Thursday, January 31, 2008

Vonnegut on what a writer should write

...what bothers me about people and critics is how they start raking over the past works of such people as [Tennessee] Williams and Salinger, works that set trends in literarature and influenced people, such as myself, and now question their worth. The function of an artist is to respond to his own time. Voltaire, Swift and Mark Twain did it.
Kurt Vonnegut

I don't wholly agree with Vonnegut on this - if I did, after all, this blog entry would be impossible, given that I'm raking over the works of a now dead writer. I do get his point to an extent, though. In folk music, there is the mirror to Vonnegut's point, with an obsession with going back to the source, uncovering the originals. For those of the folk revival in the 50s and 60s, they are going back to old field recordings from the 20s and 30s. This is the authentic traditional music, they say, and they encourage the new generation of musicians to use not them - the folk revivalists - as their inspiration, but these original singers and musicians who informed their generation. This is quite, quite wrong. If you could have gone back to the 20s and 30s, all those original source singers and musicians would no doubt say exactly the same thing - traditional music isn't what it was, it's being adulterated with all this modern music, it was much better in my grandfather's day, in the 1890s. And so on, back through the ages. To try to preserve what was is to ossify the tradition. It dies. Every generation must take as its inspiration whatever it chooses, and make of it what it will.

The same with writing. Every generation must take its inspiration from wherever it sees fit. In my case, Mr V. would be high on the list. But a constant harping back to previous generations doesn't particularly help, whether that be to laud it, as with the folk musicians, or to criticise it, as Vonnegut suggests with critics of literature. Yes, by all means re-interpret, because each generation understands things differently, and literature looks different according to the context and the times in which it is read. But, really, would it not be beneficial if writers took Vonnegut's advice and concentrated on a response to the times in which they are living.

That may sound odd coming from someone whose writing currently heavily features Rousseau and Nietzsche, but I think I am doing what Vonnegut says: I am writing about them from the viewpoint of 2008, of a fractured world, of a society that should be happy because it is as affluent, settled, comfortable as it has ever been, but is still, somehow, deeply dissatisfied. Disconnection, you see, the subject I keep returning to. Mr V. as one of my influences, will inform that work; indeed, I'm toying with the idea of allowing Kilgore Trout a walk-on part in it. But the disconnection I aim to discuss is mine, is 2008's, not that of Rousseau or Nietzsche, or of Vonnegut and Vietnam.

Monday, January 28, 2008

York Minster

I had a walk around York Minster yesterday afternoon. A very intersting experience for an atheist, I have to say. I find ecclesiastical architecture simply mind-blowing: the scale of it is incomprehensible. How on earth could they have conceived, planned and built something as monumental as places like York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral?

The reason we went yesterday was that the nave was completely emptied of chairs. This happens only once a year, apparently, and we wanted to see what it was like as it should be, not with row upon row of plastic seats. It was truly incredible. The space is astonishing, with its long, narrow nave and the massive, high roof. At one point, the sun even came out and obligingly started streaming through the stained-glass windows. Quite beautiful.

So, you say, it must be described as an awe-inspiring experience, literally so, in the traditional use of the expression? Well, yes and no. Undoubtedly, the majesty of the building itself could be said to be awe-inspiring, but I have to be honest and say I got absolutely no sense of spirituality from the place. And that, entirely, is down to the way it appears to be managed.

It is certainly not helped that there are tourists like me wandering all over the place, taking photos, chatting, laughing. If I were religious, I feel sure the spirituality of it would be the most important element: a chance to be at one with and connect with the Lord. How can that be done amid the melee of tourists?

