Sunday, January 25, 2015

There are Different Forms of Contemporary

Reading "Wolf Hall" it brought Tudor England into the present. Impossible of course, for the difference between then and now as so great as to not even work as a distended metaphor. But it tells us other things about ourselves. It is the birth of Protestant England; the birth of a process of independence from Rome and Papal rule, which allowed the growth of the English language; it also was an age of superstition, torture and state sanctioned murder - not so different than the world today if you know where to look.

I've always considered myself a contemporary writer - so that when people ask me I tell them  I write about the world we live in. And its true, I do, and will continue to do so. But looking at what I'm currently working on I realise there is a difference between being set in the contemporary world, and being about the contemporary world explicitly. Increasingly my concerns and interests are not about today, but have a wider scope - even if for reasons of expediency and style  the majority of my fiction is set in the day either before or after today. 

History becomes interesting not as setting, but for reasons of understanding. None of us rocked up in this world from nowhere. Create a character and he or she will have a history, a back story. There seems in an old country like Britain, a difficulty here - hence the continued obsession with class in the English novel - since change is difficult, it does not happen lightly to an individual. The fictional "life story" of rags to riches you might find in "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Arcadia" can hardly happen in contemporary Britain without a "windfall" of some sort. I've talked before about a certain kind of neurotic realism in contemporary British fiction where character/heroes are essentially static - the world happening to and at them, like in Nicola Barker's "Clear" or Tom McCarthy's "Remainder." We are adrift in a world where its hard to make our way, but harder still to be defined by our family and upbringing. In the TV sitcom the world of "family" has so often been replaced by that of "friends" (or "Friends") for we are uncomfortable with our historical place. Only late in their careers have - in "The Pregnant Widow", "Sense of an Ending" and "Sweet Tooth" - have our leading novelists gone back to what is now history - the sixties and seventies.

This lack of perspective is what creates difficulties for the young novelist trying to say something about their contemporary world - even about themselves - whilst at the same time not been pulled back into a BBC costume drama type of past. We don't seem to be in a world where the flux you find in F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway for instance - men who had (like their characters) gone to make their way in the world - is even possible.

Yet writing about the present has its own foibles. The first person present tense of so many contemporary novels on the one hand; or the creative imagineering of impressive feats of historical ventriloquism on  the other; yet I think - and this is me writing in my forties - that when I want to write about the "contemporary" I now think of something different than I did even ten years ago. Now, I'm beginning to see that its possible to assemble my characters' lives from a meaningful history that in itself is now withered enough to allow change. I've suspected that a few writerly choices as to when things are set are to do with the fast changing technological times we live in. The simple thriller can't be as simple in a world of sat-navs, GPS, mobile phones and internet; similarly setting a book in the mid-90s safely puts us in a less technologically frantic age. We'll get used to it of course - I don't think one made too much notice of whether it was telegraphs or telephones, or motor cars or horse drawn carriages in "The Good Soldier" for instance.

The contemporary therefore becomes a useful setting, without being what the novel is necessarily about - yet I don't think I'm that concerned with the historical past so much as the social one. How my grandfather differed from my father differs from me seems an interesting story - more so than setting something in the 1930s or 1950s or 1970s. There are other writers who are more comfortable there. Similar to my writing of poetry, that is not so much about myself, but has come from myself in some way shape or form. I think I'm going back to an argument I've made here before - negating David Shield's "Reality Hunger" - that I'm much more interested in making things up. The world gives us plenty of setting to do this in; but even in a long piece, its surprising how soon your characters begin to crowd out everything else, wanting the room to tell their stories - and that aim you had to reflect on, say, the  Nixon administration, or punk rock, or Greenham Common, gets reduced to mere colour. Like in life, so in novels, so much of history is off stage. It's why I preferred "Wolf Hall" - with Cromwell on the rise, to "Bring Up the Bodies." The latter is too dependent on the court of Henry VIII, of which we both know too much, and paradoxically will always know too little. A Richard Yates novel - or "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson which I'm currently reading - can tell us more about the times I think, through its concentration on a microcosm of those times.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The 21st Century's Best

Its taken a while, but as we enter into 2015, the first "best of the century" list has been produced (or at least the first I've been aware of.) The BBC's international culture site asked a number of American critics what the best noels of the century so far were. Its an intrigueing, if somewhat populist list - populist in that most of these novels had won prizes. I was surprised that Zadie Smith's engaging, but adolescent debut "White Teeth", is still being gushed about, even if it's probably - just about - her best novel (though not her best writing: some of that's in "NW" and her recent "Emperor of Cambodia"). Its a very Anglo-centric list - I guess translated novels take a while to come through - though the late Robert Bolano is included for his "2666." I've read only 8 of the top 20 (or is that quite a good showing?) so can't comment on alot of them. I was surprised to see "The Road" so low, as for a moment it seemed to be the exemplar novel of our times.

A couple of things are of interest I think. Firstly, that the "new novel" has made a good showing. Whatever you think of them, the books by Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Bolano and Smith's flawed but adventurous "NW" are novels which play around with form.  They are tricksy sons and daughters of David Foster Wallace or grandchildren of Vonnegut and Barthes, rather than a new new realism. In fact, that kind of techno age knowingness, Brett Easton Ellis - Jay McInerney, has disappeared (and their own books are no longer like that either.) Perhaps there diminishing returns from a certain kind of brash zeitgeist surfing - so, no Douglas Coupland for instance. Not so many older novelists in there either. It seems particularly negligent that Roth's "The Plot Against America" isn't in there - but neither is that other great counter-history, Stephen King's "11.22.63." The British novels that have crossed the ocean, with the exception of New York based Zadie, are, somewhat predictably, of the Merchant-Ivory persuasion; so great as "Wolf Hall" and "Atonement" are, one can't help wish that America would look to us for something other than prettied up history. I'm not particularly keen on Hollingsworth's "The Line of Beauty", its let down by the Jamesian nature of his prose, elegant but somewhat defeated by his subject material I thought (I preferred "The Stranger's Child", though some sections of that book were much better than others.)

Secondly, British readers will not be that aware of a couple of books on the list. Edward P. Jones "The Known World" and Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" are both new names to me. Similarly if this was talking to a wider pool of reviewers I kind of think that writers like David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson and David Peace might have made the list - never mind outliers like Tom McCarthy or A.L. Kennedy.

Thirdly, there does seem a little bit of inertia in the choices. Franzen's "The Corrections", McEwan's "Atonement", even the Junot Diaz, strike me as books we may well like now but tire of, or not return to. Time might tell. 

I'm sure I've missed some and there are books that I really should have read but haven't (for instance I've been carrying "Gilead" with me for a month now without having had a chance to get into it) and my number one choice is a personal favourite, that nobody else seems to have read or been as enchanted by, but I'm convinced will grow in stature over time.  So here's my off the cuff list for now....

1. Three to see the king - Magnus Mills
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell
4. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
5. A Girl is a half formed thing - Eimear McBride
6. The Damned United - David Peace
7. 11/22/63 - Stephen King 

8. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
9. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
10. Life after life - Kate Atkinson
11. Five Miles from Outer Hope - Nicola Barker
12. The City and the City - China Mieville
13. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
14. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
15. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick De Witt
16. Summertime - J.M. Coetzee
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
18. Lunar Park - Brett Easton Ellis
19. Platform - Michel Houellebecq
20. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre


Addendums
(rather than alter the list above I'll add any ones I've forgotten here with relative position....)
4 - The Book of Dave - Will Self. 

Other Thoughts 
The Junot Diaz novel began life as a long short story which was then expanded. "NW" and "A Visit from the Goon Squad" could both be seen as collected shorts in some ways. Maybe the renaissance in the short story is as much about revitalising what can be done with the  novel as anything else? 

Also, looking back to see when things were published I had to dump "The Savage Detectives", "Atomised", "Enduring Love", "Wide Open", "American Pastoral", "How I Came to Marry a Communist", "Disgrace" and "The Poisonwood Bible" because they were all published in the nineties. I haven't the time now but maybe its time to sit down and write an essay about the stunning fiction of the last decade of the 20th century?  

Verbose - at Fallow Cafe - Monday 26th January

This Monday, 26th January, recover from your haggis with a night of live literature - the Wee Timorous Beasties performing will be David Gaffney, Elizabeth Baines, host Sarah-Clare Conlon, Sian Cummins and myself - but with ten open mic slots already booked it should be a diverse and interestign evening. Get there for 7.30 to make sure you don't miss anything - fiction, poetry, who knows?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can we be our own Greatest influence?

After his patchy eighties - "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", the misunderstood Tin Machine period - the world wasn't exactly holding its breath for a new album, when "Black Tie, White Noise" was announced in 1993, and news that Nile Rodgers, who'd produced his bestselling "Lets Dance" was at the helm, didn't really help either - as despite its commercial success it had appeared to precipitate Bowie's decline. Yet when "Black Tie, White Noise" came out it was an artistic return, that also gave commercial success - going to number one in the UK charts. Moreover, it saw Bowie engaging not just with music, but with his own music. In some ways its a great example of a mature artist looking over his career and not picking the best bits as such, but remembering what different elements worked for him. So we have a return of Ronson, who would pass away later that year, but had done a Bowiefication on Morrissey a year or so before (Bowie would cover Morrissey on the album), the updated R&B (Al B. Sure! on the title track) echoed both his work on "Lets Dance" and his longstanding dance interest on "Young Americans", "I feel free", a Cream cover could have been seen as an updating of Pin Ups, the instrumental interludes that he'd written for his wedding were reminiscent of the Eno Berlin years....

There comes a point when an artist can stop looking for new things, new places to go, but rather can go back to their own points of influence, their own career, and start exploring paths that they either abandoned too early, or which have a resonance. Neil Young, Eno, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are all artists who - after apparently searching for new sounds for years and across albums at some point came to the conclusion that there could be honour in looking back; and that the looking back could be productive. Thus "Time out of Mind", "Ragged Glory", "Harvest Moon", "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" and "New York", like "Black Tie, White Noise" and "1. Outside" could be seen as - if not career highlights - at least positive additions to the personal canon.

For less successful or iconic artists its no less the case. And I think it applies to writers as well as to musicans - and probably to artists and film makers as well. I'm not talking about retreads - "Godfather 3" etc. - so much as there comes a point in life, career, where the searching is different than it was before. Its not that you know everything, but that many of the touchstones that you have explored or want to explore have already been exploited by your art. Often, I think it is the coordinating of these touchstones that becomes the key thing. A good example would be one of my favourite writers, the late Bruce Chatwin. Before "In Patagonia" he had been a travel writer for a sunday paper, and worked at an auction house. Yet his nascent writings - a grand, large book about nomads - that he'd been writing during these years, failed to emerge. A reading of his letters (more often postcards) and biography gives us the genuine Chatwin - a voice that would be recognisably reproduced in the travel books "In Patagonia" and "The Songlines" but also in the fictions "Utz" and "On the Black Hill." The obsessions - travel, nomads, collections, history, home, outsiders, solitude, rootlessness - are there in the letters and postcards from the sixties and seventies; many of the places he visited - that intrigued him were to reappear in his fiction and his other writings - yet it was the synthesizing of these that mattered. Chatwin died too young, but left a near perfect selection. There was no final act for him.

Where there isn't a great publication history, where writing has to be fitted in alongside the work, the home, the family, the children, illness, addiction, whatever, it can be the same thing. At times I've been struggling of late to understand what I want to write about, what is/are my "subjects" - partly because I have sometimes covered these, but also because currently I'm not in a state of mind where worldly concerns really explode into my fiction or poetry, rather I'm increasingly taken by the structural idea, the process of doing, even the granularity of words and language - these are metaphysical concepts rather than themes or subjects. Yet over the last few days I started something new, again, where I realised that I was pulling together various strands that go back to before I wrote my first novel, back to concepts I first explored when I was sixteen or seventeen, in unpublished books of scribbles - my equivalent of the "nomads" book is a story called "A novice in the land of fakirs" - a Burroughsian scrabble of words and ideas that never cohered into anything; yet remains there in my past thinking.

Sometimes, its fine to look not at other writers, but to our troubled, troubling past and wonder whether we are not our greater influence. This time, late in the day, with maybe some of the tools to better achieve what we were reaching for first time out.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The New New

Every year, the new...

Every year, the new you - and every year the new, new. Art doesn't come popping out of an egg, its gestation period can be much longer or a one night stand that comes to live nine months later.

The media is eager to tell you about the new new. Each year again as if its an epoch. Fine and dandy, but so manufactured is this now, that I imagine if anything really new came out of it, then it would not even be on the radar. It takes time after all. The old new or new old is just as enticing - so good to see Manchester author Chris Killen, back with his sophomore novel "In Real Life" featured here in the Guardian. His debut came out in 2010, so an age ago in modern media terms, but in art terms, not so long. (My own poetry pamphlet, shorter than his debut novel, was published then as well, anyone interested in a follow up?). Another friend and Manchester-based author, Sarah Butler, will have her second novel out this year as well - yes, yes, we all know each other a little bit, its a small town!

But the new, new continues unabated and the Observer's taken to running round the publishing houses asking which books they are hyping (sorry, which good new authors have works coming out) in the new year. Obviously they're looking for this year's "The Miniaturist", but of course, these books would have all been signed up long before Jessie Burton's bestseller had hit the shops. It's a long list, and there's some interesting books, even if there was something a tad depressing about reading the first five "best new authors" were respectively, an award-winning comedy writer, John Le Carre's granddaughter, a journalist, a literary agent and a "multi-talented musician/academic" - the slushpile this aint! Anyway, there will be good books on this list, and good writers who come out of it. So take your pick.

Also in this week's Observer was an interview with a previous literary overnight sensation, Alex Garland, who has just directed his first film.  There are few more zeitgeist-y writers than the author of "The Beach", but its interesting that after that first novel was filmed, how the collaborative nature of that genre appealed to him far more than being a career novelist. Not a unique trajectory its true, but fascinating nonetheless.

Maybe it was going to see the Warhol show this week at Liverpool Tate, but it does seem on the one hand "everyone is an artist" but on the other, there are fewer writers that I really find myself interested in. It's not even the split between a mainstream and avant garde, or between commercial and literary fiction; it seems that we're in an age of over-abundant creativity on the one hand, and, on the other very little that stands out. For writers, its not just a hip subject or treatment, of course, but the writing itself, which was why "A Girl is a half formed thing" or "A Visit from the Goon Squad" have been standout books from the last few years.

I've had a chance to catch up with a few things online this week - a fascinating article on a new "portable" David Foster Wallace - I've always liked "collected" or "selected" editions and wish more contemporary authors were available in such a pick 'n' mix fashion, so I might get hold of it even though I've most of the stuff already. Though at nearly a thousand pages, its quite a hefty introduction - perhaps its meant to be the other bookend to "Infinite Jest"! Of equal interest, given world enough and time, I'd like to read this new biography of James Laughlin, the rich founder of avant garde publishers "New Directions." Here we have the publisher as auteur, not only creating a list that chimed with his own tastes, but developing a market for those tastes that created, to a large extent, an alternative canon. There's not a single press that you might go to these days for a similar nurturing role (and New Directions published short stories and poetry as well as longer works, which seems to me essential if you're going to take the literary pulse of the times), though Melville House, Copper Canyon and others are doing a fine job. The old joke about "how to make a small fortune in publishing - start with a large fortune" may mean that the rich gentleman publisher is a thing of the past; but the publishing industry keeps on going - and has even, by some accounts - seen off the e-book.

Tomorrow night, the first prize giving of the year takes place, with the solid T.S. Eliot's taking place in London. Eliot died 50 years ago this year and there's a new biography coming out to celebrate this - which again was extracted in the Guardian this weekend. "Once a subversive outsider, he became the most celebrated poet of the 20th century – a world poet, who changed the way we think", as the Guardian's sub-editor has it. There's not much subversion in the T.S. Eliot prize, unfortunately, which takes the venerable British Anglican poet, rather than the young American firebrand as its model - but that's British letters for you, a somewhat different mix of art and commerce than elsewhere in the world.

Locally, things should start up again in the next week or so - but as I'm not heading to any literary events this week I'll leave a round-up till the next time. The new new will be somewhat old hat by then, all being well.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Transmitting Warhol at Tate Liverpool

Its been a while since I've seen a single-artist show at Tate Liverpool, and the current "Transmitting Warhol" show makes clear that we should see more in the North. I've grown up with Warhol, he's been there as an iconic image maker all my life, and some of his most famous pictures, the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell's Soup Cans, Mao, Double Elvis I've probably seen half a dozen times. So prolific was he, and so often did he create multiples, that his work is amongst the easiest of great 20th century artists to see.

Yet that very ubiquity - and the media images of Warhol himself: in the sixties in the Factory, or later in life with his Simpsons style cartoon white hair - can obscure both art and artist. For Warhol began as a commercial illustrator and this exhibition includes works from early in his career right through to his death. There's rarely been an artist who has been so easily able to combine the commercial and the aesthetic. When, say, Damian Hirst, dabbles in album cover art for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, it doesn't feel a critical part of his work, just a paid job. With Warhol the two things are intermingled. Pop art = pop culture. I'd forgotten as well about his involvement with Interview magazine, an iconic monthly magazine that acts as a strange tableau of the briefly famous. For fame as much as popular culture was Warhol's currency. It seems there are three types of "icon" in Warhol's work - the truly iconic such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis; the made famous - his Factory superstars such as Edie Sedgewick; and the "famous for 15 minutes" icons of contemporary pop culture. What is interesting is how his treatment of these differs. For he never painted Marilyn or Elvis - rather he took a single image, and reworked it endlessly. On the other hand his Factory superstars  (and the one thing missing from the exhibition were his screen tests - but you can find these on Youtube) were famous for nothing other than how they looked, icons only in Warhol's universe, always subjugated to his fame. The temporary fame of contemporary culture is almost an acting out of Warhol's predictions - and with Interview magazine, his films, and commercial work where iconic record covers like the "Velvet Underground and Nico" are joined by much less interesting ones by Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Billy Squier, he becomes almost a secondary documenter of this culture.

In this sense Warhol's long prolific career finds its main moorings in the 1960s. In many ways he seems to exemplify so much of the visual culture of that decade - or at least that aspect that has lasted beyond pastiche. A room at the exhibition is held over for a recreation of the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" with films projected onto four walls and a soundtrack of Velvet Underground live takes, particularly "Sister Ray" playing over the top. This, I realise, is my world - somehow Warhol's American Pop Art was a democratisation of glamous as well as soup cans and Brillo boxes, that "let in" suburban British kids such as myself. That crossover with pop music seems crucial particularly since Warhol only seemed to have the most transient interest in it. The Velvet Underground may seem the perfect "art rock" band for him, but they also seem an oddity - for they were out of step with the music of the time, and moreover, their currency was a rawness which seems at odds with the sophistication of advertising culture and the rest of Pop Art. This eclecticism reminds me that Warhol was a very successful outsider. I can't, for instance, imagine Hirst or Emin having the psychological distance required to be relevant to be both a fawning art world and an avant garde. Besides, there's something about Warhol's collaboration which seems uniquely open - he seemed to have a genius to create value by association, without corrupting what it was that was valuable. So that first Velvet Underground album is unproduced despite being "produced" by him, the one lasting contribution to the band being his hooking them up with Nico (an odd absence from the exhibition). Similarly we see Warhol's films, his screen prints, his multiples, and they are allowed to breathe - he is almost a curator gathering them together. The film with Edie conversing with her own image on video tape seems remarkably untouched, or untouchable. She is the "superstar" and Warhol is there as the artist offstage. That he was his own "character" - the white haired "Drella" always taking photographs, always bringing the late 20th century into his artistic spaces rather than going out and finding it - seems equally as vital.

Its not a comprehensive show, but by concentrating on the idea of Warhol's use of materials, his range, and his different techniques I found "Transmitting Warhol" a riveting and fascinating show that reconnected me with the artist above and beyond the iconic images which sometimes seem to define the "Warholian" approach. He was the only pop artist who remained immersed in pop culture - in itself remarkable in the New York of the early 1960s, coming from an artistic avant garde where folk or jazz would have been the more likely art forms. His use of film seems increasingly important and separate somehow from the idea of cinema - and perhaps its that documenting of a space and time, now half a century ago, that creates an ongoing ripple effect for the viewer.

The show is on for another month and its well worth a visit.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It was perhaps inevitable, that in its frequent coming together with the "information age" that literary culture would eventually churn up a novel that was ostensibly on the button about our dependence on social media, ubiquitous connectivity, and ever more complex devices and that it would be hailed as a significant book about the way we live today. Equally inevitably, that that same book would get things so terribly, terribly wrong.

That was my conclusion after the first hundred pages of Joshua Ferris's 3rd novel "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour", which was unaccountably shortlisted for the Booker this first year of American eligibility. Paul O'Rourke is a successful New York dentist who has steadfastly refused the lures of the modern world - his practice doesn't even have a website. When one day one appears, followed by a Facebook page and Twitter feed also in his name it looks like we've got some savvy identity thriller.  When he eventually gets in touch with the unknown creator of the website things turn strange - for this has been their slightly unusual way of getting in touch with him to intrigue him about him being one of a small number of people with a pure bloodline making him an "Ulm", an early Old Testament tribe who have been forgotten by history. Rather than techno-thriller this is something with the weariness of a parodistic Dan Brown or Umberto Eco. First, though that digital element. So painstaking is Ferris in describing the takeover of O'Rourke's non digital presence that its painful to read to anyone who knows anything about the online world. Let alone the capitalisation of Internet throughout - here Ferris seems torn between being all modern and tech-savvy on the one hand and being crass enough for an older audience on the other, and it doesn't work at all. The tech-thriller angle is just a ruse, but here's the thing, it feels like it from the first, and its awkwardness gets out of hand - with Paul, our scabrous narrator talking about phones as "me machines" like a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1991 taking the piss out of mobile phones.

Even the post-ironicists haven't quite worked out how to "write the internet" - "Infinite Jest" was just about a pre-internet novel after all - yet it shouldn't be so hard. Douglas Coupland has been doing it brilliantly for years, Stephen King managed to come up with a credible web-enabled plot for his excellent "Mr. Mercedes" and David Eggars had enough handle on the psychology of technology in "The Circle" to make this novel seem lazy, and shoddy in comparison.

But though it takes a while, the novel slowly unwinds from its clunky beginning. A dentist is a fine character to have centre stage. He sees into human mouths rather than human souls, but in how we treat our teeth he can make any number of moral judgements. His own moral life is perplexingly narrow, like a sitcom character, aware of the multitudes of opportunities on offer in New York, but stuck with the rituals of watching the Friday night game, and the three co-dependent women in his practice, one of whom, Jewish Connie, he was in love with and has only recently stopped seeing.

O'Rourke is that other everyman of American fiction, the curmudgeon who can't quite understand why the world is so shit, why he himself is so unhappy, and why people can't just leave him  to be unhappy and go on about the world being shit. There's a Heller-esque feel to the story at times, but I'm more thinking, Bruce Gold, the jaundiced Jewish professor of "Good as Gold" rather than "Catch-22." Too much of the early part of the novel is a series of funny, but slightly stale riffs. Describing his chequered love life O'Rourke talks about being a man who has several times been "cunt gripped", a horribly unedifying description of his love dependency, where, not content with falling for a particular girl, he also has to fall for her family and - bizarrely - their religion as well.
Is this then a novel about the lost gentiles love of the Jewish ideal? Partly so, it seems. Not for the first time I'm puzzled by hip Young American writers obsession with religion - for here its centre stage - a novel about belief that calls to mind certain bits of Michael Chabon for instance. How strange that we have a novel about a non-Jewish dentist who is an unbeliever who becomes obsessed with finding whether or not he belongs to a "cult" of other ancient unbelievers who may or may not have been the sworn enemy of the Jews. If this seems parochial its because of that trope of so much American fiction of "finding oneself" being so writ large. Given we only have O'Rourke's take on things we wonder if he is indeed writing these letters and emails to himself in a kind of "Fight Club" style dual-identity.

As the novel unwounds, the riffs keep on coming, on ancient religious lore and on his lost faith in the Boston Red Sox ever since they've broken the habit of a lifetime and become winners. Some of this is undoubtedly funny, once you get past how frequently annoying it is. One of the problems is O'Rourke, who is not just insensitive but crassly so. He's as jaded as a latterday Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney character but there's a cynical, nasty side which seems to come from him as much as from the society he's part of. He's clearly still traumatised by his father's suicide - yet we get to know nothing about the why? nothing about the man his father was - and therefore this quest for meaning feels hollow. There's more humanity and humour in a single episode of "30 Rock" for instance - yet here we've three hundred pages of mordantly humourous angst, paranoiac conspiracy theory and dental practice comedy. The latter of these three furnishes the novel with most of its strengths..

As the conspiracy theory takes hold - and O'Rourke meets others who have been identified as Ulms, the novel improves conspicuously and the last third would have made a Paul Auster like New York novella - but even here the over-egging of O'Rourke's (and maybe Ferris's) obsessions, reminds me a little of the untrammelled nature of Ned Beaumont, clever enough, but to what purpose? Once the internet (with or without a capital I) recedes into the background there's less plainly bad about the book and the dental comedy is suitably grim but fiendish. Having read that strange religious dystopia, Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" earlier in the year, it falls incredibly flat in comparison, and it seems a novel struggling to bring in big themes whilst wanting to retain a flippancy. New York - the world, even - recede into tiny worlds as a result of this - and the narrowness of the novel despite these big themes is both a strength and a weakness providing with a claustrophobia that fills well with the brightly lit dental studio at the same time as making it all seem a little irrelevant and unbelievable.

For a British reader, the endless pages on Boston Red Sox baseball are enough to make me think this is  a novel that shouldn't have crossed the Atlantic never mind got a berth in the Booker shortlist, yet its the obsession on antique faiths which seems oddest about the book. Neither fish nor fowl I'm not sure who it will please, other than those Booker judges, who I think must have liked its traditionalism (that Heller-esque quality) whilst pretending to applaud its (faux) modernity. Even on its own terms, as a story about a middle aged man's breakdown in the complexities of the modern world it falls down badly, especially when compared to something as masterful as A.M. Homes. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

End of Year Lightning Review

With just a couple of days to go its probably time to sit down and do favourite this, favourite that, this year. I've had a bad cold since Christmas day and its proving persistent so I'm not much in the mood for anything too philosophical or creative. I might expand on each of these later...or not as the case may be.

Poetry

A few highlights:

Appearing in "Bare Fiction" with 3 poems earlier in the year. New magazines are often hard to judge - but this one has come on in leaps and bounds out of seemingly nowhere - with a clear aesthetic, a good (and unusual) mix of fiction, poetry and drama, and some great writers. I was particular pleased that my poem "Impressions between places" found a home.

Online can be hard, but valuable. Ink, Sweat and Tears remains a great site with new content daily. It feels by poets for poets. They published "Scott in the Burnt House" recently. 

I don't really like writing to "commission" as I'm not that good at it - but occasionally get asked, and something unexpected comes along. When Angela Topping was editing 3 pamphlets of poems inspired by the Brontes, Shakespeare, and Austen, though I tried a Shakespeare, it was Austen that I was happiest with, and it subsequently appeared in "Advice on Proposals."

I saw less poetry than usual this year, partly as I was away a lot, but regular nights like "The Other Room" and "Peter Barlow's Cigarette" as well Liverpool's "Storm and Golden Sky" (which I've yet to get to) continued. At PBC, the Saturday afternoon session with Jonty Tiplady was a bit of a highlight, as he read from various language-intense works in progress.  Good to see a healthy mix of different poets on the "next generation" list, it felt a lot more wide ranging than the one from ten years ago, highlighting the plurality of contemporary poetry scenes, and especially good to see Melissa Lee Houghton included.

In terms of books, magazines and collections I didn't read that much but had a lot of time for Bobby Parker's "Blue Movie" which somehow managed to fix this least-fixable of poets between the pages of a "conventional" first collection.

Music

My personal music highlight was finishing another album "Meet the Relatives" which was all recorded using my newish Korg Monotribe attached to my 30 year old Juno 6.  I was also pleased to have another old track on the 90s edition of the ever excellent "Bedroom Cassette Masters" series.

