David Markson: This Is Not A Novel

The tributes that followed the recent death of David Markson inspired me to pick up one of his novels, something I’d been hesitant about before. Cursory flicks in the book stores had shown that those available were little more than page after page of collected quotes, statements, and musings. There couldn’t possibly be a story in there. But then, literature is replete with unconventionalists – e.g. Borges, Calvino, Joyce – and sometimes you’ve got to trust their experiments to delivering on whatever they set out to achieve. To this end, I settled on This Is Not A Novel (2001), published with an unassuming cover by CB Editions, and trusted Markson to deliver.

Any initial reservations with the concept of the book were quickly allayed with the opening sentences, two distinct lines that set up the premise for the book and introduces Writer, assumed to be Markson himself, as he expresses his thoughts on the creation of fiction and its many components:

Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.

Lord Byron died of either rheumatic fever, or typhus, or uremia, or malaria. Or was inadvertently murdered by his doctors, who had bled him incessantly.

Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900. Granted an ordinary modern life span, he would have lived well into World War II.

This morning I walked to the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful. Says a van Gogh letter.

Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.

In his tiredness, the characters — if we label Byron, Crane and van Gogh so — that inhabit the book are drawn this way, in only a brief line letting slip a fact or two, and seemingly unrelated to what has gone before. The breadth of names is impressive as Markson gives us details of writers, poets, singers, architects, jazz musicians, composers, and painters running the gamut of history. The common thread running through much of these references is that of death and what these artists died from, and so we learn of Thomas Mann’s death by phlebitis, Wyatt Earp’s by chronic cystitis, and of Frank Lloyd Wright’s heart attack — a few plucked from a catalogue of hundreds.

The obsession with death has purpose, and as Writer finds himself nearing the end of his life, his thoughts are on his legacy as an artist. While not explicit, the connections between the disparate facts shed their subtlety and we begin to see how people can survive beyond their lifetime, be it their works, their unsolved mysteries, or in tribute:

Among Dickens’ children: Alfred Tennyson Dickens. Henry Fielding Dickens. Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens. Walter Landor Dickens. Sudney Smith Dickens.

Among Walt Whitman’s brothers: George Washington Whitman. Andrew Jackson Whitman. Thomas Jefferson Whitman.

The links between the statements are wide ranging with respect to the artist and we touch on Writer’s preoccupation with madness, influences, relationships, other artistic flourishes, and what defines the longevity of an artist —

The peculiar immortality of Sulpicia. Six love poems, totaling only forty lines, and customarily tacked onto the collected works of Tibullus. For two full thousand years.

— which is no mean feat for a piece of fiction that aims to have “no intimation of story whatsoever”.

Part of the pleasure in the novel is being able to draw the imaginary lines between the proffered facts and to build up the story of Writer who, no matter how tempted he may be to quit writing, is an artist first and foremost and will write regardless. A writer, once an idea sinks its hooks into them, will wrestle with that idea to produce their art and in This Is Not A Novel Writer’s desire to produce something different (“Plotless. Characterless.”) pushes him on through more cleverly executed demonstrations of free association, his personality beginning to shine more despite the unrelated lines:

Ultimately, a work of art without even a subject, Writer wants.

There is no work of art without a subject, said Ortega.

A novel tells a story, said E.M. Forster.

If you can do it, it ain’t bragging, said Dizzy Dean.

With all the death and other assorted miseries, there’s still a streak of humour that runs through the book, which is perhaps not unexpected in such a playful piece. At one point Writer muses on Harold Bloom’s preposterous claim to the New York Times that he could read at a rate of five hundred pages per hour:

Writer’s arse.

Spectacular exhibition! Right this way, ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!

To most readers, if not all, This Is Not A Novel will contain anecdotes about some people known to them and many more that aren’t. It’s tempting to enjoy the act of looking up Markson’s references as they appear on the page to get a complete sense of who he’s bringing in to Writer’s thoughts, and from which books quotes are drawn. But to do so would break away from the ultimate goal of a book that revels in having no action “yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Recalling the Dizzy Dean quote, there’s sly references to what’s been involved in producing the book —

If you find this work difficult, and wearisome to follow, take pity on me, for I have repeated these calculations seventy times. Wrote Johannes Kepler.

— and a sense of hope for its future, the fate of which, is at the mercy of posterity:

My work is not a prize composition done to be heard for the moment, but was designed to last forever. Said Thucydides.

As to what Writer is writing, that’s up to him. At various interjections he suggests what it may be, “if Writer says so”: an autobiography? An Egyptian Book of the Dead? So, if Markson decides that this is not a novel, who are we to argue with the artist? But while it’s a novel that purports not to be a novel, there’s one thing for certain — it is novel.

June 22, 2010  9 Comments

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: Roseanna

“Most crimes are a mystery in the beginning,” says the Public Prosecutor in concluding a press conference discussing a woman’s murder. In this case, it’s a real mystery: a woman’s naked body has been accidentally dredged up from a Swedish canal and, with no clues forthcoming and nobody reported missing in the area, the police can’t even put a name to the victim.  This is the gambit of Roseanna (1965), the first of ten police procedurals featuring Martin Beck, written by husband and wife team, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall.

