Monday, August 31, 2009

Non Review

I just read Aravind Adiga's "White Tiger" which won last year's Booker. An enjoyable enough debut, but a perplexing prizewinner. It seems a little ridiculous reviewing the Booker winner a year late, particularly when I didn't think it was a particularly memorable novel. I did enjoy it, but felt it had too many designs on the reader, which led to a certain predictability setting in after the first few (very good) chapters. Basically, when the character leaves the rural Indian "Darkness" for Delhi, it loses its strangeness, and becomes a little laboured; very much a journalistic novel that shows "the other side of India", yet I'm not sure how much most of us have taken in of India's "economic miracle" as it is. Everyone I know who has visited has always come back talking at length about the immense poverty. I finished it yesterday and its already slipping from memory somewhat. After reading three first person debuts with unreliable narrators, in the last couple of weeks, I think my next read needs to bring back the omniscient author. Third person, please.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Do blog posts last?

I'm not the most prolific of bloggers, but I have been consistent, writing online for a few years now. This blog, like a number of others, is archived at the British Library; not, I think, because I'm a name worth keeping, but because of that consistency of subject - literature - and my continued commitment. It's not so surprising, of course. Writers have always been prolific informal as well as formal communicators, whether through letters, diaries or journalism. Poets, in particular, who are often annoyingly spare in their published works, can churn out large volumes of "collected letters" or similar. I do think, as well, that writers, in what ever format, are likely to be aware of some "public" audience even for private communications. It is in letters, and now blogs, that we maybe work out some of our first draft ideas.

I've been spending the last couple of days doing some "housekeeping" of my writing life. I've always organised my computer documents reasonably well, but it's been a while since I've gone back a couple of years, and pulled together writings that have been half finished, or forgotten. I found quite a number of poems from last year that I'd forgotten about; and then, for the first time in a long time, went back to my blog posts. Perhaps a third of 2008's postings can stand outside their original place. Looking through what I'd written, I can see my main references were to novelists - and rarely the contemporary - though I'm often talking about the contemporary literary scene. Looking at my notes from New Writing Worlds 2008 the references of writers at that event were far likelier to be philosophers or other thinkers. I'm perhaps a little suspicious of "thinkers", finding fiction and poetry providing a better philosophical structure for my world. Am I getting ideas second hand? I don't think so - I just have a great respect for the imaginative, the literary, the artistic in general. It seems to reinforce my feeling that too much contemporary discussion is around half-formed ideas and ideologies - the agendas of academics, cultural commentators, consultants and journalists seeming to have more traction in our current society than those of artists. Artists, of course, often take longer to make their point - and we live in a fast culture - yet Victorian England is better discovered through Dickens and Eliot than the essayists of the day.

Blogs are part of that "noise" of course, and I realise that one of the major limitations of the format is that a blogger often uses a shorthand - referring to books or authors or ideas - without ever addressing the thing he is talking about directly. Where is my essay on Martin Amis or Ian McEwan? It doesn't exist in any meaningful form...yet I talk (sometimes authoritatively) about both authors, and reference them often in my blog. A blogger assumes what knowledge our imagined audience has, and, in that context, we do not need to explain further. It's a strange paradox.

As always, I'll leave these questions hanging in the air, half formed. What was pleasing - going back over past blog posts - was how often these tiny cells would develop, or be repeated, to replicate until they had a life of their own; that life, it probably goes without saying, is in my creative work. These, I begin to think, are sketches, before I paint a fuller canvas.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Debut Novels: Truth and Lies, Innocence and Experience

I've read two debut novels this week; however one of those was Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road", written before I was born. It's a very readable novel, and having recently written a novella about a disintegrating marriage, it was fascinating to read a successful novel on the same subject, but in a different age, and from a different place. I'm not sure that its a "classic", though it certainly deserves its rediscovery. Its a dark book, almost overlaying a noir sensibility over middle American lives. The three act structure and the subject matter and setting do remind me of plays such as "All My Sons" and "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?", but Yates is novelist, not playwright, and he gives us an interior monologue which achieves a psychological depth that explains its current popularity. When I say its not a "classic", its more that it feels quite familiar to me; reminding me of Cheever, Updike, even Evan Hunter. The America of the fifties salaryman is so familiar to us from television, that the novel does seem to be of its time and place. Its a contemporary novel from just before the modern America really begins, but its themes of family, work and love are universal.