In terms of other people's music I bought a lot - though mostly secondhand - and listened to a bit less. Of new albums there were a few highlights. Krautrock meets psychedelia on "The Silver Globe" by Jane Weaver, the "Bitches Brew" stylings of "You're Dead" by Flying Lotus", the surprisingly effective mining of early Simple Minds for Manic Street Preachers' best album in years "Futurology", and the surprise breakout hit "LP1" by FKA Twigs; I was surprised how listenable the Sun O}}} Scott Walker collaboration was as well.  Other albums that were more widely acclaimed all had their moments - St. Vincent, Royal Blood, Caribou, Sleaford Mods - as well as some good debuts from Young British Artists and September Girls, but I wasn't really paying as much attention as usually.  I enjoyed Sounds from the Other City where YBAs, Bernard and Edith and Pins were amongst the acts playing; also Pixies at Castlefield Bowl and Sleaford Mods at Club Academy. A strange highlight was the Thurston Moore trio at Cafe Oto back in March. Realised how much I sometimes prefer the avant garde and the improvisional over other more conventional musics.

There were some good singles of course - not least Lonelady's return with "Groove it Out". The new pop was still just about working this year, with end of year smash "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, and earlier, "Real Love" by Clean Bandit.

Fiction

Only just got hold of this year's Booker list, and so not read any of them yet - I'm not even sure its a reliable arbiter of anything these days anyway. Again writers like Nicola Barker and David Mitchell seem to not get much further than the longlist  yet are clearly head and shoulders above so many others. The best novel I read all year was belated prize winner "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing".

Everywhere we're hearing its renaissance time for the short story but the plethora of awards and prizes seem to have quite a prescriptive view of short stories. (One point: the longer stories that seem to win the BBC short story award would have very little chance of being published unless by more established writers as most competitions/magazines have very low word limits.) Colin Barrett's "Young Skins" was one of several much lauded collections this year that looks promising - though wonder if it would have done so well if it had been set in smalltown England - the Irish seem to have much more confidence in their literary culture than us. I'm going to try and get to grips with a few of the collections and anthologies I've bought this year over Christmas, as I'm sure there are some gems - yet I'm wary of renaissances.

For me it was a good year - I'd really tried to concentrate on writing more fiction (even as I pulled away from poetry) and it seemed to pay off with 3 stories published this autumn. Of course, the cupboard is now bare, so I need to write a few more over the holidays to keep up the momentum. I'm also writing what may well be a novel, but we'll see how that goes.

Art

How do you find the time? people ask. And the answer is, I don't. I've seen much less art this year than I would have liked whether new shows or old. Catching a few things in Manchester, and one or two round the country as the months have gone by. Liked an exhibition of photography curated by friends John Sears and Patricia Allmar, "Taking Shots", William Burroughs photography last January at the Photographer's Gallery, and enjoyed catching the Tove Janssen show at Helsinki's gallery in June, as well as regular shows at Castlefield Gallery and the Holden Gallery in Manchester. Note to self: more art in 2015.


Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

About a year ago I began writing a piece of fiction that had at its heart another piece of fiction, and I remember asking via social media for other examples of books within books. By coincidence or serendipity I've since read two novels that are quite close in intent to my own aims, last year's First Novel by Nicholas Royle and now, Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark's Booker shortlisted novel from 1981.

I read (and saw) "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", Muriel Spark's most famous book, a long time ago, and have been meaning to get around to another of her many novels since - especially since I would see her name increasingly mentioned as being something of a British avant gardist, something that the wry, comic style of Brodie didn't really indicate. Like Burgess with "A Clockwork Orange" or Golding with "Lord of the Flies" the one book has towered over the others in the public imagination. Popular as she undoubtedly was, its rare for me to come across her novels in the second hand shops - unlike, say, Iris Murdoch, a novelist with who shares an appreciation of ideas and philosophy if not necessarily a similarity of tone.

"Loitering with Intent" begins with a young woman - Fleur - sat in a park, contemplating the last period of her life, a period that has just come to an end. This foreshadowing is a tease in some ways, allowing her to introduce us to the idea of the Autobiographical Association, a strange "memoirists" club which she had been secretary to over the last couple of years. Invited to the position by a friend of hers - who subsequently plays little part in the narrative - she immediately becomes immersed in the life and household of the founder of the club, Sir Quentin Oliver, and his odd household, finding an ally in his 90-year old mother. So far, so straightforward. A classic British tableau of eccentrics out of any stock Miss Marple production then appear; but here the "mystery" isn't a murder mystery - at least not directly - but an altogether more literary puzzle. For Fleur is also writing a novel - has already written much of this novel - and it seems that bit by bit the characters of the Autobiographical Association come to take on the life of the characters she has written.

Set in a very specific time and place - London's boheme fringes around the end of rationing at the fag end of the 1940s, the novel is a literary satire that questions the idea of where ideas actually come from. Is Fleur really telling the truth here? The pages of her novel "Warrender Chase" are mangled with her own life - deliciously at times, yet at the same time we're in a strange hinterland in time when a young female novelist can bounce between lovers without too much care in the world, can hobnob with the remnants of a dying aristocracy, whilst at the same time hang out with impoverished poets. At one point, she steps into a pub in literary London and the real life poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell are said to be drinking there. Given that one of the themes of this novel is the idea of the "roman a clef" then is it really a surprise that it teases that it might be one itself?

Spark - writing in 1980 - has revisited a millieu that reflects her own beginnings and yet its all done with a customary humour, but with an undertow of serious purpose asking about the very role of autobiography. Those in the Autobiographical Association have been cajoled to write their candid memoirs as they are "important people" to be found in Who's Who, and their books will remain hidden for 70 years - until everyone in them is dead - allowing them to be entirely candid. Yet when Fleur starts typing them up she can't help also jazzing them up a bit, partly with scenes from her own book, but also to keep her interested. When one or other member complains that it didn't happen like that, the other members counter by saying how the made up version feels more true.

Fleur has been having an affair with the slightly invisible Leslie, whose wife Dotty becomes both her friend and nemesis as a result. Dotty doesn't mind sharing Leslie with his new mistress, but when he leaves them both for a young male poet, she finds it harder to take. A Roman Catholic, there's a slight satire on that faith's prescriptions on truth and confessional. Yet its all handed lightly, as a cast of less than developed characters from the literary millieu spin around the ever self-justifying Fleur. In a complex subplot (or is it the main plot?) her own novel gets caught up in the intrigues of the association and first gets accepted for publication, then rejected, then stolen, then is to be published to great acclaim. The censorious Britain of the late 1940s comes through clearly here.Yet in many ways its written like a forties or fifties novel, an odd explicit "fuck" apart. Though the setting feels very real - Fleur's cramped flat, drab places to eat - we never actually get a sense - three decades on - of what it was really like to be young in that time of what David Kynaston called "Austerity Britain," so rarified is Fleur's world. Even her casual affairs are only mentioned matter-of-factly.

In many ways this comic tale sits happily in a long history of British class satire - the Wodehouses, the Waughs - and yes, that slightly déclassé world of Agatha Christie, where every street corner you are not far from a baroness down on her luck or a defrocked priest, or a retired civil servant. Its strange to find this persistence in a novel written at the turn of the eighties. In his introduction to this edition, Mark Lawson puts it in line with other metafictional works of the time such as Martin Amis's "Money" or David Lodge's "How far can we go?" I remember reading the Lodge at University on a course looking at "contemporary British fiction" and it felt dated then (the Amis had only just come out so was clearly too new for our vulnerable minds!) with its harking back to bygone era and its slightly obtuse philosophical thoughts on Catholicism in the modern world. The Spark novel is a period piece in a different way I think, in that it plays up the satire - with the benefit of hindsight - of being a young female writer in a calcified turn of the half century London. Like Lodge (and Murdoch) she has slightly more than satire in mind, and the book constantly references too different autobiographies, Cardinal Newman's and Benvenuto Cellini's. Who, she is asking, should write their own life story? The great writer? Or the great man? In the mist of memory of interpretation truth gets turned into whatever reads best - i.e. fiction can sometimes be the greater truth.

At heart the novel is a satire on literary London, and what would have seemed highly recognisable in terms of its archetypes in 1980, now feels a little creaky, but not that unreal. Our current world sometimes seems to have lost any sense of a bohemian fringe where aristocrats can rub shoulders with show girls. Fleur is a suitably strong willed heroine - writing from the perspective of being (like Spark) a successful novelist. I'm reminded that Spark was once editor of Poetry Review and without knowing much of her autobiography, its clearly a novel that looks back on her own experiences - and also echoes her debut novel "The Comforters", where a character becomes aware that they are a character in a novel.

Having picked this up as part of a set of five Muriel Spark's I'm looking forward to reading more of her wry, intelligent satire, short and pithy as this one was.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Written Language

There's probably a time - an age - where your use of language becomes fixed; where's there's little else that you'll learn, no new words, or none you'll find comfortable with, and no new idioms. Similarly the things you say, and the way you say them (or write them) will become detached somehow from the world around you. It may well be, if you're a professional writer, that your audience will grow old with you, that you will speak to them in a familiar language; but however educated you are (and the more educated, in this case, perhaps its for the worse) there will be an inevitable disconnect from the written world around you.

As a kid I couldn't understand why things like The People's Friend still existed in the magazine store. I used to occasionally read the stories in old hardback volumes that collected Boys Own Stories or similar, and the tight print was almost unreadable. This was a language as musty as the smell of the books it came in. The classics on the other hand held up, and influenced our own idiom. As a fifteen year old reading "Pride and Prejudice" I didn't go all "this is dull" but having read a fair share of old books by then, could take joy from its language as well as its story, only stopping dead to ask the teacher to explain what an "entail" might be. I distinctly remember it wasn't the language which was the problem but the social more of a house being passed down on the male line and - more strange - that it was not on death that this was the consideration but during the life.

