Thursday, December 30, 2010

Frank O'Connor v Elizabeth Bowen

I've already written about the Guardian's short story podcasts, how much I am enjoying them and how they throw up some fascinating juxtapositions. I've just listened to two more, back-to-back, and how instructive it's been. They are both stories of childhood and growing up, told from the young person's point of view. One is superb, the other very good but flawed.

Firstly Elizabeth Bowen's The Jungle, an absolutely stunning depiction of growing up in the class-ridden world of just after the First World War. Rachel and Elise are students in a public school who discover a secret place, The Jungle. It is a brilliantly portrayed world, told mostly from Rachel's point of view and demonstrating her coming of age. Elise is different, an outsider from a lower social class and self-contained in a way that Rachel, straight-laced and conformist, cannot ever be. The two girls become confidantes, fall out, come together again. That's about it. But it is wonderfully realised. There is an extraordinary erotic charge running through the story, not least because there is positively no sexual contact or even discussion in the story. It is all implied. It is a masterclass in writing theme, and not letting the theme write the story. And the visions of these two girls are wholly convincing. It is flawless.

My Oedipus Complex, by Frank O'Connor, on the other hand, is definitely flawed. It is the humorous story of a young boy, only six or so, in rural Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the war. For the duration of the war, with his father safely away fighting, Larry has been the sole object of his mother's attention. The jealousy he feels when his father returns from the war and takes his place in his mother's bed, becomes the centre of attention, is humorously realised. It is a funny story, for sure. But it fails in terms of point of view.

The story is told in the first person, through Larry's eyes. This is always a difficult trick to pull off: it requires the artlessness of a child allied to the eye of a writer; things have to be relayed from the perspective of an innocent while we, the knowing readers, can see what the narrator does not. At times, it works beautifully, such as when his Mother tells Larry that babies cost seventeen and six to buy and therefore they can't afford a baby brother or sister for him until Daddy comes home from the war. "That showed how simple she was," Larry tells us. "The Geneys up the road had a baby, and everyone knew they couldn't afford seventeen and six."

This is great. It's a funny intrusion into the straightforward mind of a six year old child. But at other times it doesn't work. Larry is afforded knowledge or nuance that he simply couldn't have. He tells us at one point 'Father had an extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention.' That cannot possibly be construed as the thoughts of a six-year-old. No, you might argue, it's the point of view of the adult Larry writing his thoughts later. But that doesn't work, because if that is the case why were we given the seventeen and six thought verbatim from the six-year-old consciousness? It's a clear contradiction. The point of view has to be one or the other. It cannot mix the two.

Other examples:

'Dawn was just breaking, with a guilty air tha made me feel I had caught it in the act.' This is a great line, but it feels utterly out of place in this story of innocence.

And when Larry's misbehaviour finally provokes his father to rage, causing him to threaten to smack Larry's bottom, there is this exchange, showing the worst and best of the story:

All his previous shouting was nothing to these obscene words referring to my person. They really made my blood boil.

"Smack your own!" I screamed hysterically. "Smack your own! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Smack your own" is wonderfully funny, exactly the sort of sensible nonsense children come out with. But preceding it is this haughty, adult high dudgeon. The exclamation would have been borne of incomprehending fury, not hurt dignity.

Reading and writing

This blog first came about as a way of talking about my writing progress. At the time I was writing a great deal, getting a few publications, winning some competitions. Over the past couple of years, however, I've been concentrating almost exclusively on working towards my PhD. Since this centres on American literature it requires constant reading, and therefore leaves little time for writing. 2010 was a barren year, writing-wise. Only one story, and I'm not happy with that.

And yet I may look back on it and decide it was the most important year of all for my writing.

Why do I want to be a writer? The answer is simple and difficult. I've always wanted to be a writer, it's just in-built. But why? I don't know. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong question.

What do I want to write? This is the correct question. This is the crux of the matter. Finding the answer to this is the thing that distinguishes great writers from the rest of us. What do I want to write? I don't know. Not quite, not exactly. But it's coming.

I recently re-read all of my fiction, for the first time in over a year. It was a fascinating experience. In that year I had become unfamiliar with the content so I was able to read it with more objectivity than previously. I could spot immediately where the stories broke down - and why. I could also see an insistent thread running through them. I was aware of this before, of course. The work in question is a series of interlinked stories, so the fact they are connected has always been a given, but I think the connection is somewhat different, considerably deeper, than I had previously thought. You write, my former writing tutor, Alex Keegan, always says, to discover the answers to the questions that are buried within you, guarded by the sentinels who try to stop you from exploring the difficult territory that may lie beyond those questions. All of my writing has been gnawing away at something, trying to uncover, to understand, to reconcile. I know vaguely that it's about disconnection and love, and I know that there are symbols running through my fiction - the number of caged birds in my stories is quite extraordinary, I had no idea, while melancholy walks along deserted beaches are almost unavoidable - but the reason the stories don't work at present is that I'm not clear exactly what I'm trying to say. I think I've needed to take time away from it, reading other writers, working ideas through, to start to make any sense of it.

And reading other writers is, I think, key to it. I have always been of the opinion that most aspiring writers simply do not read enough. The more I do read, the more I understand the truth of that. It's not enough to get by on half a dozen or so books a year. It's not enough to simply read the novelists you like. If you want to be a writer you have to live writing, but if the only writing you are exposed to is your own it becomes a kind of mental masturbation, satisfying enough but incapable of germinating into something great.

I'm not talking about imitating the masters. I don't want to write like Gunther Grass or William Faulkner. But I do want to grasp their understanding of the form, appreciate the way they use it, manipulate it to their own ends, make it something special. These writers know what they want to say, and because they know it they do not feel the need to force it into their work; they let it flow from their work. That is where my writing currently breaks down: you can see the points where I have stopped and thought 'here is where I have to elaborate my theme, here is the important bit.' They stand out crudely. And the reason for that is because I don't understand fully what I'm trying to say. It's as though I'm trying to explain it to myself as I go along, and the result is something simplistic and shallow. Meanwhile, William Faulkner knows exactly what his theme is. It is something basic but impossibly complex - love - and he lets an examination of its paradoxes and pains infest his work. This is the moment when writing becomes great.

Increasingly, I'm getting the urge to write again. I need to rewrite what I've already done. I need to write new things. The past year of thought and study has been illuminating, possibly far more illuminating than I even realise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I watched the film version of this the other night. I remember first watching it many years ago when it was the Sunday night film, which I was allowed to stay up and watch as long as it wasn't too unsuitable, and I was terrified by Queeqeg and his tattooed face.

I'm surprised just how good a version of it the film is. I suppose I shouldn't be, since it was directed by John Huston and the screenplay was by Ray Bradbury, but having read the novel for the first time last year, I'd have said it was pretty much unfilmable. As an aspiring writer, I have to say I'm astonished by how much of the original Bradbury manages to weave into the two hours of film. It's a masterclass in condensing without losing meaning.

I'm reading a biography of Melville at the moment. A fascinating man, given to extremes of emotion. This passage, by his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, gives a good indication of the man:

[he] informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation, and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sandhills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature and is better worth immortality than most of us.

So much of this doubt comes across in Moby-Dick. As with McCarthy, who is of course a great admirer of Melville, there is a strong sense that the author's uncertainties are being played out on paper and the twists and turns of the characters reflect the state of confusion in the mind of the author.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

And more time

And this is William H. Gass:

It is a suggestion, I think, of Schopenhauer ... that what we remember of our own past depends very largely on what of it we’ve put or tongue to telling and retelling. It’s our words, roughly, we remember; oblivion claims the rest – forgetfulness. Historians make more history than the men they write about, and because we render our experience in universals, experience becomes repetitious (for if events do not repeat, accounts do), and time doubles back in confusion like a hound which has lost the scent.


One of my abiding interests is the flow of time. I've discussed it on here on several occasions. Here's an interesting passage, in a letter from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it – for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! It’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The first thing that everyone knows about Sanctuary is that it is a ‘potboiler’, a crass piece of commercial exploitation. After all, didn’t Faulkner himself dismiss it as a ‘cheap idea’ and ‘terrible’? Well, no, he didn’t actually. Not exactly. Faulkner was a difficult character, at times a truculent interviewee, and what he says is often not at all what he means. It pays not to take him literally. And so he did, indeed, call the basic plot of Sanctuary a ‘cheap idea’ but this is at some remove from calling it a cheap novel. He also claimed to have written it in three weeks, while research into the original holographs suggests a much longer and more painstaking gestation. He even paid to make revisions to the galleys.

So the question remains, is this really only a potboiler, driven by commercialism and lacking in literary merit? I would suggest not. While the plot is undoubtedly sensational, it is not sensationalistic: Faulkner may stretch for impact – shock was a regular tactic of his – but one does not feel that this is gratuitous. And the principal reason for that, the factor which, for me, singles this out as a work of fine literature and not schlock, is the strength of characterisation which is revealed through the admittedly lurid plot. The plot of a potboiler merely drives the action to an inevitable conclusion in the most dramatic way possible; the plot of Sanctuary places the souls of its collection of characters, in the words of the Faulkneresque Cormac McCarthy, ‘at hazard’.

Andre Malraux makes a similar point in his contemporaneous ‘Preface for Faulkner’s Sanctuary’ when he states: ‘The plot is important in that it is the most efficient way of revealing an ethical or poetic fact in its greatest intensity. The worth of the plot is in what it engenders.’ I’m not sure I agree with Malraux’s definition of what, exactly, is engendered in Sanctuary – ‘destiny’, it feels to me, is too glib, too easy an explanation of the whirl of emotions and events that engulfs the characters in Faulkner’s fiction (although I do like Malraux’s identification of Faulkner’s insistent and consistent analysis of ‘the irreparable’) – but his initial point is well made.

The basic plot unfolds from an ill-starred date between Gowan Stevens and little rich girl Temple Drake. Gowan gets hopelessly drunk and abandons Temple to the clutches of a group of bootleggers and gangsters. Temple undergoes a night of terror, and flees, with the help of the simple-minded Tommy, to a corn-crib to hide. The impotent gangster, Popeye, finds them, kills Tommy and rapes Temple with a corn cob. He abducts her and places her in a brothel where she falls under his spell and has sex with another gangster, Red, while Popeye gains vicariously voyeuristic pleasure from watching them. Meanwhile, another bootlegger, Lee Goodwin, is accused of Tommy’s murder and placed on trial. Horace Benbow, an idealistic young lawyer, takes on the case and even tries to find accommodation for Goodwin’s lover and their ill daughter, despite their ostracism by the community. Events career to a bloody and terrible climax, and it is Temple, whose perjurious testimony in Goodwin’s trial seals his fate, who is at the centre of it and is therefore at the crux of the novel’s message.

Everything revolves around Temple, and this in itself reveals the astonishing depth of Faulkner’s writing. Temple is young, na├»ve, intellectually and emotionally unformed, and yet she is the pivot on which the entire novel swings. Men’s lives are altered irrevocably, and not only Goodwin’s. Firstly, less seriously, Gowan Stevens, the young man who takes Temple on the ill-fated date and who falls prey to hubris, becoming overcome with drink while trying to show off to the bootleggers how well he could handle it, and finally fleeing in shame, leaving Temple to her fate. Then Tommy, simple, decent, but still prey to the failings of men, whose desire to be with Temple (to do good, or to do bad, or to do both? We don’t know) leads to his death. Red, the one person with whom Temple appears to enjoy anything resembling a happy relationship, who is killed by Popeye in a moment of jealousy. And Popeye himself, the least convincing, perhaps, of the characters in the novel, at least until the unexpected coda which fills in his backstory and makes him appear more human. Here is a man, probably, whose life was fated to be violent and short, and so it proves. And finally Horace, a weak-willed man who has goodness in his heart but not the wherewithal to exploit it. Horace is an intellectual and and idealist who believes he can ensure that good will prevail but he is quickly overcome by the forces of evil – both outside and inside him – he so blithely underestimates.

And so each of these men is presented to us in all their flaws, and it is through their interaction with Temple that these flaws are progressively revealed. Does this mean, then, that Temple is a catalyst for evil? Some critics have indeed portrayed her in such a light, and she has not received a good press over the years, but this is not entirely fair. She is only seventeen, the daughter of a judge, a student at ‘Ole Miss’ and, therefore, likely to have had a sheltered, privileged upbringing. She rebels. How familiar is that story? Every single reader of this blog will be able, quickly, to identify someone who, as a youth, ‘went to the bad’. Most return at some stage, when maturity and responsibility wears us down. Temple does not, because she is not able to. She is thrust into a world she cannot understand, where passions override morality and strength counters argument. Those who can, take. Those who submit, provide. It is Darwinism shorn of any semblance of a restraining social order.

Seventeen-year-old Temple, a plastic coquette, is wholly out of her depth. She is a tragic figure, a child-woman abandoned in the harsh world of men, precocious enough to adopt the symbols of louche womanhood – dress, lipstick, pose – but guileless in their application, an innocent set unerringly on the path to destruction. It would be harsh in the extreme to point to her perjury, no matter how ruinous it is, or to her selfishness or apparent wantonness, and to dismiss her as an unredeemable character. Of these offences she is undoubtedly guilty, but could she be anything other? Could the path she takes, abandoned by Gowan, corrupted by Popeye, lusted after by Goodwin, used by Red, subjected to indifference or incomprehension by all around her except the halfwit Tommy (and even his motives are not straightforward), have led anywhere else? It is important to remember that Temple is guileless, barely more than a child, impressionable and riven by fear. That she has terrible taste in men is hardly a unique failing, and that she credulously believes the self-serving responses of those to whom she attaches herself is emblematic, not of complicity, but of naivete. Temple reappears in Faulkner’s later novel, Requiem for a Nun, and declares she ‘like[s] evil”, but just as it well serves a critic not to read Faulkner’s own words too literally, so it does for his characters. The spiritual sister of Tess Durbeyfield, Temple is more in need of love than revilement. But then, love – isn’t that just William Faulkner reduced to a single word? Love. Or perhaps, here, two words. Love abandoned.

And love reappears in the character of Horace Benbow, the ineffectual lawyer, but here too it is a stunted love, compromised, ultimately ruined. Again, Horace is a remarkably complex character. He it is who insists on representing Goodwin, in the full knowledge that he is unable to pay him for the service. He it is who continues to help Goodwin’s lover and her child in the face of ugly public opprobrium. Here, surely, is a decent man, another Atticus Finch battling on the side of decency against the grim forces of prejudice and Calvinist judgement? But no, Horace is a deeply flawed man, riven by doubts. He is a 'shrimp' before his large, domineering wife, whom he leaves in the course of the novel, only to return in humiliation at its end. And, more crucially, he is tormented by incestuous attraction to his own daughter, Little Belle.

Joseph R. Urgo makes a compelling connection between Horace’s reaction to Temple’s revelation of her rape and his own feelings for Little Belle: each is eroticised in his mind, and the linkage of his daughter to eroticised renditions of rape appalls him. He discovers, as Urgo explains, ‘a potentiality within himself which places him in collusion with a rapist.’ This revelation, Urgo further argues, explains Horace’s silence in court when Temple perjures herself and condemns Horace’s client: faced with the woman whose experience embodies his own mental guilt, he is ‘self-condemned’. At the last, he fails to provide any support for Goodwin, and from that moment his fate is sealed.

The final message is chilling. A taxi driver turns to Horace after the trial and subsequent murder of Goodwin and tells him, “We got to protect our girls. Might need them ourselves.” So there we have it: the taint runs deep, each of us has cause to question our motivations in life. It is a difficult message, but a serious one. And not the sort of impression your average potboiler would seek to leave you with.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Snow art

This was the office block across from mine today, after a couple of blocks of snow had slid from the roof. It looks just like a pig to me, complete with curly tail. A few minutes later another slide left it looking like a buffalo, but I was about three seconds too late in capturing that one and a vital part of it slid into oblivion.

