Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Faulkner's estate sues Woody Allen

One of the best films I've seen recently was Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a whimsical piece in which a frustrated writer finds some sort of portal into the past and carouses with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein et al. It's very funny indeed. Now, Woody Allen is being sued by the estate of William Faulkner for misappropriating a quote of Faulkner's in the film. The line in question is:
The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.
It seems pretty innocuous to me. It even gives Faulkner as the source of the quote, although his estate are quibbling that it's actually a misquote. It's all a bit silly. But, worse than that, it seems somewhat menacing. This is what one would usually call fair use, where quotes from an author may be used by others as long as appropriate acknowledgements are made. This blog, for example, would not be possible if I could not quote from literary works. What Faulkner's estate are doing seems ridiculously heavy-handed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

James Tait Black Prize

Britain's oldest literary award is doing a "best of" competition. The six chosen novels are:

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
A Disaffection by James Kelman
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
The Mandlebaum Gate by Muriel Spark

I must admit, it seems a most curious list to me. Presumably, it's only novels that previously won the annual prize which can be nominated. That's the only reason for the selection of some of these novels. Many people like, even love The Road, but I think you'd be hard-pushed to find any McCarthy scholar who rated it his best. Similarly, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene? And Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.

As for James Kelman, although I'm a fellow Scot I've never been able to see the appeal. If you want a Scottish novel, look no further than the scandalously under-rated Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

However, it's always the way of these shortlists that some smartarse like me comes along and says "I wouldn't have chosen that..." So roll on the announcement, in December.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Southport Writers' Circle short story competition

I have no affiliation with this group, but they sent me an email with details of their current competition, so I'll pass it on.

Southport Writers’ Circle Open Short Story Competition 2012

1st prize: £150 Second prize: £75 Third prize: £25

Closing date: 31st October 2012

Online entries available at www.swconline.co.uk

Chief Judge: Dr. Valerie Williamson

Val Williamson's short fiction has been published in magazines, and in collections including Time Out and Richard and Judy’s Winning Stories, and broadcast on BBC radio. She writes in several genres for adults and children, and has been published in magazines as diverse as Back Street Heroes, My Weekly and Twinkle Comic. More recently she has published chapters in academic books about cultural engagement with fiction and its genres in several media. Val has tutored writers at events including the Writers’ Summer School and the Writers’ Holiday, and has now possibly adjudicated more competitions than she has entered.


Your entry should be an unpublished, original story on any theme of up to 2000 words.

* Don’t put your name on your story but do give it a title.

* You don’t need an entry form. Send us a cover sheet for each entry with the story’s title, word count, your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address for results.

* The fee is £3.00 for each story, or £10 for 4. You can pay by cheque or postal order made out to Southport Writers’ Circle.

Copyright remains with the author but winning entries may be displayed on the website for 12 months.

Send entries to:

Short Story Competition
Southport Writers’ Circle
Flat 3, 35 Saunders Street

If you have no e-mail please supply SAE for results.
Online entries available at www.swconline.co.uk
Winners will be informed in December.
Optional – Single-Spaced ‘Green’ entries encouraged.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The lost art of proofreading

This is a school textbook with a Faulkner short story. It doesn't inspire you with confidence, does it?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner

The gestation of Boneland is now famous: it is the third and final part of a trilogy begun in 1960, with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and continued in 1963 with The Moon of Gomrath. Those latter titles were books for children, and they were meant to be the end of the series; Boneland is an adult novel whose presence has slowly insinuated itself in the author’s mind over the intervening years. On the surface it sounds an unlikely undertaking; for fans of Alan Garner’s outstanding work, though, it is entirely natural and wholly welcome. Boneland is a book that has been waiting fifty years to be written and now its time has come.

Weirdstone and Gomrath are superb children’s novels, among the best of the last century. Their inventiveness, their use of myth, the wonderful rolling rhythms of the language, the thrilling sense of adventure and danger and supernatural fear, all combine to produce something truly memorable. And Boneland, though far from flawless, is an extraordinary sequel: it somehow manages simultaneously to be entirely different from and wholly consistent with its predecessors. Such a contradiction would probably please the author. It is a remarkable feat.

Colin, the child protagonist of the original stories, is now a forty-something astrophysicist still living in the myth-haunted space of Alderley Edge where the earlier books (and most of Garner’s works) were set. His twin sister vanished as a child (as was suggested at the conclusion of The Moon of Gomrath). Colin is obsessed by her. He is deeply troubled, possibly bipolar, certainly subject to manic periods. He can remember every moment of his life since the age of thirteen (when the previous novels ended) but nothing at all of what happened before that age. As Boneland begins he is clearly approaching a crisis, quite possibly a total breakdown.

