worry about sales meetings, pleasing the marketing dept, being overruled by editors higher up the chain, etc. I’m hosting a party at my place on Tuesday, for our first author. That’s a first for me too.
Actually, I've not gone fishin' at all, but we are freezing the data (!) here on ReadySteadyBook whilst we do a major upgrade of the site (especially in the "back end")...
On Friday, I finished working for The Book Depository after a wonderful four years with them. In July, I start a new adventure (in trade publishing with Quercus; on Twitter: @quercusbooks) which I'm very excited about. But, for once, for now, I'm going to put my feet up for a few weeks, unplug from the matrix, and read some big books...
See you back here in September.
Today is the second day in the 38 Plays: 38 Days challenge to read a Shakespeare play every day for the next thirty-eight days. This evening I shall be pleasuring myself with The Taming of the Shrew (which is online at e.g. Project Gutenberg; I'm using The Oxford Shakespeare).
Wikipedia's synopsis reads:
The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1594.
The play begins with a framing device, often referred to as the Induction, in which a drunken tinker named Sly is tricked into thinking he is a nobleman by a mischievous Lord. The Lord has a play performed for Sly's amusement, set in Padua with a primary and sub-plot.
The main plot depicts the courtship of Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, and Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio tempers her with various psychological torments – the "taming" – until she is an obedient bride. The sub-plot features a competition between the suitors of Katherina's less intractable sister, Bianca.
A question suggests itself -- and I'm certainly not the first to ask it: why in a book ostensibly about Karl Marx does Jacques Derrida divert himself, and us, at such considerable length, considering 'Hamlet'? If we choose not to accuse Derrida of bad faith or wilful obscurantism -- which, anyway, would only show our own bad faith, or an obscure lack of understanding concerning his project -- then we must take him absolutely at his word. We read Spectres of Marx and note that 'Hamlet' allows Derrida to think, and to think of Marx. 'Hamlet' supplies him with the metaphors that allow him to unpack Marx's own metaphors and allow us to see how these metaphors structure Marx, structure 'Hamlet' and could deconstruct (unstructure) our idea both of Marxism and the destructive reality of our capitalist present.
But is something more happening here? Should we ask: can the political only be thought about via/with fictional narrative and the metaphors it lends? Further, can we only think progressively about our collective present and other possible futures if the metaphors we use are deeply embedded in our collective life? Jacques Ranciere, in The Aesthetic Unconscious, problematises our understanding of Freud's use of the Oedipus myth. Did Freud use the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for the unconscious, or was the unconscious already shaped by Oedipus's story? Did Freud use the story or did the story use Freud? Bluntly, I don't think we can think without literature. I don't think we do think without literature. Further, I don't think we can possibly think ourselves out of our current impasse, and the impasse of our thinking, without it.
One of the very many obtuse things about David Shields' obtuse "manifesto" Reality Hunger -- an obtuse book which contains many wonderful quotes about literature and life and which could have been simply a very fine commonplace book -- is its obtuse and strident assertion that the line between the real and the fictive was in any way ever absolute and that the commingling of these two supposedly separate realms will save literature from redundancy.
Mark Fisher describes the foreclosing of (political) thought that could envision different (social) futures as Capitalist Realism. His short book is highly recommended: not least to someone like Shields who seems to think that reality is a given rather than a perpetually socially constructed fiction which we half-wittingly recreate each and every day of our lives.
If the recent banking crisis showed us anything it was that the make-believe is at the heart of what we tell ourselves is real -- and that fiction becomes fact when we have faith enough, or fear, in the (empty) lies that keep us in our places. Those who rule our world kill to maintain the presence of this absence every single day. Every day thousands starve or go cold, kids are bombarded in Iraq whilst neoliberal bloggers cheer, countless bore themselves stupid in offices -- all so that bankers in Saville Row suits are maintained and preserved, and maintain the fiction that thinking beyond a system predicated on their maintainance and preservation is an impossibility.
What is deconstruction? Or, perhaps, that better question from earlier: what was Derrida saying it was when he wrote a book about Marx that was actually much about 'Hamlet'? He was, surely, demonstrating -- more than that, he instantiated it in the very weft and warp of his argument -- that the political is structured by the fictive; is, indeed, always fictive, and needs to be read and understood like this to be undermined and disbelieved.
Things are ever not right here in the 'state of Denmark'. The palace stinks of corruption. The need for change haunts Elsinore; a ghost harrows the corridors and halls. And a spectre is haunting Europe, too: it is called fiction. It is reality's own bad faith. Pace Shields, there is no need to mash-up the fictive and the real to reinvigorate narrative, but there is certainly a need to read the real as always already fictional and thus detonate reality's murderous presumptions.
I'm not a great one for reading challenges (it is, as I've written before, sometimes quite enough of a challenge simply to read anything at all), but as 2010 has seemingly become my "Year of Shakespeare" I'm thinking of joining the folk over at 38 Plays: 38 Days in their effort at reading each of Shakespeare's 38 plays in as many days...
Yes, it is a somewhat brutal rush through a corpus that should be lovingly savoured but, at the same time, I'm rather excited by the idea that by early April I could have read the whole lot and then I might know which ones I need to return to (to do the loving savouring bit) sooner rather than later.
The ICA is one of my favourite London venues. It’s had an incredible history, staging a legendary discussion with the Situationists, exhibiting Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti’s controversial art about the sex industry (the original display is now on show at the Tate Modern’s rather dull Pop Life show) and, of course, that notorious Einsturzende Neubauten performance...
I’ve seen loads of great talks there (and, admitting an interest, helped put on a few). One fascinating evening saw a discussion between ex-Angry Brigade John Barker and ex-Weather Underground Bill Ayers. Another, a truly bizarre meeting of the late G.A. Cohen -- author of Why Not Socialism? -- and Slavoj Zizek. Unfortunately, I missed the night where satirist Chris Morris heckled Martin Amis for his anti-muslim comments.
As well as the talks and the great cinema (where else would you be able to see the new film of Coetzee’s Disgrace or the documentary about Derrida?), the ICA has one of the best bookshops in the country. I visit regularly for their large selection of the latest theory titles.
Last year, I was saddened to see the long-standing and excellent talks' organisers James Harkin and Jenn Thatcher leave, and this Saturday’s Guardian gives clues as to why this may have happened. It seems that the financial crisis has bitten deep and even more redundancies are expected -- there is a fear that the debt is insurmountable.
This is both an important cultural venue and a key independent bookshop in the life of the capital. Have you not been before? It’s just off Trafalgar Square , 5 minutes from Charing Cross Road station -- you can fit it in on the way to Buckingham Palace! I urge you to use it -- to lose a place like this would be a tragedy.
It is not only in Hamlet that Shakespeare presents us with the travails and terrors of madness: it is a recurrent theme in very many of his plays. (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest... well, actually, every play of his that I know some little about reflects on madness in some way; I understand that Shakespeare uses the words 'mad' and 'madness' more often in Twelfth Night than in any other work, so doubtless I should focus my attention there soon.) Sadly -- and this has happened to Dickens too, I think -- Heritage stops us seeing Shakespeare for the troubling and unsettling writer that he manifestly is: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The times are ever-troubling; and it is always the time to speak in a heartfelt way against the present's deadening cant. These are not sane times; Lear is as untimely as it has ever been.
Shakespeare was writing when what constituted the written English language, what constituted the very tools which he went on to fashion into the best ever expression of those tools, was still particularly unsettled. And how he wields words seems to reflect a view of the self that suggests that what constitutes the self -- fashioned on the stage merely by the playwright's words, of course -- is itself ever-unsettled. Shakespeare’s language is an erratic, antic, fizzing brew which captures, and expresses existentially, a particular take on the non-fixity of the human state. He is a poet not of an age, but for all time because time is written into the ambiguity -- the play -- of his writing, and into the ambiguous, uncertain, unanchored, disarranged characters he sets before us. His language moves -- his characters move -- as we move as time moves...
Fools, as numerous readers have noted, are wont to be wise, and kings can often be very foolish. If he had been fully in his right mind, Lear, surely, should have known that his daughters, Goneril and Regan, were far from virtuous, were far from the ideal caretakers for his Kingdom in his dotage. That is, unless we are to presume that they became so particularly venal only after being gifted a share of their Father's estate -- which pushes our credulity too far, I think, but does reinforce the idea that once Lear's madness is large in the land, other madnesses will be loosed and liberated. Lear's unquieted state is apparent, if not at the absolute moment he begins to divide his Kingdom, certainly at the instant he forgets the previous dutiful, loving nature of his favourite and youngest daughter Cordelia; he certainly fully loses control when her lawyerly response ("I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more nor less") mocks and highlights his frankly ridiculous decision to divest himself of "of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state". (Cordelia, of course, is not quite herself at this juncture either; two suitors await in the wings when she says: "when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty.") There is madness in the air, then, as soon as we began to read or watch the play. The moment Gloucester believes of Edmund that his other son Edgar could ever conceive of his murder, we know for sure that the mayhem that has infected Lear's brain will flow through the whole of his realm.
It has been a commonplace since at least Foucault wrote his History of Madness that the pathologising medicalization of several morbid unhappinesses has robbed us of access to the kind of Foolish wisdom that attempts to support Lear and his friends throughout the play in counterpoint to Lear's own self-destructive, but occasionally self-illuminating mania. When a king shows himself a fool it is time for his Fool to show wise counsel. This Foolish, supportive wisdom is echoed in the subplot in which Edgar disguises himself as Tom of Bedlam and guides his now cruelly blinded father to a limited form of spiritual rebirth at Dover Cliff.
My grandmother who died, aged 97, three years ago, quite mad from dementia and the attendant ravages of age, was central to my upbringing -- "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long." She is central still to my moral universe. Her socialistic dictum, that you can only sleep in one bed, the concomitant of which is that those who have more than one bed declare themselves to be embedded in excess, remains core to my worldview. Her degenerative illness manifested itself in many tragic and demeaning ways, but two strange Shakespearian wisdoms arose: she confused family members (I was often thought to be my father, and vice versa); and she disremembered the trivial and the everyday whilst clearly recalling events from 50, 60 and even 70 and more years ago. The pattern, I'm sure, is familiar to everyone with elderly and infirm parents or grandparents. Time's tyranny was now, with her, differently manifest. And, of course, came at a high and often distressing, sometimes comic cost.
I do not believe in ghosts, but during my own recent weaknesses, my grandmother has been fully in my thoughts. So fully that I've smelt her cooking in my flat and, on my pillow, the distinctive, beautiful scent of her face and hair -- a memory which must come from my own now distant childhood. I have, in truth, felt much closer to her than I did during the long years of her failing mental and physical health.
Lear is certainly not a play only about madness, it is, speaking colloquially, a mad play. It is such a beguiling work because it is a bit all over the place. Sometimes, Shakespeare's poetry takes him so far into the human that he feels timeless, but many aspects of Lear can't help but foreground the Jacobean. The messy nature of the play, however, also underscores something very human -- humans are not neat! Their emotions, their desires, their hopes and fears are messy, ridiculous, unfounded, grandiose, illogical, perverse. Their madness sometimes allows them to see the world's madness, sometimes reflects that madness, and sometimes is merely an awful, lonely, destructive vortex...
A kind of order is restored to Lear's domain at the end of the play. But the order comes at a terrible human cost, and the order is itself contingent: Lear dies, whilst humbled and grief-stricken, still haughty and half-mad; his favourite Cordelia dead in his arms; Gloucester is blind; and, of course, Goneril, Regan and Edmund's corpses litter the stage. Humankind cannot bear very much reality and is ever loath to admit that death has undone so very many. We are not only born astride our own graves, but arrive wailing into an overcrowded cemetery: "When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools." Learning to live with ghosts isn't an option but an essential life skill. Lear leaves an unstated, dying curse in the air: this is ever his kingdom, and we are never out of it.