Ah, the joys of winter...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


...Sanctuary, a cheaply meretricious book, which [Faulkner] confessedly wrote as a shocker[.] There is nothing in Sanctuary to repay an intelligent reader, thought there is plenty to titillate adolescent minds, whereas in Faulkner's other books there are pages of genuine power or beauty which are like the rational moments of a demented man.

J. Donald Adams on William Faulkner's Sanctuary.

Guess what I'm reading just now. Meretricious? That's a good word for it. Or trashy.

Pestilences and victims

"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can't judge if it's simple, but I know it's true. You see, I'd heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people's heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I'd come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak - and to act - quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That's why I say there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that. If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don't do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. You see, I've no great ambitions.

"I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it's a fact one doesn't come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That's why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims's side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace."

Dr Rieux, The Plague by Albert Camus.

Novelists and philosophers

William H. Gass, critiquing Blood Meridian fifteen years before it was written:

Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds.... They are divine games. Both play at gods as others play at bowls....
Games – yet different games. Fiction and philosophy often make most acrimonious companions. To be so close in blood, so brotherly and like in body, can inspire a subtle hate; for their rivalry is sometimes less than open in its damage. They wound with advice. They smother with love. And they impersonate one another. Then, while in the other’s guise and gait and oratory, while their brother’s smiling ape and double, they do his suicide. Each expires in a welter of its own surprise.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The perfect TV programme

So, imagine you had to construct a TV programme especially for yourself. Just your favourite things or people. What would you have? For me, I might have a programme devoted to a favourite poet, let's say Norman MacCaig, who I've quoted on a number of occasions on this blog. And I might throw in one of my favourite musicians, Aly Bain, the greatest fiddler in the world. And perhaps one of my favourite comedians, Billy Connolly (at least before he became Americanised and decided that being funny consisted of swearing loudly and often). And let's throw in a favourite novelist, Andrew Greig, who wrote the eerie and fascinating Where They Lay Bare, and the wonderful John Buchanesque romp, The Return of John MacNab, and the beautiful WW2 romance, That Summer, and others. And some scenery from back home, up in the mountains of Scotland, up in Assynt. Wouldn't that be a fascinating programme? ConoboyVision.

So imagine my delight last night to watch the story of Andrew Greig, Aly Bain and Billy Connolly climbing up to the loch of the Green Corrie, on a mission to fulfil a request from the late Norman MacCaig that they go there and try to catch a trout for him. He would, he told them, be smiling down 'from a place he didn't believe in'.

There was some wonderful footage of Norman reciting his poems and telling of his philosophy and beliefs. He wasn't religious, he said, he was what you might call a Zen Calvinist. And if ever there was a better description of my mixed-up mind than Zen Calvinist, I'm not sure what it might be. His poetry is beautiful, deceptively simple, nothing flashy but gently probing depths.

Those of you in the UK can watch the programme for the next week here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Albert Guerard, who acted as his Svengali, called John Hawkes a prime proponent of ‘the rhetoric of anti-realist fiction’. This rhetoric poses considerable challenges for the reader: in everything he writes, Hawkes assiduously tries to remove the conventional literary techniques with which we are familiar and which we can use to create sense of the text. Characterisation is virtually non-existent; narrative is fragmented, surreal, unbounded by traditional senses of time or space. Guerard likens it to ‘the effect of a solitary flashlight playing back and forth over a dark and cluttered room’: what we see is therefore fragmented, unconnected. We are left with something sensual, immediate, forceful and brutal, instant, something deeply confrontational. It defies simple explanation. At times, it defies understanding. Hawkes’s own description of it is as ‘a hallucinatory vision’. Mark Hamstra describes it thus:

Hawkes' books attempt to portray the dark cisterns beneath everyday reality. His work challenges readers to wade into the black waters of the violent, the comic, and the sexual; to sift through elements embedded in the past, with the ghosts of regret [and] death existing side by side with hope for the future.

The Cannibal is set ostensibly in Germany during and immediately after the Second World War, with diversions back in time to 1914 to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, but this is not any recognisable representation of a real Germany. The locus is an imagined town called Spitzen-on-the-Dein, which ‘gorged itself on straggling beggars and remained gaunt beneath an evil cloaked moon’. It is a strange, nightmare world in which a lunatic asylum stands as the most direct symbol of the madness which infested Germany from 1933 to 1945. The narrator, Zizendorf, is a neo-Nazi who sets out to free his country from its American occupiers. To that end, he lays a trap for Leevey, an American soldier who patrols the countryside on his motorbike and appears to be in charge of much of Germany. In the ensuing ambush Leevey is killed and the novel ends with Zizendorf becoming the new Fuhrer.

There is no moral framework within which any recognisable sense of society can be formed. Everything has been reduced to a state of savagery: communication is rudimentary, emotions stunted. The people live a brute existence, madness and sanity appear indistinguishible. The Duke’s cannibalistic murder of Jutta’s young son is portrayed, in much the same way that Cormac McCarthy would later depict the actions of the necrophiliac Lester Ballard, in wholly neutral tones. This 1945 narrative, portraying the descent of modernity into madness, is counterpointed by the middle section of the novel in which the principal characters (in as much as they are ‘characters’) are transported back in time to 1914, the pre-First World War era of bombast and vainglory. The message is clear: the savagery and evil to which Germany succumbed is a natural concomitant of the mythically-based idealism on which its nationalistic fervour was built. Evil, but inevitable. A hell foretold in its own making.

Along with Zizendorf, the novel is peopled by a surreal array of character-types, none of whom are quite well enough defined to be considered characters in any traditional sense, but each possessing, nonetheless, a fierce sense of their essence, what it is that makes them as they are. There is the cannibalistic Duke, a drunken census taker, Madame Snow the boarding house owner, the tuba-playing Herr Stintz and Jutta, Zizendorf’s mistress, constantly craving a love which Zizendorf cannot offer, too passive to be considered a heroine, but the closest the novel comes to a sympathetic character.

There is an exotic, almost incantatory feel to the language and it is easy to immerse yourself in its beauty. Long passages feel luscious to the tongue, insisting to be read aloud. There are moments which could come straight from The Waste Land. And yet, throughout, there is a wilful refusal to allow any straightforward narrative to intervene. While one can admire Hawkes’s determination to pursue his modernist course, the result is a sense of distancing which makes it very difficult to access the novel on any level other than purely intellectual. There is little room for emotion, none for empathy. The Cannibal is certainly not a novel you can skim or allow your attention to wander from because, if you do, within a few paragraphs you will be hopelessly lost, with neither narrative nor compassion to reconnect you.

In the end, it is difficult to see anything redemptive here. The characters seem fated to recycle history, displaying the same weaknesses, expressing the same evil, falling into the same brutal traps. Perhaps that is accurate; perhaps that is the fate of us all. Or perhaps not. I cling to the beauty of that ‘or’. That beauty is missing in The Cannibal. Its hallucinations, while they are intended to liberate the novel from its form, liberate it, too, from hope.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The saving beauty of language

In the same interview in which he comments on Flannery O’Connor (see post below) John Hawkes makes the following observation on a constant which he sees running through the ‘avant-garde’ from Quevedo and Thomas Nash through to himself, Flannery, James Purdy et al:

This constant is a quality of coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and in the world around us, and to bring to this exposure a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language.

It is, in some ways, a persuasive argument. The ‘saving beauty of language’ could certainly be said to mitigate the excesses of O’Connor’s themes, for example, while coldness and detachment are undoubtedly traits discernible in, say, Blood Meridian. The lineage could also be traced back to Dostoevsky – you don’t get a colder analysis of personal and societal failure than the Underground Man, for example.

But, again, the issue for me is one of balance. James Purdy, whom Hawkes mentions in this context, was a writer who clearly saw the excesses and failures of modernity, and yet he also displayed a sense of hope which is much, much more difficult to discern in Hawkes or O’Connor or Dostoevsky. The Nephew or Malcolm, as written by Flannery, say, would be radically different from the novels as written by Purdy. His comic spirit is bright as well as brutal, and his language savingly beautiful, but he also offers a vision of humanity that is not hopelessly skewed towards failure.

