‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.
Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:
“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?
Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.
This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”
And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:
“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”
Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.
All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.
Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.
Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.
From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).
This morning, with the first light, I read Anne Carson’s long poem The Glass Essay, 38 pages and not a word wasted. Now every line feels engraved in my consciousness. What a rare occurrence this is. I sit up in bed, propped by a few cushions. Bed is a euphemism. We haven’t got around to buying a bed, in seven years. A mattress on the wooden boards, and a view across red rooftops to the bell-tower of the church. Early swallows skimming and diving. From time to time, while reading, I drift off, and occasionally it happens that I dream the words I have been reading, only to waken and find they are not the words on the page at all, but my own. So, reading Carson’s poetic discourse on Emily Brontë I drift into a dream where I am at the northernmost point of the north of a northern territory. Then I wake and continue to read. That way, reading is even more than usually a kind of collaborative experience.
I used to write quite a lot of poetry, but these days I find that the effort it takes to ‘make verse’ – as though straining towards a truth more profound or more lasting than the truth of prose – is not necessarily justified, or justifiable. By whom do I mean justified? By what measure justifiable? I do not know, I really don’t. But, mainly, I write prose.
And then how good it feels, and how rare, to sink into and absorb a poem as fine as this one. There are three themes to it: the
aftermath of a love affair between the narrator and a man she calls Law (he has his echo in her therapist, a woman called Dr Haw), a theme which constitutes the near past. Then there is an account of the life of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (the distant past). Finally, the poem is cast in a present tense in which the poet (or narrator) is paying an extended visit to her mother, who lives on a moor in ‘the north’. The majesty of the poem is the way in which Carson threads the three narratives in and around one another, guilefully working each one so as best to extract the full flavour of the other two. There is such skill (and yes, it does appear effortless, which means it was hard-earned) in the composition of the poem. I stand in awe of this writing. To give some impression of the quality, here are three short passages from a single page:
‘When I was young
there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear –’
‘It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,
when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.
I switch off the lamp and lie on my back.’
‘Emily had a relationship on this level with someone she calls Thou.
She describes Thou as awake like herself all night
and full of strange power.’
Earlier in the poem she writes:
‘I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.
My mother does.
But as soon as the morning light hits my eyes I want to be out in it –
moving along the moor
into the first blue currents and cold navigation of everything awake.’
I too like to be awake at first light, but some days it is good to lie in with it, and read poetry as good as Carson’s.
‘The Glass Essay’ appears in Glass, Irony and God, published by New Directions (1995).
Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.
I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.
We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.
The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.
But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.
I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.
The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:
‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.
Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .
. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’
The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.
In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.
Imagine my surprise yesterday, when visiting one of our favourite beaches with friends (where I intended doing a little underwater fish-gazing with mask and snorkel) I spied a naked man washing his pit-bull in the shallows. Bending over it, lovingly washing its flanks in the plankton-rich waters of the western Med.
This is not a nudist beach, and while I have no objections to nakedness in principle, I do believe it has its proper place in civilized society. I know that many people think differently and they are entitled to set up their own recreational centres where nudism is de rigueur and you can even spend your summer holiday in such places, renting a chalet or a luxury apartment, surrounded by other nude persons. You can go shopping in the site supermarket with nothing on, and sit in the bar bollock-naked sipping your evening cocktail. Michel Houellebecq, once known as the enfant terrible of French Literature (and actually quite a decent poet, as his recent collection ‘The Art of Struggle‘ impressed on me) has written about such places at tedious lengths in his fiction.
But on a regular, costumed beach, it is my belief that bathers should wear a swimming suit. I have no particular objection to bikini tops being removed, but even that is probably only a matter of having become accustomed to it over many years. In the final analysis, I do not mind too much about public nudity either way, and it is really not my business what consulting adults prefer to do. But to have fully grown men parading with all their tackle hanging free, when there are young children roaming the sands around them peering inquisitively at the exposed genitalia, is – while filled with comic potential – not a vision I relish or one in which I wish to share. Nor are beer bellies and sagging tits, and heaving folds of cellulite, but here again I might stand accused of some kind of aesthetic fascism, and should probably stop there.
So, gentle reader, rather than offend your sensibilities by showing the perpetrator of this act of aggressive nudism (who I suspect was French), I have appended a picture of the stretch of beach an hour or so after he had left.
Personally, I like donning mask and flippers and swimming down, peering beneath the surface of the sea, at the underwater flora and rock formations, the hundreds of brightly coloured fish, starfish, octopi and the many other wondrous sights so gloriously described in the films of the late Jacques Cousteau.
PS Mrs Blanco has pointed out that this comes across as a rather pompous and stuffy post. I think, therefore, that I cannot have conveyed my point about the man with the pit-bull very well. To be blunt, there was something fishy about both his ostentatious nudity and the manner in which he washed his dog, as if, not to put too fine a point to it, he were accustomed to more intimate relations with the beast. I find it hard to put concisely: but there was an insalubrious quality to his washing of it that had to be observed in order to be appreciated.
And finally, as Alessandra has pointed out, dogs are not allowed on Catalan beaches in the summer. A fair point.
- Other than an early family holiday and a single trip to Barcelona in my early twenties, my first real taste of Catalunya was in 1984. Penniless and without purpose, I was walking down the coastal road from Port Bou to Llança on a June afternoon, when I was caught in a terrific rainstorm. A car pulled in and gave me a lift. The driver was the painter Lluís Peñaranda. So began a friendship that lasted until his death last December.
- I went to an exhibition of paintings by Lluís the year that we met and was astonished by his representations of the landscape of the Ampurdan, that rocky edge of the Pyrenees that flattens out into a plain flanking the Costa Brava. His work is pervaded by an elemental iconography of dark cypresses, multicoloured fish, silver moons. It is a parallel, but distinct landscape to the one the world knows through the work of another son of the Ampurdan, Salvador Dalí.
- Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I returned to live in Catalunya in 1988, and settled in Barcelona. The city was preparing for the Olympic games, held in 1992. There was a chaos of excitement that little more than a decade after emerging from the dictatorship of Franco, Barcelona was presenting the new Spain to the world, or rather, the new Catalunya.
- Catalunya used the Olympics to inform the world that it was not Spain. Its policies of linguistic ‘normalization’ (the term used for the dominance of Catalan in all public documents and undertakings) and the fact that all state-funded education took place through the medium of Catalan created a new atmosphere: perceived as legitimate self-assertion by the Catalans; regarded less favourably by many other Spaniards.
- I left Barcelona in 1990, but returned many times over the summers that followed, staying with my young family at different houses in the Ampurdan area.
- In 2002-3 we moved to a small hill-village in Ampurdan near the French border (picture above). My daughters attended the local Catalan School and I worked on my novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away. The following year we bought an old and run-down property in the village. Linguistically and culturally, this area is very proudly Catalan (in contrast to the international and largely Spanish-speaking city of Barcelona). Since I had been coming to the area for twenty years, I had made friends with Catalan writers and artists and got to discover more about the history and culture of this small corner. The Albera Mountains, that extend from the High Pyrenees towards the sea, falling away towards the coast at the northern end of the Costa Brava, are home to many Neolithic remains, notably standing stones (menhirs) and a profusion of burial chambers. I am very fond of a burial chamber, although I have no wish to be buried in one.
There were many Jews in this part of Spain before the expulsions of 1492. Many of them converted at that time, and there is a widespread belief that Catalans carry a significant charge of Sephardic blood, whatever that means. Blood is blood. There are no races, only ideas about races, which are mostly based on wrong information or the contrasting prejudices of boastfulness (e.g. a proud Celt) and bigotry (too many examples to cite) . In any case, I like the idea of a dedicated ‘Village of Jews’ in the heart of the Alberas, on the edge of the Cap de Creus.
- Further back in time, Hannibal must have crossed these hills on his way to Rome from Carthage. With his many elephants. I find the thought staggering. How did the Celto-Iberian tribespeople view these enormous lumbering beasts and their fierce drivers? The thought led to notes towards a poem a few years ago, not one that I have ever thought to publish, but perhaps it contains the germ of another, better poem, which I will write one day:
Elephants passed this way. The children, once their initial terror had passed, stared big-eyed, while clutching their mothers’ skirts, pointing at the swinging trunks as the beasts lumbered across cornfields.
Warriors rode on the elephants, but paid scant attention to the villagers who lined this section of their route.
What were the elephants doing in this well-tended land? Where were their riders’ leading them?
It was said by some that they were heading towards a distant war.
Why would an elephant go to war?
Because they are driven there by the riders.
But how? The elephants are so big and strong. The riders are so puny.
The elephants go where they are driven because that is what they are accustomed to.
The elephants so large.
The riders so small.
The children of this hillside village will tell the tale of the elephants to their grandchildren. It will become myth.
The elephants will never be seen again. They will cross the mountain pass and head into the plains beyond, until they become an improbable vision on the horizon. Specks on a vast green canvass.
The elephants will not return.
– What country is this foreigner from?
– I don’t know.
– What’s his name?
– I don’t know.
– What does he do? What language does he speak?
– I don’t know.
– What’s your name, my good man?
– . . .
– What country do you come from? Where are you going?
– I’m from here. I’m a foreigner.
Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008) tr. from Catalan by D. Sam Abrams
I have travelled many roads
and have opened many paths.
I have sailed a hundred seas
and been shipwrecked on
a hundred shores.
Everywhere I’ve seen
caravans of sadness
proud people sad people
drunks in the dark, dark shade.
Lecture hall pedants
watch on in silence
thinking they’re smart
because they do not
drink wine in humble places:
bad people who carry on
like pests polluting the earth.
And everywhere I’ve seen
people who dance and play
when they can
and work the skin
from their four palms.
If they arrive exhausted in a place
they’re never asked
from where they come.
When they travel
they ride on the shanks
of an old mule
They never hurry
not even on fiesta days.
Where there is wine
they drink wine;
where there is no wine
they drink fresh water
Good people who live
and work, get by and dream.
And one day like any other
they go into the ground
Antonio Machado (1875-1939) tr. from Spanish by Richard Gwyn
Sometimes people ask really difficult questions. One of them, which crops up a lot, is ‘Who is your favourite living novelist’? First of all, it’s assumed it will be someone who writes in English, because the British and the Americans don’t read much translated fiction, whereas I do. The extraordinary arrogance of a publishing industry in which only 3% of fiction is non-English – leaving 97% for the English-language writers, might indicate a degree of imbalance, but no one apart from professional translators, who bang on about it the whole time, seems to be too bothered.
Other European countries do not suffer this degree of cultural solipsism, and translated works account for a much higher percentage of published works. Between 30% and 60% if the statistics are to be believed, though I read recently that in Italy 70% of published fiction is in translation. Unbelievably, these statistics receive comments such as one I heard from an English writer recently “Ah but the Italians can’t write fiction!” I could hardly believe my ears.
The fact that extraordinary novels are regularly published in the Hispanic world has filtered into the reading public’s consciousness since the rise of magic realism and the Latin American ‘boom’ generation writers, comprising García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa – as well as their pale imitators such as Isabel Allende and the Brazilian Paulo Coelho – and more recently, the extraordinary international success of Roberto Bolaño. But even the compiling of such a list makes me uneasy. We in the UK have suffered nearly thirty years in which every new production from the tedious triad of Amis, McEwen and Rushdie is treated as though it were a gift of greatness, and perhaps we have lost all perspective of what is truly interesting in the world.
So, to cut to the quick, my favourite Spanish-language novelists – no, make that international novelists – all of them a few years younger than the three named above, would be Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas. Bolaño, sadly, is no longer with us, and has received plenty of attention (both in the media and in this blog), and I am going to do a separate post on Javier Marías, so I would like to spend a little time on Enrique Vila-Matas, whose non-fiction novel Never any end to Paris was published by New Directions in the USA last week. I will be reviewing it when my copy arrives, but I have read the book in Spanish so I have a head start. The book describes Vila-Matas’ apprenticeship as a writer in Paris, the city to which he moved (from his native Barcelona) as a young man in the 1970s. He had the good fortune to rent a room in the apartment building belonging to the fabulous novelist and film-director (and alcoholic of epic and tragic proportions) Marguerite Duras. Early in the story Enrique bumps into Duras one day on the building’s stairway. Nervous and stammering, he asks her in his substandard and broken French for some advice on the novel he is writing (his first):
“Some advice, that I need, help for the novel.” Marguerite understood perfectly this time. “Ah, some advice”, she said, and she invited me to sit down in the foyer (as if considering me to be very tired), slowly put out her cigarette in the entrance hall ashtray, and headed, somewhat mysteriously, towards her office, from which she returned after a minute with a sheet of paper that resembled a medical note and which contained instructions that might – she told me, or I understood her to say – be useful to me in the writing of novels. I took the note and headed out onto the street. I read the instructions on it a little later, on the Rue Saint-Benoît, and felt at once the whole weight of the world on me, even today I recall the immense panic – the shudder, to be more precise – that I endured on reading them: 1. Problems of structure; 2. Unity and harmony; 3. Plot and history; 4. The time factor; 5. Textual effects; 6. Verisimilitude; 7. Narrative technique; 8. Character; 9. Dialogue; 10. Setting; 11. Style; 12. Experience; 13. Linguistic register.
Since I will review the book in due course, I won’t begin to summarize the hilarious convolutions and torments that the aspiring writer brings upon himself in his quest to fulfil Duras’s daunting stipulations while striving to imitate his literary heroes (notably Hemingway) in certain aspects of literary life – and not only quaffing and revelry – but I would urge anyone – especially anybody who wants to learn about the writing life – to read the book.
Incredibly, only two other of Vila-Matas’ novels are available in English, both of them superbly translated by Jonathan Dunne. (The new book is translated by Anna McLean, and the above extract was my own hurried version, so she cannot be held responsible). These are Bartleby & Co. and Montano, published in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Bartleby & Co. inspired me profoundly during the writing of The Vagabond’s Breakfast, or rather it induced a state of mind that I could only render into prose by means of an extended metaphor. I reproduce the section below, with apologies to those readers who already know the passage. I realise it’s a bit of a cheat putting extracts from my own books on the blog, but a) it might help sell a few copies, and b) I need to pack for my holidays and have, as always, done absolutely nothing until the last minute. So, off we go:
While trying to avoid writing one afternoon, I decide that I want to clear my desk, in fact to clear it and thoroughly clean it. I begin by brushing and then wiping the poorly varnished surface with an anti-bacterial cloth. It still looks dirty; ingrained gubbins of all varieties spread across the desktop. I reach into the low cupboard that extends beneath the eaves of this attic room, find sandpaper and apply myself to the task, scraping away with fixed determination. I begin thinking of the story I am supposed to be writing, of the book review I have promised to deliver, of the poems that lie unfinished in a drawer, but mostly I fall to thinking about the very act of writing, and how it consumes my life in so many ways, most of them satisfying in one sense or another; I like to write, I enjoy what my friend Niall Griffiths calls the glorious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that come at the end of a good session, the almost trancelike state one enters when entirely absorbed in the life of a character or a place, of having captured some small truth and transcribed it successfully so that a total stranger, on reading it, can nod or laugh in recognition of something shared, or something learned, though possibly always known. But the downside, the part that most writers dread, is the seemingly interminable agony one enters when, for some reason or other, one is kept from writing, either by illness, other work, or a general reluctance to face the blank screen; or else besieged by the feeling that whatever one writes has been said before, and probably better, elsewhere, and yet the terrible arrogance of the author, the desire to act God, that insistent striving to give voice, will not subside.
In this condition, I find myself considering the plight of Bartleby, as described by Enrique Vila-Matas in his book of that name. Bartleby is the type of those who are conditioned to write, for whom writing is default behaviour, and yet who, when asked to perform a particular job or favour, will answer, as a matter of principle, I would prefer not to, regardless of the question, and who, in similar vein, will courageously decline to write at all, although deemed to be a ‘writer’ in the eyes of the world. Vila-Matas has researched the type well:
“For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become paralysed for good.”
Vila-Matas does not regard the state of being a Bartleby to be quite beyond hope. There is a glimmer on the horizon, and he contrives, in some way, to conjure an (as yet) invisible text out of the footnotes he has prepared for it. “I wonder if I can do this,” he writes. “I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them.” He occupies himself, over the course of the book, by investigating these writers of the No, giving cameo performances to writers with an overdeveloped sense of the absurdity of their vocation, or with an extraordinary capacity for prevarication and delay.
The list of writers that Vila-Matas compiles of Bartlebys past and present is extensive and includes such luminaries as Rimbaud, Walser, Gil de Biedma and Salinger, even Beckett. There is a peculiar sense in which these writers turn the act of not-writing into a virtue, of which it is hard not to be envious. One of the most outstanding examples is Joseph Joubert, a Frenchman who lived in the eighteenth century and who “discovered a delightful place where he could digress and end up not writing a book at all.” Although he lived to be seventy, Joubert “never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, single-mindedly searching for the right conditions. Then he forgot this purpose as well.” Ah, the nefarious comforts of silence! Some of Vila-Matas’ writers of the No, such as Robert Walser, the shy and reclusive author of The Walk, turn not-writing itself into a topic of their oeuvre (Walser spent the last twenty years of his life as the inmate of an asylum for the insane, as such institutions were then known). The dedication with which Walser and others pursued their calling raises the frightening possibility that I am not yet good enough, or sufficiently dedicated, to be a Bartleby; that despite my good intentions, to fail so self-consciously, and in so spectacular a way as to provoke the admiration of other, more orthodox writers (those who put pen to paper) is itself an achievement beyond my skills and powers of endurance.
By now I am scrubbing so hard that most of the surface is spotless; the dirty varnish is gone and I am sanding raw wood. The desk is a large one; I have covered a big area and am still going strong. The thought occurs to me that if I just keep on sandpapering that desk, it will eventually cease to exist. I could entirely transform my room (the desk, as I have said, is substantial) and in the process, as I scrape away in this alchemical act of molecular disassembly, of making something disappear, of making nothing out of something, I will consider the book I am writing, measuring it out in my mind, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so that by the time I have rasped away the last grains of sawdust from the last chip of wood, being all that remains of what was once my desk, I will be ready to continue. True, I would no longer have a desk to write it on, I would have to sit in the armchair and use a notebook or the laptop, but that would surely be a small loss compared with the relief of knowing the outcome of my story. And at least I have the laptop, which is just as well, seeing as my handwriting has become quite illegible, I can hardly make it out, and even when I concentrate and force myself to write very slowly the result resembles nothing but a spider-trail of flattened hieroglyphs. My typing isn’t up to much either, but at least I can read what I have written and stand a much better chance of guessing my own intentions despite all the typos and unintentional neologisms that occupy the screen, underlined in green and red. It is frustrating, but I have to put up with this disability, just as I endure the laborious task of reading, for even though reading remains a pleasure, it is one that stretches my powers of concentration to the limit and recently it took me three weeks to read a short novel, simply because I had to re-read every paragraph several times in order to retain the gist of whatever was going on, and neither was it a particularly demanding book; the same thing happens whether I am reading philosophy or a detective novel. This is hard for me, since I have always had good powers of retention, and it feels strange and disempowering to be struggling through the page like a seven-year old, and remembering not a thing.
From The Vagabond’s Breakfast (pp 56-59)
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 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.
“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?
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!