Tag Archives: Geoff Dyer

John Berger and ‘bearing witness’

19 Mar

and our faces

On page 29 of and our faces, our hearts, brief as photos, Berger describes a landscape that lies before him as he is raking hay in a field: a small hillock on which stand three neglected pear trees – two in leaf, one leafless and dead, the dead tree flanked by the two living ones – and behind them the blue sky with large white clouds. The sight catches his eye and, he says, it pleases him.

I have often wondered at these glimpsed moments; of observing a landscape in a state of almost absolute clarity; a mode of perception that nonetheless has something almost dreamlike about it.

He goes on:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests.  The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

Curious about this paragraph, and remembering a phrase from an article by Geoff Dyer written shortly after Berger’s death, I look up the original 1984 interview (from Marxism Today) to which Dyer alludes. The interview closes – one gets the impression that the young Dyer is extraordinarily excited at being able to interview his hero (an impression confirmed by the later Guardian article) – with the impossible question: What do you see as the job of your life? To which Berger answers, modestly:

I don’t think I can answer that … Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories—and I often think now that even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

In order to be a witness of the kind Berger is describing, one has to be in a certain state of receptiveness in the first place. You have to be porous enough to ‘let it in’; whatever it is. In Berger’s case it was the landscape of the three pear trees on a hillock, in this instance. But it might be anything. In a post from August 2015 – Sleepwalking near the Río Orlina –  I too was struck by an otherwise unremarkable landscape, ‘a small cliff or outcrop, framed by dusty green vegetation’, and I wonder now whether I was doing something similar: sleepwalking into a physical landscape that seemed somehow to correspond with images originating in the inner world. For that is what is happening: that particular landscape comes alive because it fits into the wider puzzle of one’s life; maps onto some inner template that is ordinarily inaccessible to us, but which helps to provide a symmetry of sorts. And here’s the thing: you will probably never know why that image or that landscape fits.

To take it one step further, I wonder whether this state of being a witness, of deep immersion in – and recognition of – a locale or landscape, is akin to what is commonly known as ‘inspiration’, and that one has already to be receptive to such a state in order to enter into it. As Picasso said: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you at work.” You don’t simply happen upon inspiration. You have to be in a state of mind in which it finds you. You might be raking hay, or sitting at your desk looking though old photographs (another way of raking hay), but in some manner you will always be the observer – even the unwitting observer -bearing witness.

tree in alberas

Creative Nonfiction

16 Apr
Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer, Brixton, London, 1988

 

I find a great Paris Review interview in ‘The Art of Nonfiction’ series from  a couple of years ago with Geoff Dyer, who begins by disagreeing with the parameters of his own interview, interrupting the interviewer as follows:

INTERVIEWER

The first thing I’d like—

DYER

Excuse me for interrupting, but—at the risk of sounding like some war criminal in the Hague who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court in which he’s being tried—I have to object to the parameters of this interview.

INTERVIEWER

On what grounds?

DYER

It’s titled “The Art of Nonfiction.” Now I could whine, “What about the fiction?” but that would be to accept a distinction that’s not sustainable. Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t distinguish between them at all?

DYER

I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all of them as, um, what’s the word? Ah, yes, books. I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others, I would expect they’re pretty much the same.

Later in the interview, Dyer makes mention of David Hare’s remark that the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’, and then goes on to add that ‘creative nonfiction’ might well have taken over as the most odious of collocations. Since I teach a module entitled precisely ‘creative nonfiction’ at the university where I work, I am going to have to think out a pretty clear disclaimer at the start of each semester. Well, the kind of disclaimer I make already, to be fair.

Essentially we are talking about a distinction with which readers of this blog will be familiar, if not, I hope, entirely bored. ‘Creative nonfiction’ is creative by virtue (I guess) of having been written, and ‘nonfiction’, I suppose, by virtue of it not being ’fiction’, or ‘made up’. (I note also that the term itself used to be hyphenated (non-fiction), making it a challenge to, or questioning of, the thing it was not, but now that the hyphen has gone, the beast has been assimilated as a single concept, wearing its non-ness with pride, as it were). So Nonfiction is defined by what it is not. It is not ‘made up stuff’, but stuff that really happened. However, following the criteria established by Borges, and discussed by Blanco here, that ‘everything is fiction’ then how can such a genre as ‘nonfiction’, let alone ‘creative nonfiction’ occur? Why do we need these ridiculous denominations? Why can we not, as Dyer suggests, just have ‘books’?

In his account of acting as W.G. Sebald’s publisher, Christopher MacLehose describes Sebald’s resistance to The Rings of Saturn as being categorised within any literary genre at all: memoir, history, fiction, holocaust studies, travel writing etc: he wanted ‘all of them’, claims MacLehose – and yet, one suspects, at the same time, he wanted none of them. MacLehose says that the craving for categorisation makes booksellers happy, so that they can put the shelving in order, tell staff what to put where: well that seems fair, you have to have some criteria, cookery books for example, gardening etc, but then again . . . are cookery and gardening books not also examples of ‘creative nonfiction’? And what about ‘Poetry’?

To be continued, ad infinitum . . .

Synchronicities

2 Mar

Whenever I mention the brother, who is an actual person, and not a figment of my deranged speculation, I am reminded of Myles Na gCopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien, aka Brian O’Nolan) and his famous column in The Irish Times, which occasionally featured a character known as ‘the brother’. This character is used as a foil, or a useful source of handy sayings. He is the source of the timeless phrase ‘The brother cannot look at an egg’, for some reason one of my favourite sayings of all time, and one which I repeat to myself as a mantra in times of trouble, and sometimes intone out loud, to the bewilderment of my breakfast companions.

Anyhow, the brother – who is evidently, and I must say, gratifyingly, a keen reader of Blanco’s Blog – sends me two quotations from the ‘Wit and Wisdom’ column of The Week. How nicely synchronous of them to find stuff directly related to my posts of 24th and 27th February. The first quote is particularly gratifying, coming as it does from one of my favourite living writers.

“I’ve been fortunate that all the bad reviews I’ve had have been written by idiots. Isn’t it weird how it works out like that?”  (Geoff Dyer in The Guardian)

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” (Mathematician Jeff Hammerbacher in The Daily Telegraph)

 

 

 

 

Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip

13 Dec

I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).

But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.

Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.

Ernst Jünger

Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay on On Pain, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.

So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.

Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011

My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:

All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.

Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?

The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.