To help keep things moving here on ReadySteadyBook, the matchless Mr Rowan Wilson -- a very dear friend, and already a contributor to the site and regular commenter -- will, in the future, be blogging alongside me. He'll be writing one or two pieces a week, so do please make him very welcome...
It is often quite obvious why a particular text speaks to us in a particularly powerful way at a particular time in our lives. As with anything human, however, the reasons might be obvious, but they are not always clear or clearly linear. We might be sad and look to something uplifting; or we might seek to find consolation in something that mirrors our melancholy.
I have no wish to parade the details of my own recent, continuing and sometimes crippling grief here, but I have been thinking a lot about why certain texts have touched me so profoundly of late and why others have left me cold -- left me, that is, how they found me and offered me no way out of my grief nor any way into themselves with the concomitant comfort that that might gift.
My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing. I foresaw that it would be -- I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me. Quite simply, I could not read.
The chapter and verse of what caused this unsettling self-loss, all the tawdry trivia that led me to lose one of the things that has always been one of the anchors by which I keep myself tethered and focussed, are of no importance. But I lost much, not least my home (not my house, this is not a tale of financial woe, corruption or swindling) and my "girls" (my beloved dogs, who now live away from me and with my family) and more besides. These are quotidian losses: people lose more than I lost everyday. Indeed, my loss is hardly fully loss: it is a subtraction of excess tied to a form of self-imposed internal exile. These are slender removals, unrare ravages, commonplace catastrophes. They are, in truth, unworthy of comment or further delay.
Moving away, I presumed a royal road, if not to health, at least to non-grief. I hoped some enforced quiet would allow time for restorative reflection and, almost the same but not wholly synonymous, time for reading. But I could not read. I could not settle. I could not sit still. I could not read. (I could, as ever, drink -- and drink I did.) Later, when I could settle, when I could sit still... still, I could not read. I became adept at staring into space. I hadn't realised it was such a skill. I did not realise that it could become something so exceptionally honed. I never imagined it could be preferred over anything and everything; most especially, over reading. But sitting still and staring is not a story. So I shall move past my unmoving, and move on.
In early December, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of "Hamlet". I'd never read "Hamlet" nor even seen it performed. The play has such cultural weight that a presumption of familiarity is attributed to anyone who might by considered by others to be "well read" (or some such). But the play -- the play that Harold Bloom calls a "poem unlimited" -- had almost wholly passed me by.
I'm not sure why I picked it up. I'm not sure why of the countless books in my book-lined, book-overloaded little flat, this tatty copy of "Hamlet" suggested itself as the book that might awaken me to books. But it did. And it did so insistently. You will all, I'm sure, know the outlines of the story of "Hamlet" better than I did. And, surely, unconsciously, half-consciously, I knew that something in the story of Elsinore's Prince would unsettle my settled misery, would unencumber me of grief's sometimes comforting carapace, would make me aware that my own madness was merely the mildest confusion, a pale mania, cousin to mourning but a distant relation worthy of consideration but not the insistent indulgence I had been giving it.
Hamlet runs ahead of Hamlet. And the rest of the players are, at least, two steps further behind. Why does the Prince overmourn a father it seems likely that he loved dutifully and diligently but not excessively? The Fool Yorick gave him more love as a child than did his uxorious, unfatherly father. It was Yorick who played with him ("He hath borne me on on his back a thousand times") and Yorick who received the child Prince's tender love ("those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft"). And why does the Prince bait and berate Ophelia? Unable to love her, it seems, and able only to play with her feelings (played, perhaps, and perturbed, for sure, by his own feelings) and then able to put on a play for her, Claudius and the court, a play that seems to suggest that our several performances of our own, presumed self-same selves are always aware of an audience and are doubly inauthentic -- to our never self-same selves and to those hypocrite lecteurs ever beyond and baying.
Hamlet is a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates. Further, we witness the loss that articulation itself is -- and non-articulation too: Ophelia's madness leads to her early ruination and death, and to one of the play's most beautiful set-pieces in Gertrude's speech about her drowning. We witness ambiguous double-binds and, binding, rooted ambiguity.
In my own minimal madness, I read "Hamlet" and I heard Hamlet call. Heard him speak to himself, of himself and half-realise he could hardly keep up with even that utterly, definitionally, self-limiting performance. I realised, along with Hamlet, lesserly, that my own disquiet was perforce undone by its (limited) creativity and coherence: the coherence of my incoherence mocked my incoherence. But, better, more simply, I read. I sat still and I read. And I read some more.
It turns out that almost every other line in "Hamlet" one already knows. The play reads like a sourcebook to all that has been written since. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human (a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject). I doubt that. Hamlet uninvents the (notion of a) coherent self even as the most fully human character the stage has ever seen steps forth -- at the birth of subjectivity, Hamlet, our extreme contemporary, shows the subject to be a kind of fiction. Hamlet validates and allows for the self's self-incoherence; the undoing of the self is the self's own self-making. My local madness will pass. Our general madness will not. Something comforting therein is almost claimed.
Well, personally, I'm with Lizzie Windsor: this year has, indeed, been an annus horribilis. The last few months, since my move to London, have been both hectic and mostly positive, but the first half of the year was bloody dreadful!
Anyway, the "teenies" or the "tweenies", or whatever the media decides we call the next decade, starts tommorrow and regular blogging will resume on Monday 4th January.
Happy new year all!
I'm off out tonight to hear (and, hopefully, participate in) a debate between, on the one side, Archbishop John Onaiyekan (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe MP (Conservative MP) and, on t'other side, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. The proposal is: "The Catholic church is a force for good in the world." I suspect "a plague on both their houses" will be my considered view at the end of the affair, but it looks like it might be an interesting event nonetheless. Run by Intelligence Squared who seem to have quite a lot of decent looking events coming up.
I have little idea where last week went. Apologies. I'm still trying to get used to the slightly mad rhythm of my new London life...
Back in May, I wrote a blog post called Like What You Like. In one of the comments, I said:
Liking whatever you like is a relativistic point about liking -- plenty of stuff out there, enjoy what you will. But my second point is a separate point, not an extension of my first, and it is an almost essentialist point noting that literature itself asks what literature is, and only literature can answer.
I wanted to come back to this again because it seems to me that (at least) two types of reading are being carried out by most readers most of the time. And only one of them is likely to allow readers to find what new literature might be out there now. I'm tempted to suggest that the two categories of reading could be called "reading for pleasure" and "reading seriously", but even to suggest as much strikes me as utterly absurd. I don't read for anything other than pleasure (although a deeper pleasure as opposed to a sugar-high might have to be conceded!) I wondered if "reading philosophically" versus "reading non-philosophically" might perhaps be the distinction, but that crumbles as soon as it is invoked. The suggestion that any reading is non-philosophical is risible. We've surely all got whiff of enough cultural studies to know that it is now widely recognised -- and bleedin' obvious -- that when folk are slumped in front of the telly watching some soap opera or other they are engaging with it on many different levels, and use it later to negotiate conversations about ethics, morals, narrative; same when they are reading an airport thriller. Both these attempts at describing these two types of reading also come perilously close to the idea that one type of reading is better than the other. Again, that strikes me as plainly daft.
In their excellent introduction to Maurice Blanchot, Ullrich Haase and William Large suggest that, particularly on the back of the thinking of Hegel (via Alexandre Kojève), Heidegger, and Nietzsche, and in (often silent) dialogue throughout his life with Bataille, Nancy, Derrida and Levinas, Blanchot has inherited a question...
... namely that of the finitude of our existence, expressing itself in a new, disturbing and seemingly meaningless experience of death. Here it is no longer the powerful subject that gives meaning to its world, but a passive human voice that listens to the anonymous voice of the other.
This means that the question of literature, in which at least for Blanchot this anonymity has its greatest force, is no longer a parochial question about values and tastes, but a directly philosophical question about the status of the human being, and that this question has a broader ethical and political significance.
This is the greatest impact of Blanchot's writings: to think about literature, to struggle with the question of literature, is to face the fundamental questions of our age.
The demand of literature, then. There is, thus, only one type of reading: reading! Something else is happening when we consume books, even if we think about them very seriously (our newspaper 'critics', our synopsis-writing friends in the blogosphere, myself often) or think about them hardly at all (our stereotype of a commuter reading his 'Dan Brown'). The continuum between active-passive, engaged-unengaged, is not where the demand is responded to. But it is that response, a response that should not need to be called anything other than reading, but is so much more than what we have begun to think reading merely need be, that is demanded of us if we want to begin to want "to think about literature, to struggle with the question of literature [and] to face the fundamental questions of our age."
Doubtless, there is sometimes a fearsome intelligence to the dinner-party guest who can hold forth about the latest Booker shortlist and their associated merits and demerits. And then there is someone, somewhere else, quietly reading in a corner, really reading, wowed and unnerved and silenced by the poetry of Celan. I've been impressed by that dinner-guest on many occasions (I think I may well have sometimes been a boorish version of that dinner-guest myself) and I have no doubt that s/he reads carefully, deeply, in an engaged and serious way. Equally, I have no doubt that, very often, they entirely miss the point not only of what they are reading at any particular time, but of what reading means and what a reader could or should be in response to Blanchot's demand -- or, rather, Blanchot's recognition of the demand of literature -- and away from the need either to see consuming texts as a legitimate leisure activity or a way to impress life's Greek chorus about your putative intelligence.
Well, I'm back! I should have been back last week, but BT have introduced me to new levels of pain and frustration having taken over a month to sort out a broadband connection... Useless would be a kind way of putting it.
Anyway, letting the blogging begin!
It has been a tough and very busy year already, so I'm going to put ReadySteadyBook on ice for the next few weeks. I need a break and, in addition, I'll soon be moving house: very exciting for me, I'm heading to Big London. When I get there, and get settled, then I need to focus on making ReadySteadyBook a lot more vibrant than it has been over the last few months.
Have a great summer!
I'm in the annual Hospital Club 100 list again ("The Hospital Club 100, compiled in association with The Independent, ranks the most influential creative and media people. Here are this year’s ‘Established’ and ‘Emerging’ winners in each of the ten categories "). If I'm reading this correctly, I'm the "Emerging" winner in the Books and Literary category. The Book Depository gets a namecheck as RSB's sister site (!) but -- regardless of how slightly squiffy their biography of me is -- it is always nice to be in.
Thanks to all those who voted for me!
Perhaps Britain’s most influential literary blogger, Thwaite has dedicated his site to reviewing the best in literature, poetry, philosophy and history, and offers a forum for sparky discussions on the merits of new publications. Thwaite also runs the sistersite, Book Depository, and has spoken at the London International Book Fair and been a panellist at the Oxford Literary Festival.
Indulging in listening to sad music is one of life's finer pleasures, I think. From Strauss's Four Last Songs, Schubert's Winterreise, Valentin Silvestrov's Silent Songs (the song based on Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci, sung in Russian, is -- almost literally -- to die for) through to David Sylvian's Let The Happiness In, the better (i.e. most melancholic) moments of This Mortal Coil, The For Carnation or Dakota Suite or parts of Jacaszek's Treny album, miserable music is a vital part of my armoury against the world. I'm always on the look out for me -- and this thread on violinist.com has pointed me to some new sad sounds to indulge in... but if y'all have any favourites please let me know.
Last Thursday, I spoke at Legend Press's first Publishing Laid Bare Conference. Basically, I said, "the internet is good, bloggers are fab" -- so nothing particularly newsworthy there then! But thanks so much to the good folk at Legend Press for inviting me to speak and thanks to everyone for the warm reception I got from those in attendance on the day.