Language changes, and we might use Chaucerian or Shakespearean phrase or idiom but to speak like their characters speak is now only allowable in comedy sketches. It would be naive to think that the twentieth century - that time of change in so many ways - was also not a time of change in language. From the first "talkies" through to the internet, technology has influenced and changed things. We laugh at class difference language of Monty Python sketches, yet that knowing separation between working class and upper class registers is in itself now an anachronism. In novels its often a sign of something when we begin to find a writer dated; often that he or she always was and that the warning bells can't now be ignored - now that the passage of time has moved on.

I was thinking about how this pace might be quickening even. There was a debate online about criticism which I mostly kept out of, but was wondering how many of today's contemporary writers engage (or indulge) in criticism. Do we not read critical essays by David Peace or Nicola Barker or David Mitchell because they have nothing to say, or because they never get asked, or because their time is spent only on their fiction? When Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith drops a long essay in the New Yorker or somewhere we sit up and listen because, I think, its a little rare. But one aspect of this absence is that the culture around books changes and the interrogation of language also changes.

This week you can pick up the 25 year old "Doolittle" by Pixies, a reissue of an album I remember coming out and buying on vinyl (though oddly I had their debut on CD), a quarter century ago. We know music dates and dates us. But in some ways its a different way: music's a time capsule of the immediacy of when it was recorded. We listen to "Doolittle" and wish music was as loud, spontaneous and sinewy as this these days. Hearing them play tracks from it this summer, it was a no nonsense set, that to these ears didn't sound dated (but of course I was there with lots of men of a certain age, though the audience was much wider than that as well.) We don't quite get the same thing with prose of course - though perhaps the Book festival or Radio 4 is the same thing - "ah yes, its that nice Clive James or Jeanette Winterson" or whoever. It may be years since we read the book and we probably don't want to read the latest, or even the last ten since the "hit", but identify with the writer, with the sayer of these things.

This creates a conundrum for the contemporary writer who is now in his forties (me, say) for what am I but an anachronism? It sometimes seems that there was a moment, a wet Wednesday in 2004 perhaps, where I went from being always a little futuristic in my prose, to being always a little fusty? I exagerrate of course - but you look up from the pages of the book you are reading and wonder if the type of book you've been striving to write all these years is now on its way out before you've even had your say. Like the Magi in the T.S. Eliot poem you've been waiting all your life for the messiah, only to find you are too tired and set in your ways to truly appreciate his arrival. Yet if we are talking about a life lived without - being born out of age - in our peaceful, abundant, post-war west we've had it easy. I've never had books I can't read - no samizdat. Instead the whole of the world's best literature has been constantly available to me, and yet I've made (we all make) so little use of it.

One thing reading McEwan's "Black Dogs" was thinking about how likely or not a book like this would get published, especially if from a first time novelist, these days. Its written in such a high style, and its so circulambutory in its holding back of plot that I think not. Moreover, though it pretends to be a book from a solipsistic narrator it quickly uses this only as a wrapper, as another story unfolds. I reread the first fifty or so pages of "London Fields" by Amis recently and it was a wonder - just purely joyful reading him at his phrase-making best. Yet how indulgent is this kind of serious prose (even in a funny book.) The paragraphs are long, the descriptions are blocky. It actually seems closer to Dickens than it does to, say, David Nicholls. Serious books, serious writers, even younger ones still want to tackle not just the story or the first person narrative, but the many layers of writing. Here's where Will Self's "oh woe is me" about the death of serious literature - and serious readers - comes to pass I think; that as the audience for this kind of depth resides, it becomes anachronistic and dated. And the pace of this thing - with so much passing by us in the info-heavy age - means that I can speak for myself, a pre-internet, pre-computer reader, and realise that a fifteen year old would have to be pretty focused to follow my reading regime when there's so many other exciting things around him.

It seems that there's a weird corollary to this in the publishing world where we can see a young writer like Eleanor Catton write a Dickensian novel and win the Booker, or a snappy, snazzy short story writer like Colin Barrett gain many plaudits for a "Winesburg, Ohio" set in contemporary Ireland, and nothing is really wrong - serious books are still being written. But there's an immediacy about both those examples - like Zadie Smith in "On Beauty" - which can occasionally seem too easy to like. "Black Dogs" would seem - had it been published this year - eligible for both the Goldsmiths and Folio Prizes, yet this is McEwan we're talking about, a writer we generally think of being moderate and to some degree minimalistic. Turns out he was actually a late modernist all along.

I sometimes think this blog sticks to the same number of readers, the same few comments, not because of anything inherently niche about it, but because its unable to step beyond that wet Wednesday in 2004 - I was once future-talking, but in an age of ghost written Youtube vloggers, I'm inevitably old hat. I should find a hook, start talknig about "my life" etc etc. Yet more positively we see longform journalism coming back - think sites like Medium or the Guardian's long reads - and niche magazines of cultural criticism like n+1 and the White Review seem to be saying there's more to life than the TLS or the New Yorker.... then again, the year's media sensation has been "Serial", "In Cold Blood" for the podcast generation. Our language betrays us like nothing else in our life, a signature as time-heavy as the rings on a trunk.

I suspect I won't get to say anything more before Christmas, so, in time honoured fashion (old/new collisions), a happy Christmas to all our readers....you know who you, Johnny.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Literary reputations usually rest upon a book or a series of books, with the writer's other works acting as a supporting cast, or, as powers decline, an echoing coda. When that writer is still very active, and popular, as Ian McEwan is, there's a difficulty in wrestling that reputation from its current status. I have long wanted to write a long piece on McEwan, at least partly because he has written books that I love, books that I think are incredibly weak, and books which have both his strengths and weaknesses on equal show.

Yet whereas Martin Amis will forever be judged against the high water mark of "Money" and "London Fields", McEwan's career is an interesting weave, with some disagreement as to what might be his "big book." The very short novels and short stories he published in the seventies brought him much acclaim, but it was the five more political novels of the eighties and early nineties from "Child in Time" culminating in his Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" that cemented his reputation. The third of these, 1992's "Black Dogs" was his second Booker short listing, and I remember at the time how highly regarded he already was.

Reading "Black Dogs" for the first time, two decades later, in some ways it seems a period piece, obsessive about the past, and written in a complex, convoluted "high" style that seems somewhat dated. Yet, it is also instructive: in that some of its tropes are reflected in later novels like his massive selling "Atonement" and "Saturday." The novel centres around a scene that is constantly telegraphed, but delayed until near the end, of a confrontation between two black dogs and a young pregnant woman in the aftermath of the second world war in rural France. The teller of the tale is the son-in-law of June, that woman, and his own prevarications and uncertainties tease the reader in the first exploratory pages of the book.

For Jeremy is a writer who, in making up for the death of his own parents in a car crash when young, has latched onto those of his wife as a project. With June in a nursing home, hovering slowly towards her end, he acts as an unecessary go between between June and Bernard, who have spent most of their life unable to live together, but never quite separating. Regular McEwan readers will know that broken families, estrangements and lost children are central to his work. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his archetypes simply resurface from novel to novel - so that Bernard, a larger-than-life media-friendly Labour politician could be reincarnated as the elderly poet in "Saturday", or that Jeremy himself is the slightly naive onlooker who reappears in "Enduring Love".

The novel is a series of concentric rings that places the personal story around two momentous events - second world war at one end and the fall of the Berlin wall at the other. Like "Saturday", its alacrity - it came out in 1992, not long after the wall had fallen, becomes a way of using immediate history to the purpose of a grander narrative. If Amis always seems a writer who needs the overhang of larger historical events onto which to write his satires, McEwan goes the other way somewhat, amplifying personal tragedies by virtue of the wider canvas. Had I read "Black Dogs" in 1992 I would have baulked a little at the poshness of it all. However small and personal the narratives, McEwan's characters are usually supping near the top table. This sense of privilege is used here as a way of examining conflicting ideas of the world - can we change the world by social good deeds, such as the welfare state as Bernard believes? Or is it more about personal epiphanies, avoiding compromise as June does? They both begin as Communists, but June leaves the party almost as soon as she's joined, whilst Bernard rescinds his membership after the invasion of Hungary.

Yet there's not too much of this historical backdrop - or certainly McEwan doesn't overplay it. The sense from his work - at least up until "Atonement" - that he doesn't so much write novels as string together disparate scenes to make up a more credible tableau is very much the case with "Black Dogs." Why does Bernard insist that Jeremy takes him to Berlin just after the wall has fallen if not for the fact that McEwan couldn't resist writing a piece of drama-reportage there. The small contretemps that happens there is an absurdity: a piece of show theatre as a Turkish man waving a red flag is almost attacked by a group of young Germans with swastika tattoos, until Bernard's semi-intervention, and the appearance of a young woman who comes out of nowhere to embarass the attackers away. Such vignettes are McEwan's staple, and see his writing at its best, as a heightened sense of immediacy and drama comes into these moments.