Where much of the crime fiction that I’ve read before – few, admittedly – has focused on the methods of the lone detective, from Holmes to Poirot, it was a refreshing experience to find that Sjöwall and Wahlöö had situated their crime story away from supersleuth glamour and into the realistic drudgery of the Homicide Bureau where being First Detective Inspector is just a job like any other, albeit one that requires a certain dogged mindset.

As jobs go, Martin Beck’s is one that appears to be led by some glimmer of predestination —

Martin Beck wasn’t chief of Homicide Squad and had no such ambitions. Sometimes he doubted if he would ever make superintendent although the only things that could actually stand in his way were death or some very serious error in his duties.

— and, as seems the staple for any dour detective, once it gets its hooks into you, all else falls by the wayside, notably the marriage, which had “slipped into a fairly dull routine” and, in snippets throughout, shows little chance of reparation:

At five-thirty he called home.

‘Shall we wait for dinner?’

‘No, go ahead and eat.’

‘Will you be late?’

‘I don’t know. It’s possible.’

‘You haven’t seen the children for ages.’

Without doubt he had both seen and heard them less than nine hours ago, but she knew that just as well as he did.

‘Martin?’

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t sound well. Is it anything special?’

‘No, not at all. We have a lot to do’

‘Is that all?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Now she sounded like herself again. The moment had passed. A few of her standard phrases and the discussion was over. He held the receiver to his ear and heard the click when she put hers down. A click, and empty silence and it was as if she were a thousand miles away. Years had passed since they had really talked.

Where Beck’s head is really at is in the thrill of the case. However, when the victim surfaces in early July the investigation moves at a pace typically reserved for snails. The aforementioned press conference is bereft of details because the case itself has few leads. Even when a tip off from Interpol finally kickstarts proceedings, the pace of the case still seems lethargic for the contemporary reader, yet in no way releasing its grip.

In this age of mobile telephones, computers, email, and electronic records, it almost seems incredulous the way Martin Beck and his colleagues go about their days: waiting for files being sent through the post; hunting payphones to report back information; travelling back and forth between Stockholm and the town of Motala; scanning manifests for data that, today, would only be the click of a button away. And when things start moving, tracing the crime to a tourist-filled boat, the scope of the case becomes apparent:

Eighty-five people, one of whom was presumably guilty, and the rest whom were possible witnesses, each had their small pieces that might fit into the great jig-saw puzzle. Eighty-five people, spread over four different continents. Just to locate them was a Herculean task. He didn’t dare think about the process of getting testimony from all of them and collecting the reports and going through them.

There are no clues in Roseanna conveniently left to help solve the crime. What’s required here is old-fashioned police work, following defined procedures, to whittle that list of eighty-five down to a single murderer. The cops read over case notes countless times; they scour testimonies again and again; each time they hope to spot something between the lines that they haven’t seen before. The problem they have is that in real life people are not so much black or white as they are shades of grey and so justice comes to face the obstruction of ulterior motives and withheld confessions. This quality of people is something of which Beck is conscious, as shown in one particularly wooden moment, where he separates himself from the media sensationalists that cover such stories:

Martin Beck straightened up. ‘Remember that you have three of the most important virtues a policeman can have,’ he thought. ‘You are stubborn and logical, and completely calm. You don’t allow yourself to lose your composure and you act only professionally on a case, whatever it is. Words like repulsive, horrible, and bestial belong in the newspapers, not in your thinking. A murderer is a regular human being, only more unfortunate and maladjusted.’

When Wahlöö and Sjöwall wrote their Beck novels they took on alternate chapters. Any inconsistency of style is perhaps ironed out by translation, but the prose here, spare and taut, is little more than functional, yet it also reflects those policeman’s virtues: calm and logical and stubborn. There are times when dialogue feels stilted but it’s a minor deflection from the narrative that is almost, from start to finish, gripping in its way without, given that it was translated over forty years ago, feeling dated.

Although the first of ten novels, the expectation was that they would be taken as a single, larger arc called The Story Of A Crime. Of the crime in Roseanna, I’ve barely mentioned it as that would detract from the experience of rolling up the sleeves and following the logical progression of Martin Beck and his team as the day job becomes an obsession —

Martin Beck remained and listened to the work day die away. The telephones were the first to become silent, then the typewriters, and the sound of voices stopped until finally even the footsteps in the corridors could no longer be heard.

— and the seemingly impossible case has its story unravelled and the resulting thread leads from eighty-five suspects to one. Most crimes may be a mystery in the beginning, but they can be measured in the satisfaction of their conclusion. And, so, with this one case satisfying, it’s a pat on the back and back to the day job: there’s nine more cases to be solved.

