Tag Archives: Jorge Luis Borges

Three things I learned from Cavafy

20 Feb
Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy (from the Cavafy archive)

For a long time, while I was tramping around southern Europe, escaping the collective embarrassment that was Britain in the 1980s, I carried with me the poems of CP Cavafy. Other books I picked up and discarded along the way, but Cavafy, in one edition or another, stayed with me for much of the decade. I forget the precise circumstances that led to me making this choice, but most likely it was not a choice at all; I suspect the book was dropped into my bag by a passing sprite, concerned for the welfare of an ephebe like myself, setting out into solitary exile to learn, among other things, the road of excess and the skills of guile and trickery. It would suit my story if this were the case, but the truth is I had been reading Cavafy since I was sixteen, and once he had become a staple of my travels, I didn’t feel properly equipped without him. A slim volume, joined during those early years by Borges’ Fictions and Calvino’s Invisible Cities. These three books had three things in common: they were all small-scale and dense; they all subverted familiar stylistic mannerisms; and they were all conceived in the element of mercury. One thing I didn’t know then was that forty years later I would still be reading Cavafy, with more curiosity than ever.

If we are lucky, we get the writers we deserve, and at the right time of life. Reading Cavafy at a young age nurtured in me the then enthralling (but now merely fashionable) notion that time is not a linear construct, but rather resembles a shifting, mutable state in which past and present might be accessed simultaneously. Cavafy’s poetry, as Patrick Leigh Fermor once wrote, skilfully interweaves time and myth and reality, allowing for a particular kind of mutability, an ability to flit between perceptive modes that, once grasped, will stay with the reader always. If that sounds grandiose, I would like to clarify: there is no distinction in these poems – I would like to say in life, also – between what is imagined and the literal or mechanistic world of everyday understanding, and we must appreciate that this is essential to a proper appraisal of Cavafy. There is no point in conceding to the sordid demand for what ‘really happened’, claiming that any other version is a fantasy or a dream, and that reality is ‘out there’, the other side of the window, any more than one can discern, in Cavafy’s work, between the literal Alexandria and the one held in his imagination. In Cavafy’s poetic world the two are one and they merge, diverge and re-converge continually.

When I was eighteen I spent a summer living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut on a hillside overlooking the Libyan sea in southern Crete, near the tiny village of Keratokambos. Reading outside one evening, I heard an exchange of voices. In the near distance, some way above me, a man and a woman were calling to each other, each voice lifting with a strange and powerful vibrancy across the gorge that lay between one flank of the mountain and the next. Only the nearer figure, the man, was visible, and his voice seemed to rebound off the wall of a chasm, half a mile away. The woman remained out of sight, but her voice likewise drifted across the gorge, with crystalline clarity. There were perhaps a dozen exchanges: and then silence. I listened, spellbound. And that brief exchange, that shouted conversation, with its strange sounds, the tension between the voices, the exhalations and long vowels echoing off the sides of the mountain, would haunt me for years, haunts me still. They seemed to me to be speaking across time, that man and woman. Their ancestors, or possibly they themselves, had been having that conversation, exchanging those same sounds, for millennia. It was, for me, a lesson in the durability of human culture and at the same time, the incredible fragility of our lives; the conversation, the calling across the chasm, represented our ultimately solitary and unique chance at communication with a presence beyond ourselves. It was the vocal correlative of a strange sensation that I had experienced since first arriving in Crete: everywhere I went I was walking on bones, walking on the bones of the dead; and now I was hearing the echo of their voices as well.

In ‘Ionic’, translated more recently by Daniel Mendelsohn as ‘Song of Ionia’, Cavafy sums up an exemplary moment, suggesting that despite the destruction of their monuments and statues, the old gods still dart among the hills on the coast of Ionia (today’s western Anatolia), and it concludes with the lines:

 

When an August morning dawns over you,

your atmosphere is potent with their life,

and sometimes a young ethereal figure

indistinct, in rapid flight,

wings across your hills.

 

Here, the ‘young ethereal figure’ is surely Hermes. He is, after all, the winged god, and the god of transition and boundaries, and therefore more than likely to be seen at dawn, in the breach between night and day. Perhaps the Hermes association is personal, owing to the fact that in my experience, Hermes, god of travellers, was almost always the one who came to sort out the mess after Dionysos had wreaked his havoc. It seems likely, according to Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderfully thorough notes that Cavafy, too, was thinking of Hermes, although I did not know this when I first read the poem.