Oh, when am I not busy! Anyway, today I seem even busier than ever... So, a few web goodies to tide y'all over:
- lots of Ezra Pound links from orbis quintus (I've always been an Eliot man rather than a Pound-head, but I'll be taking the Cantos away with me on my next trip to London so maybe that'll change soon...)
- did Joyce coin 'blog'?
- John Self on Zweig Stefan (as my bloglines feed has it!)
- John Berger archive at the British Library
- anyone else going to the TLS party on Thursday? email me if you are...
Last year, I was listed as one of The Hospital Club 100. These things are rather daft, of course, but its always nice to feel appreciated, so if you want to put my name in the hat -- please go for it. And, you know, thanks!
The Hospital Club 100, in association with The Independent, is a search for the most influential people in the creative and media industries with the emphasis on current contribution and importance, not just the size of someone’s celebrity status, profile, bank balance, titles or past reputation (more...)
The comedian David Mitchell once told a joke about how the neutral, in their neutrality, can never understand the passion of e.g. football fans and, indeed, that their very common sense neutrality (oh, it doesn't matter who wins, just jolly nice to see two teams having such a jolly good time) was far more absurd than the passion of the fans that they so ignorantly lampooned. Of course, when he told it, it was funny. (And he is equally funny laughing at fans too -- this YouTube video is wonderful.)
Criticising someone for their taste is plainly silly. Liking one particular cultural artifact over another does not and cannot make you a better human being than anyone else. We like what we like. Doesn't criticism takes that for granted? In the same way, we accept that e.g. football isn't the be all and end all of everything... and then we enter the fray regardless; and, on entering, at that point we believe with Bill Shankly that football is not a matter of life or death, but actually much more important than that. We cast off our neutrality because engagement is life. This is not too far from the view held by Alain Badiou when he argues that it is only through passionate allegiance to an event that we become authentic subjects...
If you were to come to tea at my house, you'd no doubt be bombarded by some weird music (György Kurtág anyone? Machinefabriek? Keith Fullerton Whitman?) and then we could settle down to a Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr film. Or, just as likely, we could kick back with some Friends repeats on E4, grab a pizza, and then watch a RomCom: Notting Hill or Four Weddings anyone? You decide! If the former happened, would you think me pretentious? If the latter happened, well, how would you judge me then?
Regardless of this pastel-coloured relativism, however, evaluative practices are inevitably part of how we talk about the arts and how we try to understand them. Not understanding that is a little like being one of the neutrals that David Mitchell poked fun at at. In What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey is right to argue that liking opera does not, and cannot, make you a good person. As I've said, that is surely a given. Further, it'd be a difficult task to argue that opera, say, was better (or worse) than rock 'n' roll. But it would be interesting, informative, educative, and possibly surprising and entertaining to know why a particular critic thought Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was better or worse than Berg's Lulu. If we were lucky enough to read two critics evaluating both we'd inevitably make judgements on which critic most persuavely persuaded us of the case for which of the works we should make sure to seek out.
And so to fiction... If it needs repeating: like and enjoy whatever you like! But evaluating, judgement, is part of what we do as soon as we (try to) engage with something. And engaging with something can be one way of deepening and extending our enjoyment of it. If we want to make an evaluative move, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one text against another, first we need some common ground. Genre fiction -- except when Ian Rankin starts his especially specious pleading -- is normally content to evaluate itself againt other books in its field, so a new crime novel might say that it is pacier, gritter, knottier, more honest, more gripping, more realistic, more harrowing, the denoument more startling than another in its field. And, if we accepted that, we'd be a good way to being able to say that the new crime novel was better than the old one. The trouble with the genre of Literary Fiction, however, is that it puts itself up against literature. And, if it does that, then it must be expected to be judged against it. Literature -- like art itself, as Carey found -- might be treacherously hard to define, but if we triangulate Proust, Beckett and Dante or, say, Shakespeare, Kafka and Blanchot we might get somewhere near to being able to think about what something we call literature just might be. Rankin can go head to head with Agatha Christie and we can make sound comparisons between their writing and their plots (and we can, regardless, enjoy either, neither or both) but if he suggests he writes literary fiction, and by doing that makes claims to be writing literature, then he is going to be going up against Proust and so he needn't be surprised when he comes off looking decidedly worse for wear!
However, beyond the evaluative move, a move that inevitably happens as soon as we engage with any artform (even if that evaluation leads us to say nothing more exceptional than e.g. they are both good, but in different ways) there is the question -- and it is fiction here that is my concern -- that is much too rarely asked: what does literary actually mean? The question can only be answered from within literature itself: not when literature is arch and awkwardly self-ironising (the postmodern gesture), but when the existential question of literature's being is revealed to be the internal secret, and heartbeat, of the text itself. "Literature begins," as Blanchot famously says in Literature and the Right to Death, "at the moment when literature becomes a question." And so reading begins not when we mark books out of ten, but when we let them mark us; not when we question how good they are, but when they themselves question what they are and, simultaneously, undermine the certainty we feel when we make those inevitable evaluative moves.
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.'
'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.
Before I rest up for the weekend, a coupla things to draw your attention to:
- Steve provides us with "a selection that might be called The Best of This Space"
- The Armies by Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (as you know, I was judge, and I'm still scratching my head as to how come Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 wasn't even shortlisted!)
- interviews over on The Book Depository site with historian Andy Beckett ("The British 70s are full of political surprisess if you make yourself look at them with fresh eyes... the Labour vote in the 1979 election actually went up, especially among wealthier voters -- the idea that the behaviour of the unions sent the electorate running screaming away from Labour is a myth...") and Thomas Traherne expert Denise Inge ("Readers with imagination fall for Traherne. He takes you on unexpected interior journeys into desire and lack, infinity, time and eternity. Reading him isn't always easy since the language of his day is so different from ours and his world view sometimes challenges the assumptions of our time, but he will thrill, surprise and exhaust you...")
- a brief interview with Béla Tarr
- trailer for new Godard film Socialisme
At the weekend, my dogs were "jumped" by a rather enthusiastic Black Russian Terrier (imagine a schnauzer the size of a Great Dane and you're almost there). Sadly, Silus, who was quite a lovely thing actually, was far too much of a beast for the elderly lady who was looking after him. She lost control of Silus as we walked past them and was almost dragged to the ground. Consequently, I had to grab our manic mutt before he did himself, or my dogs, any damage. Rather painfully, Silus pulled my shoulder half out of its socket. At the moment, then, typing, as you can well imagine, is not my favourite activity!
Despite this, I manfully took myself of to the badlands of Salford on Monday night to see the excellent Machinefabriek. This evening brings Jóhann Jóhannsson. I commend both to you for your listening pleasure.
It is a parody of Catholicism to suggest that you can sin all your life, but as long as you get a final confession in before the final curtain is drawn for the last time you'll be alright, and then the Big Guy will let St. P let you in through the Pearly gates. But, saying that, it's not that much of a parody! The basic pattern here is: sin - repentance - forgiveness (... and repeat). The assurance, of course, is there that you will always be forgiven (if your piety is genuine). I've always thought, however, that the certainty of forgiveness, in this scenario, rather cedes power to the sin and to the sinner: they are both considered to be given, presumed as a constant, elemental, essential, even vital. We are the Fallen, after all, so sin is what we do, what we are mired in, what we are. Asking for forgiveness, then, is something of a PR stunt: future sins are in the pipeline, probably already being planned and certain to happen, forgiveness for them will be asked at the appropriate time, after the sin has been enacted and, no doubt, thoroughly enjoyed.
Now, that might all be rather slipshod theology, but it seems to me to be a pretty useful analogy for what is going on in our society right now. Saying sorry has reached epidemic (or should that be pandemic) proportions. Politicians do it all the time: bomb a country because of a lie they've concocted, then say sorry for the lie once it has done the work required of it. Journalists keep pressing those in the City whose greed and stupidity precipitated the credit crunc at least to beg pardon for what they have done. And now even the London Evening Standard is getting in on the act: "Buses and tubes will carry a series of messages throughout the week that begin with the word "sorry." The first says "Sorry for losing touch". Subsequent slogans say sorry for being negative, for taking you for granted, for being complacent and for being predictable."
This then, I portentously proclaim, is the era of Catholic capitalism: just as nasty as capitalism has ever been, but now with deathbed confessions, pious apologies and the desperate need for absolution. "Forgive us our sins," say the politicians, the bankers, the media and the generals, for, in some dreadful parody of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, "we shall certainly commit them again and again and again."
David Aaronovitch was on Radio 4's Start the Week this morning. Each week, I nonsensically start my own working week by getting worked-up by the nonsense so often spouted by the facile contributions of the blathering contributors to said radio programme; I really need carefully to look within and work out why I regularly put myself though this unhappy ritual. Some Maoist self-criticism is obviously required!
Anyway, Aaronovitch has just written a book called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History a part of the publisher blurb to which reads:
Our age is obsessed by the idea of conspiracy. We see it everywhere - from Pearl Harbour to 9/11, from the assassination of Kennedy to the death of Diana... For David Aaronovitch, there came a time when he started to see a pattern. These theories used similar dodgy methods with which to insinuate their claims: they linked themselves to the supposed conspiracies of the past (it happened then so it can happen now); they carefully manipulated their evidence to hide its holes; they relied on the authority of dubious academic sources. Most importantly, they elevated their believers to membership of an elite - a group of people able to see beyond lies to a higher reality... Aaronovitch... looks at why people believe them, and makes an argument for a true scepticism: one based on a thorough knowledge of history and a strong dose of common sense.
Ah, common sense! Well, we do like common sense around here, for sure. I'm always happy to see "conspiracy theories" debunked, but I'm equally intrigued by which theories are deemed to be conspiratorial and which historical theses are deemed to be sensible and sound. For example, why isn't the suggestion that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD a "conspiracy theory"? Belief in the lie that Saddam had such weapons was linked "to the supposed conspiracies of the past" (he bombed the working class stronghold of Halabja so therefore, it was asserted, he'll certainly do something as heinous again) and was based on "carefully manipulated... evidence" which "relied on the authority of dubious academic sources". Most importantly, this "elevated their believers to membership of an elite" -- those who saw the huge, looming threat had seen the truth and those of us who thought this huge "threat" was merely a manipulation of the Anglo-American ruling class were blind, naive or worse.
It is, indeed, interesting and important to debunk "conspiracy theories" -- there are a lot of them out there. Recent official history contains its fair share of such dangerous lies, too, so I wonder why Aaronovitch doesn't seem very keen on debunking them. Was it because there are certain conspiracy theories he fell hook, line and sinker for?
My friend the poet and publisher Micheal Schmidt once told me that he liked poetry that was made up of simple words. "Sex, love, food... the vital things are simple words," he said to me (or something like that). I took his point, and certainly agree that it isn't obscure vocabulary that makes e.g. the late Beckett such a vital (and challenging) read. But should we always eschew the arcane? And is it arcane to write "arcane" when I could have written "difficult"? Wrong to have written "eschew" when I could have said "avoid"? It surely isn't always sesquipedelian ostentation to use the multisyllabic when the monosyllabic would have fitted almost as well - is it? (Surely only a sesquipedelian ever invokes the term sesquipedelian.) Isn't the abstruse sometimes the more accurate? The recondite might not be as recognisable, but it might be the more rigorous; simple might simplify to the point of becoming wrong, complex might be confounding but absolutely correct (now, is "absolutely correct" a pleonasm? Oh, bother!) Isn't the move from "fitted almost as well" to "fitted exactly" the move from a basic to more a complex vocabulary? Well, not always, for sure...
