Friday, January 31, 2014

The Gloaming at Sage Gateshead

Went to the Sage at Gateshead last week to see The Gloaming in concert. The Gloaming are the latest Irish supergroup, comprising Iarla Ó Lionaird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and the outstanding duo of Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill.

I've written on here before about Hayes and Cahill, who I think are geniuses. It must be over ten years ago I first saw them, is Gosport, and it is still one of the first concerts I think of when I look back on outstanding occasions I've attended. I was fascinated to see what they'd be like with a group alongside them.

Overall, it was a bit of a curate's egg, I suppose. For me, there was just a touch too much of Iarla Ó Lionaird. He is an extraordinary singer, of course, but it was pretty much tune - song - tune - song all the way through, and it felt unbalanced to me. That said, I can't go along with The Scotsman's review of their concert in Glasgow, which complained: "the songs often differed little from Ó Lionaird’s solo material." Well, come on. What did they expect Iarla to do - start belting it out like Ethel Merman? Similarly, The Scotsman bemoaned the fact that "it was disappointing that much of their sound resembled a fleshed-out version of Hayes and Cahill’s duo work". Again, quite what did they expect?

I think there is a criticism to be made here, though. The amazing thing about Hayes and Cahill is the way they draw the audience into the music. It becomes hypnotic. It's just Martin Hayes's fiddle and Dennis Cahill's guitar, plus Martin's dancing feet on percussion and rhythm, but it builds so slowly and intricately and insistently the audience is sucked into the moment. There is utter silence when they play. Nobody coughs, nobody moves, just the audience listening to the music.

With The Gloaming's work - at the moment - this contract between artistes and audience is occasionally broken. The spell is lost. The magic dissipates. That may just be because they are still tightening up the act, or it may be that the Hayes and Cahill partnership is sufficient and nothing else can be added without losing some of their intensity.

But I'd certainly go and see The Gloaming again, and if you get the chance to see them I'd highly recommend it.

This is Hayes and Cahill playing solo.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has died, aged 94.

But what a man he was. A force for good. That beautiful soft, slow voice was so beguiling.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

This little collection, part of a Penguin Books series, “Great Loves”, brings together eight short stories from three of Katherine Mansfield short story collections. The stories collected here are: “Something Childish But Very Natural”; “Feuille d’Album”; “Mr and Mrs Dove”; “Marriage à la Mode”; “Bliss”; “Honeymoon”; “Dill Pickle”; and “Widowed”. And what a beautiful collection it is.

I find Katherine Mansfield’s style utterly beguiling and completely intriguing. Her stories are so simple, hardly stories at all really, just vignettes, little slices of life, and yet there is such an astonishing depth to them. Her characters are lovely creations, so fragile and vulnerable and human. You ache for them, for the quiet sadness of their existence, for the failed ideas and lost hopes, for the brittle confidence and stoic resignation. You long for them to be able to communicate, one with the other, to convey their true feelings and allow those feelings to inform their actions. You share their desolation when love, as it so often does, founders. These stories are wonders.

Mansfield herself was dissatisfied with her short stories. She said: "I've been a selective camera, and . . . my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive." I think she is being unnecessarily hard on herself here. While many of her stories end in great unhappiness, there is nothing malicious in them. On the contrary, the stories are designed to allow us, the impartial readers and observers of these people’s misfortunes, to assess what might be done to remedy those misfortunes. They are, then, entirely hopeful and honest endeavours.

Shortly before her death (at the very early of 34, from tuberculosis), she wrote witheringly of her friends in London who:

have come to an agreement not to grow any more, to stay just so – all clipped and pruned and tight. As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact –no, a thousand times!
And this, it seems to me, is the key to her work. There is a serious and earnest searching for something in these stories, some understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive, to be in love.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Accidental Woman by Jonathan Coe

As a critic, I’m accustomed to giving my views on the works of writers. That’s the way it goes. It doesn’t work the other way around: writers don’t generally give their opinions on the reading taste of their critics. It might be quite fun if they did. In the case of Jonathan Coe, however, I do know what he thinks of my reading taste, because he told me. A number of years ago, when I was a raw and callow librarian, I compiled a book promotion which included among its twenty titles What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, and he kindly agreed to write an introduction to the promotion. I had presented an interesting selection of novels he said, “if a touch male-centred.” He was right, of course: it was a very masculine list and, taking a look at the reviews on this blog, I’ve improved only slightly in terms of gender balance in the ensuing years. At least I can number Carson McCullers and Marilynne Robinson among my favourite authors now, alongside Gunter and Gabriel and Kurt and Hermann, but I still wish I read more by women writers.