That the past cohabits eternally with the present is a specifically Cavafian notion, and this subversion of linear time was the first thing I learned from his poetry. The second was his unique conceptualisation of place, in relation to the city with which his name has become ineluctably associated, Alexandria. As Edmund Keeley points out, Cavafy was the first of his contemporaries (woh included Yeats, Pound, Joyce and Eliot in the English-speaking world) to ‘project a coherent poetic image of the mythical city that shaped his vision’. His poetic vision – even when concerned with matters of erotic desire, which it often is – involves a constant pursuit of ‘the hidden metaphoric possibilities, the mysterious invisible processions, of the reality one sees in the literal city outside one’s window’. Cavafy takes the idea of the city and expands upon it so that it carries mythic significance. The poem he chose to begin his first pamphlet of work, distributed among friends, is, significantly, ‘The City’. The poem is addressed to one whose life is bound by literal time and literal thought while, by contrast, the poet-narrator lives according to other parameters, which are timeless. Like other great poets Cavafy mythologises a personal landscape so that it becomes universal:

 

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

 

The poet’s difficulties over the composition of ‘The City’ – fifteen years lapsing between the first draft in 1894 and publication – are perhaps a reflection of Cavafy’s uncertainty over whether or not he wanted to settle permanently in Alexandria, or himself ‘find some other city’, like the protagonist of his poem. ‘What trouble, what a burden small cities are’, the forty-four year-old poet complained in an unpublished note, dated 1907. He apparently made up his mind to stay by 1910, the year that ‘The City’ was published. It would seem that around this time he experienced an epiphany or at least a shift in his trajectory as a writer, deciding that his destiny lay with Alexandria, and that he would probably never leave. The choice of ‘The City’ as the lead poem in published selections of his work is as intentional as, say, Wallace Stevens’ insistence on ‘Earthy Anecdote’ opening all collected editions of his poetry.       Alexandria became, from that point on, the principle vehicle for his poetic imagination. Conscious of this, he again addresses the theme of leaving the city – actually of being abandoned by the personified city – in ‘The God Abandons Anthony’, when the speaker admonishes the Roman general, who was closely associated with the god Dionysos, at the moment of departure:

 

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear

an invisible procession going by

with exquisite music, voices,

don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,

work gone wrong, your plans

all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:

as one long prepared, and full of courage,

say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.

Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say

it was a dream, your ears deceived you:

don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these . . .

 

It is this self-degradation with false hopes, this yearning for the sacred centre, the object of desire that can never be attained, the love that will never be requited, which makes of all of us an Anthony. Whenever one thinks one has arrived at one’s destination, then will be the time to move on. There is no way of making peace with any objective, real or imagined, until one has first made peace with oneself, and the process is self-perpetuating, and the cities mount up. ‘The more you travel’ as the Turkish poet Adnan Özer writes, ‘the more cities you will find within yourself’.

So, the second thing I learned from Cavafy was that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of Alexandria, but we also know that the city is a state of mind – one’s personal predicament, and the human predicament also – from which we can never be free.

The third thing I learned from Cavafy is that we are always at risk of misreading the signs and portents that surround us: arrogance and self-satisfaction dim our vision and make us ridiculous. It is a favourite theme of Cavafy’s, most often delivered with a profound sense of irony. Let us consider the poem ‘Nero’s deadline’:

 

Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard

what the Delphic Oracle had to say:

“Beware the age of seventy-three.”

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

the god has given him is quite enough

to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome –

but wonderfully tired from that journey

devoted entirely to pleasure:

theatres, garden-parties, stadiums . . .

evenings in the cities of Achaia . . .

and, above all, the delight of naked bodies . . .

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

secretly musters and drills his army –

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.