Beckett's Proust was written in 1931, when he was 25 years old, and exhibits the sort of language use one might expect from a precociously gifted academic rather than a poet. The poetry of the later work, when Beckett showed us impotence, futility, loss, has shorn its lexicon of flash, academic jargon: Worstward Ho is far, far from simple, but its difficulty doesn't arise from tricky terminology. His prose, now, is exactly as Michael would like it: simple words directing us towards vital things (and non-things, of course: to the unsayable). Still, between the baby-language of the modern media and the blistering, elementary severity and clarity of Beckett, there does lie a place where being wordy is surely just about ok. I'd guess that even Michael would want me to know the difference between disinterested and uninterested, whilst expecting me to be neither with regard to sex, love, food... and poetry.
On Radio 4's Start the Week this morning, one of Andrew Marr's guests was the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, author of Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe. Tett, Marr told us, has been credited with being one of the first journalists to have spotted the then oncoming credit crunch.
Tett explained that "if finance is made out to be very complicated, only a small number of people understand how it works, and so the people who have that knowledge are in a very strong position." Later in the interview Marr gushed about those same bankers -- bankers who were called Masters of the Universe by their friends in the media -- that "we have to remember, these are very, very clever people." Tett, almost by reflex, affirmed this characterisation, and then moved on to explain a little more about the macho, hothouse atmosphere of the City. But it was earlier, when she said that "if finance is made out to be very complicated" that she had it down.
I'm not sure why, but it has become something of a commonplace that, amidst the ruins of the global financial crisis, one thing that journalists seemingly have to do -- perhaps embarrassed that, unlike Tett, they didn't see this thing coming -- is affirm the complexity of the financial markets and, simultaneously, the matchless intelligence of bankers and traders. This is a very curious and incredibly tendentious way of reading the banking collapse. Strangely, too, this constant affirmation of bankers' braininess runs alongside a conflicting narrative: that the slicing and dicing of debt got so complicated that the "very, very clever" bankers no longer understood their -- our -- level of financial risk. So, they were "very, very clever", but they (or their clients) didn't understand the tools they were using or what they were doing with them? If a gaffer gave one of his carpenters a saw and told him to hold it by the serated edge you wouldn't think that either the gaffer or the carpenter was much of a brainbox; quite rightly, you'd think both were idiots. Understanding what credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations are doesn't make you "very, very clever" -- it just makes you expert of a very limited vocabulary. It is most akin to being a teenage boy. Our children can talk in acronyms, abbreviations and neologisms about stuff that we don't really have too much of a clue about, but it doesn't tend to make us think that they are geniuses. They aren't. And neither, Andrew Marr take note, are any of those stupid bankers.
Over at The Book Depository, we are having a charity auction with all the proceeds going to Downsed International ("Down Syndrome Education International works around the world to improve education for young people with Down syndrome"):
To celebrate our new website launch we asked our favourite authors and illustrators to design an exclusive bookmark to be sent out to our customers to thank you for your support, whilst raising money for a worthwhile cause.
We were absolutely thrilled with the results, with fantastic bookmarks from people as diverse as cartoonist Matt from The Daily Telegraph to Noel and Dave from the Mighty Boosh - take a look for yourself, you can see the full list of bookmarks at the bottom of this page.
From the 18th April we will be enclosing one of these exclusive, limited edition, Book Depository bookmarks with all orders from the site (whilst stocks last of course). There are 18 bookmarks to collect. If you have a favourite, or indeed want to collect all 18, you will need to get your orders in quick, as they are in limited supply.
And what's more, you also have the chance to own the original artwork! Starting on Thursday 23rd April we will be auctioning off the signed originals on eBay, with all the monies raised being donated to Downsed International. (More.)
Now that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is all but decided (see details about the shortlist here) I'm feeling the need to opinionate so, next week, I'll try to pick up the blogging baton again (not least because I want to write about the IFFP09 shortlist)...
In the meantime, Mr Mitchelmore is in superb form opinionating once again about Littell's The Kindly Ones:
The Kindly Ones is perhaps the first novel I have read and felt the need to write about before any hype kicked in. Had it been another, quieter publication, such as Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee or Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, then the review itself would have been enough. All three novels, however different and however removed from the vicious modernist circle familiar to this blog, prompted long attention because they opened a space making narrative possible, even necessary. Or, to put it another way, the space became palpable only through writing like this. Each review was an attempt to make this space clear and thereby to ease future readers into a different kind of reading than that practised elsewhere (more...)
It has been a very busy past couple of weeks up here in the windswept North, not least with me working away to bed-down and improve the content on the newly upgraded Book Depository website. And, to be honest, it's been a pretty difficult year for other more personal reasons too. Add to this the fact that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has robbed me of all the rest of any of the free time I might have had and you can see why RSB hasn't exactly been a hive of activity of late.
But, as I know happens with many bloggers, my busyness has coincided with thoughts about where I want RSB to go, what I want to do with it, what I want it to achieve and what I want to achieve with it, or via it; what I want to explore here and what I want to write about.
I'm somewhat in agreement with Andrew Seal when he wrote this below about his own blogging blues back in February:
This blog is much more like the blogs I don't much care for: wholly dependent on what I "happen upon" in my reading, whether that's what I found on the web today or what book I picked up for vague reasons or no reason. I've been struggling with how to change that, how to add to or change this blog in ways that will make it less adventitious, short of imposing a mandatory reading list on myself or ceasing to blog about anything but a narrow subject. I want to keep a little randomness: I don't object to randomness—I just don't like the self-satisfied surrender to entropy that comes with the idea that I'll blog about whatever catches my fancy.
I used to keep RSB ticking over with links to interesting literary things that I found on the web. I'll still do that from time to time, but I've found that Twitter is a better medium for me to chuck interestng URLs out into the world (anyway, if you want great links you can't beat wood s lot). What this should mean is that when I do write something here at RSB it is of more value and consequence than simply contextualising a link or two, but that requires more time and effort... and energy. And it is energy that I feel so desperately short of right now.
Yesterday, out drinking booze at Manchester's Cornerhouse, a young woman walked passed me with a Bartleby shoulder bag. OMG! How jealous am I? I want a Bartleby shoulder bag! Where on earth did she get it!?
The bag simply said, as you'd expect, in pretty large font, "I would prefer not to" and, beneath the quote, had the word Bartleby. Very simple. Very cool.
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.)
Thanks to Nigel Beale and D.G. Myers for responding to my question concerning what should be on a history of the novel reading list with long reading lists of their own. Both Nigel's and D.G.'s lists are very useful (and this bibliography from the University of Warwick has some good pointers too), but I'll compile one of my own here soon which is specifically just about the history of the novel itself. (For starters, my current Book of the Week, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: Volume 2, 1100 - 1400, would certainly be on it, as would Robert Mayer's excellent History and the Early English Novel and Nancy Armstrong's flawed engagement with Ian Watt, How Novels Think: The Limits Of Individualism From 1719-1900.)
Really, though, the last thing I should be doing is starting a new project! I'm run off my feet at the moment: we got over 120 submissions for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, (so lots and lots and lots of reading, but nothing I can talk about until after we've longlisted some of them); and I'm also working on getting all sorts of content together for the new look Book Depository website which will land some time in the next couple of weeks.
Whilst all that should be enough for anyone, I'm rather beside myself with excitement as The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940 (CUP) has just landed. A bottle of whisky and a few nights without sleep seem in order!
Finally, you'll have all no doubt noticed that Twitter has become all the rage -- despite having been around for quite a while, it suddenly seems to have really taken off. RSB has had a Twitter page for ages (and so has The Book Depository and BritLitBlogs), but I've relied on RSB's RSS feed to do all the tweeting for me and have not actually done much active tweeting myself. Well, expect that to change soon!
I'll be posting again in a few days once the nonsense dies down!
Rowlands was in his twenties when he bought Brenin, a hybrid wolf-dog puppy. It was the early 1990s and he was lecturing in philosophy at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In his spare time he hung out with the students, getting through a bottle or two of bourbon a night, playing rugby and lending Brenin to his team mates because, of all their big, bold dogs, Brenin was the best “chick magnet. In fact, they used a slightly different expression: more colourful, but not really repeatable”. There is a good deal more testosterone in this autobiography than an older cat-keeping lady can easily relate to.
More than a spitz-loving blogger can probably cope with too, then! (Fact-checking, my understanding is that Brenin, Rowlands' "dog", was actually pure wolf, or so Rowlands was assured. You can buy a wolf-dog hybrid in the States that is up to 96% wolf, but buying and selling pure wolves is illegal. Rowlands didn't know this when he bought Brenin, and says he wouldn't have cared that much anyway.)
Recent highlights over at The Book Depository include:
- an interview with a rather curmudgeonly Peter Ackroyd: "I have always been interested in the spiritual wealth of London, and have written about it on numerous occasions. I do not like the term psychogeography. I prefer to call it the territorial imperative, whereby a certain patch of ground – or street, or house – actively influences the behaviour and the character of the people who inhabit it."
- a free e-book of In Stitches by Dr Nick Edwards
- Andrew Motion on poetry's primitive attractions
- Financial meltdown? book list
With online purchasing of those difficult to find out of print books, you can sometimes forget the pleasures of browsing in a secondhand shop. The reassuring homely comfort of seeing yet another copy of Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain, mixed with the excitement of finding a bargain, or stumbling across a treasure that you never even knew existed, can’t be beaten. And it can be exciting finding beautiful editions – a joy that online selling has yet to communicate. I’ve been doing a series of assaults on second hand bookshops recently, finding old Picador Beckett’s (with those wonderful half sci-fi, half prog covers), a supremely ugly Golden Notebook (like a 70s Erica Jong book) and a Wallace Stevens collection in one of those beautiful and colourful old Faber 50s covers.
Last week, on the way to the disappointing and slight exhibition of Roger Hiorns’ work in South London (a flat in an abandoned estate is transformed into a crystalline grotto – a piece so devoid of an awareness of its context that one person in the queue was able to speculate how the block could be transformed into "cool flats"), I stopped off at the Elephant and Castle and found that the wonderful Tlön Bookshop has been closed down. Reading between the lines of the notice on the door, it looks as if the rent hadn’t been paid. In amongst the decaying and the pointless, there were some great finds here (I’m still irritated with myself that I didn’t pick up that copy of the World of the Muggletonians); such a shame.
But with its demise another rises. The recently opened Book and Comic Exchange on Berwick Street in Soho (part of the chain of shops that originated in Notting Hill) is an untidy and confused mess with little attention paid by those doing the shelving to the subjects slapped on the shelves, but it has some unexpected treats. One gem I left there for some lucky hunter was a first English language edition of the Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, with commentary by Gilles Deleuze.
Firstly, do, please, forgive the recent radio silence. I've been out and about (Windsor and Big London) doing exciting Book Depository-related things. The Book Depository recently expanded so lots of cool stuff is going on behind the scenes which you'll see the fruits of soon ...
Regular readers will know that I've always been a bit of fan of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (last year, for example, I called it "by far the most interesting of the UK-based literary prizes [which] always turns up a few gems"). Well, I'm thrilled (and delighted and honoured) to say that I've been asked to be one of the judges for the 2009 prize. Yay! How exciting! 80-odd more books to read, mind! Dunno much more than this for now, but shall report back when I learn more (the judging panel is meeting up for our first natter in a few weeks time).
Just to say, huge, huge thanks to Rowan Wilson for holding the fort on the blogging front (and to Lee for helping him) whilst I've been away on my holidays (sunning myself in very sunny Greece).
Hopefully, if I ask him nicely, Rowan will continue to blog here even now that I'm back.