The narrative shifts between a straightforward and realist description of Colin’s daily life, his travails at work, his singular home lifestyle, the counselling he undertakes with the mysterious psychiatrist Meg; and a dreamscape in which myth and time and sumptuous descriptive passages meld into a breathtaking otherworld. This takes place in some pre-lapsarian existence of our earliest ancestors and yet, at the same time, one feels its centre is in Colin’s consciousness, that troubled and tormented place. There is more than one time, there is more than one story, there is more than one moment. We are taken into a Nietzschean whorl of infinite return, time cycling and recycling, never linear, never simple. We spin round our mortal realm, we reach out into the stars, probing, searching, looking for clues, but what is truly out there is too far, too long, too remote for us to grasp. It is beyond. It is not, nor ever will be, us. The answers are there. The answers are nowhere.

This is the nature of the myth world into which Colin is thrust. And that we cannot – quite – grasp what is happening reflects the turmoil that Colin, too, must endure. There is a juncture where myth and history collide, and Boneland describes that space. It is a boundary, and as Colin explains: “Boundaries aren’t safe... They occupy neither space nor time. Boundaries can change apparent realities. They let things through.” These passages, then, are uncomfortable, unsettling, both unreal and hyper-real, as though the senses are operating at the edge of their experience.

Great fiction will always use the personal to explain the universal. But truly great fiction will use the universal to explain the personal. One thinks of Crime and Punishment, for example, which could not exist without the reader being aware of both the inner sensibilities of Raskolnikov and the outer, moral pressure which defeats him. Or Pincher Martin on his island, in his death. Or Suttree in the wilderness of his imagination balancing fears that are, at once, private and eternal, his dead twin and his dead self. In the character of Colin we have just such a conjunction of personal and universal; through him we come to a greater understanding of humanity while, at the same time, through the novel we come to better know an individual human being. Only the great writers can achieve this. Garner is a great writer.

I’m not convinced, however, that Boneland is a great novel. In particular, Garner has some difficulty with dialogue. It seems remarkable to me that someone with such an acute sense of the rhythms and beauty of language should have such a tin ear for dialogue. One gets the feeling that, in real life, Garner may be someone who thinks a lot but wastes little time on the trivia of chitchat. And that this matters in the novel points to a second problem: by consciously writing the main narrative in realist mode, these shortcomings in dialogue become all too apparent. As Ursula Le Guin points out in her perceptive review, the mixture of realism and fantasy is a brave literary choice. For the most part it succeeds, and it is certainly true that the prehistoric era passages grow in weight and depth and resonance as the novel progresses, but there remains a disjunction when a writer writes in realist mode and unnatural elements such as clunky dialogue intervene. I do not know what else Garner could have done, because I believe the overall approach he takes is both brave and correct, but the dialogue remains a problem with the novel.

In the end, though, I don’t believe it matters. Boneland stands as a fine piece of literature. It takes a true and honest approch to myth, far removed from elves and dragons and childish quasi-medieval posturing. Mythology is a serious enterprise, a generations-old attempt to explain the inexplicable: who we are, why we are, where we are, when we are, how we are, what we are. This is the true nature of myth, and it is a difficult and troubling thing. Those who use myth properly write dark novels – McCarthy, Golding, Coetzee et al. They know what myth is and they know its power. When asked in Boneland about myth and science, Colin, the astrophysicist, makes the perhaps startling declaration that they may have equal validity. Each is real in its own ways but “they occupy different dimensions”. If this isn’t the message of Cormac McCarthy I don’t know what is. And it is certainly the message of Alan Garner’s work, beautiful, wise and powerful as it is.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

For some time in Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears, it is quite difficult to identify the precise theme. Near the end, however, it is made clear in a key conversation between the main protagonists (held, significantly, over the telephone rather than face-to-face – the problem of communication is a secondary theme in the novel).

Catherine Gehrig, a conservator of horology at the Swinburne Museum in London and the narrator of half the story, calls her boss, the avuncular Eric Croft, for advice. It is specific advice she seeks, on a Latin translation, although it is clear that Catherine really needs an outlet for her emotions. Eric says to her: “I find the notion that mysteries must be solved to be very problematic.” He goes on: “Every curator finally learns that the mysteries are the point.” Aha! So we’re in the field of mysteries, then, we’re in metaphysics, we’re confronting the eternal questions. “Why do we always wish to remove ambiguitity?” Eric continues. “Without ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunnit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour and form and surface.” How very Careyian, you have to say, to distil the mysteries of the universe into a single Rothko canvas. On this occasion, however, it is a weak image. It is a typical of Carey to invoke high art to bestow gravitas on a concept and, in most instances, it works: when that concept is the nature of existence itself, however, the conceit comes close to bathos.