Which is apposite for the subject matter of Coe’s The Accidental Woman. This is his debut novel and an unusual one it is. If most debut novels are generally reckoned to be, to some extent at least, autobiographical, then Coe would appear to have done a fine job in disguising those autobiographical elements, with his strong female protagonist and whimsical choice of voice. Voice, indeed, is central to the novel, because it completely dominates - to be honest to an unhealthy degree. But such is the way of debut novels, I suppose.

Maria is an individualist, someone who meanders her way through life with no discernible thought or plan or ambition or even sense of achievement. She is not unintelligent – far from it she is intellectually gifted – but she seems incapable of turning her intellect into anything more useful than a vehicle for appreciating music late at night, on her own, in the dark, staring into blackness. She finds herself embroiled in the rites of passage which interrupt so many lives – university, sex, marriage, motherhood, divorce, loneliness – and in each case she seems to have stumbled into that state by accident rather than design, and she subsequently extricates herself from those states equally by chance. It takes some skill to write a convincing and engaging narrative about someone so inconsequential, and Coe, a very fine writer, does manage to pull it off, albeit with some qualifications.

For an explanation of those qualifications, we are back to the voice, because the most striking aspect of the novel is the narrative voice. It is a typical apprentice piece, really, extremely striking but, in the end, overdone. It becomes wearing. What, at first, seems fresh and amusing, quickly palls. The unnamed omniscient narrator adopts a facetious, waggish, knowing voice which deliberately sets out to unhinge the story from a realist framework. It’s the sort of postmodern technique that Nathanael West perfected, and that gives James Purdy his edgy, disconnected air. Walker Percy uses it. Barthelme, of course, used it. You can actually trace it right back, of course, to Denis Diderot in the eighteenth century. And, for all that The Accidental Woman is a fun piece of writing, I have to confess that, given the choice of re-reading this or Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, the latter would be an easy enough choice.

So what’s wrong with it? At times it’s too close to Wodehousian whimsy, such as: “This advice stung Ronny to what we in the trade refer to as the quick.” Coming from Bertie Wooster this works, but from the unnamed narrator of this piece it merely seems arch. Other times it tries too hard. After the two hapless mains have been introduced to us, we are given the summary: “So that’s two charlies we have met already.” That is a funny line and it works, but one can have too much of a good thing, and we certainly get too much of the smart-arsed, bathetic summaries of preceding action in this novel. For example, after an elaborate and whimsical detour into pathetic fallacy, we are told: “All of this is just to give you an idea of how things are likely to turn out.” Or, after a lengthy analysis of Maria’s inner thoughts, as though embarrassed by this psychological turn of events, the description shudders to a conclusion with: “End of analysis.”

In the end, it leaves the novel struggling to overcome the triumph of style over content. Like anaive undergraduate, it tries too hard to be cool. It’s a fascinating piece, all the same, because the genius which pours forth in What A Carve Up! is definitely to be seen in embryonic form here in moments of sustained comedic brio. It’s worth reading, for all its faults.

Now, to find a female author to read...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Writing challenge: gonzo style

The first I know about it, this guy next to me is yelling, “Christ, no!” A young guy, fancy suit and tie, winkle picker shoes like all the young dudes are wearing these days. And he’s standing, staring at the road, like he’s transfixed, and he starts pointing and I look up just in time to see it.

One and a half tons of bright red metal rolling inexorably at thirty miles per hour into a poor sap on a bicycle who’s wearing a yellow reflective bib and a multi-coloured pointy helmet. Like that was ever going to do him any good in this contest of unequals. So car hits bicycle, cyclist flies, noise, screams, silence, bedlam. Half the people nearby hurry past, pretending they haven’t seen it, the other half mosey on over for a closer look. An old guy rushes towards the cyclist yelling “I’m a doctor, I’m a doctor.”

“Either that or a mugger,” I say to the guy next to me. He looks at me like I’ve just propositioned his mother. “What?” I say. “Lighten up. Freak.”

There’s a big ring of people round the cyclist guy now, like you used to get round a fight in the school playground. There’s a steady murmur of voices, people telling each other what they saw, which seems kinda pointless to me, since everyone else saw it too. But everyone wants their own experience to be better than anyone else’s – by which I mean worse. “I saw the instant of the collision.” “I saw his head hit the road.” “I saw the look on his face the moment the car hit him.” “I saw him die.”

What interests me most of all though is the other guy, the driver, a young kid, barely out of his teens I reckon, and standing staring into space like he’s not even there, like he’s temporarily relocated himself to another planet. Which he might as well do because this crowd is going to turn on him pretty soon. He’s trembling. And he looks so fresh-faced and innocent. He looks so frightened. He looks so sick.