I always used to hate starting a book and then giving up on it – it actually pains me. No matter how many chapters I've done, whether it's one or twenty, it feels like wasted time. And if I was reading major literary works and hating them surely there must be something wrong with me? But some years ago I finally found it in me to leave this obsessive compulsive disorder behind.
The epiphany was Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe. I thought I'd lost this when on holiday and felt such elation! But then I found it again at the bottom of my bag and was plunged into the slough of despond. Was I really going to have to trudge through the rest of this shaggy dog story, with its loathesome characters, supposedly wittily realised but actually literary torture? Only then did I realise, with the violent see saw of emotion, that I was causing myself psychological harm. Since then I’ve felt liberated, reclaiming my time and merrily rejecting numerous canonical books.
I had waded my way through most of Jean Genet's Thief's Journal. Championed by seemingly everyone I was only twenty pages from the end but I could take no more of Genet's nihilistic self-indulgence, and how it made me wish for the rebirth of a repressive society, and I threw it joyfully aside.
The most recent casualty has been Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas. I loved the idea, a novel wrought through encyclopaedia entries, but each mini-biography seemed clichéd and refused to develop a relation to the others. So despite the praise heaped on Bolano of late I had to put it down.
Just a quick note to say y'all should expect a quiet (although not completely silent) August here on ReadySteadyBook. I need a holiday and RSB needs a bit of techie-love too. So, there won't be too much posting going on for the next few weeks...
Mati Unt (1944-2005) was not only a well-known novelist in Estonia; he brought avant-garde theatre to the post-Soviet state. His progressive credentials are writ large in Diary of a Blood Donor, a curious and oblique retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Only in the latter stages of Unt's surreal book does it become clear that Stoker's myth is being reworked. All his characters are here (Mina is Minni, Lucy is Lussi, Jonathan is Joonatan), and Unt even uses something of the novel's form, a mixture of diaries, memoirs and letters. They are joined by Lydia Koidula (1843-86) the premier Estonian nationalist poet: Lydia of the Dawn, a real writer, haunts the novel, embodying the spirit of Unt's homeland (more...)
Well, voting has whittled the shortlist of about 350 down to the final top one hundred, and I come in at a very creditable number 76! Thanks so much to those who voted for me -- very good of you!
The inaugural The Hospital Club 100 was launched at the beginning of June this year in association with The Independent Media Weekly.
In essence, it’s a search for the authentic stars and media power across London’s creative industries; film, television, music, new media, journalism, publishing, performing arts, marketing PR undefined events, fashion, art, advertising, media law undefined recruitment and celebrity...
We had an overwhelming response to the shortlist – people voted in their tens of thousands. Given an opportunity to contribute to such a poll, people responded passionately. Due to the democratic process, the results were always going to be interesting, some might say controversial.
These people are not necessarily power brokers, they are creative leaders who are seen as inspirational figures for Britain’s creative industries. So for the first time, you see establishment figures alongside bright young things and new and emerging creative talent.
I'm talking at the London Literature Festival this coming Saturday:
To celebrate the shortlist for The Best of the Booker Prize, our distinguished panel of writers champion the novel they think should win. Featuring Edna O’Brien on JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, Kamila Shamsie on Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Peter Kemp on Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road and Mark Thwaite on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. Other guests discuss Nadine Gordimer’s TheConservationist and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The panel read short extracts from the books, followed by their own critical appraisal. At the end of the evening the audience are asked to cast their vote.
My review begins:
"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." So begins Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, set in 1953 at the height of McCarthyite anti-communism. This is also the year in which cracks begin to appear in the marriage at the centre of Andrew Sean Greer's accomplished and humane domestic drama. An old pal of Pearlie Cook's husband unexpectedly turns up, announcing: "'Hello, ma'am, I hope you can help me.' With those ordinary words, everything would change" (more).
Who are the "true stars of London's creative industries and the powers behind the throne"? Well, funnily enough, despite living in Stockport, it turns out yours truly may be one of them! (Actually, I take this to be, if anything, a vote of confidence in brit-lit-blogging in general.)
The Hospital Club 100 will be the definitive list of who shapes the creative landscape in what is, after all, the most creative city in the world. We're not after fat cats and big wigs. Corner offices and chauffeurs are not a prerequisite for inclusion. We want to know the secret influencers, the creative catalysts, the unheard of power players; the unsung heroes who make the media world spin.
So, if you "feel someone on the long list deserves to be part of the finalists [I'm in the "publishing" category by the way!] on The Hospital Club 100 list, you have one week to cast your vote at thehospitalclub.com where each voter is entitled to nominate up to two people per category and voting is from Monday 23 June until 6pm on Monday 30 June.
So, like an excited young puppy, yesterday I woke early and ran to the local shops to buy a copy of the Sunday Times. My first ever review for that prestigious organ was due to appear and I was beside myself with glee and anticipation.
I grabbed the paper, flung the correct change at the newsagent, and opened the paper. There it was. My review. In glorious black and white type. And -- wait a minute! what's this? -- credited to the poet Anthony Thwaite. I was gutted! Floored! And me poor mother ... well, I doubt she'll ever recover.
Happily, the review is now attributed correctly online. So if you want to see my take on The Dying Game: A Curious History of Death by Melanie King pop over to the TimesOnline.
Last Thursday, I attended the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize awards at the Serpentine gallery in London (currently showing an exhibition of Maria Lassnig's dreadful paintings). As you'll all know by now, Paul Verhaeghen's massive Omega Minor (Dalkey Archive Press) -- vexing for me -- won the day.
Why my problem? Well, The Liberal magazine ("devoted to a renaissance in liberal politics and the liberal arts. First founded in 1821 by the Romantic poets Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, the magazine is committed to regenerating liberalism and reinvigorating the public sphere") asked me to review whatever was the winner -- so now I have actually to read the monster!
I was privileged to have a meal with Paul and gang after the prize giving, and I'll be interviewing him here on ReadySteadyBook soon.
The prize money was £10,000, but, as Paul said in his acceptance speech, and as quoted on his blog, Babylon Blues, he is giving it all away:
... to avoid supporting the regime with more tax dollars than I already owe them, I have asked the Arts Council England to donate the money associated with the Prize, all 10,000 pounds of it, to the American Civil Liberties Union. Withholding the tax portion of those 10,000 pounds from the US Treasury will shorten the war by a mere eye-blink — its cost is currently 3,810 dollars per second — but the ACLU can use that money to great effect in their legal battles against torture, detainee abuse, and the silence surrounding it (more...)
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.
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I'm back from the London Book Fair. I had an excellent time and met some lovely people, but right now I'm really, really shattered!
So, whilst I recover (drink lots of tea, cuddle the dogs), go read a piece about Simon Critchley (via wood s lot) for your edification -- Middle Spaces: Media and the Ethics of Infinitely Demanding by Daniel Punday:
The novel has long been associated with ethics. This link goes back to F.R. Leavis, but Andrew Gibson has shown that this tradition is alive and well today not only in the work of humanist critics like Wayne Booth, but among postmodernists like Richard Rorty and J. Hillis Miller. One way to interrogate Simon Critchley's theory of ethics and political resistance in Infinitely Demanding is to set it alongside of contemporary novels and to ask how they respond differently to the same cultural moment (more ...).
It isn't too far off the mark to say that the humanities are a set of stories about how human beings live and work with other human beings. Fortuitously, that definition is loose enough to include much of social science and some hard science too. We tell stories about ourselves to help understand ourselves. This, of course, is one of the major justifications for literature.
So, you know, when you're done here at ReadySteadyBook, surf over to BritLitBlogs and see what everyone else is up to!
I have a small blog/article going up on Picador.com's blog next week sometime (about Oliver Sacks and the importance of narrative to our self-perception). But I can't access the site (and this has long been the case).
I'm back from Oxford and from speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival. Busy day yesterday what with my Today programme appearance and all! If the warm and generous comments left on the blog are anything to go by the talks have gone down pretty well. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to leave a comment.
And a big welcome to everybody who has just come across ReadySteadyBook ... I hope you enjoy looking around the site.
Some of these reports have photographs. Yes, I do look fat. Yes, the stripey jumper was probably a bad idea!
I had lots to say, of course, but didn't really get the chance to say as much as I would've liked. I wanted to talk a bit about my work at The Book Depository, I wanted to mention BritLitBlogs, I wanted to say how fab This Space is ... but I never really got a chance.
Never mind: I'll be going over the same ground at length again this evening at the Oxford Literary Festival where dovegreyreader and I will be discussing Blogging the Classics with John Mullan and John Carey.
If you get a chance to come along, do come and say hello afterwards!
I've mentioned before that I'm not a fast reader. As I said back last year, I'm a 30-pages an hour man!
Bookninja recently posted on the merits of slow reading (more on Slow Reading over on John Miedema's blog -- thanks Dave!) noting Michael Henderson's mild mocking of Philip Hensher who reckons he reads five novels a week, something I probably manage in a good month:
What a relief it was, last year, to learn of Milan Kundera's opinion that he based his reading on the premise that he got through books at the rate of 20 pages an hour...
Good to know that me and my mate Milan are on the same page. Literally, on the same page, near the beginning, whilst the rest of you have no doubt almost finished!
A friend writes, saying: "I’m trying to hunt down novels whose form is that of an encyclopedia, catalogue or dictionary, and where the narrative/non-narrative evolves from the entries. Apart from Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao, Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. Do you know of any others?"
No, I don't. So, over to you guys!
I mentioned the other week my disappointment about James Wood's How Fiction Works. One of the first rules of book reviewing, surely, is that you review the book at hand on its own terms? No point complaining that a book called, say, The History of Rugby has nothing in its pages about football. A fair review of How Fiction Works, then, would critique and/or praise its terminology, its history, its readings and its style. It would judge what it was setting out to teach and see if it achieved its own goals. Wood sticks close to the commonly used critical lexicon (and is very good at explaining free indirect style which has, effectively, become his phrase), contextualises the books he reads, is a conscientious and voracious reader, and whilst he exclaims a little too often and sometimes confuses approbation with attentiveness, is a fairly decent writer in his own right too. What How Fiction Works sets out to do it does well enough. I wish it had been a more ambitious book and I wish Wood's oft-remarked intelligence was more clearly on show (his book is a good crib, no more); but it does what it does very well.
My problem with How Fiction Works then is, to some extent, rather beside the point. Articulating my problem with it contravenes that first rule of book reviewing that I mentioned above, but a footnote to the rule is that it is surely right to point out, regardless of its local felicities, whether a book is wrong-headed. My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).
When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.
I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.
Sorry! I've been away in Big London doing work stuff ... Read Ackroyd's Poe: A Life Cut Short which was, you know, fine... A compelling enough read, for sure, but I got little sense of Poe as writer -- and I didn't buy Ackroyd's contention that he wasn't an alcoholic either. Good introductory overview to the man, however.
Reading Sherman Young's The Book Is Dead (Long Live the Book) at the moment -- more about this anon. Also reading On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (out of print, I'm afraid, but fairly easy to get hold of) by John Jones for a paper I'm writing on poetics. Jones is very good at getting us to see beyond Shakespearian stereotypes and to help us to attend to the "otherness" of Greek drama.
Many readers of ReadySteadyBook are also readers of Stephen Mitchelmore's peerless This Space. You will have noticed, no doubt, that an uncharacteristic quiet has settled over Steve's blog of late. Sadly, this is because he was involved in a serious road accident on Saturday 19th January.
Steve was cycling near Ditchling Beacon, in thick fog, and was hit from behind by a car. He was taken to The Royal Sussex Hospital where he underwent a head scan. His broken arm was then plastered up and he was placed under observation for 48 hours. He was released from hospital, but a few days later readmitted when a fracture at the base of his skull was found. Happily, is he now out of hospital again, with his parents, and slowly recovering from his ordeal. I'm sure all readers will want to wish him well. However, if he ever scares me again like that, he's a dead man!
Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."
Not for me.
For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to read. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that just tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.
Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.
Giovanni Drogo is a young army officer who is posted to Fort Bastiani, a remote and almost forgotten outpost that looks out over the desert and mountains of the steppe and onto the barren reaches of the Northern Kingdom. There is a vague possibility that acrimonious relations with the Northern Kingdom could, at any time, descend into war. There is an even vaguer chance that if war were to come it would arrive over the inhospitable steppe. Whilst younger officers, like Drogo, keep their spirits up with constant chatter about the possibility of such an attack, the older officers know better. They have spent a lifetime waiting, they've succumbed to many a false hope but, in their hearts, they know that no-one will attack, certainly not over the steppe, and that their chance to prove themselves as valiant soldiers has slowly died over the course of many years pointlessly waiting for something to happen. Drogo is astute enough to see this. As soon as he arrives at the Fort he asks to be posted somewhere else, but is persuaded to stay for a few months. Those months turn into years. The years quickly turn into a lifetime.
The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in absolutely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when one of the officers, Angustina, dies on a nonsensical trip to the border). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, simply because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us. If we wait around, biding our time, endlessly watching for some episode to validate our lives, our lives will pass, our life will have been wasted. But, then, as all life ends in death, a wasted life and a fulfilled life end up looking much the same.
This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!
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!
My favourite novel this year was Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt. It has a unique voice; Belben is a strikingly original writer. As soon I began reading I thought, "this is the real thing." And, with regard to modern novels, the "real thing" seems very thin on the ground these days.
The only other fiction I really rated (Vila-Matas, such a favourite with contributors to the Books of the Year symposium, has yet to be read!) was Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares and Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero also deserves mention: with a singular style, which admittedly sometimes masks a lack of substance, he tells a haunting story of a policeman investigating some dreadful murders in post-war Japan. Or perhaps we are simply hearing the ravings of a mad man?
Charlotte Mandell's translation of A Voice From Elsewhere was a treat. We'd seen some of these essays before but a second translation as limpid as these was certainly to be welcomed.
The thesis of Peter Brooks' Henry James Goes To Paris was countered by some critics, but I was convinced. James went to Paris in the mid-1870s, moved amongst the Modernists but didn't, at the time, quite understand just exactly what it was that they were trying to do. Nonetheless he knew what he had seen and read and heard was vitally important. Slowly, it -- early Modernism and its new techniques, its new ways of looking at the world -- worked its way into his writing and the novel would never be quite the same again.
The Emergence of Memory edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz brought together some thoughful essays on Sebald and some illuminating interviews with the man. I consumed it in one or two sittings reminded again of what a loss to literature his untimely death was.
Ironically, my fear for How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is that people won't actually read the damn thing! They'll assume from the title that this is a bluffer's guide to getting away with it at dinner parties. But Pierre Bayard's psychoanalytically-inspired book is both funny and very insightful. The author does two things: he subverts the supposed presence of reading by reminding us how much we forget and misremember; and he reminds us that the small island of books we have read will always be surrounded by a great wide ocean of unread titles. This non-reading, this absence, structures our reading and needs our awareness and investigation. His tongue is often in his cheek, but don't let his comedy blind you to what an important and useful essay this is.
Currently, I'm reading Tim Parks' The Fighter. When you read Josipovici's literary essays you learn how to think differently, how to read differently, as you walk with him through the texts he is discusssing. Not so with Parks: his insights are more mundane, his synopses over long, his range narrower, but he is a passionate and clever critic nonetheless and I'm thoroughly enjoying what he has to say about Beckett, Bernhard, Cioran and Dostoyevesky et al.
Forgive the radio silenece. I'm ill, afflicted, ailing, diseased, down, infirm, laid up, off-colour, poorly, queasy, unhealthy and unwell. A 'flu, but what a 'flu!
Expect me back sometime early next week.
It has been pretty quiet around here recently, I know. Sorry about that. I'm very busy over at The Book Depository gearing up both for Christmas and for some exciting new projects in the New Year.
Nonetheless, even if it goes unreported, the reading continues. The reading is endless: long live the reading!
One recent highlight has been Janet Malcolm's essay Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice which was splendid. The book:
... makes for a wonderfully fluent introduction to the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and her life partner Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967). As ever with Janet Malcolm's work – The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Journalist and the Murderer – her book is also an investigation into itself. Whilst this is a (brief) biography of Stein, it is also a (brief) meditation on the art – the duplicities, the impossibilities – of writing biography itself.
Malcolm is an incisive journalist and her book reads like a long New Yorker piece, a magazine for which she is a celebrated staffer. It makes the notoriously difficult Stein (whose books include The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas, Three Lives and The Making of Americans) seem almost worth the effort of reading, whilst at the same time making it clear that Stein's often silly ramblings won't be to everyone's taste. As they say the best literary journalism should do, this leads one back to the work under discussion newly invigorated for the difficult task ahead of reading such a singular (and singularly odd) writer as Gertrude Stein.
One thing I should get back into the habit of doing, is bringing your attention to those books I've chosen as Books of the Week and Books of the Month. These, as I've said before, are the books that have landed here at RSB HQ (last week, last month) that have most caught my eye.
This week, you may have noted, my two books of the week are The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl (Shakespeare, I'll admit, is an author I'm always happier to read about than actually read; any book that whisks me back to an atmospheric sixteenth and seventeenth century I'll cheerfully to submit to) and Administration of Torture by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh.
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.
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.
I'm not feeling very well! I'll get over it, but it means I've been rather slack here at RSB. Forgive me!? (I have, however, written a piece about the Booker prize over on TBD.)
So, as I have nothing to offer you today, please go and read Richard Crary's Smoothness of Surface where he discusses Henry James via Gass and Josipovici.
You must forgive the dearth of blogging: I'm in Alexandria, in Egypt, working with The Book Depository team that we have out here. My first time in Egypt; my first time in the Middle East; my first time in Africa! Culture-wise: these dudes never sleep! And they drive like crazy, mad, crazy people! Work-wise, I'm just adding some finishing touches to the new Book Depository website redesign which, hopefully, we can push live in the next couple of weeks. Then we'll get working on adding some new functionality to the site too. (And whilst I'm doing this Lee is working on some new functionality for ReadySteadyBook too.) All being well, I should be back home with Mrs Book and Lola some time on Tuesday evening. Blummin' hot here!
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.
- Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
- Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged
- E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class
- Frederick Turner's Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness
- Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan
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.
Catherine Tate as Donna, the runaway bride
Completely concurring with Emma over on the Snowblog who said yesterday:
Words cannot convey the horror, shock, sadness and derision I feel upon hearing that Catherine Tate is going to be the new Companion. I utterly give up. Russell T Davies, you are *ruining* Doctor Who and it's not yours to ruin. It's going to be dire. I am so mad.
Tate seems such a backward step to me. Her annoying mannerisms (and, jeez, Donna the runaway bride was such an annoying character) coupled with her limited actorly range (plainly, I'm out of my depth talking about the telly!) surely mean that the new Companion will move Doctor Who back towards the sillier plots and away from the recent darker episodes.
Carey Mulligan, star of the Blink episode
Why can't it have been Carey Mulligan (who did such a splendid job as Sally Sparrow in Steven Moffat's excellent Blink episode)?
Don't do too much TV, but I do like my Who ... and this has pissed me off!
No, not Mark E Smith's seminal band, not Camus' modern classic, nor our separation from the state of grace (if you believe such gubbins), but my own personal tumble: I fell over a baby-gate, down our staircase, and I hurt everywhere. My bruises have bruises, and I'm very miserable. I fear a cracked rib, but Mrs Book reckons not. Don't think that this hasn't brought the drama queen out in me: I could have died!
Goodness! What a miserable, rainy day. And I'm a little hungover to boot. So, I should tell you a little about one of my books of the week, the "Time Out" 1000 Books to Change Your Life (edited by Jonathan Derbyshire), shouldn't I? This is noteworthy for me as I have the lead essay in the Death chapter (the book is themed in seven chapters: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age and death) with a piece entitled The Art of Dying. My first time in print in a proper book: yay! The article is a not-very-inspired, vaguely chronological meandering through world literature starting with Dante and passing via Poe and Hardy onto Beckett and ending with Ted Hughes. You're not missing much. The book itself is quite handsome inside (awful bloody cover though) with lots of photos and full colour book cover reproductions. I'm not sure we really need another book of lists in the world but, as they go, this aint a bad one.
Sorry I've been so quiet: very busy! I'll try to mention a few bits and pieces tomorrow (not least I want to brag to y'all about the fact that an essay of mine is now available in an actual, real book!)
Also, The Book Depository have been shortlisted in three categories for The Bookseller Retail Awards 2007. We are in the running for:
- The Nielsen Supply Chain Initiative of the Year
- The Peter Jones Award for Entrepreneurship in Bookselling
- The Direct to Consumer Bookselling Company of the Year
Yay, a possibility of slipping into my tux again!
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.
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.
Nice, old Faber cover (via william-golding.co.uk)
I note I've not really said, of late, what I've been reading. Well, lots of things, of course, but the books that stick in the mind include William Golding's Pincher Martin (a lovely old Faber paperback I picked up in a local charity shop; the latest incarnation, you'll note, has a truly awful cover design), Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso; Dan's book is a wonderful antidote to the idiocies of Euston Manifesto-type pillocks and I'll be doing a lot to recommend in the coming weeks), and Roberto Bolaño's Amulet (New Directions; and one of my Books of the Week you'll have noted). The Bolaño oddly reminded me of Richard Brautigan; something both casual and heart-wrenching about the writing.
Update: Actually, I've just posted a tiny, capsule review of Pincher Martin over on The Book Depository which reads:
Whenever William Golding's name is invoked, we recall his dystopian, best-selling classic Lord of the Flies. That novel, first published in 1954, has sold millions of copies worldwide, including more than 25 million in English alone. But Golding's skill as a truly modern writer is better showcased in his most perfectly realised work, his masterful third novel Pincher Martin. The story of a shipwrecked sailor, set at the time of World War Two, it is also an existential quest into our anti-hero Christopher Martin's sense of himself, of his past actions (including violently forcing himself on a female friend) and his gathering awareness of what is really happening to him as he tries to survive on an outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, drinking from rock pools, eating whatever he can find, and fighting for his life and his sanity.
Michael Ondaatje, photograph copyright Ulla Montan
At the Booksellers' Association Conference earlier in the week, I picked up a couple of finished copies of Michael Ondaatje's forthcoming novel, Divisadero (published by Bloomsbury and not due out until September). So, who would like my spare copy? Email me, and I'll pop it in the post to you (previous freebie winners are excluded from this "offer"!) Oh, once you've read it, if you could write me a little review, that would be nice.
A favour: do any readers know of a good theological/philosophical book on the (Christian) concept of grace? Any tip-offs? Thanks so much!
I suppose, in a sense, this post is a kind of manifesto or, more modestly, the beginnings of a statement of intent about where I see ReadySteadyBook heading over the next couple of years.
As many of you know, I wear two hats: I'm editor here at ReadySteadyBook and I'm also, in my day-job, lucky enough to edit The Book Depository (TBD) website. As editor of TBD my role is to make sure that the frontlist titles that I choose to review and feature on TBD's pages, and the authors and publishers I interview, reflect in some modest way the astonishing range of books that TBD customers buy every day. The breadth of their purchases is amazing; I want TBD's homepage to be, in a small way, similarly catholic.