However, that is to quibble. The significant thing is that here, it seems, the novel is taking us into theological territory. This is somewhat surprising, as it is not traditional Carey material, and we shall return to this point later.

Catherine is grieving after the sudden death of the museum’s Head Curator, with whom she has had a thirteen year affair. Her boss, Eric Croft, the only person who knew of the affair, tries to help by assigning to her a new and prestigious project. Consequently, she begins conservation work on what appears to be a spectacular automaton duck. Packed alongside the automaton’s machinery are the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Victorian patron for whom the automaton was built as a play-thing and health-aid for his consumptive son. Brandling’s notebooks form the second strand of the narrative. It is clear that the automaton – which Catherine discovers is actually a swan, rather than a duck – is of exceptionally high quality and technically it is remarkably advanced. It is designed to move around in a water-filled hull, eating fish and grain, digesting it and and finally defecating the excreta. What we have, then, is a mimetic representation of the natural life-cycle, inevitably suggesting notions of a creator and the created, what it is to be alive, ideas of free will and control, life and death and so on: the mystery of life recreated, in other words.

There is more. The novel explores surfaces, truths. Written on the automaton, in Latin, is the inscription “What you see cannot be seen.” Again, this takes us to the sense of mystery. Nothing we know in life is truly known to us, because we do not – cannot – know what comes after: there is never any clarity or truth, no matter how close we feel we may be to understanding something. Again, the automaton is a powerful image here: it is in poor repair, its parts disarticulated and stored in eight wooden tea chests. Many years later, conservators try to rebuild it, not understanding what it is for, not knowing the story behind its creation. That story is gradually revealed to us through Brandling’s notebooks but, once again, truth serves only to obscure: the final answer is, as it must always be, elusive. Mystery remains.

As a meditation on what it means to be human, then, for that is what the novel is, The Chemistry of Tears has all the necessary elements for a persuasive study. It almost comes off. In Brandling’s notebooks, he describes the work of Sir Albert Cruikshank, a pioneering inventor on whose work much of the technology behind his swan is based. Cruikshank, it transpires, is something of a visionary, residing somewhere in that debatable land between genius and lunacy.

We are presented with Cruickshank’s great invention, the Mysterium Tremendum. Clearly, since most critics agree Cruikshank is based on Charles Babbage, this wooden counting machine appears to be the precursor of the modern computer. The Mysterium Tremendum, therefore, is the key to the two principal strands of philosophical thought that the novel seeks to explore and it is these two strands or, more importantly, the interconnectedness of these two strands, that leads to the ultimate weakness of The Chemistry of Tears.

Mysterium tremendum is a phrase coined by Rudolph Otto to explore the mystery that must pertain in religion, through which rational thought must be submerged beneath a sense of awe at the numinous nature of the deity. By numinous, Otto means the religious experience itself, and the response it invokes in us. There are different ways the numinous can affect us, one of which is a sense of dread, or the Mysterium Tremendum, a sense of fear of a completely different order from any mortal fear. CS Lewis describes it thus:

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room" and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
That Carey has chosen to call Cruikshank’s instrument the Mysterium Tremendum, something evoking a sense of awe in the deity, is clearly not accidental. Therefore, we must suppose that he is using his novel to explore the tension between our mortal lives and the awful uncertainty about what comes before and beyond. The spectre of death hangs over both narrative strands – Catherine’s dead lover and Brandling’s dying son. In each strand, neither protagonist is in control of their lives and, for neither, their final destination is what they would have wished. Linking them both is the swan, the beautiful and mysterious symbol of the numinous, that awe-inspiring representation of a created life.

But, having taken us on this journey towards (but never into) the unknown, the novel loses impetus. Why? Because of the second thematic strand in the narrative.

This is a jeremiad about the power and inherent dangers of technology and progress. We have Cruikshank’s machine, the Mysterium Tremendum, of course, and all that must follow from the digital revolution we are still living through. But, more than this, Carey dilutes the impact of his narrative with a very contemporary but wholly inappropriate environmental theme. Alarm bells ring early on when Amanda, a (none too convincing) secondary character, is fixated on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At first, one wonders whether this was happening as Carey was writing the novel, and he slipped it in for verisimilitude but, it becomes increasingly obvious, this environmental disaster is a central element of the plot.