He looks so much like me. “Kid,” I say to him, “that’s some deep shit you’ve got yourself in.” I pat him on the shoulder and nod meaningfully and walk away. I think he gets my drift. Now, over in the Star and Garter, there’s a margharita with my name on it. I head off to claim her.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

I’ve written a few times on this blog about the science-fantasy writer, Tim Powers, who I think is a very fine novelist. That said, it’s a good few years since I read any, so I was curious to read Three Days to Never. Would I still think his writing was so good?

Well, the answer is no, but a qualified no. Three Days to Never is certainly intriguing – I think it would be impossible to describe a Powers novel as anything but that, because he is a very clever writer and his technique – taking historical facts and events and weaving them into a wholly fantastic narrative – is fascinating. In previous novels he has taken the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron and Keats – and written them into a story of vampires and the Lamia, and Blackbeard the pirate in a story of zombies in the Caribbean.

In Three Days to Never, Powers gives us a cameo role by Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein as inventor of a time machine. Frank Marrity and his twelve-year-old daughter, Daphne, become involved in a terrifying tussle between Mossad and a secret Albigensian group for control of the secret to time travel, which appears to be found in the shed of Frank’s recently deceased grandmother. Once the story proper begins, Powers’ trademark narrative drive truly kicks in, and the novel becomes a fast-paced metaphysical thriller. But there are a number of longeurs, sections of fairly tedious exposition and didactic writing in which Powers labours to promote his central conceit of the time travel-inventing scientist and philosopher. At 420 pages, the novel feels 100 too long.

In particular, the attempts to establish some sort of philosophical basis for the time travel theme are laboured and somewhat trite. They simply don’t come off. Albert Einstein himself is misquoted all over the internet as saying, as though he was a preppy undergraduate, that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This is a ridiculous simplification of what he actually wrote, in a letter describing the death of a friend:

He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.
This feels to me the problem with Three Days to Never: it aspires to reach the real Einstein but instead falls into the territory of bastardising and simplifying his thoughts.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

It’s hard to believe that The Man with the Golden Arm was written in 1949. It seems so fresh, and so contemporary, and its approach to drugs and criminality so open, that one wouldn’t believe it could be the product of buttoned-up, frightened post-war America. The collection of deadbeats and low level criminals depicted in its pages is remarkable.

The Chicago of the novel seems to sit somewhere between Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the apocalyptic Africa of William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys. The depiction of the daily lives of these characters is more realistic than either of those novels: Steinbeck’s Mack and the Boys, however impressively they are depicted, have the whiff of idealism about them, while Burroughs, even when he is chronicling the more savage side of drug-taking, always runs the risk of romanticising the life. Algren does none of this. Like the characters of the peerless Carson McCullers, Algren’s are real, flesh and blood, as prone to terrible mistakes as honourable acts. Reading The Man with the Golden Arm, we believe we are in Chicago’s Polish Downtown, and we believe in the moral and social disintegration of Frankie Machine, and we believe that, despite this, the community of which he is a part will be sustained. It is an outstanding example of naturalistic writing that can lay bare the deprivations and assorted ills of a society and still leave one feeling optimistic about human nature. This is precisely what Algren achieves with The Man with the Golden Arm.

The eponymous Man is Frank Majcinek, known to all as Frankie Machine, a stud-poker dealer regarded as the best in the business, hence the golden arm of the title. Addicted to morphine after being treated with it for an injury sustained in World War 2, however, his life subsequently begins to unravel. His fabled golden arm fails him. He falls into crime. His wife is in a wheelchair as a result of his drink-driving. He ends up in jail. His mistress leaves him. Worse ensues. This sounds like a catalogue of calamity, and it is, so how can one possiblyargue that The Man with the Golden Arm is an uplifting piece of fiction?

Well, the first thing to note is that the novel was, as one might expect, controversial in its day. Norman Podhoretz, for one, thought it glorified the underclass at the expense of decent society. Such an assertion from Podhoretz, of course, should be regarded as proof positive that the novel most certainly does not do that: being attacked by that numbskull is a clear indicator that you’re doing something right and the more he criticises the more you should feel satisfied with your efforts. Thus, Algren, while clearly depicting the underclass of his novel in a more positive way than neocons like Podhoretz would deem healthy, nonetheless cannot be accused of naive liberalism. This is borne out most clearly in the character of Captain Bednar.

Bednar is one of the most human characters in the story but his humanism is not some starry-eyed idealism: he knows the criminals he deals with are no good and will amount to nothing. And yet he craves some form of connection with them. We are told, from his point of view, that “[i]t was patently wrong that men locked up by the law should laugh while the man who locked them there no longer felt able even to cry.” He is trapped inside his own unhappiness. “I know you,” he says to them. “You think you’re all members of one another, somethin’ like that.” And yes, their community is “something like that”, but again not in a romanticised way. Those critics of the novel, like Podhoretz, who suggest it is burdened by liberal romanticising of poverty and the poorer classes haven’t read the novel, just the cliched version of it their political views force upon it. Again from Bednar’s point of view, we are told:

For every man was secretly against the law in his heart, the captain knew; and it was the heart that mattered. There were no men innocent of intent to transgress. If they were human – look out. What was needed, he had learned long ago, was higher walls and stronger bars – there was no limit to what they were capable of.