 

At a superficial reading, the conceited, megalomaniac Nero, cosseted by the apparently safe verdict of the oracle, is undone by his comprehensive misunderstanding of its hidden message. But as Mendelssohn points out, the poem does more than make fun of Nero’s self-satisfied complacency, it puts forward Galba as the avenging hero, come from obscurity in his old age to save Rome. However, Galba, in turn, was a disaster for Rome, his greed and lack of judgement causing him to be murdered seven months after his accession as Emperor, on the orders of Marcus Salvius Otho, a fellow-conspirator against Nero. (Otho, incidentally, lasted only three months as Emperor before stabbing himself in the heart). ‘Nero’s deadline’ offers a cinematic vignette of power’s corrupting influence. And by omitting Galba’s own downfall – assuming, as he so often does, that the interested reader, if curious enough, will find out – Cavafy adds a layer of hidden significance to a piece that already works as a denunciation of grandiosity and hubris. The poem reveals betrayal lying beneath betrayal, all of it stemming from overreaching and a smug belief in one’s own achievements, only for each incumbent to meet with a grisly end.

I wanted to write this essay in order to find out why Cavafy has held such a longstanding fascination for me as a reader (and therefore as a writer, since the two activities are composite: we read, at least in part, in order to learn, or to steal). I have discussed three things that are particularly important in my own understanding of his work. But there is something else, greater than the sum of its parts, which asserts this man’s comprehensive poetic vision. Cavafy was a poet who, throughout his life, was – in Seferis’ words – “constantly discovering things that are new and very valuable”. It may be that this capacity for discovery, a reflexivity regarding his personal as well as a collective Hellenic past, his subtly revelatory intelligence, are somehow transmitted onward, and we, as readers, are infected by his own enthusiasms. “He left us with the bitter curiosity that we feel about a man who has been lost to us in the prime of life,” wrote Seferis. This is not simply on account of his relatively small output, but because of its seeming unity of construction and purpose, its sense of unfulfilled possibility, and the poet’s curiosity at being in a world in which past and present merge in an invisible procession.

Translations from the Greek are by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1990. The references to Daniel Mendelssohn concern the notes to his own translations in C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, Harper Press, 2013.

First published  as ‘An Invisible Procession: How reading Cavafy changed my life’, in Poetry Review, 103:3   Autumn 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patagonian People

4 Sep

gaucho and horse

Driving with Hans Schulz towards the Alerces National Park on Monday, we passed this gaucho, who allowed us to take his photo. He was accompanied by four large dogs, who sniffed me respectfully but, like the horse, knew exactly who was boss. He gave his name as Muñoz, and looked after cattle belonging to a landowner from Bariloche.

LunedLuned González, above, great-granddaughter of one of the original Welsh settlers, EdwinRoberts. A formidable personage, and the individual who got the machinery into gear for our visits to Trelew and Gaiman.

AzdinI met this market stallholder, who gave his name as Azdin, in the Andean town of El Bolsón, a town colonised as a hippy settlement in the 1970s, and still carrying a distinctly alternative flavour. Azdin came to Argentina as a refugee from the Algerian civil war and was ‘adopted’ by a Welsh family in Trelew. He sold herbal remedies for ailments ranging from constipation to madness, but refused to accept payment because, he said, he loved the Welsh people, who had taken him in and looked after him when he first arrived in the country.

 Hans Schulz 1Argentine anthropologist and writer Hans Schulz, pictured above, a ridiculous optimist, and all-round good egg. Hans drove us all the way across Patagonia with incorrigible good humour, was a wonderful source of stories and useful information, as well as somehow managing to negotiate free board and lodging for all eight members of the Writers Chain expedition at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, the Llao Llao, near Bariloche.

And, as further evidence of our intrepid journey to the heart of all things:

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela café, Buenos Aires.

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela Café, Buenos Aires.

Karen 'Chuckie' Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

 Explorer and hired secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.


Explorer and secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.

The other side of the other

22 Jan
Cat in Sultanahmet

Cat in Sultanahmet

 

In my last post I mentioned that perennial companion and source of consternation, the other, the doppelganger, the one who walks beside us, both ourselves and not ourselves.

I cited the introduction from Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul, but cut the quotation short. I did this on purpose, because Pamuk leads off into the dark side of the other, to the fear of replication that beset him when he once came to grips with the awfulness of one’s own doubling:

On winter evenings, walking through the streets of the city, I would gaze into other people’s houses through the pale orange light of home and dream of happy, peaceful families living comfortable lives. Then I would shudder, thinking that the other Orhan might be living in one of these houses. As I grew older, the ghost became a fantasy and the fantasy a recurrent nightmare. In some dreams I would greet this Orhan – always in another house – with shrieks of horror; in others the two of us would stare each other down in eerie, merciless silence.