John Hawkes on Flannery O'Connor

Here’s a couple of perceptive comments from John Hawkes on Flannery O’Connor:

For pure, devastating, comic brilliance and originality she stands quite alone in America - except perhaps for Nathanael West. Both of these writers maintain incredible distance in their work, both explode the reality around us into meaningful new patterns, both treat disability and inadequacy and hypocrisy with brutal humor, both of them deal fiercely with paradox and use deceptively simple language in such a way as to achieve fantastic verbal surprise and remarkable poetic expression.


She's an extraordinary woman with what I like to think of as a demonic sensibility. I've been trying to persuade Flannery O'Connor that as a writer she's on the devil's side. Her answer is that my idea of the devil corresponds to her idea of God. I must admit that I resist this equation. Certainly in her two great short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," as well as in her brilliant first novel, Wise Blood, it's the unwavering accuracy and diabolism of her satiric impulse that impresses me most.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a love/hate relationship with Flannery O’Connor. She is an astoundingly good writer, and the way she uses humour to describe brutality is nothing short of amazing. Cormac McCarthy’s use of humour is similar, but even he cannot combine the comic and the horrific in quite the way O’Connor achieves.

But to what end? This has always been my difficulty with Flannery O’Connor. The violence she wreaks on her characters in the name of her God is so extreme I have tremendous difficulty identifying anything remotely Christian in it. This is perhaps explained by her observation, as reported by Hawkes here, that his conception of the devil corresponds to her God. There is an awesome darkness to this vision of Christianity, as evidenced by the gruesome self-abuse of Haze Motes and his eventual, miserable death, or by the buggery of Tarwater by the Devil, an act which leads directly to his redemption. Redemption through rape? A Christian ideal? Really?

I fully accept that what I am doing is surveying O’Connor’s profoundly held and theologically reasoned position from a shallow perspective. In terms of both literary criticism – in which I am being too literal – and theological debate – in which I could not hope to match O’Connor’s erudition – I am projecting too much of my own beliefs onto an analysis of her work. But it is hard not to. O’Connor’s vision of humanity is of a broken, flawed, failed community helpless before God and hopeless in its earthly dealings. She deals such a rigged hand there is no prospect of success. And her vision of God appears to owe much to the Old Testament. There is a brutality to it that I can’t and wouldn’t want to accept. For sure, there is evil in the world. But there is also goodness.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Tassie Keltjin is a midwestern girl, a student, a daughter, a sister, working part-time as a nanny for a middle-aged couple with an adopted, mixed-race child of two. She is warm, friendly, smart, fun in a not-quite sexy sort of way, the kind of girl you’d like to have as a friend. She’s struggling to escape the past – family, country, farming – and trying to embrace the future – study, town, love, hopes – but isn’t quite as adept at the transition as she might believe. So, what we have then is a coming-of-age novel? Well, yes it is, I suppose, but also it isn’t. It’s much more than that. Lorrie Moore is a superb writer, famed for her short stories and now, with A Gate at the Stairs, we know that she is also a superb novelist. A Gate at the Stairs is a post 9/11 study of racism, war, peace, love, ambition, hubris, weakness, hope, deceit. So, another stab at the Great America Novel? Again, yes, and a pretty decent stab it is too.

It is deception that is at the heart of this novel. The way we deceive others, the way we deceive ourselves. The way we are deceived by government, authority, the state. The repercussions such deception can cause, justified and not, fair and not, anticipated and not. And, most of all, the fate of the innocents swept along in this narrative of deceit. If at times, as we shall see, Moore stretches our credibility just a touch too far in this regard, for the most part her touch is flawless and she presents an aching story that is all but heartbreaking. That it is narrated by Tassie, in a mixture of sweetness, incomprehension, great good humour and deep regret makes the emotional pull all the more powerful.

Tassie is a twenty-year-old country girl transplanted to the town, growing up, trying to cope. She has college lessons – Introduction to Sufism, Wine Tasting (until the computer realises she is under-age and kicks her off the course), War movie soundtracks and so on. She meets and falls for an enigmatic Brazilian called Reynaldo whose knowledge of Portuguese seems oddly suspect and who may not be all he seems. She is employed by an intellectual but increasingly flaky couple to act as nanny to an as-yet unadopted child, and indeed is involved in the preliminary meetings which result in their adoption of Emma-Mary, a delightful, precocious two-year-old mixed-race girl. Her younger brother, meanwhile, to his great relief is finishing school and is simultaneously learning yoga and toying with the idea of joining the military: another mixed-up kid, in other words. And it’s no wonder these particualr kids are mixed up, given their parents: father is a Lutheran organic potato farmer and mother a Jewish incipient hypochondriac from the East coast transplanted inharmoniously into the midwest.

Through the twists and turns of incipient adulthood, Tassie tries to make sense of it all. She tries hard to narrate events for us but often struggles because so much of their meaning eludes her. As the main plotline about the adopted child unfolds – in a wholly unexpected way – Tassie is left trying to reconcile the needs of authority, aspiring adoptive parents, the innocent children caught up in everyone’s machinations and, of course, herself. Her work in nannying Emma-Mary reveals to her latent racism everywhere, a casual but corrosive inability to see beyond binary black and white. In this, at least, Tassie is aided by the frequent gatherings at Sarah’s house of a support group comprising other mixed-race families whose travails and beliefs and battles against prejudice and – more importantly – prejudices of their own she faithfully transcribes for us. These people act as a Greek chorus, offering an alternative view of the narrative in the same way that Ron Rash employed his gathering of workers in Serena. It is a funny and illuminating device.

Alas, for Tassie, no such Greek chorus is available to interpret her relationship with Reynaldo and its doom is obvious to the reader long before it is to Tassie herself. This is the one point in the novel where Moore stretches the reader’s credibility a touch too far. The sadness is that it isn’t even necessary: Reynaldo is the weakest character in the novel and Tassie’s setpieces with him the least effective. In narrative terms, there had to be some romantic love interest to counteract the familial and platonic loves which burgeon and founder elsewhere, but Reynaldo – and, especially, his fate – seem unworthily cheap and plastic constructs.

The final third of the novel sees a sudden shift, and it is Tassie’s relations with her brother which take centre stage. Again, incomprehension plays a large part, but in this instance it is horrifyingly – and tragically – self-induced. This section, although in some ways predictable, is nonetheless harrowing, beautifully written, restrained yet bursting with emotion. The backdrop of this – and the whole novel – is the aftermath of 9/11 and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: that is, one more arena of deceit and misdeed and incomprehension.

And so, Moore is telling us, such flawed asseveration exists throughout the gamut of human situations, from the wholly personal to the universal. In her determination to confront a range of themes there are parallels with the master-satirist Percival Everett and, although his satire is very different from Moore’s comedy, both writers benefit from approaching their weighty themes with the armament of humour. Mankind is beset by mistrust, misadventure. Deceit is an inescapable consequence of humanity. So far, so Dostoevskian, but there’s no caricatured Underground Man here. Moore’s touch is remarkable, simultaneously dark and light, tragic and funny. There is great sadness in this novel, but it is told with sparkle and humour and humanity. Such attempts to leaven serious themes could easily become trite or bathetic, but here they work beautifully. They bring the characters to life, throwing a penetrating light on their circumstances. This is a sad novel, to be sure, but it is never bleak. It is far too human for that.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Gap Creek by Robert Morgan

Set in the Appalachian hill country of North Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century, Gap Creek is subtitled “a story of a marriage” and relates the early travails of Julie Harmon and her new husband, the earnest but highly-strung Hank Richards. The author, Robert Morgan, is a poet, and it shows: the language is beautiful – descriptive, evocative and free-flowing. Character, too, is well drawn, the reader’s impression of the protagonists deriving particularly from strong and credible dialogue. The novel is narrated by the ill-educated Julie and told in simple language which is nonetheless compelling. Plot, on the other hand, is more of an issue. In an interview, Morgan said:

"I told myself I was not going to write stories like a poet. I wanted to write stories with dynamic tension and conflict, with a lean style that kept the reader focused on the story itself, not the language," he said.