If there is an overwhelming meme throughout his work its that sense of dread - and particularly the dread of the upper middle classes for something outside of their control. Like the house invasion in "Saturday" or the tragic accident that opens "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" has at its heart a moment of potentially fatal violence. On their honeymoon, just after the war, June - newly pregnant - and Bernard get separated by a few hundred feet and in that  moment June becomes confronted by two large black dogs, who bear down on her whilst he's back down the path sketching caterpillars. He is the rationalist, and his hobby is entomology, she is the idealist, who is suddenly confronted with something real and deadly. This scene has been forewarned throughout the book, to some extent the delay has become infuriating, but the scene when it happens is done with his customary power. The sense of everything changing in a moment. Yet the tightrope walk of a McEwan novel is not one of actual despair - at least not for his middle class protagonists - but of existential crisis. By the time Bernard arrives on the scene the black dogs are gone, and its as if they are myth. Later that evening they hear that the black dogs were left by the Nazis, and there have been other sightings, other terrible stories. McEwan plays with this beautifully, so that even though we face the horrors, they are as potent if we believe in them as myth.

Yet to get to this point, we've some considerable scaffolding. My favourite of his novels, "The Innocent" is almost a companion piece - and indeed it came before "Black Dogs." But its style could not be more different. Its a noirish thriller, played very straight, half Graham Greene, half "Casablanca", about an engineer working on secret tunnels in Berlin just before the Berlin wall goes up. For a brief moment as Jeremy and Bernard peer over the Berlin wall we are looking into the space that his previous novel has examined. Yet quickly we go back in time - for June and Bernard are that early generation, survivors of history - that they, as young optimists are given the task of changing. In a typical McEwan moment, Jeremy gives us a flashback to when he meets his wife Jenny, and its after a tour of concentration camps that they make love for the first time. The sense that the political and the personal are intertwined, and that our our insecurities - our very English insecurities - can only be unlocked through grand trauma, remains a continued fascination within his work. In this sense, reading "Black Dogs" two decades on, it seems the quintessential McEwan book in some ways, yet overly conscious of itself. The conversations between different belief systems - the spiritual vs the political - seem fusty, as if ransacked from the minutes of some college debating society; and the contemporary world in which its set, the late 1980s, is almost glossed over as the novel concerns itself with the echoes of incomplete pasts.

In many ways its the kind of book nobody writes anymore - erudite, full of ideas, and earnest - and one kind of regrets that; yet I can also see why - and see how his own work has become more immediate, less indirect in telling a story. The Englishness that Bernard and June represent - even with a backdrop of continental Europe - seem lost somehow. In an age of savage cutbacks, technocrats and market-led capitalism, their kind of Bloomsbury-socialism, is long gone. Its an appealingly literary novel that feels fusty for something written by a living writer just two decades ago, and it makes me wonder where we'll place McEwan when all's said and done, whether one or more of his books will last beyond the contemporary.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Its easy to forget, with the acclaim given to Hilary Mantel's "Cromwell" novels, that the British historical novel has long attempted to do more than just tell a story from the past, but to inhabit it. I've been meaning to read Penelope Fitzgerald for a while, and picking up her award-winning final novel, "The Blue Flower", today, I uncharacteristically sat down and read it in one sitting. This 1995 novel takes as its subject the early life of the German philosopher-poet "Novalis." Born Fritz Von Hardenberg, to a branch of the German nobility, Fritz is coming of age in a world that is in changing frantically. The French Revolution has taken place, and the old certainties of his class are no more - yet at the same time, young, educated men such as himself are looking askance at the old philosophies and trying to rethink the world anew.

The novel begins with him taking a young doctor friend, from Jena, where he has been studying, to his family home, which is in the midst of the thrice yearly wash day. There's a comic element to this opening scene, as we're introduced to Fritz's complex family. His father is a harsh, distant, puritan; his mother - on her way to having eleven children - a timid if fecund creature, fearful of leaving the house. They have an "angel", the Bernhard, a younger son who has the precosity of Stevie the baby from "Family Guy", and who acts as some kind of comic foil in the novel. The sensible sister, and the plodding middle child, Erasmus, are the most fully drawn of the family tableau. Fritz is both an oddity - unable to follow the path set out for him as an elder son - and yet precious nonetheless. His sense of being to the manor born, has transmogrified into him being feted for intellectual capacity, his quick brain, and his unique way of thinking. For his family - rich in land and history, but poor in actual money - his job is to get a well paid sinecure (the nobility are limited as to what work they can do themselves) and marry well. The young poet - student of Schiller, acquaintance of Goethe, friend of Schlegel - is given a job managing the region's salt mines.

Although there's always a sense of wry comedy about "The Blue Flower", we inhabit a world that is wracked with seriousness. The protocols of the time are strictly adhered to in a highly stratified society - yet one which, seen here from the inside, we only get a sense of how chaotic it is; how close to collapse as part of a rotten ancien regime. Of course, the German/Prussian estates are keeping an eye on what is happening in revolutionary France, but this is very much offstage. Fritz is more than just a proto-romantic, he brims with an optimism that his life will not repay.

Fitzgerald's novel, after a few fragmented opening scenes that have a slightly meta- quality to them, soon settles down into a more faithful tale of Fritz being apprenticed to learn his trade, and through this meets the non-aristocratic Sophie, who he falls in love with within the first fifteen minutes of seeing her. The problem is: not only is Sophie not from his class, but she is only twelve years old. This strangely (and thankfully) chaste courtship is the centre of Fitzgerald's novel. She gives us an unfinished fragment of Fritz's - a dreamlike fairytale of a man dreaming about "the Blue Flower." It is the essence of a romantic imagination; this unobtainable essence - and Sophie is a living version of this. Sidestepping her age and her innocence, Fritz's love for her is seen as somehow at one with his vision of romantic purity. But bear in mind this is a novel written in the 1990s - so that though we inhabit this strangely baroque Germany of the late 1790s, and believably so, we have to be aware of a writerly knowingness: that the story of Fritz and Sophie becomes an imagined version of his philosophy and poetry, that was published mostly after his own early death. The romantic cliche begins here in other words.

Fritz's world is drawn with aplomb; like Mantel's Tudor England; Fitzgerald's Germany hums with sounds and smells, and feels just as precarious a time: here illness and the creaking apparatus of the ancien regime are being "thought" out of existence by new medical techniques and new philosophies, yet the brute reality is that the medicine is still rudimentary, and the philosophy is idealistic and unproven. Offstage the early revolutionaries in France have been replaced by the tyrant Robespierre, who himself will be replaced by Napoleon. Fritz's father refuses to read the papers until France has come to its senses.

The book has had a strong posthumous reputation - a well-thought of biography of Fitzgerald appeared last year, the novel won awards when it was published, but it was her last book written in her late seventies. Did it come out of a lifelong obsession with subject or something more prosaic? I'm not sure. It seems an obscure topic - German romanticism - until you realise that so much of English writing was influenced by German archetypes, at least until the middle of the 20th century. In some ways, if Mantel was writing about the birth of protestant England, Fitzgerald is here hoping to rediscover the German romantics. Nazi Germany and two world wars have snuffed out - at least in Britain - the idea of a humane German sensibility - yet its there in "Howard's End" or "The Good Soldier" or even "The Wasteland" and early Nabakov. Like Adam Fould's "The Quickening Maze" a deep engagement with a tiny artistic moment gives the writer an opportunity to explore the ideas of that time both obliquely and in full view.

Yet I'm not entirely convinced, exquisite as the prose is, and as powerful as the book is at evoking a time and a place. By the time the fading Sophie is being treated for her consumption, the novel has become about its particularity, a tragic biography. It stops with the tragedy, avoiding the rest of Novalis's life. In this sense, the book seems more concerned with the formation of his romantic sensibility than being a biographical reworking. At first I felt lost in the book, knowing little of the ideas or history of the time and place, but though Fitzgerald never over explains, the book - though it feels heavily researched - is very effective in how it shares it secrets so I never felt that I had to run to Wikipedia for explanations. Yet at the same time, I finished the novel, not quite as fascinated in the subject as the author appears to be. Like Andrew Miller's "Pure" set just a few years before, we have a historical satire that is perfectly formed for its time and its place, but as enjoyable a read as it was - and like I said, I read it in a single sitting - I wasn't entirely sure why I was spending my time at this particular place and time. Whereas contemporary novels become historical novels over time; historical novels like "The Blue Flower" feel somewhat caught in their own "moment", an object to admire in a museum rather than something that lives and breathes.

Perhaps its enough to bring to life a historical figure - yet the strangeness of his life - that courtship with someone who even at the time was seen as too young to be "betrothed" to him is troublesome from a modern sensibility. Without knowing his work I can't really comment on his writing beyond that quoted in the text. Fictional biographies however "imagined" remain constrained by the historical fact. The book feels like a miniature, beautifully carved, but overly precious. The preciousness suits the subject of course - I'm reminded of Bruce Chatwin's "Utz" or even Bassani's "The Heron". These are books revelling in a privileged class or character, yet not unaware of the crumbling empire beneath.The "point" of historical fiction, beyond the obvious, and done as well as this, is surely to inhabit a moment, to take you back to a time and a place. A writer as precise as Fitzgerald clearly wants us to inhabit this place of early romanticism - rather than right a treatise on it, she gives us a novel set firmly at the moment of revelation. "The Blue Flower" is an elusive idea; but so is the romantic ideal. It is a depressed Wordsworth deep in thought turning a corner on a mountain path and seeing a view of transcendental beauty. This world, this Germany is as alien as a lunar landscape, and there is something fantastical about how she describes the earlier scenes. In this world as well, though it ruled by men, they are often hopeless, whilst the women, powerless as they might be, are the practical ones. In the vast cast of this small novel it is the sisters - Fritz's and Sophie's who take on the burden - or the spurned woman, the niece of his benefactor, who Fritz initially reads "The Blue Flower" to before finding his affections taken by Sophie. It is perhaps this tapping into real familial despairs and sacrifice, rather than the wider narrative, that gives this short novel its moral heft.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Travelling Broadens the Mind but Narrows the Space

I have just got back from a week in wonderful Barcelona. Two weeks before I was in Munich, and I've managed to get to Amsterdam, Brussels, London (twice), Milan and Bordeaux since the start of September, all with work. Its been hectic, hard work, effective, fun, exhausting... and I find myself contemplating "how can I live here?" "should I learn French/Spanish/Catalan?" and "lets come back on holiday next time" and again, and again.