And as soon as this happens the novel loses its gravitas. The mysterium tremendum, the mystery of the before and the beyond, is relegated into a trite argument about environmental stewardship. Catherine concludes, near the end, that Brandling’s notebooks are “a critique of the Industrial Revolution”. And so the mysterium tremendum, the awe in the face of the unknown, is reduced to a hollow and secular complaint about the nature of modernity. This, to me, is absurd. If you are going to invoke the ultimate questions, don’t weaken the argument by shoehorning them into something less significant. Global warming may be a genuine concern, mankind may well be on the road to destroying the planet but, in metaphysical terms, these developments are inconsequential. Ultimately, they make no difference. They might to us, poor bloody humans, for sure, but if, in your novel, you are raising the question of there being something more significant than human beings, some motivating force, divine or otherwise, then to hook the novel’s conclusions on the fate of humanity is to completely fail to develop the point that you have elaborately tried to establish. This is bathos writ large. And this is exactly what happens to the narrative of The Chemistry of Tears.

It calls into question the whole environmental movement at present, the way it is being turned into a secular religion. Humanity has a habit of doing this, elevating whatever the principal concern of the day might be into a position of such import it becomes all-encompassing. It led, in Victorian times, to science and rationalism being bastardised into the ugliness of positivism. Now, the perfectly sensible desire to secure effective stewardship of natural resources is elevated into a whole new religion of nature. There is so much self-serving nonsense about this. The environmentalists are “saving the planet”, man is evil, the environment is everything, the environment is God. But this is essentially hypocricy: the planet existed for millennia before mankind first took its breath and it will survive for millennia after we’re gone: it needs no worship, it needs no saving. The only thing that needs saving is big, bad mankind, the very thing the environmental movement purports to oppose. There is something obscene about the way environmentalism is being turned into a religion. For that reason, I no longer like the term that William Golding coined for Jim Lovelock’s inspirational theories, Gaia. It invests a religious sensibility in something that should be secular.

The concept of a mysterium tremendum is, even for an atheist like me, a worthwhile area of study. Eric, in The Chemistry of Tears, is right: some mysteries do not require resolution, the mystery is all. The before and the beyond of our lives cannot be explicated: that is what religion is, whether or not one subscribes to the notion of a god. There must be some element of transcendence, whether that be a divine transcendence into the company of God, or a rationalist transcendence into nothingness. The environmental cause is by its nature, immanent, irrevocably rooted on this planet, this time, this realm of understanding. Why make it more mysterious? The Chemistry of Tears begins to explore fascinating territory but, somewhere along the line, it runs out of confidence and thematically it slides into disappointment. This is a great pity because, stylistically, as you would expect from any novel by the brilliant Peter Carey, it is a very fine piece of writing.

Carey's voice and POV

I’ve mentioned before Peter Carey’s fascination with voice and, in particular, how he likes to set himself challenges in his novels: Hugh “Slow Bones”, the brother with learning difficulties in Theft; the baffled and isolated Che and his fragile guardian in His Illegal Self; and Olivier, the pompous, self-important aristocratic in Parrot and Olivier in America. In The Chemistry of Tears, he does it again, and in fact he sets himself a double challenge with the characters of Catherine and Henry Brandling.

The first protagonist, Catherine is a not-especially likeable woman in her forties, shown at a time of maximum disruption to her life because of the death of her lover. Since she is mostly distraught, drunk, or both, it is hard to care for her. This is not a fault, of course, but it does mean that the narrative strand must be strong enough to withstand the lack of empathy engendered in the readers. That this narrative strand succeeds – indeed is the more interesting of the two strands in the novel – is testament to Carey’s skill. How does he do it? By making Catherine, for all her faults and reasons to dislike her – real. Her work, intricate, specialised, impressive – is described with great skill, demonstrating powerful research but also writerly restraint. We can believe in Catherine and her predicament, and this alone makes us interested.

The second protagonist, Henry Brandling, is a prickly Victorian gentleman with all the insecurities and lack of self-awareness you might expect from such a person. In Germany to procure the automaton for his ill son, and embarrassingly out of his depth, he is literally an innocent abroad. This is extremely challenging for a writer to pull off: how to invest emotion and drama in a story narrated by a man with an upper lip so stiff you could whet a knife on it; and how to suggest drama and emotion through a man who is oblivious of either?

It seems that even Carey, the master character-builder may have met his match this time. Some of Brandling’s latter notebook entries are relayed to us second-hand by Catherine, allowing Carey to filter his words through Catherine’s sensibilities and thereby invest more emotion in proceedings than the sober Mr Brandling alone could have provided. It’s a cop-out, I suppose, but it’s a very well-written cop-out, and one can excuse anything that’s well-written.