Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

Killing your darlings

1 Jan

2014

For the past few years, whenever people ask me the dread question of ‘what are you working on’ I have mumbled something about a novel called The Blue Tent. The truth is, I have been writing TBT, on and off, since 2006, although the process has been interrupted by other projects, including a memoir  and a couple of volumes of translation. However, the writing and completion of the novel has always re-emerged as a pressing need, like an addiction, or (I imagine) a particularly demanding affair with a psychotic lover. I had to get the book done. I needed to have completed another novel (note the pseudo-retrospective quality of this thought). I finished the first full draft in September 2012 and have been revising, when time allows, ever since. The Blue Tent became my secret life. My closest friends even knew it by name, but none of them had read a word of it. I became irritable when not working on it, and fractious when I was. At times I would resort to talking the book up: writing it, I told myself, I would discover what kind of a writer I really was: it would even, after a fashion, make me whole.

The Blue Tent started out as a modern fairy tale about the attempt of an individual to understand the weird and incomprehensible events that begin to overtake his life after a tent appears in the field next to his house. But in the end the activity of writing the novel became contiguous with the inability of the protagonist to act within the story; his torpor began to mimic my own. It was a mess.

Yesterday, in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, I was lying awake, as so often occurs, pondering yet again the structural perversions wrought by the unruly novel, and I realised, after an hour and a half of twisting and turning, that I would have to get up and write things down.  This is a familiar pattern. At a quarter to five I made tea, and then ascended to my study in the loft.

But this time, rather than work on the novel, I read through the notes I had made on it over the years and realised that the book was fucked. FUBAR. I didn’t love the story any more; the characters didn’t interest me (and even if they interested other people, I was not inclined to keep working with them); the premise was interesting but essentially it was just an idea that could have been developed in any one of a thousand ways. The way that I had chosen to develop the idea had brought me to a dead end, and I was stuck. The feeling in my gut told me, without hesitation: Stop it, just Stop.

Feeling a little dizzy at the ease with which I had reached this decision (such moments come with the force of a revelation, even if, when you think them over afterwards, the thought has actually been on a slow burn for months, or even years) I googled ‘abandoned novels’ and the first article to come up was Why Do Writers Abandon Novels? – by Dan Kois in the New York Times. It begins as follows:

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel Fountain City — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992. What was to be the follow-up to his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, instead was a black mark on his hard drive, five and a half years of work wasted.”

I felt better already. Schadenfreude. I hadn’t wasted that long. Not five and a half years. Not really. I’d written 60,000 words and done numerous drafts, some of them longer, but Chabon had written 1,500 pages, and was probably working on it full time.

Kois’ article surveys a number of writers’ views and experiences of abandoning a novel – or rather, putting it out of its misery. If something is making your life a misery, “erasing” or “burying you alive”, isn’t it merely an instinct for survival to kill it before it gets you?

Stephen King (as so often) had useful advice on the topic: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”

And then of course, while acknowledging that the book is not turning out as you might have wished – feel it sinking, to follow King’s analogy – you start making compromises with yourself. If you have a publisher and agent waiting for you to deliver, the pressure is on. You begin looking for arguments to convince yourself to let the book go, to just finish it, find a vaguely unsatisfactory resolution (one less unsatisfactory than all the others), publish it – if anyone wants it – and be damned.

But this is not an option. It would plague me forever to let a book go out in that state. While, on the other hand, the sense of liberation that has accompanied the killing of my darling is something to be cherished. This ‘failure’ feels, in fact, nothing like failure at all: it feels like being unchained from a madman.

In the meantime I will take Samuel Beckett’s advice, and learn to fail better next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Montaigne’s Tower

23 Aug
Study in Montaigne's Tower, Summer 2013

Study in Montaigne’s Tower, Summer 2013

 

‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. The observers observed.

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage

 

I set out on a journey

21 Dec

I set out on a journey

 

Imagine my surprise (horror/fascination/wonder) on receiving a photo on my iphone a couple of months ago, displaying the shoulder of a regular at The Promised Land (a charming fellow and good acquaintance: I do not know him well enough to claim him as a friend) who had had tattooed upon himself a short poem of mine, in its entirety. The poem is called ‘Restless Geography’, and, in case it is difficult to make out the words in the picture, it goes like this:

I set out on a journey, but the geography would not

stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended

going.