Somewhere along the line he had learned, too, that not one was worth the saving. So he’d been right in saving none but himself. And if that had left them all to be members of one another, then it had left him to be a member of no one at all. Had, indeed, left him feeling tonight like the most fallen of anybody.

This is extraordinary stuff. The captain simultaneously condemns and pardons, disapproves and understands, wants and rejects, seeks harmony and craves isolation. His conflict is total and despairing. He is distraught, massively unhappy. There are no easy answers, either for him or for us. But there are questions, so many questions. And this is why the novel is ultimately uplifting: it forces us to question preconceptions, to wonder, to empathise, to criticise. It forces us out of the comfort of our own prejudices to think about things and people and society in radically different ways. Just as for Bednar, the result may be difficult. But it is worth the effort

What is truly astounding about the novel is its language. It is (before it was even invented) hip hop, rap. Above all, it is jazz, a hymn to the motion and poetry of the rhythms of life. Take this passage, told from the viewpoint of Sophie, trapped upstairs in her wheelchair, listening to the activity down below:

The smell of despair, the odor of whisky and the scent of the night’s ten thousand dancers, the perfume and the powder sprinked across the deep purple roar of barrelhouse laughter, the armpit sweat cutting the blue cigar smoke and the hoarse cries of those soon to grow hoarser with love, scents and sounds of all things soon to be spread up through a thousand rooms into her own room. Till the drinkers and the dancers, the gamblers and the hustlers and the yearning lovers came dancing and loving, came gambling and hustling in a wavering neon-colored cloud down her walls.
That writing is so good it makes you shiver.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New year, new challenge

I always tend to say, a bit glibly, that many years ago I made a New Year's Resolution never to make any more New Year's Resolutions and I've stuck to that, but actually it isn't true. Last year, for example, I resolved I would write a chapter a month of my thesis and that's exactly what I did. It gave me a couple of months for revisions before final submission.

So this year I do have a New Year's Resolution. I am going to work on my novel and write 15,000 words per month. That way, I'll have a large number of words to start revising by autumn.

It's taking shape in my mind. Oddly, it appears to have a transsexual central character. I have no idea where she came from, but she is quite insistent, so I have to let her have her say... It's going to be an interesting ride...

Queer by William Burroughs

William Burroughs’s Queer has had a curious existence. It was the second novel he wrote, and in fact he wrote much of it concurrently with his first, Junky. Parts of Queer were, in fact, cannibalised for that novel to bulk it up, which partly explains why Queer is unfinished and does not flow as one might expect. Further, although it was written the early 1950s, it wasn’t published until 1985. One might argue that, such is its unfinished state, it might have been better left unpublished but, whatever state the work is in, there is still much to ponder in it.

Queer could never have been published in the 1950s because of its strong homosexual themes and descriptions. It probably wasn’t until the 1960s, when writers like James Purdy began to write about gay characters without their homosexuality being the main point of the book, that such depictions could be possible in mainstream literature. Burroughs explained that Junky portrays a time when the protagonist (William Lee, a very loosely autobiographical cypher for Burroughs himself) was on heroin, and Queer depicts the time when he is off it. This, he explains, is the reason for the difference in tone and characterisation. In Junky, the (relative, at least) equilibrium wrought by being able to assauge the addiction softened Lee’s character while, in Queer, the desperation brought on by cravings for heroin bring out the worst in him.

The novel may be of most interest on a technical level, showing the development of Burroughs’s style. As with Junky, we do see many of his trademark mannerisms beginning to appear. It doesn’t exactly hang together, in the way that, say, the exoticism of The Wild Boys does, but then it is essentially an unfinished piece so it is pointless to quibble about that. What we do see is a fine character study of Lee, an essentially decent enough man whose life is controlled by his cravings. He is slowly losing control of himself, sliding into a kind of mania. One manifestation of this is the extraordinary ex tempore stories he tells, brutal and fantastic and quite, quite horrible. One extended sequence, as he tells an increasingly offensive story to his baffled guests, all the while knowing what he is doing but completely unable to stop himself, is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year, an absolute masterclass in comic writing.

In the end, it is a pity that Queer was left unfinished. There is much to admire in it, and much to wonder at, and it would have been fascinating to read it in a finished version. Although, perhaps, the rest of Burroughs’ subsequent output gives us exactly that.

A guid new year

ain an' a'