It's why I like returning to places I've been before at least - that they are not just one off memories - sometimes reduced from a sense of place to a series of interchangeable images of airports, conference centres and hotels. "The Grand Tour" that you find in "Portrait of a Lady", "Daniel Deronda", "Tender is the Night", "The Good Soldier"  - even "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" - makes me equate this European movement with literature, with art, and rightly so - and even if I know little about a history of the place I might know something of its literature. Outside of the "Airport novel" (a genre that doesn't seem to exist anymore - perhaps the cheap flights of Ryanair and Easyjet have killed it off) you don't seem to get that much of this sense of (European) place in contemporary fiction. One of the reasons is that contemporary characters rarely have the predefined roles that previous characters do. There's an even more overt internationalisation as well where hyphenate authors see themselves jetsetting between place - Seoul to New York, rather than Paris to Brussels.

So though I'm writing something about place and movement - after all, the last few years have given be plenty of places to set my work, I've come back from this latest stint puzzled and bemused - I think the space I've allowed myself to write has narrowed a little too much. Its become the "airport lounge" itself. Its what I wrote about in my poem "Impressions between Places" in Bare Fiction magazine, and its the world described in the very funny Venice part of Geoff Dyer's "Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanesi" where, with the crowds at the Venice bienalle, him and others move this way and that on a rumour of risotto being served to offset all the booze.

I'm surprised someone hasn't written more about this - a kind of "literature for airports" to steal from Brian Eno - its our postmodern place after all; the mega-airport as the one late 20th century building style of note: yet such is the nature of these places, these Schiphols, these Charles de Gaulles, that they will never be preserved like old railway stations, but ever shifting spaces, like something out of Minecraft. They are Ballardian of course, and yet we lack a Ballard now to describe the post 9/11 version with our shoes being removed, our disorientating funnelling through security with transparent bags with lotions and medicines on show, our printed boarding passes and digital check ins.

So, with the Autumn tour completed successfully, I look forward to a month of other chimeras - the cheery facade of contemporary Christmas capitalism which is surely as relentless as thing as the airport flow.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

What you don't know, right?

To be entirely truthful my least favourite literary aphorism is "kill your darlings" to which I usually say, "mine are packed off and in a witness protection programme in Utah."

But my second least favourite bit of advice is "write what you know." That should be clear from anyone who's read the Henry James essay which this blog is titled after. His point was that a good writer could observe without being, that a little distance is sometimes useful, and that the imagination is boundless. Yet the "write what you know" trope still persists, is even more prevalent than ever I think, in a literary culture that is at time celebrity focused, public, and solipsistic.

So write what you know...except. The short stories I've had published this autumn are respectively about a female food journalist in Afghanistan, a male gigolo having an affair with the Russian president, and a paranoid lighthouse keeper on his last day in the job. I hope it goes without saying that these are entirely works of the imagination. As  a writer I have veered between the confessional and the imagined to some considerable degree, and in general I don't think it matters that much - the idea is the thing, and the writing, and you need to create a believability or else the story will fall flat. And, yes, however far from your own life and experience the story is, there will be a little bit of genuine experience that slips in. To give one example - in "Dear Papa", the Afghan set story in "Fugue" - the woman narrating the story in a letter back to her father talks about going to a little Afghan Restaurant on Islington High Street as Clinton sent the bombers into Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was me in that restaurant, and I'm pretty sure it was Islington High Street, and yes, there was a story on the news about Afghanistan being bombed. Yet the rest of the story is imagined - I've never been to Afghanistan, I've never been a female food writer etc.

The other side of it is that when you write a first person narrative, people inevitably assume its you - at least to start with - so when narrating as a woman, this literary cross-dressing has to be flagged in some way, possibly to the detriment of the story - or when writing about things such as sex or family it should go without saying that this is not a story about my sex life, or my family. If we all inevitably take things from our own experience and throw them into the melting pot it obviously can confuse the issue but if being a "professional" in my approach to writing means anything it is that I do don another persona when I'm writing, and wedge a stick in the door to keep my other self ("the real me") from entering unexpected.

And this is what non-writers perhaps never get - that writing about the real stuff of one's life is much, much harder than making things up. We're living it, not reflecting it. How to describe that heartbreaking love affair? How to get over that family fall-out? How to understand that stupid bit of drunken revelry? They can all feed into your fiction - and will do - but unless that's your schtick I don't think its a clear unfiltered journey.

The other thing, and here's a secret, is that when we make things up and set things in Afghanistan or outer space or in 18th century France or on a desert island or in Swindon or any of those other places we've never actually been - that's when we feel more comfortable at slipping in a bit of truth. Though to be fair, I don't think I'd write about Swindon without going there - I like the veracity of place so that even a small detail can add benefit to your story - I'd have probably chosen Luton or Slough or Kettering, places I have been at least once. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Pace in a Story

The British short story is a strange kind of animal. Whereas you might think of a story as some kind of mongrel, pulling bits from elsewhere - fable, poem, novel - we have an obsession in Britain that is akin to the various categories you find at Crufts. On the one hand our "best in show" winning the BBC Short story award or the Sunday Times prize can often be an otter hound or similarly oversized dog, our magazines - and quite a few of our open entry prizes - inside that only a bichon frisé might apply, with 2000 or 2500 word limits as standards.

The American short story on the other hand doesn't think of a short story as a particular breed of little literary dog, it understands that it is a genre in itself which though sometimes tiny, is more often quite long. 

I'm writing a story at the moment and its definitely a story - not a novel or anything so grand. Yet there are a cast of six or seven characters, a definite setting, a complex time sequencing that includes flashbacks to tell the story. I've written 2000 words this morning without pausing and I realise the story will be lucky to come in under 6000. In other words, I'm again writing something that's pretty unpublishable or unplaceable - though as its a ghost/horror story "after a fashion" it might have a life. 

Yet I'm not writing it at some length out of some misguided belief that very short stories are always wrong - like the bichon frisé they can be fine if a little precious - but because this is the length that the story wants to be. It has its own pace, and its own need for a certain accumulating of detail to enable the ghostly bit of the story to creep up on the reader. Its not always the case, but for once, as soon as I'd had the idea ffor this one, I knew exactly how it should be told. Of course, when I get to the end I may have made a pig's ear of it, but for now at least, it feels I'm writing something with a little bit of heft, and moreover, which will reward the reader for the time it takes to read. That its 3 times as long as a 2000 word story shouldn't be in any way a bad thing.

Of course, writers know this, even if publishers and editors and judges don't.  I can understand competitions not to want to have stories of only 5000 words + yet the prestigious BBC Short Story Award seems to be geared (given the length of the radio slot allotted to the shortlisted stories) to prefer the longer story - yet here's the rub, the only authors who will regularly get longer stories published are the already well known - those with book deals. 

The last longer story I wrote sits stubbornly in my unpublished pile - and yes, I can see that it might have some of the characteristics of a scene from a novel, with its unhurriedness, its sense of place, person and detail, yet its exactly the length and pace that it should be.  I have no answer, and as a writer I'm abundantly clear that I should see a short story as being "without chaff", so I think my tendency has been to write shorter over the years (and yes, those three stories I talked about coming out this autumn are all sub 3000 words), but when you begin writing something and the pace is so obviously write for what you want to write, its hard to think about cutting it down to size - yet harder still, once you've finished it, to see it unloved and unread. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dead Lines and Post Scripts

It was Halloween last night, and that seems to also be the deadline for quite a number of competitions and submission periods. So in my spare time this week I've been sending this and that off. The Siren anthology launch for "Fugue" at the London Review Bookshop went well by all accounts last week, though I had to cancel at the last minute because of a late running hospital appointment. Life and art not synchronising too well at the moment unfortunately.

At least with email submissions - and increasingly the use of the Submittable software platform - its a bit easier than it used to be. I no longer need a pile of stamps and SAEs and regular trips to the post office. So not much more posting of scripts these days, at least. The Post Script to the Fugue launch is that they sold quite a few copies on the night and it will be on sale at the bookshop as well as from www.thesiren.co.uk and other online retailers.

I was looking through my short story list and if you go back far enough, I've written around 130 - but thats in twenty years - so what's that, an average of 5 or 6 a year? Not all of them are great of course, but I guess I'd find enough for a collection or two in that pile.  For if the short story is in ascendant its because lots of people are writing them, maybe more than reading them. There's still a bit of a tendency for the well crafted character story - the ongoing British fascination with the New Yorker perhaps - yet I'm always more drawn to the Borgesian end of things rather than the dirty realist end.

Special FX at the Royal Exchange is a free Friday night event - an hour of pre-show performances - music, comedy,and last night the short fiction readings of "Bad Language." Four readers, including novelists Emma Jane Unsworth and Alison Moore, both of whom are featured in "Curious Tales" - a limited edition illustrated Christmas ghost story book available to pre-order now.  Perfect Christmas present! We weren't quite gathered around a roaring fire, but it felt suitably spooky, despite the unseasonal warm weather. Emma will also be in Manchester the week after next for Chaos to Order - a week's cultural residency at the Central Library curated by the band Everything Everything.