Here on RSB I have a different role. Certainly, it is one that I'm making up as I go along. I started RSB thinking of the site as an online literary journal that would reflect many opinions, air many voices, and I still think that that aspect of the site is important and needs growing (if you want to contribute, email me), but principally RSB is -- like it or loathe it -- me and my musings. My thinking about literature and books over the last three or four years has developed and, I hope, deepened. RSB facilitates that ongoing learning by forcing me to attempt to articulate what it is I think I feel about literature, and engaging with others in the blogosphere about those ideas.
When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.
Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.
Simon Critchley writes (in Infinitely Demanding): "When I pull myself out of the slumber of my inauthentic existence and learn to approve the demand of conscience, which for Heidegger is the demand of my finitude confronted in being-towards-death, then I become authentic, I become who I really am." This "I" -- as Simon recognises -- is conflicted, multiple, but it is the demand of which he writes -- of ethics, of art -- in the face of finitude, of silence, that I'm interested in here. This demand, taken up by art, by literature, is infinite. Literature can approach, help negotiate, begin to articulate, that demand; Literary Fiction withers in the face of it, never having heard its call, deaf to it.
I am now back in sunny Stockport having returned from the madness that is the London Book Fair at about 9 o'clock last night. At the Fair, I contributed rather amateurishly to the Promoting Books Online seminar run by the Publishers’ Publicity Circle. My excellent co-speakers, David Freeman (Meet the Author), Anna Rafferty (Online Marketing Director, Penguin) and Rose Wild (Books Editor, Times Online) more than compensated for my nonsense, however -- thanks to them for being such an excellent panel. And thanks to the PPC for inviting me along to speak. Apologies to those who turned up expecting to see Scott Pack for whom I filled in at the last minute!
To those readers finding ReadySteadyBook for the first time because of my Book Fair talk: welcome! I'd also encourage y'all to take a look at BritLitBlogs to get a fuller sense of what is going on in the British literary blogosphere...
I always find the LBF experience to be very contradictory: I'm both energised and enervated by it in almost equal measure. The whole corporate jamboree aspect is unpleasant, but you meet up with lots of old friends and, if you're lucky, make a few new friends along the way. I finally met Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians of Melville House Publishing which was a real thrill and I also met up with lots of the hard-working publicists and marketing people who keep me and RSB in books throughout the year: lovely to have met you all!
I doubt there'll be very much from me here until about Wednesday. On Monday and Tuesday of next week I'll be down in our great metropolis attending the London Book Fair ("one of the world’s leading forums for the business of publishing" so it says, but actually quite a ball-achingly dull, if seemingly necessary, trade jamboree). Principally, I'll be there with my Book Depository hat on, but if anyone wants to meet for a cuppa, drop me an email, and I'll see if we can't arrange something.
There has been a new addition to the RSB team. Meet Lola, a 9-week-old German Spitz (Mittel). Lola has been brought in to deal with illiterate journalists, fools, and other riff-raff!
Over time, Stephen Mitchelmore has proved himself to be what I've called him before: the finest writer we have in the literary blogosphere. Those who read his This Space blog are regularly treated to the most thoughtful meditations on literature and its troubled meanings. On Saturday, in the Guardian's From the Blogs column, Richard Lea misrepresented Stephen quite outrageously. Lea quoted a post disparaging Ian McEwan, allying it with a positive comment about McEwan from Book Dwarf, thus reversing Steve's negative appraisal. Either this was mendacious or idiotic on the part of Richard Lea. And I'd like him to tell us which it was: can he not read properly or was he being dishonest? It is surely one of the two. I know his colleagues at the Guardian read this blog, and I've regularly corresponded with Sarah Crown who usually composes From the Blogs. So, if Lea doesn't read this, she can pass the message on to him. I await his response.
Update: Richard Lea is away on holiday, but his colleague Sarah Crown has replied both to me personally and in the comments (below).
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.
A friend says to me, "you must read really quickly." I don't. Truly. Actually, it seems to me that I'm quite a slow reader. I read a lot, for sure, but I don't think I read very quickly. On average, about 30 pages an hour. Isn't that really quite slow?
Sorry y'all! Things are a wee bit hectic around here. But think me not idle! I've been working away on things Book Depository-related. And reading piles of great stuff (including Negri on Negri). I need to write up more of my thoughts on Goldstein's fabulous Betraying Spinoza and the book that does so much to inform its argument, Steven Nadler's Spinoza's Heresy. (Actually, if you want to know more about either of these click on over to The Existence Machine for a great review of Betraying Spinoza and over to Anecdotal Evidence for more on Nadler.) I've also been arguing about the value of internet booksellers over on Richard Charkin's blog and on the Guardian's book blog. Not enough hours in t'day!
Last week was very busy, so today I'm just trying to catch up with myself. On Thursday, I spoke to some third-year Creative Writing students at Roehampton University -- thanks to them, and to their tutor Susan Greenberg, for being such gracious hosts and such an interested audience.
On Saturday, I spoke to the delegates at the Independent Publishers Guild about blogging. Hopefully, they got a little something out of my rather rushed speech! Again, thanks to the IPG, and its members, for inviting me down to speak and for being such a friendly and welcoming bunch.
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!
Frantically busy here (busy adding content to The Book Depository site, finishing a review of -- one of my Books of the Month -- Rosalind Belben's wonderful Our Horses in Egypt for the TLS, and busy painting my cellar) ... so you must forgive the scant posting here at RSB. However, whilst I am here, do note that the latest (last? he died last summer) Philip Rieff volume Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us has just landed:
In Charisma, Philip Rieff explores the emergence and evolution of this mysterious and compelling concept within Judeo-Christian culture. Its first expression was in the idea of the covenant between God and the Israelites: Charisma – religious grace and authority – was transferred through divine inspiration to the Old Testament prophets; it was embodied by Jesus of Nazareth, the first true charismatic hero. Rieff shows how St. Paul transformed charisma into a form of social organization, how it was reworked by Martin Luther and by nineteenth-century Protestant theologians, and, finally, how Max Weber redefined charisma as a secular political concept. By emptying charisma of its religious meaning, Weber opened the door to the modern perception of it as little more than a form of celebrity, stripped of moral considerations.
Rieff rejects Weber’s definition, insisting that Weber misunderstood the relation between charisma and faith. He argues that without morality, the gift of grace becomes indistinguishable from the gift of evil, and it devolves into a license to destroy and kill in the name of faith or ideology. Offering brilliant interpretations of Kierkegaard, Weber, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Freud, Rieff shows how certain thinkers attacked the very possibility of faith and genuine charisma and helped prepare the way for the emergence of a therapeutic culture in which it is impossible to recognize that which is sacred. Rieff’s analysis of charisma is an analysis of the deepest level of crisis in our culture.
I guess this was coming: the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge have just published The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine by the Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, Alister McGrath (with Joanna Collicutt McGrath). My copy, I'm told, is on the way. I'll let you know if it is any use once it arrives.
In their press release, the publisher quotes Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University, as saying: "The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why."
World-renowned scientist Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion: 'If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.' The volume has received wide coverage, fuelled much passionate debate and caused not a little confusion. Alister McGrath is ideally placed to evaluate Dawkins' ideas. Once an atheist himself, he gained a doctorate in molecular biophysics before going on to become a leading Christian theologian. He wonders how two people, who have reflected at length on substantially the same world, could possibly have come to such different conclusions about God. McGrath subjects Dawkins' critique of faith to rigorous scrutiny. His exhilarating, meticulously argued response deals with questions such as: Is faith intellectual nonsense? Are science and religion locked in a battle to the death? Can the roots of Christianity be explained away scientifically? Is Christianity simply a force for evil?
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.
Rod Liddle's recent Sunday Times article, Has fiction lost its power?, has been widely circulated and commented upon. Indeed, Scott Esposito's always engaging Conversational Reading referred to the article just yesterday. Like Fausto, one of Scott's commenters, I found a number of the book recommendations in Liddle's piece rather unconvincing, and I find the bloke himself (after pro-war absurdities) quite odious. Like Scott, I'm suspicious that Liddle is just a sour elitist but, unlike Scott, I find myself agreeing with the basic, well-worn argument of the piece. Scott says, "When I can read 70 novels a year -- many of them recently published -- and find a majority of them very intelligent, edgy, and interesting, then all arguments for the so-called decline of fiction are going to feel inherently flawed." I'm astonished. I read as omnivorously as most, yet I find nearly all the new novels I read to be very, very meagre fare indeed. Whilst on a continuing lookout for new fiction that is "intelligent, edgy, and interesting" I mostly find mediocrity or much worse.
I'm a bit behind this week, what with recently starting full-time at The Book Depository, and having deadlines to meet for a longish article (on Death and Literature don't you know!) in a Time Out book, which isn't due for publication for a wee while yet, and for a review in the Financial Times (I know!) of Sayed Kashua's pretty poor Let It Be Morning. All this by way of saying that I will be writing about Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution very soon. In the meantime, Ghunka.com has a decent, sympathetic review of the book online which is worthy of your attention, but with which I have several difficulties. For now, I'll just say I'm far less sympathetic to Casanova's argument than Ghunka.com.
I've not really managed to figure out which my favourite (non-classical) albums of last year were as yet. Really, you know, I'm still quite tired! The Wire's Rewind 2006 (list not online annoyingly) often chimes with my own listening, as does Boomkat's chart, and the PitchforkTop 50 Albums of 2006 isn't a bad list either. I'm thinking, in no particular order whatsoever, that The Gentleman Losers' eponymous effort, Johann Johannsson's IBM 1401, Users Manual, Helios' Eingya, William Basinski's The Garden of Brokeness, Xela's The Dead Sea, Loscil's Plume and Library Tapes' feelings for something lost all deserve a mention and each were very fine in their own way. And I'm also thinking that this needs a lot more thought!
Happy new year! All the very best to all in 2007!
Things should get back into normal gear around here on Wednesday which is also my first day full-time in my new job editing The Book Depository website. It's gonna be another busy year!
Well, I trust you are all having a good winter break? Mrs Book and I are just back from Paris and I won't be doing much here for a few days: there is booze to be drunk and chocolates to be consumed! I have, however, updated the Books of the Year 2006 symposium a tiny bit (make sure you check out the newly added entries from Julián Ríos and Anthony Rudolf) and I will be working on some site housekeeping
Right, see you in a day or two.
Expect things to be pretty quiet around here over the next few weeks. The usual Christmas madness, coupled with a trip to Paris, plus some technical stuff Lee and I need to get on with means that there'll be precious little new content on the site for the next week or so. However, the ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2006 symposium will be up at the end of this week and, if I get the time, I'll also publish an astonishing essay, by Steve, on Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. In the New Year, the RSB minisites will be relaunched along with one or two other improvements to the site and its functionality. Additionally in 2007, I'll be taking on web-editor duties over at The Book Depository full time.
Very busy here, as you'd expect. So please don't expect too much posting from me over the next week or so. Today is my Dad's 60th birthday -- happy birthday Dad. On Monday, it is my Gran's funeral. Ironically, I'm working on a large essay about death and literature (due to appear in a Time Out guide to books sometime next year). And I'm listening to the wonderful work of William Basinski: melancholy tape loops of minor piano chords. Sad, of course, but very affecting and quite lovely.
Well, last week was a good one. A real challenge to write those long pieces each day for the Poetry Foundation (the permalink to my pieces is, as yet, only to Monday's article and it seems to have killed the warm comments I got too! Hopefully, the PF folks can get this remedied asap). I think, in the New Year, I'll try to do the same here on RSB. Not on a daily basis, mind, I couldn't keep that up, but I'll at least try to get in a weekly essay of about 1000 words. What would make most sense is tying the essay together with one of my Books of the Week, but, seriously, I'm just not that organised.