‘As I grew older’. There’s the rub. Just as all literature leads us back to children’s stories, as Borges notes, so, in an inverse sense, stories that begin as childhood diversions, of daydreaming and harmless fantasy, with time become the stuff of nightmares. The prospect of possessing (or being in the possession of, possessed by) a double, a version of oneself both intimate and foreign, both known and unknowable, intrudes into consciousness with the stealth of a thief, come to steal our bones, come to steal our soul.

After reading my last post, The one who walks alongside us, a friend commented that in Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’, he refers to the terror implicit in the concept of the double, the creeping horror of replicating something long known to us, once very familiar, but which has now become terrifying. What could be more familiar to us – and therefore possess the greatest potential for horror – than ourselves?

In literature, notably in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard, we frequently encounter something approaching a paranoid state revolving around the persecution of the ego by its double. Otto Rank, Freud’s precursor in the study of the double, compares these imaginary creations to their authors’ symptoms, through which the theme of the double reveals a psychopathological dimension. Well . . . you might see it that way, you might even, as Freud suggests, see the expression of the double as a symptom of the ego’s inability to outgrow the narcissistic phase of early childhood, but that would be to pathologize a great number of writers, and I don’t for one moment believe in the notion that you have to be mentally ill to be intrigued by the notion of a double, or to write effectively on this theme, or to be encouraged to think there may be some profound connection between an awareness of one’s own otherness (expressed in many ‘traditional’ cultures as an animistic belief in immortality) – or to believe that after a certain age it should be regarded as an unhealthy or pathological condition.

We all possess the ability to imagine ourselves as other, and this imagining, or daydreaming, is the beginning of all literature. How appropriate then, that when a writer sets out to put down an account of his or her own life, they seem best able to do this by imaging their story as one that happened to someone else. It seems to be the core paradox that confronts anyone who writes a memoir, and has certainly been my own experience.

Pamuk too, apparently: “I’d have liked to write my entire story this way – as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to enchantment.”

More to follow. Written either by me, or the other bloke.

 

View from Megara Palace

 

Sultanahmet shack

 

Flying carpet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random fragments

8 Jul

Italo Calvino

 

In El País, Javier Cercas writes on the qualities of silence. He tells a story about a meeting between Borges and the famously reserved Italian novelist Italo Calvino in Seville in 1984, at a conference they were attending. Calvino’s wife, Chichita was an Argentinian, and an old friend of Borges, who was, by this time, completely blind. The two of them, like true porteños, dived straight into conversation, and it was a while before Chichita mentioned to Borges that her husband, Italo, was also present.  Yes, replied Borges, I know. But how, said Chichita, when he hasn’t said a single word? I recognized him by his silence, said Borges.

I read this last month, while spending a few days in Spain, where I visited the beach near Llança quite late most afternoons. At this time of year, mid-June, most of the beachgoers are locals, and I was alarmed to notice the numbers of obese Spanish children and teenagers. Whereas, living in Britain, we have become accustomed to this, and have lived with it continuously since the nineties at least (if not from the days of Billy Bunter) in Spain it has been a radical and a rapid transformation. When I first visited Spain in 1959 (where I spent my third birthday at the house of the Langdon-Davies’s in Palamós) it was still in the cycle of post civil-war poverty, before the influx of mass tourism. Then there was the transition, after 1975, and the hedonistic explosion of social life in the cities; then the property boom, and the rocketing of house prices. When I returned to Spain in the mid 1990s every other car was a BMW or a 4 x 4, and everyone was up the gunnels with debt (as they still are) and now, inevitably, the country has reached the final and definitive stage in the establishment of a global economy: the children are fat.

So, as I read the newspaper, I cannot avoid the sight of a group of pudgy 11 year olds, munching Pringles and gobbling Magnum ice creams, all washed down with cans of Red Bull. How depressing this sight is. Ten years ago, when we lived here and my children went to the local school, these same kids would have been content with a ham or cheese sandwich, an orange and a bottle of water. I acknowledge there is a massive tendency for people to overrate the benefits of the past, but this is no exaggeration. The change towards childhood obesity is visible and has been incredibly swift. I cannot see the Spanish footballers of the future emulating Xavi, Iniesta et al, if they follow a diet of this kind.