This points to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Gap Creek. That Morgan is a poet is never in question, yet he does, indeed, achieve his aim of maintaining a lean style. This is not as contradictory as it sounds: it takes considerable skill to make writing appear effortless, and while the strong narrative drive of Gap Creek does indeed engage the reader’s focus, it is not at the expense of language. Morgan is no Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum, who use high drama to mask lumpen language.

But there is a relentlessness to the plot, and in particular to the miseries heaped upon the protagonists, which in the end becomes faintly ludicrous. A famous British author of the last century, Catherine Cookson, was noted for novel after novel in which the (invariably female and feisty) protagonist was laid low by disaster after disaster, misery upon misery. Cookson’s plots were wretched enough to make even Tess Durbeyfield think herself blessed not to have been in one. Morgan’s writing is several classes above Cookson’s (and a few below Hardy’s) but his insistence on misery-plotting does show an uncanny resemblance to Our Kate.

The novel begins with the horrifying death of Julie’s younger brother from a surfeit of worms. (I’m sure I read a very similar death quite recently, but I can’t recall where.) Almost immediately, her father, too, snuffs it, succumbing noisily to consumption. Some respite is offered by a whirlwind romance with rugged Hank Richards from the next valley, but it is a brief idyll before the realities of married life begin to overwhelm them. Each set piece drama is beautifully written. Throughout, the novel is told through Julie’s uneducated eyes and yet Morgan manages to prevent this from limiting the emotional range. It is an impressive feat, to be sure.

But, taken together, it all feels a bit laboured, even veering towards melodrama. Why, for example, after having one vividly told death-by-fire, would you have a later scene in which a minor character is also threatened by fire but escapes with nothing more than scorch marks to her frock? Perhaps it is part of a narrative arc to demonstrate that the worst has passed, but it feels like a clumsy anti-climax – repetitive but offering diminishing returns. Similarly, the young couple are tricked out of their meagre savings by conmen not once but twice. In characterisation terms, there is a rationale to this, but stylistically what is to be gained by such repetition? The characterisational change could have been effected by something different.

And repetitiveness is also regularly demonstrated in Julie’s narration, where she makes a point, usually about her husband’s character, only to re-make it two or three paragraphs later. Again, this may be deliberate on the part of the author, to demonstrate her gaucheness, but it grates, nonetheless.

My feeling is that the book is fifty pages too long. Something stark and sparse and beautiful, like Charles Portis’s True Grit, could be made from this novel if it was focused on fewer traumatic moments. Julie is certainly a fine creation, a spirited, courageous and resilient young woman and it has been a privilege to ‘know’ her. And Morgan is impressive in the way he refuses – at least until the very end, when the novel turns a trifle soggy – to sentimentalise either the situation or his characters. But, all in all, the misery in Gap Creek seems to be layered on just too thickly to be credible. The melodrama becomes the message, instead of the characters.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Reflections on the US

I've just returned from a week in the US, and a very good time I had too. I was down in Texas, and I found the people wonderfully friendly - not in the automaton "have a nice day" sort of way, but genuinely interested and solicitous.

Being a foreign country there are, of course, things that are very different from what you're used to. Firstly, the food. I barely used a knife and fork the whole time I was there. It seems remarkably difficult to find anything other than fast food in the States. And what is it with the sweetness kick? Breakfast was impossible, because it only ever seemed to consist of Danish pastries and other sugar-laden products. My body isn't capable of digesting sweet things that early in the morning. And this endless choice you have to negotiate gets wearying, too. You select the sandwich you want from the board, but then you have to endure death by a thousand questions. What type of bread do you want? What type of cheese do you want? What type of salad do you want? Onions? Peppers? Chilli flakes? What type of sauce do you want? Please just give me my sandwich and let me go before I faint from hunger.

And getting about is fraught with difficulty, too. America doesn't appear to have been designed with pedestrians in mind. It was only about a twenty minutes walk from my hotel to the university, but it was damn near impossible to actually walk it. At one point there was a bridge, and here the pavement (sidewalk) simply ended, leaving the pedestrian with nowhere to go and a dual carriageway full of traffic racing towards you. The only road signs are in the middle of the road above the traffic. If you ask for directions people have no idea - because they don't walk - or theye look at you in amazement. "You want to go where?" they say, and you immediately assume it must be miles away, but it's actually not more than a few minutes distant. "Where are you parked?" they say. "I'm walking." "Walking?" they repeat, incredulously. "Well, lemme see... It would be easier if you had a car."

And finally shops. Where are they? I spent six hours in Austin and I never found one. Seriously. Lots of bars (Sixth Street is great), a few tourist tat places, but no real shops. I know where they are, of course - they're in the shopping malls. Which are out of town. And only accessible by car. "You're walking? Really?"

But nonetheless it was a very rewarding experience. And those fantastic blue skies and huge horizons. Back in England, where I'll be smothered by low, grey cloud from now until March, I'll remember those skies with great affection.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vote, vote, vote

Is it election day or something?

This is the campus where I'm spending the week. I've lost count of how many times I was asked if I'd voted or not. I have to say it's great to see such enthusiasm on a university campus. I don't remember it in my day back in the UK, and I doubt it would happen now either.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

American trains

America is massive. The more you spend time here the more that becomes apparent.

So why are trains so little used? I understand the American cult of the car, but even so, if ever there was a place designed for trains it has to be America. And, let's be honest, trains do have a long and somewhat inglorious history in the country. So why are they so little used now?

This is Austin's Amtrak station. Austin - population 600,000+. It has one line, and it doesn't seem to serve more than one passenger train a day. Tiny little branches serving populations of a few thousand have bigger stations than this in the UK.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

The protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is already a famous writer, at the height of his success, but this is not a story of success. The Dostoevsky presented here is a human character beset by troubles. A gambler close to bankruptcy, he is drawn back to Petersburg from his home in Dresden, despite the threat of being caught by his various creditors, because of the death in mysterious circumstances of his stepson Pavel. We see a man in turmoil, struggling to manage his emotions or come to any understanding of the situation in which he has found himself. His time in Petersburg which, despite the danger of exposure, he keeps extending, is spent with four key characters: Anna Sergeyevna, the landlady with whom his son, and now Dostoevsky himself, has lodged; Anna’s Grushenka-like daughter, Matryona, at once ingenue and coquette; Maximov, the police commissar, bearing a resemblance to Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment as he probes Dostoevsky for details of Pavel’s life and beliefs; and the anarchist Nechaev, in whose organisation Pavel had become embroiled before his death.

Thus, it is clear that Coetzee is establishing a Dostoevskian drama around Dostoevsky. Each of the characters could have stepped out of one of his novels, including the great master himself, who is presented here as a conflation of Ivan, Mitya and Alyosha Karamazov, a good man tortured by his failings, whose instinctive reaction is to do good but whose weaknesses compromise his actions. Good, but weak; spiritual, but tempted: this could stand as a summary of Dostoevsky’s perception of man, and it is thus that he, himself, is presented here, the writer being used by Coetzee to give shape to his writing. It is a remarkably bold conceit, and Coetzee pulls it off. It is an extraordinary piece of fiction.

That is not to say it is an easy read. It is far from it. There is a relentless melancholy surrounding the drama that Dostoevsky himself would have admired. All that is missing, perhaps, is the anger of the Underground Man or Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov. That role could, perhaps, have been performed by the anarchist Nechaev, but he is the weakest of the ensemble here, a less palpably real human being than Anna or Maximov or the troubled Dostoevsky. He is the Underground Man before repulsion against himself has exerted its cancerous hold, or Raskolnikov before he first picks up the axe, and as such he feels unfinished, par-boiled, as though the radical political and social beliefs have been poured into him, but the psychological outcomes have not yet been fully explored. And so the novel progresses through a sea of regret and longing and unhappiness, following Dostoevsky’s wretched attempts to reconcile himself with his life.

