The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing


Insidious, that’s my one word summary for Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing, ‘proceeding in a gradual, subtle way’ confirms the dictionary, ‘but with very harmful effects’. Like insomnia. I finished Nobody is Ever Missing forty-eight hours ago unsure whether I enjoyed reading Lacey’s story. Sometimes that happens and a few hours later I’ve forgotten a story, other times it won’t leave me. It encroaches on my thoughts like a screwworm, burrowing deeply.

There are many ways in which Nobody is Ever Missing could be different, even better. For the first forty pages I was going to abandon the book, leave it on my commuter train for someone else to give a fuck. The following paragraph was almost the moment to quit:

She pulled over in front of a café with a sign that said THE INTERNET. I got out of the car and the old lady said, Good luck, take care, and I didn’t know what I was going to spend any good luck on or what I could care for, but I said, Thank you, because that’s what you do

That’s the cutesy note that puts me off a shedload of American literature, normally time to give up, but something of Lacey’s voice kept me reading. The deftness of narrative control whilst depicting the inchoate narrator’s chaotic inner monologue is thrilling and really smart. The way that Lacey handles the passage between monologue and narrative creates a fluidity that sustains the compulsion to read on. There’s also a lightness of touch that situates the story almost, but not quite, on the razor edge of comedy , awaiting a turn to the comic, but the turn never comes. Instead it spirals into deepening notes of darkness, but without losing its place on that razor’s edge.

Forty-eight hours later Lacey’s story is still playing on my mind. The ending is brilliant. It doesn’t allow you to leave the story behind. I don’t know if I enjoyed the book, but I want to read more of Lacey’s work. As a début, it is staggeringly good.

Relegated Areas

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For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, where the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

My Two Worlds
Sergio Chejfec (trans. Margaret B. Carson)

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky

What would have made Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky a better book? Like any brilliant book it is multiply flawed, how could it not be?

The women are impoverished, wafer-thin, particularly in contrast with his richly depicted male characters, who are breathing with complexities and life. Rahimi’s pawnbroker Nana Alia is as two-dimensional as Dostoevsky’s Alyona Ivanovna in the parallel Crime and Punishment, his Sophia is not a match for Dostoevsky’s Christ-like Sonia (Sofia).

As the title suggests, Rahimi borrows from Dostoevsky the narrative frame for his book, mirroring the original to a point, but setting it a violent and war-worn Kabul during its occupation by the Taliban. A Curse on Dostoevsky lacks much of the whiff of Christian moralising that weighed Dostoevsky’s masterpiece down, but also lacks much of its intensity and intricacy. The comparison is only viable because of Rahimi’s bravery in choosing to echo Crime and Punishment, a novel he clearly dissects with love.

The radiance of A Curse on Dostoevsky lies in the characters that do come together, particularly the protagonist Rassoul, every bit as distinctive and imbued with existence as his brother Raskolnikov. There is also sheer joy in the unpredictable turns of what might loosely be called a plot, you never really know where Rahimi is going with his narrative, but the writing is so good that you stay for the journey, a pleasure to be part of the conflicted world he has created. I was enchanted by the story and sorry to leave Rassoul and his world behind.

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.

A Bad Person

Through flowerville (I think, though I can no longer find the original reference) I discovered Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work. I’ve been reading three books published by Seagull Books, drawn as much to Schwarzenbach as her writing. I do hope that Schwarzenbach’s letters find a good translator and publisher.

I’m having a run of Bohemians.

The following is from an Afterword to her Lyric Novella, though I think it is the travel diaries I prefer; she writes beautifully of landscape and skies. Though, to quote Wilde, the truth is rarely pure, and never simple, this excerpt strikes me as refreshingly truthful.

When she is lonely, she writes him a sort of love letter in which she categorically denies any possibility for loving a man: ‘Incidentally, you are so sure of yourself, so conceited in your hyper-criticism, so endlessly alone due to your knowledge. [ . . . ] For I also believe that you are a bad person. Weak, vain and wicked, like all men, because they do not have the same humility as we women do.’

Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Pariser Novelle II

Kadaré’s History of Literature

Ismail Kadaré

Ismail Kadaré

Although I’ve heard Ismail Kadaré’s name as a potential Nobel literature laureate, I’ve not read any of his work (if you know his books, is there anything you’d recommend?), but I enjoy his Paris Review interview, and particularly his response to a question about literary genre:

Not at all! For me these genre divisions do not exist. The laws of literary creation are unique; they don’t change, and they are the same for everyone everywhere. I mean that you can tell a story that covers three hours of human life or three centuries—it comes to the same thing. Each writer who creates something authentic in a natural way, instinctively also creates the technique that suits him. So all forms or genres are natural.

Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed in oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something—freedom. That is the great change in the history of literature. Little developments such as division in chapters and paragraphs, punctuation, are relatively insignificant; they are details.

For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension—a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon, and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep, pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed