Archive | July, 2011

Good Things about Being Welsh: No.1

31 Jul

 

Walking out yesterday with the brother, daughter and dog, this sign might have taken us by surprise, had we not been Welsh, and therefore accustomed to such wonders. Whether or not Being Welsh is perceived as a blessing in the general run of things, when it comes to going out of a Saturday and walking a country mile, coming across a sign such as the one in my photo – and I assure you it is not a set-up – only serves to remind us of our inordinate good fortune. Consider the topography: a field dotted with sheep; an unmarked road – little more than a lane – overgrown hedgerow and fern; a sky not threatening rain. And a home-made sign pointing up the road, indicating that in this direction the traveller will find a restorative musical experience.  In Wales we too are suffering the crisis effected by the bastard bankers, but here, at least, we have fresh duck eggs, border collie pups, a few bags of spuds and a MALE VOICE CHOIR.

 

 

Hobo with a Shotgun

30 Jul

What is a picture of  Joseph Roth, chronicler of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire doing beneath this heading? Did Roth have a shotgun? Was he a hobo? In a way, the answer is yes to both questions, indirectly.

Last night I went to see this film simply on the strength of its title. Mrs Blanco chose not to accompany me after inspecting the trailer, so I went with Robin, who had dropped by with a copy of Patrick McGuinness’s excellent The Last Hundred Days, this week longlisted for the Man Booker prize, which I am reviewing for a newspaper and which will no doubt appear on this blog at a later date, and which I urge you all to read.

I do not however urge you to go and see Hobo with a Shotgun, not unless you have a very strong stomach. If you feel tempted to press play, and can endure the trailer, please be assured that it really does not do justice to the gratuitous nastiness of the film. There was a time, in London in the late 1970s when I enjoyed watching low budget exploitation or grindhouse movies: Death Weekend and Shivers are two that come to mind. But I don’t seem to have it in me now.

 

 

I’m not going to review this schlock, but I can reveal that apart from the early decapitation, there is also a graphic decocking, or involuntary penectomy. The script is pretty dire, although there is at least one memorable line: when the hobo, having saved his lady friend from a brutal encounter with a corrupt cop and, concealed by her beneath the corpse of the newly exploded policeman, they return to her apartment to prepare for their getaway, he comes out with: “I just gotta wipe this guy’s asshole off my face.” But for all the film’s many shortcomings – can we speak of shortcomings in a film from which we have such low expectations? – Rutger Hauer is craggily splendid.

And that brings me to the point: Rutger Hauer has played a vagrant before, in the film version of The Legend of the Holy Drinker, a little known gem, directed by Ermanno Olmi and released in 1988. The movie is based on the novella by Roth, himself a writer in the time-honoured tradition of the poet-vagabond. In the story, which is a kind of parable or fairy tale emanating, it seems to me, from the deep core of an alcoholic’s delirious wish-fulfilment, the beggar Andreas is presented with two hundred francs, which he promises to return, but in which task he repeatedly fails. However his humility and humanity constitute redemptive qualities amid the dissolution of his life, and the effect is oddly uplifting. In stark contrast to Hobo with a Shotgun, it is a powerfully atmospheric and exquisitely tender film, beautifully shot in Paris, notable also for being the last performance of the excellent Anthony Quayle. The extract below shows their first meeting near the bridge where Andreas sleeps.

 

 

If you cannot get hold of the film, try reading the novella: The Legend of the Holy Drinker was republished by Granta in 2001. Its author himself ended his days as an alcoholic in Paris, the city he loved, and to which he fled after Hitler’s rise to power. He was waiting, like other Jewish exiles, to be ‘wiped out’ once the Nazis showed up, as he knew they would. He lived in a cheap hotel and literally drank himself to death, passing away in hospital following days of delirium tremens in May 1939.

 

The past deforms the present: ‘Eye Lake’ by Tristan Hughes

29 Jul

The first sentence of Tristan Hughes’ new novel goes like this: “ I was casting out from the eastern shore of Eye Lake, opposite the second island, when I snagged the top of my grandfather Clarence’s castle.”

Imagine the past is a lake. Then something happens, maybe the feeder river is diverted and the lake very slowly begins to empty. The past is being revealed, almost imperceptibly, with every inch that the lake recedes, but the people in the town by the lake are mostly either too blind or too absorbed in their tired, meaningless lives to notice, or to care. Something like this happens in Eye Lake.

What lies below the lake is of very great concern to Eli, the narrator of the story; Eli, whom everyone considers rather simple, and whose quiet, steadfast manner and gentle integration in the outdoors life of the northern woods renders him little more than a feature of the landscape to the other inhabitants of Crooked River (population 2851 and falling, the cover blurb informs us). As the story progresses we begin to ask ourselves whether Eli’s ‘simpleness’ is not rather a simplicity of vision, an unsullied quality of pure, unprejudiced observation. Eli sees things as they are, rather than in ways fashioned by prejudice or the moribund acceptance of received knowledge.

This book is about the presence of the past, and about absences – great rifts, in fact – within the present. There are three disappearances, and something – we are not told what, of course – connects them. The lake is drying up, and with it, the soul of the town. This invites a different reading of the past, in a last attempt to save the town’s soul. Tristan Hughes has said in an interview that “the past doesn’t just inform the present: it deforms it”, and he has admitted to being slightly obsessed by the notion, something with which readers of his previous three novels will probably concur. The Tower, Send My Cold Bones Home and Revenant are all set on Anglesey, the island off the coast of north Wales where Hughes grew into adulthood on his father’s farm, having spent his early childhood in North Ontario, in a place very similar to Crooked River. The landscapes of these two settings are remarkably different, but both possess a quality of removedness from any centralizing or ascendant point of view, both breed a sense of self-containment or detachment from the concerns of a cluttered, metropolitan perspective. But despite the space or scale that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any easier to breathe the air there, or in these books, either. Each one of them is beautifully crafted; they flow with a sparse, melodic prose, evincing and yet just fighting shy of a sense of the epic. They contain fine, controlled writing, and a deceptively mellow yet insidiously menacing quality that is both arresting and disarming.

Hughes has cited as influences writers as diverse as William Faulkner, John Cowper Powys and Caradog Prichard, author of the Welsh-language classic One Moonlit Night. Such information is only partly helpful: there is a hint of the Gothic in Hughes’ writing, but it is never overt, far less overbearing. And, as another reviewer said of Send My Cold Bones Home, if Hughes is in the tradition of Powys, it is in the sense in which Malone Dies is in the tradition of Ulysses.

Someone said there are only two myths: the one in which the hero sets off on a journey, and the one where the hero stays at home. Hughes has commented that growing up on a small island instils both myths: its occupants seem torn more than ever between a desire for home and for elsewhere; of staying still or lighting out for the territories. The irony of a place like Crooked River – itself a sort of island – is that it was founded by a man who was lighting out for the territories but within a couple of generations had become a place in which its population is irrevocably trapped.

Do not read Eye Lake if you are looking for racy action or a lot of thrills. But if you value skilled, understated writing that worries its way below conscious thought, or are in the habit of waking up at four in the morning with a vague sense of having forgotten something crucial, this book might just be for you.

Blogging and the Myth of the ‘Real Me’

28 Jul

Masks in a shop in Venice

When you start doing something new, it makes sense to question why you are doing it. I started this blog two and a half weeks ago, a decision made on the spur of the moment, because I had hit a roadblock in a novel I am writing and wanted to create a diversion, or some form of prevarication or distraction – to see if any new ideas else came along, as they usually do. And to keep myself writing, rather than sink into the familiar mire of the pointlessness of everything that even a minor incident of self-doubt is likely to incite.

As if by magical coincidence, today’s news about Google+ insisting on its account holders using their real names coincides with a line of thought I was pursuing even as the news broke.

Thinking about blogging, specifically, and reflecting in more general terms on what we do and why we do it, I was leafing through old diaries, a useful resource for the blogger, and I found notes that I must have scribbled on a long plane trip three years ago. I was reading an article by Michael Greenberg, discussing his friend Lee Siegel, who writes about the Internet (there is another concern here, on the dangers of writing reviews of one’s friends’ books, which I will return to in another post). I discovered that Siegel has made the study of the internet his principal concern, and (as I later found out) for good reason. What he writes is largely dire and depressing: “You’re alone but you’re not alone, projecting yourself onto this screen with all these invisible people there, who, like you, aren’t who they say they are. When you change your identity, your language becomes corrupted. It becomes easier to tell lies. You think you’re chatting with someone, but who is it? As often as not you’re consorting with your own demons.” And there’s more: “it’s a triumph of capitalism  . . .  people learn to package themselves. They perform their privacy. We want to believe we’re expressing our individuality, but to stand out in cyberspace, to become viral” (he means popular, I guess) “you must be able to sound more like everyone else than anyone else.” Siegel’s book is called Against the machine: being human in the age of the Electronic Mob. The book appears to be out of print already.

Among other useful observations, Siegel is doubtless right in saying that “the Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind.” It has caused a thorough reassessment of what it means to be an individual in contemporary culture. However while it is one thing for American or European critics to swing out against the internet and bloggers  – and what Siegel sensationally calls  ‘blogofascism’ (this tiresome use of ‘fascism’ as a suffix actually distracts us from the truth that genuine fascism – pace Mussolini – is alive and kicking, as recent events in Norway have so tragically illustrated) and the truly significant developments in the Arab world and Iran, in particular, would suggest there are many ways in which the Internet, and blogging, in particular, have provided a crucial link to the wider world when oppressive governments murder and abuse their people, and as a lifeline for individuals facing persecution and discrimination.

Siegel also writes nonsense in relation to TV programmes like American Idol or the X Factor. “Popular culture,” he argues, “used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what everyone else likes.” I would argue that the forces of capitalism that direct and control ‘popular culture’ have always worked on the principle that people are drawn towards ‘what everyone else likes’. My brief stint in the world of advertising would have taught me that, over three decades ago, if it hadn’t been bloody obvious anyway.

Siegel’s comments on the internet and blogging take on a different cast when one reflects that he was suspended from his job as correspondent for The New Republic when it was discovered that while working for the magazine he was posting commentaries – in the name of his alter ego, called ‘sprezzatura” – referring to his own (Siegel’s) brilliance. Does the phrase ‘consorting with your own demons’ ring a bell here? He specifically denied being Siegel when challenged by an anonymous detractor in the magazine’s feedback section. And (here I am relying on his Wikipedia entry) in response to readers who had criticized his negative comments about a well-known American chat-show host, Jon Stewart, ‘sprezzatura’ wrote, “Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep”.

There seems to be some justification, then, for his asking: “You think you’re chatting with someone, but who is it?” and to pose that tired old cliché about ‘our real identity’. Besides, what is this ‘real me’ that American cultural critics and self-help writers throughout the world are so hell-bent on revealing – and which the Internet is attributed such terrible powers in concealing? Actually there will always be a minority (predatory paedophiles, racists etc) who will abuse any system where greater freedoms of movement and communication are taken as a right: it is one of the defects of living in a modern democratic society (viz. recent events in Norway, again). But would we be prepared to sacrifice those freedoms for the sake of a few sick individuals?

Returning to Siegel and his attack on blogging, hasn’t he got all this about our ‘real identity’ a bit wrong? Having had his own mask pulled off, he wants no one else to have one, like a spoiled brat whose party prank went adrift. What is wrong with the wearing of masks? All of us do it all of the time, constantly removing and replacing masks at social events, in different relationships, even within the course of a single conversation.  Not one of us remains intrinsically the same organism for very long, and besides, every cell in our body is routinely replaced, so that within a periodic span you are actually composed of distinct molecular matter. It is not necessary, as Western culture dictates (particularly in its insistence through religion and, subsequently, through psychotherapy) to be constantly striving to discover who is the ‘real me’ behind the mask: sufficient that we live a shifting, amorphous sequence of roles, one often leading into another, one more appropriate to a particular setting than another, but none of them in place merely to obscure something else, none of them out to prevent the ‘real me’ from struggling free in some kind of monotheistic melodrama in which the individual is God, and in which truth is absolute and inviolable. So I am happy to be Ricardo Blanco, even if at times he merges with the person known as Richard Gwyn. But Blanco also reserves the right within that broad persona (the Latin for mask) to give expression to his love of play and of carnival, to reveal from time to time his countless others, to give them free rein upon the earth, to send them forth to multiply merrily in the vaunted and limitless pastures of cyberspace.

Kafka and Obsession

27 Jul
3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka

Image via Wikipedia

“Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!

Never before, I suggest, has this ejaculation been used in conjunction with the life or writings of Franz Kafka, as occurred in a somewhat cavalier fashion at the end of my last post. Huzzah or Huzza, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is “a sort of cheer, hurrah . . . a sailor’s cheer or salute, possibly an alteration of earlier hissa a cry also said to be used by sailors in pulling or hauling (about 1500)”. However this is not the only interpretation of its origin, as the Wikipedia entry makes clear. Whether or not Kafka ever said ‘Huzzah’ or its equivalent in German or Czech, is uncertain.