In all this, of course, it is difficult to avoid the undercurrents of spirituality and societal change which also pulse through Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. There is a stifling sense of loneliness and disconnection surrounding his characters, caused partly by a society rupturing as it evolves into a new, secular, dehumanised era. The fullest articulation of Dostoevsky’s philosophical outlook is the Underground Man, in whom Dostoevsky invested all his disgust and distaste for the loss of spirituality that modernity was bringing. It is through him that we see Dostoevsky’s revulsion toward liberalism, secularism, socialism or social democracy. It is through him that we glimpse the horror that Dostoevsky foresaw in such a radical future. This is the point where Dostoevsky loses me, that juncture between the personal and the societal. His insight into the individual human psyche is profound, but the way that he uses this to inform a vision of society that is wracked and broken leaves me cold. His insistence on the suffering that is the lot of man is skewed by a spirituality that treasures transcendence to such an extent it brutalises any existence that comes before it. There is a wilful refusal to recognise beauty. That is demonstrated most clearly in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s most unbalanced work, but it is evident throughout his oeuvre, and it is evident, too, in Coetzee’s recreation of a Dostoevskian world. There is much darkness, much pain, much that is cold and austere and untouchable. Warmth is banished. Life may sometimes be brutal, but living is not: the individual experience cannot stand as a projection of humanity.

The narrative of The Master of Petersburg revolves around the death of Pavel. At first, Dostoevsky is told it was suicide, but Nechaev tells him it was state murder. Enquiring after Pavel’s possessions, Dostoevsky confronts the police commissar Maximov, who tells him that Pavel was involved with Nechaev’s anarchist sect and among his papers was a list of people who were to be assassinated. As Dostoevsky tries to unravel what happened, he is beset by memories of his stepson, by guilt over their relationship, by the anger towards him which is expressed in Pavel’s diaries. His relationships take diverging turns – he ends up in a ‘fiery’ liaison with the volatile Anna, and finds that he has been tricked by Nechaev. Even while making love to Anna, he is beset by erotic thoughts of her adolescent daughter, Matryona. Still, he seeks the truth about Pavel’s death because only through doing that can he find any sense of equanimity. All of this is finely – if grimly – told. It’s hardly an enjoyable read, but it remains gripping.

It jars only when Coetzee uses his narrative to ruminate on writers and writing. As the novel proceeds it increasingly turns on Dostoevsky the writer, and the process of writing, and the impact this can have. Coetzee, of course, has taken a distinctly post-modern turn in his later fiction, becoming a character in his own works, experiencing his own ur-reality, and perhaps the genesis of his ruminations on this can be seen in The Master of Petersburg. We have a writer – Coetzee – writing about a writer – Dostoevsky – writing about the impact of writing. For me, it intrudes into the main thrust of the narrative, becomes a side-issue which, through its distraction, weakens the impact of what Coetzee has attempted to portray.

The Master of Petersburg is a difficult novel. It probably requires multiple readings, although I would doubt that any but the most confirmed Coetzeeans would afford it such time. There is much to admire in a complex study of a complex man. I leave the book feeling no closer to a man who simultaneously fascinates and repels me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Polly Toynbee and David Walker

The last of the literature festival sessions for me was last night's discussion with Polly Toynbee and David Walker on the verdict on New Labour's thirteen years in office. I have to say, this being a bit of a reactionary town, I was expecting more dissent from the audience, but in general there was a feeling that their record was more positive than negative. Polly's assessment was that, unlike Thatcher, whose true evil didn't manifest itself until her second term, the high point of the Labour government was their first term. That was when their most radical initiatives were introduced. After that, there seems to have been a muddle and confusion about their actions, with some fairly inexplicable things done in their name. Why, as a primary example, did they introduce more faith schools? That is possibly the one thing I find most unforgivable. And cutting the threshold for inheritance tax. And losing sight of the fact that constantly weighing the pig does not, in itself, help to fatten it up.

The truth is, though, that the Labour government of 1997-2010 will be remembered for Iraq. I supported the war at the time, and on balance I still think it was probably the right thing to do. But they lied to us. That overrides everything. Once trust is broken it cannot be mended.

Michele Roberts

Michele Roberts was the latest speaker at our literature festival, and a fascinating, if slightly low-key, event it was. What particularly struck me about her talk was when she discussed the need for a writer keep probing and probing to find out what the real story is about. Absolutely! My former tutor, the estimable Alex Keegan, always talks about finding a way past the sentinels, those defences built up by your subconscious to stop you from straying into territory that you have shut yourself off from. This isn't necessarily some deep, hidden trauma that you have repressed all your adult life (although it may be that), but simply an aspect of your life that you have never been able to reconcile. Any writer who is serious about writing will eventually rub up against these aspects, and once they do their writing will move onto a different plane. But it does require both perseverance and courage. You don't know what you're going to uncover...

Friday, October 08, 2010

Roy Hattersley

Went to a talk by former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley last night, and was extremely impressed. For 35 minutes he stood and talked eloquently on David Lloyd George, without notes of any sort, rattling through a fascinating history of the man in a wonderfully warm and engaging manner. The depth of his knowledge is remarkable, but so too is his ability to put it across in such an easy and engaging way. In the past I've given talks without notes, but never on a subject that required such detailed knowledge. I've always been able to just waffle for a bit if I lose my place and wait to recover it again. There was none of that with Roy. He just got up and rattled out his talk.

He then took half an hour of questions, and again the depth of his knowledge shone through. When I come to do a viva defence of my PhD, I know who I want to model myself on. If I can project such erudition and eloquence it'll be a cakewalk...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Stealing Jonathan's glasses

Here's a somewhat unusual story. Apparently gatecrashers at the launch of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom stole his glasses from his face and tried to ransom them for £100,000. There has been a fear that Franzen is being shifted into superstar category, and this would seem to be proof that he has entered soap opera territory. It never happened to Mark Twain...

David Nobbs

Another in the literature festival yesterday, this time to see David Nobbs, creator of the magnificent Reggie Perrin. He was tremendous value, very funny, and with a wicked sense of timing. He is a truly brilliant writer of comedies. I think, although I loved Reggie Perrin on television, his best novels are the Pratt ones. They are superb.

Ground-swallow-me-up time for the poor compere, who was doing his intro and blithely said to David Nobbs, "I think this is your first novel, is that right?"

"I think you'd better quit right now," David replied. "It's my seventeenth."


Monday, October 04, 2010

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment and I’ve reached the point where there is discussion of Ivan’s dictum that nothing is unlawful. This is the natural conclusion one reaches when God has been despatched, because without God there is no virtue, and without virtue anything is permissible.

The lazy assumption that morality can only, ever, be approached from a theological perspective is trotted out time and again in order to keep man in his place. There is an illogicality to it, a contradiction. It rests on an underlying, hidden sense of superiority which reveals itself in the non-sequiteur that virtue can only be found in or through God. What it is actually saying is this: Because there is no God (although, of course there is, but these atheists don’t believe in him so let’s pretend to go along with their notion in order to destroy it) because there is no God man must be inherently incapable of doing good, because God (who we are pretending doesn’t exist but of course he does) is the only arbiter of goodness and if the atheists have destroyed God the only possible conclusion is that goodness isn’t achievable by man. So the argument that virtue is impossible because there is no God can only work if you approach it from the point of view that there is a God. If, however, you genuinely approach morality from the point of view of Godlessness, the putative link between God and goodness becomes meaningless and Dostoevsky’s argument becomes sophistry.

And so the question arises: is man capable of goodness? Can he exercise free will in the duty of the greater good? Clearly, we know that we are capable of spectacular failure – slavery, fascism, wars of greed (and God) et al – but failure, even repeated failure, does not mean that success is beyond us. We can be virtuous. We can be decent.

All of which leads us to Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is what Cormac McCarthy could be if only he would shake off that Dostoevskian gloom-mongering which infests his writing. KV would have no time for the parade of prophets who people McCarthy’s fiction, warning us that ‘we’re all fucked’. Instead, he would find some ingenious way of despatching them to the oblivion that genuine Godlessness confers and concentrate, instead, on the people who really matter. People like Kilgore Trout.

