Tag Archives: Thomas Pynchon

Cities Unvisited

5 Sep

Although he never lived in Alexandria, he had read all the books. As a young man, he visited enough of the Levant to think he knew what to expect, and concocted the rest from Cavafy, Forster, Durrell and Pynchon. Sitting outside a café in the port of Paros he fell into conversation with a specialist in unforeseen events and together they dreamed up a delivery of illicit merchandise from Lebanon to Piraeus, with a storage facility on Cyprus. His interlocutor, a Russian who in former times had skippered a cruise liner, ordered champagne. It started to grow dark. Was it there, or somewhere else, that he decided he was never happier than in an island port, as the sun goes down? Later, when he was the international figure of intrigue he was destined to become, he finally visited the city he had fantasized about so many years before. His disappointment was both intense and contradictory. Suffering suicidal thoughts, he experienced an epiphany: it was not Alexandria he was looking for, but another city, a place that he would have to invent. This almost came as a relief.



First published in New Welsh Review 103, Spring 2014

The Kindly Ones

29 Nov

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

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

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

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

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







Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan, Charles Bukowski and all

5 Nov

Young Tom Waits

Can you do a music review before listening to the music? Let’s see.

Yesterday I received through the post the new CD by Tom Waits, though I have not had the nerve to play it yet. I am not sure I even want to. I do not know quite how I feel about Mr Waits. There is an element of the showman about him that I don’t quite trust.

Unlike Mr Dylan, who can get away with the line “Me, I’m just a song and dance man” because he is so evidently much more, with Waits one might be forgiven for suspecting that such a self-diagnosis would be spot on. The talent is undeniable, and so is the musical range, the technical understanding and the skilful use of genre. The intense and earthy songs of heartbreak and loss on the album Heart attack and Vine once provided me with the perfect music to get miserably drunk to, alone and gloriously despairing, and there have been hundreds of versions of the same songs since. He does slow and sad and he does loud and fast. Both are good, though with the latter he does tend to shout.

Charles Bukowski

I am willing to accept, perhaps, that my difficulty with Tom Waits is that I over-identified with his music for too long, and the problem lies with me rather than with him. And of course I cannot forgive the fact that he was never the real down-and-out he sang about (although he did sing about the lifestyle well). He is linked forever with Bukowski in the mythology I spun about myself in the 1980s (when I was in my twenties) and I cannot read a single line of Bukowski these days, I just find it laughable.  Quite apart from his having a face like a jam doughnut. Waits and Bukowski, the dream team (though oddly, Bukowski’s favourite singer-songwriter was Randy Newman, who I liked in my teens but afterwards found rather tame). All these blokes, trying to prove how close to the edge they lived. Maybe I never took either Waits or Bukowski that seriously, they just summed up a lifestyle, but failed to go much deeper.

Shane MacGowan of course, he was another. Maybe he still is. Someone props him up every now and then and he stumbles onto a stage and sings a few songs in an increasingly incomprehensible and strangulated voice, but Christ he had a gift, as a songwriter if nothing else. I met him once, in a bar in Camden. I was always bumping into famous people when I was a drunk. He seemed a decent enough bloke, just fed up with the attention, enjoying a bit of quiet time, I could respect that.  His songs with The Pogues became the anthems of my treks on foot across Spain towards the end of the eighties, just as Waits and Dylan had provided the lyrics of my hikes earlier in the decade, across Greece and Italy and France. Roberto Bolaño loved The Pogues too.

And what about Lennie? Leonard Cohen, I mean. I listened to him ardently when I was fourteen, fifteen, then went right off him until I rediscovered his music in my forties. I found out that his best songs can survive multiple replays in ways that Waits’ can never stand up to. And his concert at the Cardiff Arena a few years ago was one of the three best concerts (along with Lila Downs at Peralada and Mariza at Palafrugell) that I have seen in well, the last decade (and that includes two concerts by Dylan himself). I might have a Leonard Cohen song playing at my funeral  – yes, I’ve thought about that, such is the dreadful urge towards oblivion, guided by Cohen singing, now which was it, ‘Dance me to the end of love’ or ‘Take this waltz’? I can never decide. Not that I’ll be listening.




But Tommo? He seems very together. Something that you could hardly claim for Cohen, whose biography I read a few years ago and who came across as terminally screwed up, for all the Zen stuff. Or maybe not. Maybe that is just an asinine remark, maybe we are all screwed up, and that part of Cohen’s beauty (and his charm) is that his pain has so indelibly marked him that we are touched, as it were, by the fall-out from his own menagerie of perfume, lace and broken violins, and we can sink into a delectable narcotic haze of suffering by proxy. Certainly the teenage girls in bedsits who were deemed to be his early audience were not alone. This teenage boy was spellbound through long nights with Songs from a Room. And, if I am honest, still can be. He offers just that much more: I’ll call it a flake of the ineffable, because it sounds kind of Cohenesque.

But as for Tom, my internal critic just won’t shut up. Blanco likes the songs, enjoys the ironic melancholy, loves the stuff about drunken sailors and jumping ship to Singapore – and, as an aside, in many of the songs from Rain Dogs, Waits’ best album to date, there are strong personal associations with Thomas Pynchon’s fabulous novel V. which, along with Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, was another of Blanco’s travelling companions from the 1980s but he has problems incorporating Waits into the same illustrious hall of greatness at which Dylan and Cohen hold court. Maybe Blanco will stand corrected after a few listens of Bad as Me. I kind of hope so now. Will report back.