And what struck me most forcibly was what they are doing with the building. All over the place there are inscriptions in stone - on the walls, on the floor, even on steps. There is no logic to it; they feel almost like graffiti, they feel like an imposition on this wonderful old building. These are stones which were laid centuries ago and, at some stage, someone has decided to carve an inscription into them to commemorate someone who gave money in 1930 or who dies in 1789 or whatever. These things are everywhere. Every corner seems to have some sort of memento mori, some sort of testimony to a life lived. I can't quite put my finger on what is so objectionable about this, but I think it is to do with the transience of individual life against the spirituality - and I use the word intentionally - of the human species per se. It feels to me as though there is no logic, no wider mission, no common understanding in what is being done. It is just individual moments that are recorded, in seemingly random positions for no logical reason. It cheapens the place. It gives it the feel of a municipal hall that has been put to many uses over the years and hasn't been treated with the respect it deserves. I came away feeling sad for the place. It deserves better custodians.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Edwin Morgan - oor Makar

A great piece in the Guardian today by Sarah Crown on the Makar, Edwin Morgan. The conclusion is as moving as anything I've read in years. It could serve as a definition for the sort of humanism I believe in:

The absolute necessity of love - to life and work - is summed up at the end of a poem to a man known simply as G. who, despite declaring "Ah love ma wife", kisses the poet "at Central Station, on the lips in broad daylight". Love, Morgan concludes,

"will not be denied
In this life. It is a flood-tide
You may dam with all your language but it breaks and bullers through and
blatters all platitudes and protestations before it, clean out of sight".

The expansiveness of this final statement is typical of Morgan. "I have friends who are very pessimistic. They say you can't possibly be an optimist nowadays. But I think, taking the longer view, you can still be as optimistic as you want. I'm convinced of this. I've had some bad times and I'm not too well now, so I suppose I have reasons to be pessimistic, but even now, in the last part of my life, what's there is still something I can be glad of, and use. There are very good reasons for thinking things are OK. And I go on doing that."

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I feel better for having read that.


James Woods has written an interesting piece in the Guardian today on character in fiction (although it does, at times, feel like he's showing off how many books he's read - a few too many paragraphs simply name-checking the characters from famous, mostly Russian novels). He makes a good point in his introduction, after a witty parody of the hideous "descriptive sentences" from amateur writers:
The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised in a scene that is hard.
So often, characterisation in novels or stories is no more than descriptive nonsense with a few omnisicent-narrator "truths" thrown in.

He also suggests:
"Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn't find any characters to identify with", or "didn't think that any of the characters 'grow'".
Again, I can understand this. It is something that infuriates me, this trite notion that characters must in some way develop in the progress of a story. It is a ludicrous straitjacket, part of the formalisation of the novelistic form which I think is destroying it.

There seem to be so many conventions that have to be adhered to, such as the character-development arc. I'm reading Coetzee's Disgrace at the moment, and while I can admire the writing, it strikes me as cold, unfeeling, utterly novelistic and not in the remotest way real or, for that reason, interesting. There is discussion of the perfective tense - burnt not burned - and so, of course, later on there is going to be a burning, and the main character's face is burned. There are constant references to animals, and so the main character as part of his redemptive journey, ends up caring for dying animals. And so on. The lesson plan the main character has devised on the day when the cuckolded boyfriend turns up just happens, of course, to be on Byron's Lara, which has uncomfortable resonances in the circumstances. There are many other such writerly devices, and I hate them. They seem to exist only for the purposes of showing off: the writer, in how neatly he can stitch together the elements of his novel into a coherent theme; and the reader, who can preen and congratulate him or herself for spotting them. It becomes a game, a literary puzzle, something the cognoscenti can identify and understand and talk about. But so fucking what?

Now, of course, I could be accused of reacting like the small-minded reading groups that Woods refers to in his article and, fair enough, I hold up my hands and accept the criticism. Yes indeed, this novel is a serious study of the changes wrought in South Africa after the dissolution of the apartheid regime, and for me to focus not on that grand theme but on the minutiae of the writing process probably demonstrates a skewed perspective but, I guess, as someone who wants to be a writer, I can't help reading from the point of view of the craft, not the story.

I find it odd that, after the modernist movement of the last century, after post-modernism, we are still shoehorning fiction into these narrow conventions, still rushing headlong into symbolism and manipulating our stories into these tired tropes where something happens which will inevitably turn out to be a mirror of some later, more desperate event. It's all too predictable. It makes the reader concentrate on the Writing, not the writing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Michel Houellebecq - The possibility of an island

Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of and island, his fourth novel, has, like his previous efforts, been somewhat controversial. Hoellebecq appears to consciously court controversy. That, perhaps, should ring alarms.