My beloved grandmother died yesterday evening at about 10pm. Today would have been her 97th birthday.
Sleep well, Gran.
All this week I'll be "guest-blogging" at the US Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. I'll be writing a longish (7/800 word) piece each day in their Journal (not sure about an individual RSS feed -- I'll check). My first piece, on Elizabeth Bishop, should be up later today. (I'll update this post when it goes live.)
Update: it's up!
Further update: the Journal's RSS feed
‘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 been asked (and I'm honoured, I must say) to guest-blog (I suppose you'd call it) for the (US) Poetry Foundation. Each week in their Journal section (sadly, and frustratingly, sans RSS) they get a poet or writer to write a journal entry for each day of "their" week discussing themselves and their reading. Last week, Rigoberto González took the floor. I'm up week-commencing November 27th.
I'm really thrilled. I don't write enough about poetry, and what it means to me, here on RSB, so this is a good chance to discuss (in slightly longer postings than I normally manage here) a number of poets that have recently been on my mind.
There are two poles to contend with, to negotiate, when reviewing. Especially with regard to new books, the pressure is to venture an opinion, the fear, I suppose, is "getting it wrong" (one misreads something or, perhaps worse, one believes something to be "good"; critical opinion all says "bad"); with established books, the fear is banality (simply reiterating what is already well-established) and, especially with books that have become "classics", daring to venture an opinion against the body of received academic lore. Saying anything about, for instance, Shakespeare would seem pointless or foolhardy. Notwithstanding that, and aware that I might fall flat on my face, I'd like to write some very provisional notes about To The Lighthouse.
I know precious little about Virginia Woolf. I have read one biography (Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life which I thought was excellent) and, now, two of her novels (I read Orlando many years back). I cannot even begin to pretend any great understanding of her work, but I do want to respond to To The Lighthouse, which I've just read, which moved me greatly. The novel seemed to confirm a personal maxim of mine, no doubt gleaned from the writings of Gabriel Josipovici, especially his The Lessons of Modernism, that we have not fully learnt all we could from Modernism, and that the questions Modernism asked, and the challenges that Modernism posed, remain with us today. Almost 80 years since it was written (it was published by the Woolf's own Hogarth Press in 1927) and To The Lighthouse still makes most modern fiction look tired, nescient and pointless. Almost 80 years since it was written and it still retains something vital and fresh.
How has the novel retained its freshness and vitality? Its form is as important as its content; its content is self-aware of the form through which it is being expressed. It is tender and intelligent; domestic and philosophical; it is aware of its artifice. In its central section, Time Passes, an obvious reference to Proust (Woolf was obsessed by Proust and noted in her journal his "tremendous sensibility & curiosity & intelligence"), the hinge between The Window (dominated by the thoughts and character of Mrs Ramsay and through whose perspective we see many of the other characters and see into her -- and their -- mind) and The Lighthouse (Lily Briscoe to the fore), the reader is moved, at pace, through time (ten years, the sympathetic fallacy of the declining house, and a war). The narratorial perspective shifts. For this section, we are outside looking in. And we learn, almost casually (shockingly, in parentheses) of Mrs Ramsay's death.
There is a compelling rhythm to the writing in The Window. We move back to a similar style in The Lighthouse. This reinforces the centrality of Time Passes and gives the novel's shape such strength. I'm uncomfortably using the term "stream of consciousness" (note, anyway, that the novel is all narrated in the third person) because is seems to me to have been degraded now to mean little more than a style marked by sentimental, mawkish interiority (what I often think of, in film, as the dreary expedient of the voiceover). Here the interior monologue is exquisitely handled: inquisitive, fickle, capricious, grounded. At the centre is war and death: Andrew Ramsay dies at the front, Prue Ramsay dies in an "illness connected with childbirth" and, as noted, Mrs Ramsay dies "rather suddenly".
Lily Briscoe doesn't go on the boat-trip with the family at the end of the novel (Mr Ramsay is now quite old, but his youngest child, Cam, is still only fifteen; his son, James, is sixteen). She stays in the garden, she remembers back to earlier times, and she paints. Indeed, she struggles to finish a portrait of Mrs Ramsay. Art has to contend, contain, contest death. Its contours are shaped by death. Charles Tansley who, earlier, cruelly and stupidly claimed that women could neither paint nor write, is also remembered. And dismissed. Lily has been struggling to get the perspective right for years. “It is finished,” Lily says. Carmichael the poet looks on.
Good friend of RSB, Edmund Hardy, was on Resonance FM on Sunday talking about Thomas Bernhard (and particularly about Bernhard's poetry, recently translated by RSB interviewee James Reidel in his In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon). First, I need to apologise for not letting y'all know about this. And secondly, I still owe Edmund an apology for not having written anything for his Douglas Oliver: Radial Symposium. I had hoped that Edmund's Bernhard appearance would be archived somewhere on the Resonance FM site, but I can't find it. If he is there, please leave a comment directing me. Thanks!
Well, I was going to stay in today, hide from the rain, and read David Peace's The Damned Utd., but news of the Manchester Book Market (via The Literary Saloon) has just filtered through the wires, so I guess I'll be off into town to buy books (and records: the new Susanna And The Magical Orchestra is out!)
The Manchester Book Market is a brand new initiative designed to give independent publishers and retailers, of books and magazines, the opportunity to sell their product directly to the public. The project was set up in response to a perceived under-representation of the independent book sector, in Manchester and, if successful, will hopefully grow from a one-off initiative to a regular fixture on the specialist market calendar.
The event has been will take place on the busiest shopping days of the week, Friday and Saturday, to give traders the best possible opportunity to make profit and promote their organisations to potential consumers. Also, St. Anne’s Square is considered to be the ‘best pitch in town’ as a central attraction for shoppers from all sides of the city. The addition of an outdoor coffee shop, and potentially live literary events, will help ensure that consumers are kept in the vicinity.
Right then! I'm just back from two weeks holiday in (very) sunny Crete. Today, I'll be catching my breath, but expect things to start coming alive again around here (and at the Book Depository) on Monday at the latest.
Don't expect much posting throughout August! I'm not sure when, where or even if a holiday is on the cards this year, but I do know I need to not look at another computer screen for a few weeks!
Currently I'm listening to:
The good folk at bloggasm ("Bloggasm is a media blog featuring interviews from the most interesting blogs around. In between interviews, we also talk about current events") have seen fit to interview yours truly. Far more interesting are some of the other "literature" folk they've interviewed (like George Murray from Bookninja for instance).
Do, please, forgive the radio silence. I've been away on a wee mini-break to Big London Town (I'd headed down because PN Review were having a 30th birthday bash). As well as the party, I did some wonderful tourist things (went to Sir John Soane's Museum and Dr Johnson's House and saw the excellent Modigliani and His Models exhibition at the Royal Academy). Now I'm back ... and I'm shattered.
In an idiotic, and supposedly ironic/funny, post entitled Big up your shelf, Sarah Crown, from whom I would have expected much better, has a swipe at the books that authors pick on the (certainly rather silly) summer reading lists that appear with regrettable regularity this time of year. She berates Alain de Botton for claiming he is "'looking forward to reading Gabriel Josipovici's new collection of essays The Singer on the Shore'. Essays: tick. Little-known (but highly respected) author: tick. Foreign (Josipovici was born in Nice): tick."
Josipovici may have been born in Nice, but he's lived here for the past fifty years! And anyone who has bothered to read The Singer on the Shore will know how essential it is: a superb -- and very readable, even welcoming -- collection.
So, what's the deal here? Just because it is slightly warmer in July/August than in April/May, I'm suddenly supposed to pretend that reading utter rubbish is somehow hip and ironic? I do wish the Guardian would stop coming out with this rubbish.
We have finally fully moved into our new home. All is madness: books everywhere; paperwork nowhere to be found; broadband access flakey. Hopefully, normal service will be resumed in the next couple of days, but forgive me if things don't move quite as quickly as normal here on RSB and if emails remained unanswered for a few days.
Very busy here ... and next weekend we move house. So that'll be fun. My books are mostly packed. I feel bereft, yet simultaneously freed from their gaze.
So, I don't think I'll get much time to blog today, but may I bring your attention to a couple of new reviews on the site? Ismo reviews The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell, Paul reviews War & War by László Krasznahorkai and Max reviews NW14: The Anthology of New Writing. Go read.
Mrs Book and I have just bought a house, so things are going to be pretty busy over the next few weeks. Please forgive me, in advance, for what it likely to be a paucity of posting!
Not much in this morning's post, but what came was wonderful: Alberto Manguel's short memoir (just 74 pages) With Borges (from Telegram Books, new imprint of Saqi Books); the Ingeborg Bachmann reader Last Living Words and Steve Katz's Antonello's Lion (Green Integer); and, thrillingly, two new CDs from the sublime Cold Blue Music - Daniel Lentz's On the Leopard Altar and Chas Smith's Descent.
In 1964, in Buenos Aires, Jorge Louis Borges, by this time blind, approached sixteen-year-old Alberto Manguel, then serving in a book shop, and asked if he would be interested in a part-time job reading aloud to the old writer. With Borges is "part memoir, part biography and all celebration of the living quality of literature."
Cold Blue Music is the leading exponent of West Coast minimalism and post-minimalism. "The label defines a certain ‘Southern California sound,’ uncluttered, evocative and unusual, with a wistful emotional edge."
I was at the last of this year's Human Sciences Seminars yesterday evening (Dr. Tanja Staehler (University of Sussex) giving an interesting paper on Plato and Levinas on Writing Law), so I missed last night's Analysis programme on Radio 4 presented by Kenan Malik, whose Man, Beast and Zombie: The New Science of Human Nature I enjoyed so much last year. In the programme, Malik was asking "whether humanism still has any meaning - and what politics might look like without a humanist impulse." You can access the programme online, at the BBC, for about the next week.
I'm stupidly ill with some awful 'flu thing. I'll be back to blogging on Monday after a weekend spent in bed (with Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl). In the meantime, do please take the time to read my interview with Los Angeles-based actor and photographer, and author of the wonderful Skip, David Newsom.
Sorry! I've been overwhelmed these past few days with all sorts of nonsense. Should be back to regular blogging by the middle of next week.
Thanks to Nigel Beale and D.G. Myers for responding to my question concerning what should be on a history of the novel reading list with long reading lists of their own. Both Nigel's and D.G.'s lists are very useful (and this bibliography from the University of Warwick has some good pointers too), but I'll compile one of my own here soon which is specifically just about the history of the novel itself. (For starters, my current Book of the Week, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: Volume 2, 1100 - 1400, would certainly be on it, as would Robert Mayer's excellent History and the Early English Novel and Nancy Armstrong's flawed engagement with Ian Watt, How Novels Think: The Limits Of Individualism From 1719-1900.)
Really, though, the last thing I should be doing is starting a new project! I'm run off my feet at the moment: we got over 120 submissions for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, (so lots and lots and lots of reading, but nothing I can talk about until after we've longlisted some of them); and I'm also working on getting all sorts of content together for the new look Book Depository website which will land some time in the next couple of weeks.
Whilst all that should be enough for anyone, I'm rather beside myself with excitement as The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940 (CUP) has just landed. A bottle of whisky and a few nights without sleep seem in order!
Finally, you'll have all no doubt noticed that Twitter has become all the rage -- despite having been around for quite a while now, it suddenly seems to have really taken off. RSB has had a Twitter page for ages now (and so has The Book Depository and BritLitBlogs), but I've relied on RSB's RSS feed to do all the tweeting for me and have not actually done much active tweeting myself. Well, expect that to change soon!
Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."
Not for me.
For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to write. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that simply tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.
Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.
The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in precisely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when Angustina dies). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, precisely because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us.
This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!