That isn’t to say Vonnegut ignores issues of evil. How could you accuse the writer of Slaughterhouse 5 of that, after all? Nor is he some feeble-minded liberal who believes that if we all just tried a little harder to get along the world would be a lovely place. Again, Slaughterhouse 5 attests to the fatuity of that. It’s simply that he’s prepared to accept the possibility – let’s put it no higher than that – the possibility that we might turn out to be okay sorts of people. Like Kilgore Trout.

Kilgore Trout, KV’s alter-ego, is an ageing writer of science-fiction who is destined to become one of the most revered human beings in history. Synopses of various of his novels are interspersed through the narrative, most notably a work in which the Creator of the Universe reveals to the reader that he – the reader – is the sole possessor of free-will in the universe and that everyone and everything else is merely a robot coded to act in particular ways in order to provoke him and test his responses. Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy and successful midwestern Pontiac dealer in the middle of a spectacular mental breakdown, reads this novel and takes it as truth. His descent into insanity is thus greatly accelerated, to the detriment of all around him.

On this slender plot Vonnegut hangs his usual satirical analysis of the world, particularly contemporary America. He deals with racism, sexism, sex (not many respectable novels contain pictures of assholes and split beavers), greed and consumerism, the technological rush to advancement that is destroying our environment, God, man, stupidity, violence – the gamut basically. With drawings. I’m never entirely sure whether Vonnegut is an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist but, whichever, it is a stance that allows no certainties except, perhaps, this: the ingenuity of man means that, however aracadian the situation we find ourselves in, sooner or later we’re bound to find a way of screwing it up. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way of remedying it. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way... And so it goes.

And this dumb, unvirtuous circle is important, because it rests on that which Dostoevsky and his brooding crew cannot acknowledge: there is no need for a supernatural mediator of goodness and badness. We are perfectly capable of doing it all by ourselves.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Jim Crace on writing

Another session at the literature festival last night - this time Jim Crace, whose The Pesthouse is a fine post-apocalyptic novel. Jim was a very engaging speaker and fine reader of his own work. An excellent evening.

He talked a fair bit about writing craft and made the observation that writing is about 'abandonment and control, at the same time'. He is, like me, very much of the 'don't plot, see what emerges' school of writing. And so there needs to be an element of abandon, seeing what comes out of the thinking and writing process. But there has to be some writerly control of it, otherwise it will become a sprawling mess. He compared it, in an image he kept apologising for, to being like watching a boy flying a kite on a windy day. You can admire the control that goes into managing that kite - or writing that book. But at the same time you have to appreciate that he is doing so in the face of forces he cannot hope to control. He can harness the wind for those few moments and create a moment of beauty, but the wind will howl on regardless. The writer's job is to harness the forces of living and consciousness and our hopes and fears, and use them to fashion something beautiful. It takes great skill.

Writing Those scenes

Also at the Louis de Bernieres talk (see below), a member of the audience asked him about the extreme brutality that appears in some of his books. He agreed that, especially earlier in his career, this seemed to be something he had to write about, the capacity of man for brutality against his fellow man.

There is one passage in Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord which has stayed with me ever since I read it. I've only read it once and I won't read it again. I've re-read the novel since, but had to skip that passage. It is the most traumatic piece of writing I've ever encountered (and remember, I've read Blood Meridian half a dozen times). It involves the death of the female lead in the most revolting circumstances, and it is described in forensic detail, no adjectives, no adverbs, no fancy description, just the cold facts. When I finished reading it I had to stop what I was doing, get up and walk about. I couldn't read on.

In his answer to the question, Louis mentioned that same passage, and clearly it had the same effect on him. After he wrote it, he said, he couldn't touch the novel for two weeks. The questioner, too, said that this was the passage she particularly meant when she asked the question. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Louis de Bernieres on nationality

A couple of days ago I went to see Louis de Bernieres speaking at the start of our local literature festival (or literacy festival, as the local dignitary who did the official opening insisted, in illiterate fashion, on calling it). Louis has always been a favourite of mine, since the days when I was a stock librarian and at the same book selection meeting I picked up his first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, the first translation of Haruki Murakami into English, A Wild Sheep Chase and Vladimir Voinovich's The Fur Hat. The best book selection meeting I ever attended.

Anyway, Louis was good value, though perhaps not as jolly as the last time I saw him speak, about ten years ago in Peterborough. He veers close to grumpy old man territory at times. But I was interested in what he said about nationality and nationalism and patriotism. He always felt British when he was younger, he said, as he saw little distinction between English people and Scots and Welsh. We've all been tempered by the same experiences. Now, however, he is increasingly feeling that the Scots and the Welsh are leaving the English behind. The Scots, in particular, he said somewhat tartly, 'seem to want to live off us, but not with us.'. That's perhaps overstating the case, but nonetheless there is something in it.

I am Scottish but I've lived in England a long time. Indeed, on the August Bank Holiday just past, I reached the moment where I've lived in England longer than I ever lived in Scotland. I still feel strongly Scottish, but I do not feel any different from English people. I was in Scotland a few weeks ago for the first time in a while and, listening in to some of the conversations around me, I was staggered by how often "the English" or "England" came up in conversation. I'm not just talking now and again - virtually every conversation I heard between Scottish people seemed to end up with a discussion of "the English". Why?

Scotland got devolution more than ten years ago. It has its own Parliament (a distinctly underwhelming building, I have to say, it looks like a glorified school assembly hall) and manages much of its own affairs. It also does extremely well in terms of finances, through the Barnett Formula, which means more is spent per head of Scottish population than on English or Welsh. It has its own vibrant culture (and compare that to the puny cultural identity that the English hang on to, terrified of their own customs and cultures). And yet they (we) can only define themselves in terms of not-Englishness. Devolution was meant to remove the chip on the shoulder. All it seems to have done is broadened and strengthened the shoulder, so an even bigger chip can be borne on it.

The Uncorrections

Here's an interesting cock-up. The printed version of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, is wrong. It was taken from a previous edit and contains hundreds of mistakes, mostly typographical, we're told, but some affecting characterisation. For a perfectionist like Franzen this must be close to calamity.

As it happens, I must have one of the affected copies, because I bought it the day it came out. The publishers are offering free exchange, including payment of postage, but I'm left wondering - which copy would I prefer to have, the final version or a rogue version? I suppose there's also the prospect of having a curiosity like those postage stamps that get printed with the Queen's head the wrong way round and become worth a fortune. That won't be the case with Freedom, I don't suppose, because we're talking about thousands of copies so there won't be much rarity value. It also feels somewhat philistine to be talking about the book in these terms rather than its literary merit. But nonetheless, I think I prefer the idea of having a slightly wrong version of the book, and so I'll probably keep it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don DeLillo wins PEN/Saul Bellow award

And you can't argue with that, I don't suppose.

I still need to get hold of Point Omega, and I got a second hand copy of Americana the other day, which is now near the top of my 'to read' list. (Next up, after Vonnegut, which I'm reading now, is JM Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg. The Brothers Karamazov is my earphone listening while walking to and from work at the moment (coutresy of Librivox), so Coetzee's fictionalised account of Dostoevsky should be fascinating. The life of one author I don't like (but have to admire) written by another author I don't like (but have to admire).

Banned books watch 2010

It's the ALA's Banned Books Week again - it comes round fast.

Another depressing list of the books most frequently requested to be banned from American libraries. The top ten is:

1. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series) by Lauren Myracle

Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

2. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Reasons: Homosexuality

3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

6. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

7. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

10. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

How dispiriting that after all these years Holden Caulfield can still cause such apoplexy. And even more depressing that a superb anti-racist book such as To Kill A Mockingbird can be so misread that its meaning is completely reversed.

Recently, there was a post in one of the message boards for UK librarians. The poster's library authority had banned all connection with anything Israeli, and that included Israeli authors, so he was having to contemplate removing Israeli authors from his shelves. Had anyone else encountered the same issue, he asked. What an astounding reaction! He was being told to censor his library collection, take off classics of literature, for no better reason than the authors' nationalities, and his first thought was not to man the ramparts. This is what librarianship in the UK is coming to - sadly defeatist. Good luck to the ALA in its stalwart attempts to keep censorship at bay in the US.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Illusionist

While I was in Edinburgh, I went to the cinema (a rarity for me) to see Sylvain Chomet's new film, The Illusionist. Chomet is the director of the superb Belleville Rendezvous. I'm not usually one for cartoons (excepting the magnificent Donald Duck, of course, one of my role models), but Belleville Rendezvous was just outstanding, with an emotional pull you wouldn't believe possible from animation. And since The Illusionist is actually set in Edinburgh, how could I not go and see it?