June 18, 2010  6 Comments

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010

The longlist for the 2010 Independent Foreign Ficton Prize has been announced, and it’s quite a small press friendly affair. As usual, titles under consideration were those translated works (from a living author) published in the prior year within the UK, and the prize money gets split equally between author and translator. Here’s the longlist:

The Coronation, Boris Akunin (Russian, trans: Andrew Bromfield) [Weidenfeld & Nicolson]

To Music, Ketil Bjørnstad (Norwegian, trans: Deborah Dawkin & Erik Skuggevik) [Maia Press]

The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim (Arabic, trans: Jonathan Wright) [Comma Press]

Brodeck’s Report, Philippe Claudel (French, trans: John Cullen) [MacLehose Press]

The Blind Side Of The Heart, Julia Franck (German, trans: Anthea Bell) [Harvill Secker]

Fists, Pietro Grossi (Italian, trans: Howard Curtis) [Pushkin Press]

Yalo, Elias Khoury (Arabic, trans: Humphrey Davies) [MacLehose Press]

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell (French, trans: Charlotte Mandell) [Chatto & Windus]

Broken Glass, Alain Mabanckou (French, trans: Helen Stevenson) [Serpent’s Tail]

Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell, Javier Marías (Spanish, trans: Margaret Julla Costa) [Chatto & Windus]

The Housekeeper And The Professor, Yoko Ogawa (Japanese, trans: Stephen Snyder) [Harvill Secker]

Thursday Night Widows, Claudia Piñeiro (Spanish, trans: Miranda France) [Bitter Lemon Press]

Chowringhee, Sankar (Bengali, trans: Arunava Sinha) [Atlantic]

The Dark Side of Love, Rafik Schami (German, trans: Anthea Bell) [Arabia Books]

Sunset Oasis, Bahaa Taher (Arabic, trans: Humphrey Davies) [Sceptre]

The shortlist will be announced some time in April. I have a number of these books on my shelves and would like to think I can get around to reading a few of them but, given my prolongued reader’s block, I’m not holding out much hope.

March 13, 2010  13 Comments

Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown

There is a sense of history from the opening pages of Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown (1938), mixing the echoes of the Great War, still vivid in its characters’ memories (“Fourteen years since the war! Did you mark the date? What a long way we have traveled, as peoples, from that bitterness!”), with their deeper personal connection. Told in letters between Jewish American, Eisenstein, and his business partner, the German Schulse, this (very) short novel spans fifteen months in the early 1930s during the Nazi machine’s rise to power.

In the first few exchanges the friends are genial, talking shop, Germany (“the breadth of intellectual freedom, the discussions, the music, the light-hearted comradeship”), and mentioning Griselle, Eistenstein’s headstrong sister and former fling of Schulse, who is traveling Europe as an actress. Liberal politics abound, then darkness descends as Eisenstein asks  (“Who is this Adolf Hitler who seems rising toward power in Germany?”)

What is initially frightening about Address Unknown is how Schulse, privileged in Germany following his economic success in America (“we employ now ten servants for the same wages of our two in the San Francisco home”) makes the rapid volte-face from declaring Hindenburg “a fine liberal whom I much admire” to a scathing attack on liberalism:

A liberal is a man who does not believe in doing anything. He is a talker about the rights of man, but just a talker. He likes to make a big noise about freedom of speech, and what is freedom of speech? Just the chance to sit firmly on the backside and say that whatever is being done by the active men is wrong. What is so futile as the liberal? I know him well because I have been one. He condemns the passive government because it makes no change. But let a powerful man arise, let an active man start to make a change, then where is your liberal? He is against it. To the liberal any change is the wrong one.

The powerful man that arises needs no introduction, and it’s not so much Hitler who features in the novel but the poison that his Fascist tenets instills in a man’s mind. From an early observational capacity Schulse describes him (“the man is like an electric shock, strong as only a great orator and a zealot can be”) but it’s soon obvious that any impartiality is slain by the sword of oratory:

As for the sterm measures that so distress you, I myself did not like them at first, but I have come to see their painful necessity. The Jewish race is a sore spot to any nation that harbors it. I have never hated the individual Jew — yourself I have always cherished as a friend, but you will know that I speak in all honesty when I say I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.

Although the change in relations between the two men seems rapid, with the letters following each other as the pagination insists, its the long gaps between these in the story’s time, often months, that add to the book’s power. We are left to wonder what has been happening in these unwritten periods. How has Schulse allowed himself to secede and convince himself of the efficacy of Hitler’s regime? Have Eisenstein’s nights been sleepless as he anticipates the next reply? And what of their common bond, Griselle, travelling between Vienna and Berlin, especially when her brother notes about the letter he has sent her?

…it has been returned to me, the envelope unopened, marked only address unknown, (Adressant Unbekannt). What a darkness those words carry! How can she be unknown? It is surely a message she has come to harm.

Into its minimal pages Address Unknown packs an incredible wealth of content, describing through one man Germany’s “hysteria of deliverance” under the auspices of a doer —

The whole tide of a people’s life changes in a minute because the man of action has come. And I join him. [...] I am a man because I act. Before that I am just a voice. I do not question the ends of our action. It is not necessary. I know it is good because it is so vital. Men are not drawn into bad things with so much joy and eagerness.