Regular events continue in Manchester even as the seasonal specials gear up - and this afternoon at 5pm there's a Peter Barlow's Cigarette reading at Waterstones with four excellent poets (and wine.) Then the next Other Room takes place on 27th November at the Castle. I'm away this week for a few days but hoping I get back in time (and with energy) to see 2 Finnish poets reading at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday - from a new Arc book "Six Finnish Poets." Given my obsession with Finland I will certainly be getting this.

A busy Autumn means I haven't had much chance to get to see much art even though there are two major shows currently on in Manchester, the Sensory War at Manchester Art Gallery, and the cross-city Asian Triennial. However, I did very much enjoy the opening of an exhibition dedicated to artist as "collector" - (Dis) order: a compulsion to collect. From a George Perec list of his year's eating as you come in through the door to an exemplary selection of Ian Hamilton Finlay miniatures its a suitable neat and probing show, with Torsten Lauschman's brilliant assemblage of obsolescent technology "Piecework Orchestra" an undoubted highlight. 

Musically, a highlight has to be some of the talks at this years Lounder Than Words festival, especially keen on hearing Marcus O'Dair from his new book on my hero Robert Wyatt.(See this short piece I wrote on him way back in 2007).


Monday, October 27, 2014

3 Stories

I've written more short stories during the last year than usual, so its probably not surprising that I've been more successful in getting them published - still, its still an unusual time to have three stories being published in quick succession

You can find new work by me in the following

Fugue - The Siren Anthology ed. Lucy Carroll - buy here

Confingo Magazine #2 - buy here

Black & Blue Writing - Revolution issue - buy here

All three stories are very different - but if you're looking for some exciting new fiction, each of these will offer much more than just my work.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Come and Hear Fugue

The first of the 3 publications I have stories in this Autumn, an anthology of new fiction called "Fugue" is being launched this coming Friday at the London Review Bookshop in central London.

I hope any London friends or literary types who are free on Friday might be able to come along to support this and hear several of the contributors, including myself, read from their stories.

If you want to attend please RSVP the editors at contact@thesiren.co.uk 

More details about the book at the Siren website 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

War, History and the Booker Prize

Fear that the Americans were coming would change the nature of the Booker prize proved unwarranted. For if their are three things that past Bookers have shown us, about this prize's distinct characteristics: it likes commonwealth writers; it likes historical novels; and its particularly susceptible to books about the first and second world war. Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" based on his father's experience in building the Burma railway for the Japanese during the 2nd World War is therefore a quintessentially Booker novel. I've not read Flanagan's novel yet, though he seems to be a highly regarded writer (and here's another trope, like with Coetzee or Mantel, a well regarded novelist who ups his or her game can sometimes win the Booker as some kind of "promotion" - not necessarily a "lifetime service" award), but it made me wonder about the Booker and its relationship to historical novels, and particularly war novels.

The last three Booker winners are large historical novels, Flanagan following on from Catton's long shaggy dog story about gold mining in New Zealand and Mantel's 2nd Thomas Cromwell book. Both of those books seem to be about societies on the "cusp" and in many ways, at a time when we are seeing a rush into print by established authors of ever more dystopian fictions these could almost be seen as part of the same trend. That most un-Booker of novelists Martin Amis wrote something along the line about all novels being about "the millennium" at the time that his millennium novel "London Fields" came out; and - taking a cue from both the older statesmen who were old enough to remember the second world war and his own generation who briefly, if sometimes disastrously, wanted to change the world, Amis always seemed most comfortable when living under an existential threat.

I sometimes think that some novelists look back to history in two ways: both as a way of finding meaning in their own life, and secondly to give a gravitas to their story. After all, even an ostensibly non-war novel like "The Great Gatsby" is heavily defined by its place and time in the aftermath of the Great war, (which allows Gatsby to find both his fortune and his mystery.) Is it because Amis's generation and those younger than him are rarely likely to have fought in a war that they need to look for different archetypes? The recent Salinger biography (wrongly in my opinion) saw "Catcher in the Rye" through the funnel of Salinger's war time experiences. Heller and Mailer became great American novelists because of their wartime experiences.

The "West" (even those bits of the West transplanted to Tasmania where Flanagan lives) are no longer where the "action" is in 21st century life as we are seeing from the current news. There is still a desire, I think, to tell stories that deal with the larger issues, and yet for a western writer this can either mean appropriating someone else's story, or - perhaps not so problematically - finding those stories in history. Occasionally, such as in Kevin Powers' "The Yellow Birds" a writer is able to take his own story and make it real; yet more often these stories are not ours anymore.

Looking back over the history of the Booker prize, its "Commonwealth" make up was vital from the start, and if history had a place it was part of this ongoing narrative between Britain and empire, which by the mid 1970s had seen Farrel's "The Siege of Krishnapur" and Naipaul's "In a Free State" successful winners. Yet, as someone who was at school in the 1970s we hadn't yet succumbed to seeing the Second World War, at least, as history - it was often current affairs in some way - with"Dad's Army" on the television, a residual anti-German feeling from the older generation, and bombsites and munitions works still visible in towns and countryside. Those who had fought in either war tended to keep quiet about it and we were still visibly shaken by the long trauma of the western twentieth century - perpetuated in no small way by the Cold War and the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe which meant that talking about recent history was to risk breaking contemporary eggshells.

Early Bookers are full of obscure titles, but it seems that "Goshawk Squadron" by Derek Robinson (shortlisted in 1971) and Thomas Keneally's 1975 title "Gossip from the Forest" are both set around the First World War. Can "Schindler's Ark", Keneally's 1982 winner, that led to the film "Schindler's List" be really the first Booker shortlisted novel to be set during the second world war, or address the holocaust? A quick trawl through unfamiliar titles implies it might well have been. By the 1980s it was unlikely that a writer would have fought in the war, and memory was turning into history - 1979 had seen "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron also addressing similar territory to Keneally.

Since then however, the number of stories from both world wars have multiplied seemingly endlessly. Its interesting how relatively circumspect British writers have been - though more recently novels like A.L. Kennedy's careful "Day" come to mind - but it was probably Canada's Michael Ondaatjee and his 1992 winner "The English Patient" which really exemplifies the Booker war novel. Able to use the war as setting for a more poignant love story, it became a bestselling book and also a successful film. Since then we've had Pat Barker's first world war trilogy, with its Booker winner "The Ghost Road", "Atonement", McEwan's shortlisted novel with vivid scenes of the first world war, Barry's wonderful "A Long, Long Way" which tells the story of British soldiers returning to Ireland to find themselves caught in a civil war, Sarah Water's "The Night Watch" and now the Flanagan. I may have missed a few along the way.

Writers such as Anthony Burgess and Leslie Phillips wrote about their military service early in their careers, several American masterpieces came out of World War Two ("Catch 22", "Slaughterhouse 5" amongst them); survivors stories from Primo Levi and others have had a profound impact on later 20th century literature; and compelling narratives still emerge from both world wars (and increasingly the "smaller" wars that surrounded them). What was once experienced is now imagined or researched. In some ways, this has to be a good thing. Our best writers aren't necessarily the ones with the most direct experience. The essay from which this blog takes its name talks about this idea of authenticity - that you don't have to have lived in a barracks to write about it (Graham Greene, in "The End of the Affair" suggest that you might need to have slept with a soldier however).

The books that have retained their force tend to be those that are not just looking unflinchingly on conflict (after all in an age of electronic media, we can see the horror for ourselves, or a parallel genre of film making has given us its own series of masterpieces around conflict), but where a human story is played out. We long, I think, for heroes, especially those who do not think of themselves as such. More recently - and from the reviews of the Flanagan this comes into it - we are now seeing the post-traumatic-stress war novel, where it is the aftermath of that horror that is interesting the writer rather than the psychopathy of the novel. You see this in "Day," in David Rose's "Vault", in "The Yellow Birds," even in Anne Micheals' "Fugitive Pieces" and Bernard Schlink's "The Reader" and now perhaps in the Flanagan. This is another kind of untold story. For so many survivors of both world wars went to their graves without telling their story. The quiet dignity of the last Tommy, Harry Patch, is emblematic of that generation who gave all. The PTSD war novel - rife in the 1970s writings after Vietnam (think of Andre Dubus's short stories for instance) - seems to be a way of placing our postmodern knowledge of the psyche in a genuine cauldron of fire. In reviewing "The Yellow Birds" I was critical of Powers' tendency to describe in great beauty a scene that had nothing non-generic about it. The Flanagan book sounds both powerful history, and some kind of personal testimony (to his father who died shortly after he'd completed it, and whose story it takes from).

In a year when "the Americans are coming" and where there was a highly contemporary novel - Joshua Ferris - as well as a powerful piece of experimentation - Ali Smith - experience has, it seems triumphed. The best historical novels of the last few years - David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" or A.L. Kennedy's "Day" never made the shortlist. Flanagan is a writer in his fifties, his father fought in the second world war - for those of us even slightly younger it doesn't exercise quite the same unique pull, though the endless stories continue to pile up from a conflict that engulfed the world. The Booker has always been disposed to the grand narrative; it is drawn, as well to empire - a post-war Europe rarely interests it - yet I wonder if rather than being a sign of any particular trends, Flanagan's win is a neat bookend to a period that probably began with Keneally and "Schindler's Ark." There will, I am sure, be other war stories to be told, maybe even other war stories that win - but as even the second world war fades into history, and as the challenges of the 21st century become ever more crystallised (this year alone: Islamic State, Ukraine, Malaysian Airlines, Ebola, UKIP etc.) perhaps even the Booker will move away from these familiar narratives.