But Huzzah for Kafka, I say, in any case. He has helped me through many a writing crisis, leading by example; the practical example, for one, of how to apply oneself when you have another, proper job to go to and yet still feel compelled to write (Kafka worked as an insurance officer, and wrote at night). And while Anthony Trollope would get up at four or five in the morning and put in three hours’ work before setting off for the Post Office, one gets the impression that writing didn’t cleave his soul in twain in quite the same way.

Kafka has been the subject of essays by just about every writer on twentieth century literature worth their salt. From Nabokov to Zadie Smith, from Borges to J.M. Coetzee, it seems an imperative part of a writer’s CV to have an opinion on Kafka. And why? In his essay ‘Literature + Illness = Illness’  Roberto Bolaño gives us a clue: “the greatest writer of the twentieth century understood that the dice were cast, and from the day he first spat blood nothing came between him and writing.”

The answer to his continuing centrality in the canon of world literature lies not only in his widespread acceptance (among other writers of note, at least) as ‘the greatest writer of the twentieth century’ but in Kafka’s intense personification of the writer obsessed by writing. Looking at some extracts from Maurice Blanchot’s essay ‘Kafka and Literature’, we can see why. “Everything that is not literature bores me.” “Everything that does not have to do with literature I hate.” “All I am is literature, and I am not willing to be anything else”. Not necessarily the kind of person you would want to be seated next to at a dinner party.

This notion of literature as a calling, at least in so fiery a formula, is not something that most citizens can relate to, even if it is common knowledge that writers, or any artist caught up in the throes of creative activity will become inaccessible for stretches of time, when the rest of the world is blanked out and only the job in hand seems to have any meaning.  It brings to mind the similar one-track-mindedness of the person hopelessly in love, which the ancient Greeks considered a form of madness. And is this cast of mind, this personification of the obsessed and almost transcendentally ‘removed’ author, one that still has salience today? Or is it a remnant of the late Romanticism that had its final explosive moment in the modernist movement of the early twentieth century, and has no relevance to us now, except as a tired and embarrassing pose? I am genuinely confused by all this, and have the impression that there is still a myth of the terminally obsessed artist just as there is the myth of the Dionysian and self-destructive artist discussed in my post of 12th July on Dionysus and The Doors. The prevailing myth, sustained by Hollywood, is that the artist has to be an obsessed sociopath, but in my experience it is a question of degree. Some of the finest artists live out their lives like deranged beasts, while others drink tea from bone china cups, and discuss the lateness of the roses. I believe there is room for both varieties, and more. The further we get away from stereotypes of any kind, the more comfortable I am in my own skin. I wonder what other people think?

How to talk about books you haven’t read (and how to write like Kafka)

26 Jul

 

 

I wake up early, make tea, return to bed, and start reflecting on the many, many books that I have not read, that I will in all probability never read. In an attempt to console myself (not that I am really all that bothered), I recall Pierre Bayard’s highly entertaining How to talk about books you haven’t read, which I always recommend to students at the university. It was a significantly more rewarding read than the title might suggest. And as for the techniques of reading a huge amount at speed: why bother? Unless, of course you are judging some competition and are required to read ninety novels in a month, in which case I have heard it is a good idea to read the first two chapters and the last, and if they are promising, to read the bits in between. In fact that might be a good attitude to apply to all fiction reading: It is horrible being caught up in a novel that you don’t want to be reading – in fact there are a thousand things you would rather be doing – but you somehow feel obliged to finish. The last time I had that experience was with Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I thought quite dreadful, but out of some obscure sense of obligation, perhaps for once having enjoyed Money – I plodded on like an earnest foot-soldier to the bitter end. And then I decided: no more. No longer will I make myself finish the long book that is boring me to tears. So Bayard’s advice is well heeded. If you want to find out more, read his book. Besides – returning to my original line of thought – no one has read everything, not even Borges. But that needn’t stop you talking as if you had, according to Bayard, at least.