— and showing how words are just as much a weapon as armaments, perhaps even more so with their power to control people that will readily renounce who they truly are to follow a crazed destiny they would otherwise never consider. When Schulse talks of German destiny —

If I could show you, if I could make you see — the rebirth of this new Germany under our Gentle Leader! Not for always can the world grind a great people down in subjugation. In defeat for fourteen years we bowed our heads. We ate the bitter bread of shame and drank the thin gruel of poverty. But now we are free men. We rise in our might and hold our heads up before the nations. We purge our bloodstream of its baser elements. We go singing through our valleys with strong muscles tingling for a new work — and from the mountains ring the voices of Wodan and Thor, the old, strong gods of the German race.

— the words of the Nazi doctrine are evident, for this is a man who has lived comfortably in the United States, and never suffered the hardship of post-war Germany.

If the compact nature of Address Unknown is powerful itself for Schulse’s journey, Taylor strengthens it further by working the idea of words’ power to a wonderful twist that plays on the paranoid, censorious nature of the regime it successfully lambasts. Taylor could not have known what horrors were yet to come from Nazi aggression, but in this tale she rallies against its rise, and the results, when they arrive, are both satisfying, abrupt, and apt.

December 15, 2009  13 Comments

David Vann: Legend Of A Suicide

In Ichthyology, the opening story of David Vann’s collection, Legend Of A Suicide (2008), there appears a fly that gets stuck in a fishtank and, in its panic, sends off a series of ripples that highlight his predicament. It’s a visible showing from the insect and, having little consciousness, it can’t fight instinct in making its panic known. Humans differ, however, and the troubled father of Roy Fenn was not going to be found flapping helplessly in the water. Instead he took himself onto the deck of his boat and, with his .44 Magnum, shot himself. It’s an act that made its own ripples, affecting others, and the mystery around that suicide forms the basis for this book.

It’s hard not to see Roy as a loose version of Vann, whose own father commited suicide in 1980. Of the six stories making the collection, five of them are narrated by an adult Roy, casting his mind back to growing up in the empty expanses of Alaska, where life seemed to consist of nothing more than riffs on guns and fishing.

While the stories are independent of each other, they are deeply anchored in the life of Jim Fenn. The portrait painted is of an impenetrable man with “neither eyes nor ears for matters below the surface”, a weakness for women, and a history of failed investments. In Rhoda, where we meet his second wife – Roy’s stepmother – we are shown how Jim acts, storing his concerns without seeking to tackle them, when he worries that Rhoda may leave him:

“She’s not going to leave,” I said.

My father squinted looking out over the brush on either side distrustfully. “I wish I could believe that.”

“You can,” I said. “She told me she wouldn’t.”

My father stopped hiking and looked at me then as if I were someone entirely new to him. “She told you?”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“I asked her.”

Such an inability to communicate appears again and again throughout the book and there’s no doubt this has partly led to his suicide. Without a shoulder to lean on and an ear to hear him out we rarely get a sense of his thoughts and feelings, all of which allows Roy to build up a mythology around his father that goes some way toward the overall title of the book.

In the third story, A Legend Of Good Men we drop in on Roy’s mother after his father’s death where there’s little stability in her love life —

The men she dated then were a lot like the circuses that passed through our town. They’d move in quickly and unpack everything they owned, as if they’d come to stay. They’d tempt us with brightly colored objects — floweres, balloons, remote-controlled race cars — perform tricks with their beards and hands, call us funny names like snip, my little squash plant, ding-dong, and even apple pie, and yell their stories at us day and night. Then they’d vanish, and we’d find no sign left, no mention even, as if we’d simply imagined them.

and we see the breadth of unsuitable father figures that, like Jim Fenn, just disappear one day without a goodbye. Guns abound here, referenced in an obsessive way — “…a Browning .22-caliber rifle, a .30-.30 Winchester carbine, a .300 Winchester Magnum with scope…” — and when Roy breaks into his own house, there’s an eerie dissonance whereby he describes it as if it’s the first time he’s seen it. It’s a tactic that works well to try and understand different perspectives, something which the book parallels on the whole.

The writing in Legend Of A Suicide is almost always controlled. Vann keeps a tight rein on his prose, careful not to let it fly off too far from the polished sparsity that characterises it, and this sometimes creates a cold distance between the narration and the recounted events. However, when it comes to the Alaskan landscape, he allows himself the occasional indulgence, offering up delightful passages, such as in later story Ketchikan. where Roy returns to meet someone from his father’s past:

At thirty, I rode the Alaskan ferry past the coastline of British Columbia, past white-ringed islands, forests extending beyond the horizon, gulls and bald eagles, porpoises, whales, all in close, rode past sunsets over the open ocean, lighthouses, small fishing villages, into Alaskan waters where mountains sloped steeply upward out of fjords, and on, to the town of my childhood, strung narrowly along the waterfront, drenched perpetually on mist, the place of ghosts, I felt, the place where my dead father had first gone astray, the place where this father and his suicide and his cheating and his lies and my pity for him, also, might finally be put to rest: Ketchikan.