Yesterday was the last day my younger daughter Rhiannon spent as a teenager. She and I went shopping at the supermarket together and she chose a few items, which she kept separately, in her own basket. As she went to pay I saw that in it were two cartons of Pringles, half a bottle of Gordon’s gin (a birthday present for her best mate) and two packets of Jelly Tots. Could the paradoxical state of being a teenager ever be more eloquently expressed, caught between the comforts of childhood and the terrors of adulthood?

Jelly Tots candy packaging

Jelly Tots candy packaging (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Fiesta

29 Mar

 

We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.

The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.

There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.

The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.

In the end it all went swimmingly, although  afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.

 

Andrés Neuman

 

 

. . . in conversation with Blanco

 

 

Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson

 

 

Tiffany Atkinson

 

 

Tess and Charles take a break

 

 

Jorge explains a crucial point

 

 

Los tres amigos

 

 

The whole sick crew? - Barry, Boyle, Neuman, Fondebrider, Blanco, Mulcahy, Hughes.

 

 

 

 

 

Great writer = good person? Not on your Nelly.

22 Feb
Para cuándo el Nobel de Literatura. Barcelona ...

Image via Wikipedia

Is there any correlation between being a great writer and being a good person? I recall reading somewhere in an interview with Borges that he seemed to think that a truly great writer was likely be a good person (without looking too closely at what either of these rather dubious terms actually means).

Not on the evidence of a recent literary event I attended, in which a world-famous and excellent poet showed himself to be a bit of a rotter, and a really dreadful poet, by contrast, turned out to be quite a decent fellow, if a little on the dim side.  All this should not surprise anyone. Writers are just like other people, but more so, because nowadays they are expected to be visible in ways that they never were before. This accounts for a lot.

There is also the factor that once a person receives recognition and rewards, they achieve a status that automatically confers a degree of power, and as is well known, power is the most corrupting influence known to humanity.

So no, don’t expect great writers to be good people, in fact the chances are that there is a higher proportion of total shits among them than elsewhere, as so many writers have extraordinarily inflated egos. Which makes it all the more agreeable when you meet an exceptionally good writer who is also a decent person. Fortunately, there are a few of them around too.

In other words, as Bob Dylan frequently reminds us, and I have always maintained, we are all pretty much the same in our differences, whatever our profession or calling, and that power – as we all know – corrupts.

 

 

 

At Swim-Two-Birds and an absence of frantic sorrow

14 Jan

 

My favourite novel when I was nineteen years of age and had just moved to London was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and it was with some pleasure that I dipped into an article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books last week entitled ‘Flann O’Brien’s lies’. The essay weaves a fascinating connecting thread between O’Brien’s Dublin, Borges’s Buenos Aires and Pessoa’s Lisbon, and considers these three writers as sharing a fundamental sense of marginality, living in these sea-facing cities, all three of them writing fictions in which ‘they invented further personae and indeed further worlds’ –  all three of them writing under alternative identities.

‘An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst.’

Thirst was certainly a passion of O’Brien’s, and it eventually killed him, though this, of course, is not what Tóibín means, strictly speaking.

I have always thought At Swim-Two-Birds was O’Brien’s best book. Although people generally go on about The Third Policeman, I was never such a fan. The Poor Mouth – his own translation of his Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht –  was hilarious, although I daresay I missed a lot of the nuances. The rest of his work, notably The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are derivative or cannibalistic of his earlier stuff. The newspaper column in The Irish Times was fabulous. But with his first book, O’Brien achieved something he would never quite manage again.

‘The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer recreates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.’

The article also quotes an extract from Henry James, which indicates precisely the kind of novelist James despaired of, and precisely the kind of writer O’Brien was: one who had not the remotest interest in earnestly capturing a particular quality of truth that pretends or claims to be lodged in reality, and who thereby recognizes that ‘realism’ is itself only a particular, stylised mode of representation. For O’Brien, and others like him, the point of fiction lies elsewhere, and largely, though not exclusively, in the telling itself.

Finally, Tóibín cites an absolute gem from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that is one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’

 

 

 

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