That there are so many books in the world would indicate that there is a lot to write about, but this does not always seem to be the case for the aspiring writer. Undergraduate students at the university where I teach often complain of not having anything to write about, by which they mean that their resources are limited by age and experience (a bit like applying for your first job). One way around this is to heed the advice given by Kafka, that “you don’t sit in your room and set out to write a story; if you just wait for it to happen, it will”. This might have been the way it was for Kafka: it certainly doesn’t always work with my students. But hang on (I hear you say) – where and when did Kafka say this? I have just lifted it from my notebook, because on 18th June, following my appearance with the delightful and hilarious Sandi Toksvig on Excess Baggage, I pootled along to the British Museum, where the London Review of Books was hosting a series of talks on World Literature. I walked in on a session with the Galician novelist Manuel Rivas, and the scribble in my notebook can be attributed to him. What he was attempting to summarize, from Kafka’s notebooks, was this: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Which is rather different, but probably still of not much help to my students, who would willingly beg, borrow, or steal their £9k a year fees to have anything rolling in ecstasy at their feet. What student writers regularly misunderstand is that they have to actually start writing before the ideas happen: they will arrive at the ideas through the practice of writing. Ideas don’t necessarily always ignite the writing: the writing can ignite the ideas. That’s why I always recommend them to just start writing, anything, freewriting or even nonsense, just to get into the swing of it, and then, with luck, the ideas will come.

Rivas came up with another quotation that I have no means of verifying, from Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom I last studied in any detail as a student at the LSE many years ago. According to Rivas, L-S said that in Greek times people and animals shared the same earth. Which I liked enough to jot down in my notebook also (they are the only two jottings from the Rivas talk). I love the idea of people and animals sharing the earth in respectful harmony, and for that reason have chosen a picture by Franz Marc to head this entry, Marc had a keen sensibility to the animal world, and was famous for going everywhere with his large white dog.

As a postscript, Mrs Blanco was a little concerned that I may have given the impression in my blog of 24th July that she did not think I was passionate. To set the record straight, this is neither the impression I meant to give, nor is it the opinion that she holds, and would add that a love of books is by no means incompatible with a passionate nature.

And finally, living proof that, as Goethe said, by simply making the effort to do something, the forces of providence will begin to move with you (or something like that) I find – while on my search for the correct wording of the one about sitting in your room and waiting, another quote from Kafka’s diaries for all aspiring bloggers (who are the diarists of our era), from February 25, 1912: “Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!

 

 

Why write novels?

25 Jul

I just read Claire Keegan’s ‘The Forester’s Daughter’, from her 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields. It is a story of smouldering regret and awful intelligence, and has the emotional punch of a novel compacted into forty pages. This is a timely read for me, as it revives two questions: why read novels, and the more pressing one of why write them?

The novel, as I was personally reminded in an email correspondence only last week, demands linking passages, backstory, explanation, exposition, all manner of tedious filler that somehow has to be presented as though it were integral to the process.

You might argue that this is what the good novelist does – and that this is what differentiates the good from the mediocre. But why would you go to all that trouble when you can say what you need to say in 40 pages, as Keegan manages so effectively in ‘The Forester’s Daughter’? We are given a small community in rural Ireland, an old house, a farm, and a family: Deegan, Martha, their children (the son who wants out, the simpleton second boy, and the daughter, a rare bird, and a dog). The father, while not utterly wretched, is a man whose poor judgement is capable of snuffing out all capacity for love and trust. The story’s purpose is achieved without the excess 250 pages or more of padding that a novel would necessitate and the reader is left with something like enlightened gratitude rather than that familiar struggle just to get to the end – a condition I almost inevitably find myself in when reading novels these days. In an earlier piece on Borges in this blog I quoted the Argentinian as saying: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” If only more people heeded this advice, there would be less junk to get through.

Most novelists I talk to tell me that at least one point in the writing of every book they ask themselves why exactly they are doing this. It is exhausting, obsessive, wrecks your sleep, and, unless you are in a tiny minority, will make you a negligible amount of money, or none at all. And yet there is a widespread prejudice in the publishing world, and among readers, that the novel is somehow the highest achievement for a writer, and it is the writing of a bestselling novel that, whoever might say otherwise, still motivates most students applying for an MA in Creative Writing.

I write to a friend that I am working on a novel that I started five years ago and have been dipping in and out of ever since, trying to find where it wants me to go. At one point I was 35,000 words in. Now I am 20,000 words in, and shrinking. I am approaching the task with enthusiasm for a shorter word count by the day, and also with a healthy skepticism for the genre of the novel itself.

In the past I might have said I read novels in the remote expectation that the writer will tell me something interesting in a new or stimulating way, but now that I write them, I am not so sure. I write for the same reason that I read: to explore, to seek out boundaries, to ask questions for which there are no simple answers and whose scope or complexity cannot be abridged by the shorter form of the story. But after reading a story like The Forester’s Daughter’ I have to wonder whether that is necessarily the case.

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