I wanted to use this as the title of a collection of prose poems, but the publishers said it was too long, and I would have to cut it down, which I didn’t want to do. So we called the book Sad Giraffe Café instead.

The night before last, the house having being borrowed by daughters, who were entertaining friends, I put down the book of poems I was reading, and Mrs Blanco and I set off under Scary Bridge, and across the road into the Vue cinema and fitness complex. The long haul up the escalators presented a panorama of the huge gym on the first floor. The place was almost empty, just a few Wednesday night loners pumping iron and a solitary immobile cyclist. All three of them were young men. There was something tragic in this display of righteous pumping and pedalling in the perennial pursuit for a well-toned physique and bulging biceps under the blinding glare of strip-lighting. All I could see, as we glided past them on our upward journey, was a dreadful torpor. All I could see – as Beckett might have said, actually did say – was ashes. This set the tone for the rest of the evening. The chatty girl in the empty ticket hall (a dozen cinemas, no visible customers) told us we were the only people to have bought tickets for Seven Psychopaths, the new film by Martin McDonagh, and starring Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits (pictured, here, in an empty cinema).

Tom Waite in empty cinema

 

So Mrs Blanco and I chose our seats, two thirds of the way back, next to the aisle, and had the place to ourselves. This is a strange sensation. A private viewing in a full-size cinema. The seats are very comfortable at Vue, and there is plenty of space, but even so it is a luxury to lounge in abandoned fashion, and lounge we did. It is a pleasure to be able to loudly curse the fools who populate the ads and the trailers, as practically every film that Hollywood chucks at places like the Vue franchise are complete tripe. Trivial meaningless drivel circling around a half dozen well-worn and clichéd themes, all of them dire and depressing.

But the empty cinema inspires melancholy, rather than depression. The film is entertaining, even if it adheres to many of the post-modern meta-fictional tropes made fashionable by Tarantino. Nevertheless it made me laugh like a loon, which is never a bad thing. Laughed myself almost into a stupor at various points in the movie, in fact.

We came home around midnight, and the party was breaking up. The young were setting off for Clwb Ifor Bach or some other Cardiff nightspot.

Earlier in the evening, when I had been reading through the Selected Poems of Roger Garfitt, two short lines from his poem ‘The Journey’ had stood out:

I had to go on

without me

And I realised these lines evoked the precise emotion that had (paradoxically) accompanied me earlier that evening, as I passed the young men pumping iron in the empty gym, on our way up the escalator to the empty cinema. I realised also that if I had not been accompanied by Mrs Blanco, my evening would have been unutterably desolate and solitary (in a bad way). Company helps divert us, temporarily, from our essential and terrifying aloneness, allows us to go on, even if ‘without oneself’, who is unaccountably absent, then at least sharing the emptiness with a warm and sentient human partner.

Afterwards, I lay awake, and the words of Garfitt’s poem stayed with me long into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Godot and Caspar David Friedrich

1 May

 

How wonderful the little connections that pile up in the day to day. Blanco has long had an interest in the German expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, and was interested to learn, while reading about them the other day that Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter of lonely figures cast against majestic landscapes, was resurrected by the expressionists after falling into obscurity during the latter part of his life (when he was deemed ‘half-mad’) and after his death in 1840. (Friedrich was also taken up by the Nazis, as embodying the concept of heroic individualism, but he can hardly be blamed for that, and would, in any case – had he lived in the 1930s and 40s –have been incarcerated by them as a madman.)

 

Caspar David Friedrich, who died "half mad" in 1840

 

Samuel Beckett had a great love for the visual arts, and – largely as a consequence of a love affair – during the 1920s and 1930s made several trips to Germany, followed by a longer trip in 1936-7, in which his diaries detail extensive visits to art galleries.

It is interesting therefore, to learn that the author of Waiting for Godot, considered by many to exemplify the most profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity in Western literature, and the absurd insignificance of mankind, should have identified a work by Caspar David Friedrich as the inspiration for his play. According to his biographer, James Knowlson (whose work is based on extensive interviews with Beckett himself) the writer told his friend, theatre critic Ruby Cohn, while looking at the 1824 painting Mann und Frau den Mond betrachend (Man and Woman observing the Moon) in Berlin: “this was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.

 

 

However things are rarely as simple as they appear. Beckett, it seems, might have been confusing two paintings, according to Knowlson, because “at other times he drew attention of friends to Zwei Männer betrachten den Mond (Two men contemplating the Moon) from 1819.” As you can see, the two pictures are not wildly different (and there are various versions of both, it seems).

 

 

The point is, the image of the two tramps, Estragon and Valdimir gazing out over an alien landscape, makes a lot of sense in relation to these paintings.

But there is more.

Caspar David Friedrich is regarded as representing the apogee of the Romantic movement in the visual arts, setting down images of the Byronic hero, manfully facing down the forces of nature, the unknown, the abyss. Romanticism is precisely this: it arose at a period when the idea of God was being translated into the idea of nature. Poets set out on hikes into nature (Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping through Wales and the Lake District, Byron in the Alps writing Manfred . . . and with Shelley in Italy). Posh chaps didn’t walk in the countryside until then – no one did except the peasant farmer and the humble shepherd – and suddenly ‘Nature’ was opened up as this vast, wild, unexplored terrain (which in turn informs an understanding of the Romantic Imagination).

According to the art critic Robert Hughes, in an article on Friedrich,

“If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich’s pictures it is “longing”: the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.”

How does this lead back to Beckett? Is Waiting for Godot, in essence, a play about longing? Longing for union with the godhead, with a distant nature, absorption with the Great Other, as conceived by a Romantic painter such as Friedrich?

Blanco can’t say, in fact is rather bowled over by all this and in need of a lie down. Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beckett, Ritsos and stones

7 Apr

 

I am reading James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: A Life of Samuel Beckett, which seems to be everything a literary biography should aspire to, and discover two passages that demand to be shared; the first of these is young Sam’s love of stones, which he would collect from the beach and bring home “in order to protect them from the wearing away of the waves or the vagaries of the weather. He would lay them gently into the branches of trees in the garden to keep them safe from harm. Later in life he came to rationalise this concern as the manifestation of an early fascination with the mineral, with things dying and decaying, with petrification. He linked this interest with Sigmund Freud’s view that human beings have a prebirth nostalgia to return to the mineral state.”

But never find Papa Sigmund, I am immediately reminded of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos’ fascination with stones. Ritsos, who spent many years as a political prisoner, collected and painted stones throughout his life. According to a recent exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art:

The poet’s pictorial approach is evident in his solitary preoccupation with the natural contours of objects, such as roots, bones, and above all stones and pebbles, which are found in abundance in the arid islands of Greece, perhaps as a result of the universal “urge of expression against decay and loneliness”. Stones and pebbles: these were the materials that Yannis Ritsos used, the “plentiful raw material on which one could mark or underline by felt tip pen or Indian ink what the stone itself dictated”.

On the stones of Yannis Ritsos are depicted solitary figures or large groups of people, frontal, in conversation, or sensual couples – archaic figures enduring in time. It is as if these figures spring out of his poems in order to meet characters from myth . . . characters incessantly fusing with later ones, never ceasing to exist in collective memory.

 

Yannis Ritsos painting his stones

 

Back with Beckett – whose grandparents, I learn, were named Beckett and Robinson, as were mine on my mother’s side – I come across an extract from a letter by the publisher T.M Ragg at Routledge, which strikes me as an example of something you would never hear from a major publisher’s office nowadays.

Beckett’s novel Murphy was rejected by countless publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, Beckett “keeping a list, as reports came in, in his ‘Whoroscope’  notebook of the publishers whom he knew had rejected it. He almost lost count.” Eventually the book was recommended to Routledge by the painter-writer Jack B. Yeats, and one of the editors, Mr Ragg, read it in a single day while ill with gastric flu. All the miseries of his complaint were forgotten in his enthusiasm, he wrote, in his letter to Yeats, and he added:

I want to publish it, and I am seeing Reavey (Beckett’s agent) tomorrow to talk the matter over with him. I am afraid there is no doubt it is far too good to be a big popular or commercial success. On the other hand it, like your own book, will bring great joy to the few. Thank you very much for introducing it to me.

When I read that I had a brief fantasy of ever receiving such a letter from a major publisher in this day and age. Absolutely unthinkable. Imagine Random House or HarperCollins employing the loony criterion of ‘bringing great joy to the few’.

So thank the stars there are still small publishers like CB Editions, who produce lovely books for discerning readers, on precisely the criterion employed by Mr Ragg when he published Beckett’s Murphy. Their list may be small, but the range and quality of the books they produce is never less than excellent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kindly Ones

29 Nov

Well, I finished The Kindly Ones on the way here, actually at a little eatery called One Flew South in Atlanta airport, the only place that wasn’t a McDonalds or a Dunkin’ Donuts. The ending was a bit of a let down: I won’t spoil it for you, but it is set in the Berlin zoo as the Russians finally take the city centre. The zoo has taken direct hits from Soviet artillery, all the animals are either wounded and bellowing or else roaming free, and Max, our narrator, gets himself into a bit of a pickle with the two rather odd Thompson and Thomson-style detectives who have been tracking him for half the book, on and off, for the alleged murder of his mother and step-father. Max conducts himself particularly badly, even by SS standards, but then he is a Lieutenant-Colonel by now, as well as quite barking. In fact his last memorable act – and this I must reveal, so stop here if you intend to read the book – is at a medal-giving ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, no doubt the last such ceremony the Führer officiated at. Max has been awarded other medals (he already has an iron cross first class for being bravely shot through the head at Stalingrad) but since he is one of the few senior officers not to have fled Berlin, they think he deserves another one:

As the Führer approached me – I was almost at the end of the line – my attention was caught by his nose. I had never noticed how broad and ill-proportioned this nose was. In profile, the little moustache was less distracting and the nose could be seen more clearly: it had a wide base and flat bridges, a little break in the bridge emphasised the tip; it was clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic. I don’t know why this detail fascinated me, but I found it almost scandalous. The Führer approached and I kept observing him. Then he was in front of me. I saw with surprise that his cap scarcely reached my eyes; and yet I am not tall. He muttered his compliment and groped for the medal. His foul, fetid breath overwhelmed me: it was too much to take. So I leaned forward and bit into his bulbous nose, drawing blood. Even today I would be unable to tell you why I did this: I just couldn’t restrain myself. The Führer let out a shrill cry and leaped back into Bormann’s arms. There was an instant when no one moved. Then several men lay into me.

The effect of this passage is shocking to the reader, in part because up to this point (we are on page 960) everything that has happened has been feasible, if not historically authenticated; Max’s experience of the massacre at Babi Yar, the battle of Stalingrad, the shenanigans among the leadership, the ostracism of Speer by elements of the SS because he wanted to deploy concentration camp inmates as armaments factory workers rather than killing the lot – most everything is the book, other than the character of Max himself, is historically based: and then this marvellous touch, with Max biting Hitler’s nose. I was so surprised I nearly fell off my chair – Demay (or was it Demaine or Deraine?) who was ‘looking after me today’ in One Flew South, was discreet enough not to ask why it took me two hours to eat a portion of sushi – and I truly thought this was an audacious move on the novelist’s part, to have his character bite Hitler’s nose. After all this tension, the massive build up of suffering and terror and slaughter, to have the whole thing brought into close-up: the suggestion that Hitler was far from a perfect example of the Aryan race he sought to perpetuate; that indeed his proboscis indicated Slavic, possibly even more degenerate racial roots, was to Max, ‘scandalous’, serves to explode the tension in a surprisingly effective way. “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed  a word about this episode, nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.” I will not reveal how Max manages to get himself out of this final indiscretion, but it is quite reasonable that he does: and by this point anyway, you just want to get to the end.

Reading Jonathan Littell’s book, however, knowing how slow a reader I am, and the amount of time it has taken me while I might usefully have been employed reading other things has helped bring me to a decision: that for the next year I will only be reading short fiction and poetry. I don’t know if I can stick to it but we’ll see. If nothing else, I will acquire a new acquaintanceship with the short story, which will be fun, and certainly less exhausting.

But right now I must prepare some notes to deliver a talk to a hundred or so Mexican High School kids, on the theme of ‘How I became a writer’. Gulp. Why did I agree to this? I had the choice and could have said no. The truth is, I said it to accommodate the person who asked, at the time a distant and unknown Book Fair official. But what does it take to back out now? In future I  think I will cultivate a Beckettian or Pynchonesque silence on matters of self-disclosure – not easy if one is the author of a ‘memoir’. Truly, why put oneself through this kind of thing? But then again, after The Kindly Ones, it’s bound to be a doddle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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