It's an outstanding film. The drawings are superb, as you would expect, giving an impressive sense of place. The screenplay is by Jacques Tati, for a film he never made, and tells the story of an ageing illusionist in the 1950s/60s, at a time when variety and this type of act were becoming passe. The magician in the film is a cartoon version of Tati himself, and after failing in France he heads for Scotland, first up in the isles, and then in Edinburgh, and along the way he is joined by a young Scottish girl. That's about it. The plot is minimal, there is virtually no dialogue, there are no human beings on show, and yet this film still manages to stir the emotions to a remarkable degree. Throughout, the whimsical humour is shot through with a pathos which leaves the viewer with a nagging sense of dread that something terrible should befall this lovely, gentle, unworldly old man. In the end, the film is a plea for kindness and consideration. You leave the cinema thinking that might, just, be possible.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eliot and his God

The Waste Land (1922) may be a landmark modernist text but Eliot came later in life to, if not recant, then certainly to recast the views he expressed in it. Without religion, he warned, society would be condemned to ‘centuries of barbarism.’ And in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934), he amplifies this notion:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

In Four Quartets (1944) he gives a wry nod to the solemnity of his early modernist vision. The river, which in The Waste Land is described variously as the ‘waters of Leman’ – suggesting, from Psalm 137, the spiritual wasteland that subsisted after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon – and as a Stygian water-course flowing throught the Unreal City, becomes symbolic in The Dry Salvages of a ‘strong brown god’ who becomes ‘almost forgotten/ By the dwellers in cities’, a god whose

...rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Thus, for Eliot, God, an increasingly ill-acknowledged presence in modern life, nonetheless remains at its core, and the ageing Eliot is therefore forced to reinterpret the values by which one upholds society:

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence –
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

The difficulty I have with much of this secularisation debate is that it rests on the assumption that everything must be debated from a theological perspective. The secular world is at fault because it has replaced spirituality with "superficial notions of evolution" behind which it hides from the progress of history. But if rational debate is conducted without the strictures of faith, why should it then be critised from the perspective of faith? Evolution isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of science.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Watersons

Last weekend I went to a tremendous concert at Hull Truck Theatre, featuring the Watersons. The Waterson family come from Hull, so this was a home gig, as it were, and the audience clearly contained many family and old friends, so it was a poignant event. For those not familiar with English traditional music, the Waterson family are probably (along with the Coppers) the pre-eminent family within the tradition. Mike, Norma and Lal began singing in the 60s and Norma married Martin Carthy, one of the giants of the folk scene (to whom Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, among others, owe, though don't necessarily acknowledge, a huge debt). Norma and Martin have been performing with their daughter Eliza as Waterson:Carthy for a number of years now, but Sunday's performance contained the wider Waterson family - Mike and his wife and children and Lal's children. They make spine-tingling music.

This is "Bunch of Thyme" sung by Norma, with accompaniment from Martin and Chris Parkinson. This isn't as good as the version that the Watersons sang to finish Sunday's concert, but it gives a fine taste of Norma's remarkable voice. I thought this song had been irrevocably ruined by Foster and Allen's saccharine version, but Norma brings it back to life. It's a beautiful song, and with it's heart-rending but curiously uplifting final line, "Time brings all things to an end", it brings a lump to the throat. I'm only glad I heard them sing it before the two deaths I've written about in the posts below, otherwise I would have been a blubbering wreck.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Makar

Edwin Morgan, oor Makar, has died, aged 90. He had been ill for quite some time.

He was a true humanist, a fine and honest and decent man. From The Second Life:

Is it true that we come alive
not once, but many times?
We are drawn back to the image
of the seed in darkness, or the greying skin
of the snake that hides a shining one -
it will push that used-up matter off
and even the film of the eye is sloughed -
That the world may be the same, and we are not
and so the world is not the same,
the second eye is making again
this place, these waters and these towers,
they are rising again
as the eye stands up to the sun,
as the eye salutes the sun.

Many things are unspoken
in the life of a man, and with a place
there is an unspoken love also
in undercurrents, drifting, waiting its time.
A great place and its people are not renewed lightly.
The caked layers of grime
grow warm, like homely coats.
But yet the will be dislodged
and men will still be warm.
The old coats are discarded.
The old ice is loosed.
The old seeds are awake.

Slip out of darkness, it is time.

I have a feeling this poem is deeply autobiographical, and speaks of the undercurrents in Morgan's life.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bob McKee

I am utterly shocked and greatly saddened to hear of the death of Bob McKee, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Bob was attending the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) Conference in Gothenburg when he died over the weekend.

I haven’t seen Bob for a number of years, since a change of profession took me outside library circles, but I got to know him reasonably well over the years. One of the last times I met him, ironically enough, was at a previous IFLA Conference in Glasgow. I heard him speak on many occasions, indeed invited him on a few occasions to address conferences I was organising. He was a witty, warm, enthusiastic and engaging advocate for library services. His passion for libraries was self-evident. His interest in librarians was inspiring. He approached the various challenges in the library world with vigour and hope. It was impossible to come away from one of his addresses without feeling uplifted - and back in the days of the cultural desert of Thatcherism that was a vital skill.

Bob was due to retire in only a few weeks time, having promised himself he would take early retirement at 60 to do more things with his life. It is desperately cruel that this good, honest, decent man has been denied that pleasure. I don’t normally struggle for words, but tonight I’m lost.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Accountable for Leibowitz

Just noticed a referral to this blog from Google, searching for "accountable for Leibowitz." I suspect the item the person was searching for is probably "A Canticle for Leibowitz." Although it's something of an apt mistake, because accountability was something of a problem in the book, as I recall.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Howard Jacobson on Philip Roth

From yesterday's Guardian:

"I'm disappointed [Philip Roth] thinks it's all too grim now to be comic. I've always thought that it's now that we need it. We didn't need it when it was just about wanking when you were a boy. That was terrific, it was wonderfully done, but that was the easy stuff. Do it now, now that your body's decaying all round you and you hate your life."

Jacobson's premise is that comic writing is an important - maybe essential - element of good writing about tragic matters. I agree with the generality of his point - humour out of the decay of your life is powerful indeed. But in the specific case of Roth I'm not sure I agree. I think the writing he has produced in the past few years is stunning. Humourless maybe, but now that his focus is on mortality and meaning I think his work has become extremely powerful. I'd much rather re-read Everyman than Portnoy's Complaint.

DeLillo on writing

An interesting feature on Don DeLillo in today's Observer. DeLillo's approach to plotting is not to, not in any organised way, but rather to let the story tell itself. Speaking of Point Omega, he says: "I had no idea what would happen and absolutely no idea what would happen later on in the novel." This is the only way I can write. If I sit down and try to establish a plot I get completely stuck.

The writer of the piece, Robert McCrum, makes this observation:

After Underworld, an 800-page tour de force, DeLillo's career turned towards the miniature: The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), The Falling Man (2007) are much slighter books, a rallentando that suggests a writer moving inexorably into the minor key of old age. Not that you'd find this in the demeanour of DeLillo.

I think the conclusion that small equates to minor key and a gradual slowing down is an odd one. I haven't read Point Omega yet, but I've read the three McCrum mentions here, and I don't accept that they are the work of a man easing into comfortable old age. They are challenging - intellectually and in essence. Like Saul Bellow, whose short fiction I mentioned recently, small can be profoundly complex.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Larkin With Toads

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Philip Larkin, the city of Hull is organising Larkin25. Amongst the events organised over the next 25 weeks is Larkin with Toads, a mass participation public art event that is populating the city with enormous decorated toads. I have to say I was mildly sceptical at first. I don't think I realised how big they would be, or how impressive. It's wonderful. Here's a few of them we managed to find the other day: