Ricardo Blanco's Blog

The Foreigner

 

The Foreigner

 

– 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


 

 

The Traveller

 

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

 

 

How to write a novel in 13 points

Enrique Vila-Matas in the 1970s, when he was a lodger in the house of Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

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)

Bareback Riders

 

Sorting through photos on my laptop, intending to send some off for printing, I come across two pictures from February this year, on a trip to Mombacho, in Nicaragua. They are of a very poor quality, but on recognizing them I remember the expression of exhilaration on the faces of the bareback riders.

We had been delivered to the volcano, ascending through a tropics of livid growth, lush greenery, past the coffee plantations, up into the cloud forest; seen the salamanders and monstrous beetles and butterflies and the rare orchids, one of which, Mombachensis, is named after this mountain. Then the long drive down, and as we finally hit the flatlands, two boys, one around ten years old, the other younger, appear out of the bush on horseback. The boys ride bareback and are shoeless, and they are grinning and shouting and yahooing. Their exuberance is contagious even through the windows of the minibus. For a few seconds they are galloping alongside us, before the driver accelerates away. By the time I have my phone out they have fallen behind, and the young riders through the rear window are nothing more than shapes in the road, the sun behind them, the distance between us growing.

 

Good Things about Being Welsh: No.1

 

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

 

 

Hobo with a Shotgun

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging and the Myth of the ‘Real Me’

Masks in a shop in Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kafka and Obsession

3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why write novels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do we think we are?

 

The birthday card I received from Mrs Blanco this year shows a partly hidden figure reclining in an armchair, cats in attendance, dwarfed by an enormous bookcase that, it is suggested, continues into the vastness of infinity.

She tells me this is how she sees me, which is interesting, and although I would not mind turning into the gentleman on the card at some point in the future, I still have a vague notion of myself as a passionate man of action, albeit with literary leanings. The fact that I have never, in actual fact, ever been a passionate man of action seems to make no impression on the part of me that decides on who I think I am. Like most people, who I think I am does not necessarily coincide with the way others see me.

Pursuing the theme of who we think we might become I have for some years now nurtured an image for my retirement – should such an event ever arise – that I once encountered in a poem (see below) by Jaime Gil de Biedma. I quoted this to a friend, the Scottish poet Tom Pow, a few months ago. He burst out laughing, and told me “But you’ve already lived like a derelict nobleman among the ruins of your intelligence. You did that in your twenties. You might be thinking of doing something differently in your retirement.” He is probably right. Nevertheless, I still like Gil’s poem, caught somewhere between irreparable nostalgia and a melancholy pleasure in the present, as reflecting an ideal way to finish one’s days on earth.


DE VITA BEATA

 

In an old and inefficient country,

something like Spain between two civil

wars, in a village next to the sea,

to have a house and a little land

and no memories at all. Not to read,

nor suffer; not to write, nor pay bills,

and to live like a derelict nobleman

among the ruins of my intelligence.

 

From Jaime Gil de Biedma, Las Personas del Verbo (1982) tr. R. Gwyn

 

Life in a Day

 

 

This is, in its way, a very contemporary film: a kind of visual equivalent of flash fiction. Based on thousands of hours of video recordings from a single day – 24th August 2010 – the editors have created a 90 minute collage of moments, some more extensive than others. Certain of the characters are seen once only, others are revisited several times over the course of the film, among which are a Korean man who has been cycling around the world for seven years (he has been knocked off his bike six times and had surgery five times: some drivers are very careless, he remarks, generously) and a trio of goatherds from somewhere in eastern Europe, who swear at their goats and are troubled by the prospect of wives and of wolves.

It could have been called ‘youtube: the movie’ but the point about all the mini-narratives being set within the frame of a single day gave it more coherence than might otherwise be expected. We do retain a sense of global village life with the weird juxtaposition of footage from a New York coffee shop being followed by African women preparing cassava while singing and a South American shoeshine boy stuffing his pockets with sweets. I left the cinema with the sensation that for so many people, desperately attempting to assert their own experience and their own lives, social networks and new media such as Facebook and youtube might provide a constant if imperfect means to an end. We all do it, especially if we blog, twitter and facebook (is that a verb?). Everyone can be Montaigne in the digital age. In a way, too, the film reflects the fetishization of travel familiar to us from ‘gap year’ philosophy, whether of the youtube variety, or the more polished, but equally nauseating version proposed to its readers every Saturday in the Guardian travel section.

A recent article by Christopher Tyler in The London Review of Books mentions how Colin Thubron, in his Shadow of the Silk Road imagines ‘conversations with a sceptical trader resurrected from antiquity. “I’m afraid of nothing happening,” he tells him, “of experiencing nothing. That is what the modern traveller fears . . . Emptiness.” In the current era, the notion of pseudo-travel has become available to all of us, emerging nervously from our terror of nothing happening.

Back home, I eventually retire to bed, to read. I have been reading poetry at night for a few months, but I also read fiction, and am currently with Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, stories of profound clarity, steeped in the Irish storytelling tradition. While reading, I drift in and out of sleep. I wake at three in the morning with the book still in my hands, sitting up in bed and wavering in the space between sleep and non-sleep, though not yet wakefulness. This has become familiar territory. I have spent a long time being sleep-deprived, and am acquainted with this place, the zone. Drifting between sleep and not-sleep I am confronted by a person, standing at the foot of my bed. I am accustomed to this kind of intervention. Some call them hallucinations, but I know better.

This time he wears a cowboy hat. I ask him who he is.

“Calvin Bucket,” he says.

A likely story.

“Andy Coulson?” He suggests.

That’s better. I like the way these episodes meld with the fantasy that we call reality.

“Now, here’s how it is, Calvin, Andy, Cyrano, whatever.” I say. “You want to validate your existence? Fuck off and do it somewhere else, with someone who believes in you.”

And pouf. He vanishes.

The only ones validating their existence around here are me and my dog.