Interestingly, the stories that make up the book would feel of little importance if it weren’t for the centrepiece, the novella Sukkwan Island which drops the first person for third and tells us of a time where Roy and his father headed out to the wilderness for a year. Ill-equipped for the experience, but too stubborn to call an end to the endeavour, we regularly see the closed off personality of Jim Fenn break down into late night bouts of tears as he confesses his inadequacies to his son.

God, I felt bad. I felt sick all the time. But I kept doing it. And the thing is, even after seeing all that that did, and all it destroyed, I don’t know for sure that I’d act any differently if I had the chance again. The thing is, something about me is not right. I just can’t do the right thing and be who I’m supposed to be. Something about me won’t let me do that.

This novella is the best thing about the collection as it shows that Vann is capable, after a few reflective stories, of pacing his writing, and the drama created from its limited cast shows much to commend. What’s particularly special is that it goes some way toward ensuring that Jim Fenn, as a man, remains ungraspable. As Vann tries to unlock aspects of Fenn’s personality he does so in a way that opens up contradictions between the stories, slight differences that go some way to producing the myth behind the man rather than the other way around.

For the author it must have been a therapeutic experience to tackle the real suicide that underlies this fictional representation and the slightly maddening way that he comes at the same subject repeatedly, yet in unusual ways, ensures that the reader is given a window into the confusion. “Memories are infinitely richer than their origins” we are told at one point and in the end these private memories are what keeps the legend of Jim Fenn going, as answers are never conducive to keeping mysteries alive.

November 9, 2009  8 Comments

Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Science fiction has been in the news a lot these days, most notably with Kim Stanley Robinson’s much publicised criticism about the lack of recognition awarded to the genre by judges of the Man Booker Prize (although it’s likely that sf publishers don’t submit the works for consideration). It’s a genre that seems to want to break away from being ghettoised and obtain respectability, to prove that it’s a genre of ideas rather than, as stereotypes imply, the domain of nerds.

It’s not a genre that I would consciously gravitate to, put off as I am by the notion of space operas and many a sf cover, but I see no harm in sampling from time to time, although my preference would seem to go to those recognised as good examples of what science fiction is capable of, and it’s for this reason that I turned to Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963). It’s probably better known for the film adaptation starring David Bowie but the original novel is an enjoyable journey in its own right.

The book opens in the year 1985 with our titular ‘man’ wandering around Kentucky and having his first experiences of interacting with human beings:

It was a woman, a tired-looking woman in a shapeless blue dress, shuffling towards him up the street. He quickly averted his eyes, dumbfounded. She did not look right. He had expected them to be about his size, but this one was more than a head shorter than he. Her complexion was ruddier than he had expected, and darker. And the look, the feel, was strange — even though he had known that seeing them would not be the same as watching them on television.

It is through television – and FM radio – that he has observed humanity before arriving on the planet from Anthea, his own world. To understand their ways helps in dealing with the “complex, long-prepared plan” he has come to effect. Said plan isn’t immediately explained but forms part of the novel’s mystery as we watch the rise of Thomas Jerome Newton (his assumed identity) from selling gold rings to small jeweller’s for lows sums to becoming a wealthy man by patenting and producing advanced technology for the market to consume under the umbrella of World Enterprises Corporation. The only hint as to what Newton needs the money for — his target amount is five hundred million dollars in five years — is in his answer to his patent lawyer, that it’s for a research project.

Being a novel set during the Cold War it’s no surprise that suspicion towards foreigners should feature in the novel, and with his meteoric rise in status, Newton begins to inspire the doubts of many people, notably Robert Bryce, a chemical engineer who, upon seeing one of the W.E. Corp’s new products – a self-developing camera film – concludes that it “It’s got to be a whole new technology…somebody digging up a science in the Mayan ruins…or from some other planet…” and burrows his way into Newton’s employ in order to sate his curiosity.

The relationship between Newton and Bryce is an interesting one as the initial suspicion over Newton’s true origins leads to an eventual friendship, and also allows us into Newton’s existential quandary. He’s a man alone in the world, different to everyone on the planet and losing his identity the more he lives as a human and yearns to out himself as an Anthean.

Then he spoke aloud, to himself, in English. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘And where do you belong?’

His own body stared back at him; but he could not recognize it as his own. It was alien, and frightening.

While the novel’s title could be read literally, about a man falling to Earth, the truer premise lies in Newton’s decline in purpose. From intentions to serve a masterplan his Anthean self begins to disintegrate under the gravity of human ways, accelerated by a certain closeness to his low status housekeeper, who introduced him to gin and taught him “that a huge and indifferent mass of persons had virtually no ambitions and no values whatever”, and the thought of his own people loses its importance:

…he, the Anthean, a superior being from a superior race, was losing control, becoming a degenerate, a drunkard, a lost and foolish creature, a renegade and, possibly, a traitor to his own.

Tevis’ prose isn’t particularly showy, he deals mostly in facts and details and drifts through the minds of his characters. But in Newton he lingers longer and captures well the loneliness and sorrow that can affect a man who stands alone, obsessed with “vague guilts and vaguer doubts” and with no real confessor in his midst. His decline almost feels inevitable and with the ongoing questioning of himself (“…was it merely that a man surrounded by animals long enough became more of an animal than he should?”) Tevis achieves an agreeable balance of depth alongside pacier sections.

Toward the end of the book there is a mention of the Watergate scandal that, for a book written in 1963 is remarkably prescient, and would hint at Tevis having made later amendments to his work. The pictured edition doesn’t make mention of this and one wonders what other changes may have been made to the original text. But original text or updated probably doesn’t matter for The Man Who Fell To Earth is a satisfying tale that contains a wholly science-fiction premise but delivers it lightly with little emphasis on the science and much more on the fiction.

October 19, 2009  7 Comments

On The Nobel Prize in Literature

With the impact of recognising Herta Müller as the 2009 Nobel laureate in literature slightly dampened by rising expectations that she would be the recipient I find myself still happy, like last year, that it has went to a writer I have no experience of reading. When this happens, it’s always a welcome recommendation from the Swedish Academy, like J.M.G. Le Clézio last year, who I have since read and enjoyed. I now look forward to reading one of Müller’s works in the near future.

The annoying thing about the Nobel is not the prize itself, but the predictable reactions that follow. If it’s not demonstrating exasperation over how unknown the writer is (see Another obscure Nobel Prize literature winner. Sigh!) it’s calls of the prize being Eurocentric because an American hasn’t won it for a number of years, such as this in the Washington Post:

The latest Nobel literature selection has revived chatter about whether the Nobel Committee favors European writers — even the most obscure ones — over Americans. Mueller, an ethnic German born in Romania, is the third European in a row to win the $1.4 million prize. It has been 16 years since an American won it (1993, Toni Morrison).

Sixteen years, eh? It’s been ninety-six years since an Indian won it and an additional two on top of that since a Belgian was recognised. And, still, there’s plenty of countries that have never produced a laureate. What so many seem to miss is that it’s not a national award but an individual one, as per the will of Alfred Nobel:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”

The American media may crow about how the prize is Eurocentric, especially fired up by then Permanent Secretaty Horace Engdahl’s comments in 2008 about how America is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the centre of the literary world but the big difference is that while America is a single country, Europe consists of fifty separate nations, each with their own history, politics, and culture. If the Academy recognised a writer from France one year it would still be a far cry from awarding a Hungarian, a Finn, or a Georgian the following year. They may all be European, but the worlds they inhabit will be completely different.

Instead of taking no American writer being recognised in recent years amost as a personal insult, the positives are still that, rather than having a reason to cheer on the nation’s favourite sons and daughters, there’s the possibility of a new writer to discover. Surely there’s been movement since that described by the first American laureate, Sinclair Lewis, in his 1930 Nobel lecture, The American Fear of Literature?

…in America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

Perhaps that’s why Adam Kirsh, writing in Slate, made this daft comment last year:

The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become.

The ignorance surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature is something that becomes tiring after a while. What are we to think, for example, of a group that overlooked the likes of Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and so on? Nothing, I’d say. Authors live and die and the Academy can’t predict that. It may be that Nabokov was in with a shout of winning the Nobel in 1977 but went and disqualified himself by dying in July that year. It may not be. There’s no point second guessing the normally secretive Swedish Academy. Just enjoy their recommendations. Or not. But let’s not bring nationality into it. It goes against the idea of the prize.

October 13, 2009  6 Comments

Robert Coover: Briar Rose

The American writer Robert Coover would appear to be a dot on the landscape of British literary consciousness – I don’t know how well known he is in the States – but a small number of his better known titles, such as The Public Burning, The Origin Of The Brunists, and short story collection, Pricksongs And Descants, have recently been appearing on the shelves of my local Waterstone’s. Curious to know more, but without immediately buying, I read about him online and found that he is a postmodernist of some repute and that his novel The Public Burning was the first major work of fiction to use still living people as characters (it was narrated by Richard Nixon). So, intrigued enough to wanting to sample Coover but not intrigued enough to get bogged down in a lengthy wedge of postmodern trickery, I opted for one of his novellas, Briar Rose (1996), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty tale.

Although there are many variations on the Sleeping Beauty story, the common thread follows a girl on the cusp of adulthood forced to sleep for a hundred years after pricking her finger on a spindle, and who can only have the spell broken by a kiss. To this end Coover tells us the story from the point of view of three characters, told in alternating sections: Beauty, the handsome prince, and the evil fairy whose spindle is responsible for Beauty’s condition.

Briar Rose opens with the story of the prince on a quest to reach a castle after hearing rumours of a sleeping princess (“for all her hundred years and more, still a child, innocent and yielding. Achingly desirable. And desiring.”). What else can he do, as is the hero’s vocation, but race to her rescue? The castle has seen better times and a briar patch has grown around it, preventing easy access. Nevertheless, in an opening tinged with sexual imagery —

He is surprised to discover how easy it is. The branches part like thighs, the silky petals caress his cheeks. His drawn sword is stained, not with blood, but with dew and pollen. Yet another inflated legend. He has undertaken this great adventure, not for the supposed reward — what is another bedridden princess? — but in order to provoke a confrontation with the awful powers of enchantment itself. To tame mystery. To make, at last his name.

— the task is there to be undertaken, despite statements that he’d had been better off searching for the Golden Fleece or “another bloody grail”.Soon we are with Beauty, high in the castle where she sleeps her century’s sleep. But it’s not without a serious of recurring dreams “each forgotten in the very dreaming of them” although some elements produce an “ambient familiarity”. Her dreams see her wandering the castle, its myriad locations amorphous and unspecific, and longing for “the one”. And tucked away in these dreams is the evil fairy, her lone companion who regales her with tales of other sleeping princesses:

Whe she woke up— What was her name? What? The princess: What was her name? Oh, I don’t know, my child. Some called her Beauty, I think. That’s it, Sleeping Beauty. Have I heard this story before? Stop interrupting. When she woke up— How did she wake up? Did a prince kiss her? Ah. No. Well, not then.

Where fairy tales are prone to a form of Chinese whispers, so too do the evil fairy’s stories take on new forms and variations with each telling while remaining true to the original. In her ever forgetful dreams Beauty is ignorant that the stories are her story, albeit garnished, and Coover takes these fantastical tales – of incest, rape, ogres…and bears! – and injects a sense of real world logic into them —

Has that smug sleeper paused to consider how she will look and smell after a hundred years, lying comatose and untended in an unchanged bed? A century of collected menses alone should stagger the lustiest of princes.

— that, in turn, seems to influence the characters into becoming more logical themselves and begin to develop self-consciousness whereby they realise they are archetypes and struggle against it. The prince, for example, knowing that there isn’t a hero’s life once you are living happily ever after (“What is happily ever after, after all, but a fall into the ordinary, into human weakness, gathering despair, a fall into death?”) finds himself almost happy to be trapped in the increasingly aggressive briars (“he slashes, a branch falls; it grows back, doubly forked”).

The question is who’s mind are we in, if we are in anyone but the author’s mind? Is the princess in the castle a myth that drives the prince onward? Is the prince always, but never, coming to the rescue simply an instance of wishful thinking? The questions play back and forth with each other, placing us back with the prince at the start of the book: in a tangled briar of words that seem to part easily at first but eventually keep us rapt in their embrace.

October 8, 2009  Leave a comment

Alexander Pope: The Art Of Sinking In Poetry

Alexander Pope is considered one of England’s greatest poets of the eighteenth century, known for satirical poems as The Rape Of The Lock and the Dunciad. He was a member of the Scriblerus club, along with names like Jonathan Swift and John Arbuthnot, a circle of writers that combined in the mocking of contemporary mediocrity in science and the arts. Works borne of this group were sometimes attributed to their fictional founder, Martinus Scriblerus.

Amongst the recognised output of Scriblerus’ was Peri Bathous, or The Art Of Sinking In Poetry (1727), Pope’s satirical attack on the poets of his day. Where criticism and disdain may be best put upon inferior works of literature, appreciation of this essay comes in its alternative approach: to praise bathetic instances in poetry.

Pope opens with an explanation of why it is necessary to study the poets of his day:

It hath been long — my dear countrymen — the subject of my concern and surprise that whereas numberless poets, critics and orators have compiled and digested the art of ancient poesy, there hath not arisen among us one person so public-spirited as to perform the like for the modern. Although it is universally known that our every-way industrious moderns, both in the weight of their writings and in the velocity of their judgements, do so infinitely excel the said ancients.

His essay is to be treated as an instructional piece for any poet, “to lead them as it were by the hand and, step by step, the gentle downhill way to the bathos — the bottom, the end, the central point, the non plus ultra of true modern poesy.” The first few chapters outline the reasons behind such a stance, noting that profit and gain should take precedence over the fruitless undertaking of writing for “men of a nice and foppish gusto”, not that writing for such men should be dismissed out of hand, for it would be a “great cruelty and injustice if all such authors as cannot write in the other way were prohibited from writing at all.”

In order to make it easier to understand how one may begin to ‘sink’, Pope proposes to collect “the scattered rules of our art into regular institutes” and presents us with his first maxim -

…that whoever would excel therein must studiously avoid, detest and turn his head from all the ideas, ways and workings of that pestilent foe to wit and destroyer of fine figures, which is known by the name of common sense. His business must be to contract the true goût de travers and to acquire a most happy, uncommon, unaccountable way of thinking.

– which requires the application of ideas infinitely below the object approached. In addition, he generously offers up a couple of examples from his contemporaries demonstrating how sinking may be achieved. (“Would it not be a shame if he who is smit with the love of the bathos should not sacrifice to it all other transitory regards?”)

As the lessons continue, The Art Of Sinking In Poetry calls to mind, tangentially, a book that would come some two hundred years later, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style, for Pope provides a catalogue of literary terms — catachresis, synecdoche, metonymy — and works his way through them, citing ‘effective’ examples of their use. However, where Queneau would use such devices as a conscious challenge, Pope, in praising those poets who make use of them unconsciously, documents their sinking.