In essence, this story is one of extreme nihilism, where the apogee of achievement appears to be a blowjob or a bumfuck with a twenty-year-old girl. Love is not to be sought, nor approved: when it arrives, unwanted and unwonted, its shock is overpowering and, in the end, undesirable.

What, instead, Houellebecq depicts for society is a dystopian world where DNA is stored and manipulated, where future generations – mutated replicas of today's fin-de-siecle humans such as the main character Daniel – do not eat, cannot understand love, have no means of personal communication. No-one dies, because a new version of that person will be reproduced from the stored DNA immediately – not precisely the same, because he inhabits a new body with new thoughts, but with identical DNA and with access to the thoughts of all previous incarnations, back to Number One, back, in the case of the main character, to the genesis of it all, the misanthropic Daniel1. This is territory Houellebecq has covered before, notably in Atomised, which similarly created a hell-world of dehumanised disconnection.

This comes out most, of course, this being Houellebecq, in sex. The book is awash with it, to the extent that the reader begins to find it as enervating as Daniel. It takes a certain anti-genius to make depictions of a beautiful, willing and happy nubile young woman, devoid equally of knickers and scruples and offering up any and every orifice to a middle-aged main character, and leave this equally middle-aged reader completely unmoved by it. Unmoved: neither excited nor repulsed, nor incredulous, nor even bored. Just – nothing. As yet more pages of midlife-crisis wank-fest slid by I barely even noticed it: I was reading the words, but not the sense. Perhaps this is Houellebecq's intention? But to what end?

The difficulty with all of this, as is so often the case with Houellebecq, is that he creates such a hell of humanity that there is no humanity left. The neo-humans have no human enotions, nor ways of comprehending human emotion; the humans themselves are so emotionally stunted they cannot live either with or without one another (Daniel's first love interest commits suicide, more, it seems, from ennui than anything else and, in the end, so does Daniel). The religion which takes over the world, Elohimism, believes in nothing except immortality: its beliefs repeatedly shift between polar opposites for entirely manipulative reasons. In such an environment, where nothing matters, it becomes impossible for the reader to care about anyone or anything – the sterile hell of two-thousand years hence cannot be said to be any more hellish than the emotionless hell of the present day.

Why does he do it? Is he really so nihilistic, like Nietzsche with a grudge? Or is he just an opportunist with an eye to controversy? He certainly aims to offend as many people in as many ways as he possibly can: offence is his main character's business, after all, a comedian who makes Lenny Bruce seem like Val Doonican. Nothing is sacred, nothing escapes his scabrous wit: "What's the fat bit around the vagina called? The woman." No taboos can be left untouched: pre-pubescent children are found masturbating on a public stage, Muslims of course get it in the neck ("Palestine Orgy Sluts") and religions of every rank of stupidity are lampooned in the form of the Elohim.

Now, that's okay. If Hoellebecq is challenging lazy, liberal assumptions and our morbid fear of offending anyone (schools banning The Three Pigs for fear of insulting Islam, for example), then it's a telling, if severely laboured, lesson, and one we could learn much from. But is that the case? Or is he taking the piss? It's very difficult to tell with Houellebecq, just as it is difficult to pin down the emotions of his main character, a man who could easily act as a cipher for the author himself.

A problem here is the scattergun approach Houellebecq takes to theme. What is this book actually about? Is it about nihilism? Or religious cultism? A paean to Dionysus? A call-to-arms for Apollo? Is it about the inability of humans to love, or to interact? The perniciousness of pornography? The essentialness of sex? Is it a critique of liberal theory? Is it an attack on humanity? The pricking of hypocrisy (and more, the pricking of everything that moves, especially female?) Is it a plea for dystopia as the natural refuge of our inevitable disappointment? Since his world is ravaged by ecological disaster and nuclear war is it a call for ecological common-sense? Any of those? All of those? Probably all, in fact, and therein lies the problem. There are so many targets here, so many pot-shots being fired, the reader loses the will to wallow in the carnage.

But, more than anything, it feels to me as though this book is nothing more elaborate than a simple raging against the dying of the light. Houellebecq and his characters seem obsessed by age and ageing. He describes the sagging of once-beautiful bodies; he wallows in the loss of libido, in the waning of sexual prowess. It reaches the stage where he seems simultaneously entranced and repulsed by the beautiful body of a beautiful woman, as though he sees its perfection but, at the same time, its slow, frame-by-frame rot into wrinkles and carpet slippers: what the body must, in time, become, is so repugnant to him it overrides any conception of youthful beauty. Youth is merely a transitory state, and the outcome is so hideous it outweighs its benefits.

The question then must be: is this enough to hold an entire novel? And the answer, sadly, is no. One man's obsession is another man's trivia. That Houellebecq is terrified of the ageing process, that he seems permanently stuck in a morass of self-loathing because of it, that his visions of the future taint his enjoyment of the present, all of this is pertinent only to him. It is not enough to form a coherent thesis. It is not enough to concern the casual reader, who, presumably, does not share his morbid pathology. This novel is ambitious. At times it is refreshing. His language, when he peeks above the gutter, is spritely and fresh. But the overall effect is sadly dispiriting. This is not a humanity I recognise, or a vision of humanity I understand.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Munoz again

A lot of stuff about Juan Munoz at the moment because the retrospective at Tate Modern starts this week. There's a particularly good feature in today's Guardian by Adrian Searle who was a friend of Munoz's.

Searle suggests a comparison with Beckett: 'Pressed about whether the stasis of his figures had anything to do with Samuel Beckett, [Munoz]once angrily replied: "My work is about a man in a room, waiting for nothing; it has no relation to Beckett." Except, of course, it did.' I have to say, I hadn't considerered any such similarity but I suppose, when you think about it, that sense of disconnection is there.

The article also suggests that the Double Bind exhibition from Tate Modern in 2001 could be revived in Spain. I would love to go and see that again. Whether it would work outside the cavernous space of Tate Modern is a moot point, but nonetheless I would pay to go and see it. And I shall be at the Tate Modern retrospective very soon.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Robert Burns

There's an article in today's Guardian by Andrew O'Hagan on Robert Burns. Scots of my generation (and probably more so the younger generation) are somewhat ambivalent about oor Rabbie. We associate him with the tartanification of Scottish heritage and history, thinking of him as some sort of pre-Kailyard kailyard poet. Utter nonsense, of course, but we would read his poems, with their old-fashioned language, and be unable to distinguish it from the genuinely awful, romantic slush like J.M Barrie's hideous Thrums stuff or J.J. Bell's puke-making Wee McGreegor. And, true enough, there is a lot of romantic drivel in Burns's output, but he did write a lot, so it's understandable that there are some duffers. But when he was on form, my, that man could write. This is the finest love poetry I know:

We'll gently walk and sweetly talk
till the silent moon shine clearly.
I'll grab thy waist and, fondly pressed,
swear how I love thee dearly.

Not vernal showers to budding flowers
nor autumn to the farmer
so dear can be as though to me
my fair, my lovely charmer.
And Burns was by no means simply a romanticist. Like all good Scots, he was a contrary sort of man, and he had grand notions and fine ideals. Remember, he wrote The Slave's Lament in 1792, two years before William Wilberforce joined the Abolition Society:
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

O'Hagan's article quotes To a Mouse, which I haven't read in a long, long time:
Still, thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

The simple, honest beauty of that! I wrote a story recently about how man is cursed by being the only animal to understand mortality. Mine was a plodding, didactic, worthy piece of prose, 2500 words or so, and all I really wanted to say, I now realise, is what Robert Burns said in those thirty-two words.

Inhabiting a story

There's an article on Peter Carey in today's Guardian which is pretty interesting. He has lived in New York for twenty years, but many of his novels are still set in Australia. Talking of Theft, he says:

"Having written Theft I realised I had much better memory for place than I thought," he explains. "And part of writing this book was about writing that place in Queensland. I'd break for lunch and I really felt I'd been inhabiting it all morning."
That's where we amateurs lose it. We've been having a discussion in Boot Camp about bland, vanilla voices recently. The problem is, I think, that we don't live those stories, we're just writing it abstractly, second-hand. Having written all morning, I doubt we would come away and say, as Carey does, that we'd been inhabiting that place all morning. It's a question of intensity, I guess.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Juan Munoz

There's a terrific two page spread in today's Guardian by James Hall on Juan Munoz. There is going to be a major retrospective of his work at Tate Modern starting later this month.

I still think his Double-bind installation at Tate Modern in 2001 is the finest art exhibition I've ever attended. I saw it a couple of times and I found it breathtaking. James Hall's description of it is excellent:

By inserting two false floors, the far end of the Turbine Hall was divided into three levels. This tripartite structure, with two empty lifts passing continuously through the floors, suggested the work was eschatological, though there was no clear indication of which level might be hell, purgatory or heaven. The top level, consisting of a floor marked out like a minimalist cemetery awaiting the resurrection of the dead, could be viewed from the Turbine Hall's central bridge, but only the ground floor was physically accessible. This area became a basement illuminated by square apertures cut into the ceiling. These opened upwards into austere, white-walled compartments with louvred windows, like storerooms in a large building. The walls of these compartments were set back slightly, leaving a ledge on which a series of all-white male life-casts in a variety of busy-looking poses could be glimpsed.

Munoz died in August 2001, not long after Double-bind opened, and this, inevitably, added to the poignancy of the exhibition. The second time I went was after his death, and it undoubtedly had an effect on my viewing of it. But that's not to say that it's sentimentalism that makes me talk of it so fondly. It was a deeply thought provoking piece. There was an element of voyeurism about it, I suppose, but it didn't feel in any way seedy: rather, we were being presented with a series of different realities which we could view but not interact with. These, one felt, were other worlds. The figures in it felt real and you almost wanted to know them, to talk to them, to learn from them.

Arts funding

Some stuff in the Guardian today about the cuts in Arts Council funding which will affect small publishers amongst others. One of the publishers it discusses is Dedalus Books, a terrific company which publishes brave, uncategorisable books and which may well go to the wall if the cuts are implemented. I once met the guy in charge of Dedalus at a conference about writing in translation, and he struck me as incredibly committed to what he did.

One of my favourite books is published by Dedalus, Memoirs of a gnostic dwarf by David Madsen. It's every bit as eclectic as its title suggests. It's a superb romp, very funny, visceral, inventive, completely weird.

There is a petition to save Dedalus from the Arts Council cuts. You can sign it here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Reveries of a solitary walker

I've been reading this, Rousseau's final work, for ages now. I keep dipping in and reading and re-reading the ten walks that Rousseau takes in this book. I think it may have just become my favourite book of all time.

Rousseau is an extraordinary character, totally unbearable, seriously paranoid, impossible to live with. The book Rousseau's Dog is a superb and, at times, hilarious account of his stay with David Hume after he had been run out of everywhere in mainland Europe. He seriously believed everyone was conspiring against him and it was impossible to do him a good turn without him taking great offence. He was extraordinarily rude. It is said he left his children outside the orphanage.

And yet... And yet in these walks he comes across as such a powerful figure. They are at times laugh-out-loud funny because his paranoia is still rampant, but you still feel very, very strongly for this man. There is something about him, something deep and elemental, which makes you feel warmth, pity, worry for him. It's more than just the eccentricity which we Brits are famously attracted to. There's something about his soul, which simply pours out of these essays, in which he lays himself bare.

The fifth walk is heartbreaking. The rest of the walks describe contemporaneous events, but the fifth reminisces about a time, some years before, when he was staying with a family and spending his days floating in a boat and investigating a couple of islands and collecting and studying the botany of the countryside. He was there because he had been "stoned out of his previous house by a mob led by the local minister." It's almost bathetic, you do laugh, but then, in the following pages, you are taken on a journey into the mind of a sad, lonely, dying old man, remembering beauty and tranquility, finally, perhaps, coming to terms with the anger and irritation that has driven his entire life. It is magnificent.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Selective quoting

I quote a lot on this blog. I see something which interests me and either just quote it and leave it at that, or offer my thoughts on it. Quoting can be a dangerous pastime, however.

Quoting out of context is the most obvious mistake, of course. I think I'm pretty fair in the way I quote people: I try very hard not to select a sentence or segment which unfairly represents them.

A greater difficulty, though, is with selective quoting, what might almost be called quoting in context. Take this quote from Nietzsche's Beyond good and evil:

146 Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Now that appeals to me. It makes me (and probably most people) think instantly of Bush and Blair. I could easily imagine myself quoting that one regularly. However, this is the aphorism immediately before that one:

145 In comparing man and woman in general we can say that woman would not have the genius for finery if she did not have the instinct for the secondary role.

And the one before that:

144 When a woman has scholarly inclinations, then something is usually wrong with her sexuality. Infertility itself tends to encourage a certain masculinity of taste, for man is, if I may say so, "the infertile animal."

Those are two quotes that I could not ascribe to. And yet the one after is one that I would like to share with people. So what to do? Is it possible to just pick and choose? To consider Nietzsche a genius when he writes something I like but draw a veil over stuff I actually find objectionable? Is that not what the Nazis did when they - quite incorrectly - appropriated Nietzsche for one of their own? There are quotes aplenty from Nietzsche which are unflattering about Germany and which offer unequivocal support to Jewish people, but the Nazis only ever quoted the "superman" stuff.

It's a tricky one. I guess the answer has to be whether the objectionable quotes say anything which would make you reconsider your opinion of the favourable one: is there any sort of connection, so that the former throws a darker light on the latter? In this case I think no, so I feel justified in quoting the aphorism I like.

Friday, January 04, 2008

(Non) Use of the English language

As I was reading the obituary of George MacDonald Fraser in yesterday's Guardian, it struck me as a curiously bloodless affair, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. Yes, it started off by saying Flashman was an 'international comic classic', but nonetheless it seemed surprisingly reticent, overly restrained in a measured, even mannered sort of way.

Near the end, realisation dawned. It read:
He became something of a rightwing figure, hating political correctness (the Flashman books are full of the word "nigger".)

And it struck me: MacDonald Fraser's reputation is in decline because he fails the politically correct test. The Guardian couldn't bring itself to give a wholehearted appraisal because he uses the 'n' word and writes about things and thoughts which today we find unacceptable.

But of course he used the word nigger! He was writing about Harry Flashman, a Victorian boor who was racist to the marrow because he had no inkling that this was anything other than reasonable. To read of such things does not turn the reader into a racist, any more than reading the words of a Christmas carol turns you into a Christian. It's simply nonsense, and this prissiness about "the use of the word nigger" is utterly puerile.

The other day I mentioned Peter Tatchell's objection to Radio One overturning the ban on Fairytale of New York, which it originally banned because of the use of the word faggot. These two instances represent the same complete failure of intelligence. Because you don't like the connotations of a word, you cannot simply ban the word in the expectation that the nastiness behind it will somehow vanish. Refusing to countenance the word nigger or faggot in any context is an ostrich-like approach to life which belittles the complex arguments behind them. It is a school-playground "not listening na-na-na-na-na" response.

If I read the word nigger in Flashman, I am thankful that, on balance, I live in more enlightened times. I deprecate the feelings behind its use while understanding the context in which it is used. This deepens my understanding of the issues – not much, let's not get carried away and ascribe non-existent benefits to it, but a little.

Now, if I hear the word nigger in a different context, say to a young black man surrounded by a group of white men who are circling him aggressively, I will have a different response. Obvious, you say. Probably, that's too extreme a case. Okay, let's say my colleague at work uses the word to describe an applicant for a job. Will I accept that? No. Similarly the word faggot.

It's all about context. It's all about intent. Trying to suggest a word should never be used, in any circumstance, devalues and belittles the argument. Alas, I suspect at times the right-on Guardian allows its sentiment to colour its judgement.