Borges: 25 years on

11 Jul

In Britain we tend to celebrate the anniversary of the births of famous people: in Argentina it is their deaths that are commemorated. Last month I was asked to contribute a piece for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín‘s special Borges supplement, looking at his influence on writers in the English-speaking world. It was published in Spanish on 14 June and is available here.

Here is the English version:

I first read Ficciones when I was eighteen years old and living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut half way up a mountain on the island of Crete. I had found the spot quite by chance while exploring an empty stretch of beach, and I moved in for the summer. I had just consumed The Brothers Karamazov and The Magic Mountain in rapid succession, and the brevity and intensity of Borges’ writing came as a revelation. Borges himself had something to say about big novels: “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.”

As an eighteen year old I was seduced by the idea that every instant contains the potential for an infinity of outcomes – a recurring motif in Borges’ work – or that our universe is only one in a multiplicity of possible universes, or that rather than being the proprietors of our own consciousness, we are being dreamed by some other entity. Not comfortable ideas to live with, but always pressing at the edges of comprehension, and always dissatisfied with received wisdoms.

Not everyone regarded Borges with such awe at the time, including the friend with whom I shared my idyll on the Libyan Sea. Over the next years I noted with curiosity whenever mention of Borges was made in relation to other writers. From the start, bearing in mind one of my favourite stories was ‘The South’, I always considered Borges to be a deeply Argentinian writer, and many of his stories are parables of Argentinian life. But I learned that there was also an ‘English’ Borges, not least because, due to the influence of his English grandmother, he grew up bilingual, and he reminds us in his cadences of the writers that influenced him; his beloved Stephenson, Kipling and Chesterton. It was perhaps this alleged ‘Englishness’ that appealed to some (although by no means all) of his fans in the UK. In any case, Borges cast a considerable influence over English language novelists of the 1980s, in particular, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death provides a suitable occasion to review that influence.

In his novel The Information (in which the twin protagonists, Richard and Gwyn, alarmingly constitute my own name), Martin Amis uses the concept of The Aleph – “a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere . . . one of the points in space that contains all other points” – as a central trope to infuse the book with astronomical detail, particularly with respect to the life cycle of stars, and the sun. According to the critic James Diedrick, Borges’ influence on the book extends further, ‘The Circular Ruins’ providing an allegory of how all literary works derive from other works, thereby confirming Amis’ own debt to Borges.

In a discussion with Ian McEwan held in London to celebrate the centenary of Borges’ birth, Amis said “Borges’ genius leaves me speechless, his work should not be considered minimalist, but extravagant. His way of facing the horror in the eternal and the transitory is extraordinary.” McEwan, similarly, praised Borges’ “colossal intelligence”, adding: “There is something liberating in Borges’ writing; it is the pure pleasure of the game of literary abstraction.”

Salman Rusdhie has also confessed to Borges’ influence, and in an essay refers to always carrying with him several ‘passports’, one of which is Borges’ Ficciones. Furthermore, in the acknowledgements to The Satanic Verses, Rushdie cites Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings for the description of the Manitcore.

However, in a 1999 review of the Collected Fictions, on their publication in English, Mavis Gallant observed that: “it is all but impossible to find anyone who has read Borges recently (other than Spanish-speaking readers, translators, specialists in Latin American writing and graduate students preparing dissertations).” Not much has changed since then. I suspect that many of the conceits and tropes that are considered ‘Borgesian’ have seeped into the fabric of British and American fiction, often without writers knowing from whence they came. Fantastical cultures, absurd hierarchies, ludic ploys and recurrent self-referentiality might remind some of us of their origin, but for many others they are just the way things are: they have been normalised within the rubric of post-modern fiction. Among younger writers in Britain, Borges would certainly seem to be far less of a force than he was at the time of his death, although his influence is discernible in the works of fine authors such as Geoff Dyer, David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. I teach at a British university and startlingly few of my own students have read him, though most have heard of him. Every year I endeavour to rectify their ignorance, and their reaction is either one of incomprehension or else an astonished and grateful: ‘why did no one tell me about this before!’ Among writer friends his name is still practically sacrosanct, though I am beginning to wonder how many of those under the age of forty have actually read him. Almost everyone agrees that only the stories from 1939-49 are truly great: the later work is found by J.M. Coetzee, for example, to be “tired” and to “add nothing to his stature.” The poems are sadly underappreciated here too compared with those of his contemporaries, Neruda and Lorca. But the great stories of the 1940s are perceived as his enduring strength, and as I suggested above, his influence has been absorbed into a way of seeing the world – just as Foucault intimated, almost by accident, over forty years ago.

My own favourite tribute to Borges comes in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in which a group of Argentinian exiles, led by the adventurer Squalidozzi, and at large in Europe during World War Two, hijack a German submarine. Improbably, they are accompanied by the glamorous Graciela Imago Portales – a ‘particular friend’ of the Buenos Aires literati – to whom ‘Borges is said to have a dedicated a poem’. Two lines are cited: “El laberinto de tu incertidumbre / Me trama con la disquietante luna . . .” Of course, the quotation has puzzled scholars, as it is neatly consistent with the rhythms and motifs of Borges’ earlier work, and yet nowhere to be found in his oeuvre. It would no doubt have delighted Borges, the more so since Pynchon made it up.