While there are occasions that it seems Pope is nitpicking, such as jargon, many of the poems Pope excerpts for his comical purposes are truly awful and rightly deserve a bit of a lashing. In some cases he explains why the approach is bad, while some cases speak for themselves, like the anticlimax of a couplet on the extent of British arms –

Under the tropics is our language spoke,

And part of Flanders hath received our yoke.

– or the cumbrous phrasing demanding a fire be lit:

Bring forth some remnant of Promethean theft,

Quick to expand the’inclement air congealed

By Boreas’s rude breath…

Poetry may be the focus of the essay, but its a work thay may be of interest to those who would seek to improve their writing in any literary medium, as the underlying call is for those who would write to consider what they are putting to paper. At times, Pope’s prose can feel a little confusing, a side-effect of its age, but the wit transcends the years to ensure that the book has its funny moments while getting its point across — namely, less sinking, more thinking.

July 31, 2009  2 Comments

Philip Roth: The Breast

Having intended, at one time, to read the books of Philip Roth in order of publication, a brick wall was soon hit with second book, Letting Go, Roth’s first novel proper and still his largest to date. It just went on and on, never serving up the satisfation of progress. Now, with that reading goal abandoned, it’s open season on Roth. But where to begin? In the end, I went for The Breast (1972), a thin slice of Roth that would hopefully whet the appetite for some more. Which it has.

The Breast is the first book in a trilogy involving Professor David Kepesh and is an extended short story that pays homage to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Where Kafka’s classic follows the experiences of the unfortunate Gregor Samsa as he, following uneasy dreams, wakes to find himself changed into a large beetle, Kepesh, thanks to a suspected “hermaphroditic explosion of chromosomes, wakes from a coma to find himself turned into a female breast.

…a mammary gland such as only could appear, one would have thought, in a dream or a Dali painting. They tell me that I am now an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; I am said to be of a spongy consistency, weighing in at one hundred and fifty-five pounds (formerly I was one hundred and sixty-two), and measuring, still, six feet in length.

Quite why Kepesh has found himself transformed is very much an irrelevance — he simply has, and how he deals with it is the subject of the book. It’s to Roth’s credit that he takes the initial idea and runs with it, ticking off the possible thoughts that someone in this predicament may encounter and doing so in a serious, contemplative manner.

 Alas, what has happened to me is like nothing anyone has ever known: beyond understanding, beyond compassion, beyond comedy, though there are those, i know, who claim to be on the brink of some conclusive scientific explanation; and those, my faithful visitors, whose compassion is deeply felt, sorrowful and kind; and there are still others — there would have to be — out in the world who cannot help but laugh. And I, at times, am one with them: I understand, I have compassion, I see the joke.

Although his situation is ridiculous and consciously invites laughter, the comedy of The Breast comes not from Kepesh but from those around him. He mutters lewd requests to his nurse who talks over him, never acknowledging his advances; his doctor tries to move his life on as if nothing has happened, and his father, a retired innkeeper now wasting his days working the phones for his brother’s business, seems almost oblivious to the changes that have come over his son:

He comes to visit me once a week and seated in a chair that is drawn up close to my nipple, he recounts the current adventures of people who were our guests when I was a boy. Remember Abrams the milliner? Remember Cohen the chiropodist? Remember Rosenheim with the card tricks and the Cadillac? Yes, yes, yes, I think so. Well, this one is dying, this one has moved to California, this one has a son who has married an Egyptian. “How do you like that?” he says, “I didn’t even know they would allow that over there.” Oh, Dad, I think to say, wonders never cease…

As one may expect, a large breast isn’t going to do much moving around and so the narrative is, for the most part, internalising punctuated with recollections of memorable scenes. Beginning with the question of ‘why me?’ Kepesh’s journey continues logically until he tries to convice himself that he’s mad, that he’s in a mental ward. The question of sexual frustration, that human desire for sex that can never be sated, is a major part of Kepesh’s struggle — being an organ incapable of orgasm is a nightmare. But the pain of adapting to the transformation seems all the more tolerable when faced with the alternative:

…having been terrified of death since I was two, I have become entrenched in my hatred of it, have taken a position against death from which I cannot retreat just because This has happened to me. Horrible as This is, my oldest and most heartless enemy, Extinction, still strikes me as even worse. Then you will say, maybe This is not so horrible after all. Well, reader, you say that, if you want to. All I know is that I have been wanting not to die for so long, that I just can’t stop doing it overnight.

All around Kepesh are people intent on staying within the blandness of life. His girlfriend isn’t sexually adventurous, his doctor ignores the magnitude of events, and his father hovers over smalltalk. When pondering his situation, Kepesh questions a “churning longing” to be  –

…utterly and blessedly helpless, to be a big brainless bag of tissue, desirable, dumb, passive, immobile, acted upon instead of acting, hanging, there, as a breast hangs and is there.

– and this nicely captures the idea of accepting the daftness of life and just getting on with it. This is what Roth is scrutinising in The Breast, and he successfully milks it for all it’s worth.

July 28, 2009  10 Comments

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