What goes without saying is what an adult novel it is. Both Frank Wheeler and his wife April are mature characters. We meet them not at the beginning of their struggles to "fit in" but at the end, as their hopes and expectations bump up against the narrow life that they live. Not for the first time I was reminded how few contemporary novels seem comfortable with writing about mature lives, or real problems. Partly I think its because we live in safer, securer times, yet its rare - in English fiction at least - to find a writer addressing such issues. Perhaps McEwan of late, but that's all that comes to mind.

Its difficult for a debutant - a young writer particular - after all what life is their to write about. James Scudamore's "The Amnesia Clinic" I picked up after his second novel "Heliopolis" has been longlisted for this year's Booker. If its anywhere near as good as the debut, it should make the shortlist. Set in Ecuador, its a story about stories, clearly owing a debt to those South American fabulists such as Borges and Marquez, but with a down-to-earth feel that you'd expect from an English writer. Anti, the narrator, is an English boy in Ecuador, who becomes friends with Fabian, a local boy who lives with his uncle, and doesn't talk about what happened to his parents. Like McEwan's "Atonement", its about how children - the boys are 15 - can make decisions that have catastrophic consequences; because of what they see, how they interpret it. The stories in the novel are very much of the shaggy dog variety, and I think, in less capable hands, the novel could have come across as too faux for its own good. Yet because we are seeing the story through the narrow perspective of an English boy, its probably the right decision. Unlike Diaz's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" where "stories" seem more real than the horrible truth of the Trujillo regime, here the stories are like clothes used for dressing up. Anti and Fabian even have a formula for puncturing the myths of their stories, by asking "what would a really unimaginative person think."

When you are child, of course, your parents tell you off for "telling tales", as story becomes a synonym for lie. Its strange how often it comes up in contemporary fiction - because here the stories have tragic consequence, surely an odd moral for a novelist (a writer of stories!) to be giving? - and I think its partially because of that discomfort with maturity. Yates in "Revolutionary Road" has both Frank and April living a lie, or worse, believing each other's story to the point that the lie and the truth are inseperable. Only the novel's medically insane character, John, gets to speak, rather than think the truth. In the Scudamore novel I'm minded most often of Thornton Wilder's wonderful "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", where the stories are the truth - and you uncover the story of a man's life, to find his destiny. "The Amnesia Clinic", as the title perhaps suggests, is far more playful. Its also looking at memory, and how we give ourselves stories to help us remember, or to help us forget.

For debut novelists today, there does seem to be a desire to write from a position of innocence, rather than experience - whether a child as in "The Amnesia Clinic" (or Catherine O'Flynn's excellent "What Was Lost") or an adult with something missing, such as Annie as Jenn Ashworth's "A Kind of Intimacy". Experience, it seems, can wait.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best (and worst) of Manchester

I dutifully went into town yesterday, first time for over a week. Manchester was under a pall of greyness. You noticed, in comparison with London in particular, how little of a tourist destination it is at times like these. You come to Manchester for reasons - football, shopping, occasionally an artistic event or a conference, to see friends - but not for Manchester. The building site that is the city centre as the trams are still being upgraded doesn't help. It hardly seems that long since they were put down - or the surfeit of cranes around the city before the Commonwealth Games, desperately finishing off Picaddilly Station. We've been a building site for years, and one's tempted to say that sometimes its building mostly over the cracks - and, extinguishing what little bit of green there might be in the city.

Through the rain, escaping the Arndale, I headed to Urbis, to catch the "best of Manchester" exhibition. Its a mini Turner prize for the creative arts (art, fashion and music), with the winners exhibited. Since only really the visual artists are meant to be on show (how can you exhibit a regular night like Club Brenda?) its a hotch potch but a vibrant one. Far better than the ragged New York exhibition downstairs. I liked Natalie Curtis's lightbox photographs of bands; and particularly Rachel Goodyears dark illustrations. Its a crowd-sourced competition, with judging from a number of luminaries. I'm not sure what its aim is - certainly Goodyear, the Owl Project, Babycakes and Switchflicker records have been doing their thing for a while now - but in pushing some of the more leftfield stuff in the city to a wider audience its good, and should probably be expanded (I would say this) to include film and writing.

Having been enjoying the guilty pleasure of "Desperate Romantics" these last few weeks I thought I'd pop into Manchester Art Gallery and check out their pre-raphaelites. I'd forgotten (if I ever knew) that the art gallery is completely shut on a Monday. I know the Cornerhouse's gallery is also closed on a Monday, but the rest of the venue remains open - the art gallery, our civic gem, was dormant and empty - and this in the school holidays. Somehow, it seemed something of the worst of Manchester, some civic decision made for good reasons of practicality, I'm sure, but frustrating. With the Central Library about to close for three years, the city becomes yet again, a place where all you can do is shop or drink. On the way to watch the football in a pub, I didn't notice a woman walking the other direction at speed, and slightly cut her up. I turned to apologise and got a mouthful of abuse. Perhaps a week away from the city has over-sensitised me a little; but for once, I'm in no hurry to get back there.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Paz and Possibilities

I've clearly been saving up these blog posts, after a week away. I picked up a number of second-hand books in the MIND charity shop in Highgate, including "Convergences - Essay on Art and Literature" by Octavio Paz. I was drawn immediately to the essay, published in 1967, "The new analogy: Poetry and Technology." It's worth a direct quotation:-

"There is no reason why the poet shouldn't use a computer to choose and combine the words that are to make up his poem. The computer no more does away with the poet than do dictionaries of rhyme or treatises on rhetoric. The computer poem is the result of a mechanical process somewhat comparable to the mental and verbal operations that a 17th century courtier in the West had to go through in order to write a sonnet...or a Japanese...the collective poems called haikai no renga....the results are also similar: pleasing, sometimes surprising, and in the end monotonous....Poetry enters the picture when impersonal memory - the vocabulary of the computer or dictionary - and our personal memory intersect: suspension of the rules and irruption of the the unexpected and unpredictable....poetry is always an alteration, a linguistic deviation."

There is much more of value in this long essay, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the book - and revisiting Paz's poetry at the same time; but I don't think this, or any other blogger could have said it better. In one nuanced paragraph Paz highlights the absurdities of those who proscribe poetry's boundaries by the imposition of a set of rules. Yes, there are rules, just as a computer operates on "impersonal" instructions, it is the human that chooses which sets of rules to follow, if any, and how to subvert - and, to make poetry. A good starting point, I think, for a week when I'm wanting to expend a few creative energies.


Further to my criticism of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse below, my frustration with the exhibition wasn't with individual art works, for I had gone with some expectation, but with the missed opportunity to properly address any of the exhibition's themes in a satisfactory way. I enjoyed seeing Liliane Lijn's work, and Alasdair Gray's illustrations (though the latter were very out of context in the exhibition)as well as seeing the old editions of the magazine itself. In the accompanying booklet, the exhibition is described as "an exhibition of art that verges on poetry" and it signally fails to do that - rather, choosing a number of somewhat random exhibits that in different ways exist at the interface between art and poetry. The final room has no poets, but artists using text. Given that there's a resurgence of poets working with visual forms, (and with sound art), often in far more valid ways than those conceptual artists who are merely appropriating text, or working in collaboration with artists, it was disappointing.

I was interested, given my recent engagement with computer-generated poetry, to find a free book to download on "Prehistoric Digital Poetry" from here. Well worth a browse.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writing All Around Us

Thinking about "flarf" and "conceptual writing" - and about the concrete poetry at the ICA - and about the Futurists - and about Ezra Pound - there is writing all around us that we ignore, or treat as hieroglyphics. Took a few little photos in the week.

The way language gets used, debased, or made meaningless interests me. So I had to chuckle, given that we live on an island, at our "aquatic deprivation" in the first picture here; then as if to emphasise the stark warning black on yellow, and the wonderful, er...dead person drawn there (it was at some sort of electrical installation), the existential rubric "danger of death" - yes, we all face that, poets especially give it much thought. And, the anonymous graffitti artist in the toilets at Kentucky Fried Chicken, creating what - a warning? a haiku?


Poor.Old.Tired.Horse was the first exhibition I'd seen at the ICA, and it's very disappointing, one of the most poorly curated shows I've ever seen. Safe to say, you wouldn't get away with this in Manchester. What was it? A retrospective of the magazine of the same name, a selection of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, its editor, and other associated poets, an overview of concrete poetry - but then a display of collaborations between artists and poets, and finally, artists-using-text. It did none of these things well, and compared with the two Bury Text festivals, it was an embarrassment. I wanted to see more of the magazines, and, to be honest, a less random selection of art. The ICA's "Roland" magazine acted as a catalogue, and was everything that the exhibition itself wasn't. If you pop in, treat yourself to that.

It was with some trepidation that I headed to another art exhibition, Futurism at the Tate Modern. Okay, we're contrasting a very small locally curated show with a major touring exhibition, but, still...

...I knew very little about the Futurists other than from the appropriations (ZTT, the cover of "Movement" etc.) so I was expecting, and got, an education. Although its fair to say that all of the art isn't premier division, as a group show, and as art history it was exemplary. Taking up a vast space on the fourth floor of Tate Modern, there was room enough to take in the art that flourished in Italy, and beyond, following the publication of Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto. I'm a sucker for manifestos in art, and the Futurists had them in spades. Yet the art they were making was more than just a parallel movement to cubism; it had its own aesthetics, its own innovations. Sometimes you can look back on art movements (such as modernism in poetry - with its fascination with the ancient past) and have trouble seeing what the battles were, and how the victories were won. But futurism did what it said on the tin; wanting to make an art of the mechanical, the modern, the industrial, the electrical, and to tear down the past.

Here, of course, is the risk with manifestos, that outside of art, they have a political dimension that is as destructive as an artistic one can be creative - and art has no role being part of that destruction. Yet, manifestos can serve as a break with the past, certainly. The Italian Futurist paintings at the Tate, many of which had appeared in London in 1912, causing a sensation, have something of the chaos of modernity about them. Reflecting speed in art was nothing new (remember Turner's paintings of the railways), but making it so central to the work, so that Bergson's idea of simultaneous time was reflected in the picture, was, and is highly interesting. But the exhibition was particularly interesting for contextualising Futurism within its times. I particularly liked seeing the Cubo-Futurists of Russia, many of them female, who rejected vehemently to Marinetti's misogyny, and incorporated a mix of styles, and subjects in their pre-revolutionary work. The English, inevitably, were poor modernists, and the few works that leant towards Europe seemed half-hearted in comparison; yet not all of this was artistic conservatism - Epstein's remarkable Torso in Metal with Rock Drill looks to be both an early design for "Darth Vader", and a frightening depiction of the machine age that was going to shortly overwhelm millions of young men on the Somme; and Wyndham Lewis's "BLAST" magazine was a rare English "radical" response to this European art.

Text was very important to the Futurists, incorporated into their art, as well as framing the debate; and Marinetti, of course, was a poet. There were no poets in the final room of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, only artists using text, and it does seem to me that when artists of different mediums collaborate or even hang out together, more interesting things happen than when there's merely appropriation. The week's final artistic happening was in a pub in Farringdon, catching the launch of Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives/3, a collection of new poets. The book itself includes illustrations alongside the verse, as if to prove my earlier point. I only caught half the poets, but enjoyed what I heard. There's willingness to jump off into the surreal, or to follow a conceit through several different directions, that seems very refreshing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Devastation of Style

I've been thinking the unthinkable.

Actually, I've been thinking of something that seems to be terribly unfashionable. The idea of literary style. Are there writers who are even bothered about this any more? Yet it is the one thing that is un-copyrightable, un-copyable, un-biddable. There are certainly some stylish writers out there, and certainly, as well, some writers, who are clearly in thrall to a certain type of style.

Our readers, though, what do they think? Do they even care any more? Clearly in the non-fiction world, it is a populiser like Malcolm Gladwell who can take certain ideas and make them fly, and style must come into this - must be a commodity with value. Writers as disparate as Nick Hornby, Philip Pullman and A.L. Kennedy have quite recognisable voices. Yet, style, seems to be of an altogether different quality. It is, primarily, I think, a literary aim. Something that is so unreachable, yet so accidentally reached at times, that once it grabs hold of a writer, there's little else that matters; plot, character, whatever. It is a gold standard.

I've read several bloggers and other comments, that have been highly critical of Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." Salinger, that most effortlessly stylish of writers! It is not the adolescent Holden Caulfield, nor the "classic" status of the book that gets them, I'm sure. It's "style." Somehow it's an affront. Can't the book be "more" than this? Like an aesthete who insists on everything being perfect for a dinner party, a stylist is laughed at for his or her pretension, even, for caring about style.

Yet how many writers have big ideas? There is an innate conservatism about long fiction, in particular. It does not trailblaze as often as it looks back; as if fifty or so year of modernist experimentation, was enough, thank you, and can we have our Dickens back? (Dickens, of course, is best read not for his stories or his characters - great as they may be, they're sometimes too melodramatic for every taste - but for his style.)

What style does for a certain type of reader (and I'm one), is remain in the mind long after the deux ex machina of the novel itself. By this reading, "Lolita" can never be a dirty book; Lawrence's novels can never be overwrought; Fitzgerald cannot be dismissed as a flapper. Style elevates the prose writer to music, to art. (To poetry, as well, though that's a different, and complex debate.) It is why "The Good Soldier" stays in my mind as the finest novel I've read in the last couple of years, yet I'd find it hard to paraphrase the plot. It is why I'm reading Thomas Mann's lugubrious late novel "Doctor Faustus", slowly, with Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise", and the history of the 20th century always at hand.

Also, and this is why style is overwhelming my thoughts at present, I realise that it is the subject that demands; it is the sensibility that demands. A pot boiler can be written with the ingredients to hand; a bigger subject (and aren't all subjects that are worth writing about, by necessity "bigger"?) requires a far subtler ingredients list. This is not about getting things always right. Lawrence is a prime example of lines and paragraphs that seem wrong on their own, but become essential when together; Fitzgerald was a dreadful speller (his editors fixed that one.) In translated fiction, style is everything - for the workmanlike story can be re-told; the stylish prose has to be re-worked.

For style is devastating, as well as invigorating. It makes writers do things for the sake of it; it makes writers do things beyond them; it makes writers choose the wrong projects for too long; and its unwinnable, as all mortal battles are. Yet, the Gods knew this, I think; immortality doesn't come without it.

e is for easy...

Robert McCrum has declared the ebook to have come of age, at least in America, where Barns&Noble are fighting it out with the Amazon Kindle, whilst here we have only Sony Readers and lots of people reading ebooks on their iPhones. McCrum makes the suggestion that "Conceivably, e-readers will actually promote the sale of hardback books as readers, delighted by what they have browsed on the Kindle, turn to a more lasting version for their libraries." Yet, at the same point, we know that one of the main barriers to the take-up of technology is the pricing model - often the same as, even more than the physical book. I'm not sure what sort of readers have "libraries" these days, and I'm pretty sure, given past track record, that the small market for full-price ebooks will remain the publishers' obsession for a while yet - actually unpicking the business model, and making ebooks available as "try before you buy" seems unlikely, and who, really is going to download the first couple of chapters of a novel for free, and then have the inconvenience of paying for the rest or going to the bookshop? That seems counterintuitive to how people read and use books.

Yet in one way, I am sure he is right. There is a market for a convenient portable reader device that people can always have with them, and, unlike the reluctance to pay for stuff on the internet, there seems a willingness to pay for stuff on the move. "e is for easy" in other words. How many times have you turned up at the station to find WHSmiths either closed or with such a paltry book collection that you don't even bother? How many lost sales for the publishing industry are there, just from this simple example? I'd imagine its hundreds of thousands a year. There's clearly a crossover between the frequent traveller, and the tech-savvy, and its here that the e-reader will come into its own. Yet, most owners will probably do what they do now with their iPod and fill it up before leaving the house. The publishing industry needs to be more canny about this. At present the way it markets e-books is as if they're just exactly the same as paperbacks, and that you buy one at a time. Perhaps e-books need to be made available as "bundles", or buy the new book by an author, and get two older e-books for free (a version of the secondhand market, perhaps?) - also, I still feel that give this market enough legs, and the type of books that do well in it, will be slightly different. A couple of weeks into my own free e-book experiment, its been downloaded 135 times. I've no idea how often the novella's been read, or whether its been liked, but clearly these aren't all people I know. The limits of Feedbooks, where its stored - i.e. no social networking, the lack of any chance to "build" an audience, or even to buy other works - mean that I don't think I'd use it again; but since it made life so simple for uploading the book, it's been a useful experiment.

Yet, we don't really know what people will want or come back to. All the new devices out there from phones to iTouch to netbooks, are increasingly geared to include sound and vision as well as words. There's a revolution, not in ebooks, but in the internet, which still betrays so much of its print origins. I could well imagine the PC and its equivalents shrinking market over the next three years or so as all the functionality that most people want (outside of work) can be found on their iPhone or netbook. Its in this context that the release of Nick Cave's new novel, as an obvious multimedia experience, is interesting, but no more than an experiment. Somewhere, remember, there is a factory full of unsold CD-ROMs from a previous experiment in consumer multimedia.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nasty Girls

I saw Jenn Ashworth read from her debut novel "A Kind of Intimacy" in Norwich last month, and I wanted to read the whole thing after that. It's a read in one sitting book, (or at least I did), though I found it a little uncomfortable to start with. From the start you are in the non-too pleasant mind of Annie, the novel's overweight heroine, a most unreliable of narrators. Because you meet Annie at her point of arrival (at her new home, her past behind her), there's quite a slowness to the start, like when you get the kids deciding whether to stay in the haunted house in a teen horror flick. Yet because of Annie's self-described unattractiveness, and her almost naked desire for attention from the very first page, its not the easiest of reads. Something wicked this way comes. I don't want to provide any spoilers, but Annie's not the nicest of women - as you get the sense from the first page, and from the blurb on the back cover - but as she's our guide, its quite an uncomfortable journey. In many ways this debut is a slightly diabolical inversion of a chick lit novel, kind of Bridget Jones with fangs, but after a lugubrious start, really comes into its own in the last third, where the past that she's escaping, and the future she's hurtling towards collide. On her acknowledgement's page, Ashworth thanks Anne Fine, and it reminds me a little of Fine's novel-for-adults "The Killjoy" about another unorthodox character with a character flaw. Both novels owe a little to a genre of stalker novels that we once thought began and ended with Fowles' "The Collector", and I suppose its against that novel's psychological depth it falls, inevitably, a little short, for there's not much rhyme or reason to Annie; she's neither a plausible victim of circumstance or an unexplained Iago. Yet Ashworth's prose has a shocking modernity to it, that is somewhat at odds with the setting, a dim Northern town (actually, Fleetwood), that seems to have no trappings of the present about it. Annie's a bit of a creation, and only puts into the shade some of the other characters, sit com staples mainly - the men in particular are charicatures. It used to be male writers who created unwholesome women characters, but the stiletto's on the other foot here, with Ashworth's heroine worthy of being played by Kathy Bates. A little more colouring in of the background characters, and it would be quite a debut, yet even with these limitations, there's an inescapable dark glee in what is a tale of sordid suburban squalor, a kitchen sink drama for the take-away generation.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The World Goes On and Away

We're more seasonal at the moment then any time I remember since school. August should be a full stop, yet I'm still working away, for another week. Yet everyone's shutting up shop, heading off. That's the thing with our current "always available" status. Maybe, Thursday's Twitter failure, like when Google made the whole internet "unavailable", is a reminder of the limits of these new tools. And, yes, since we don't actually pay for these services, perhaps the business models will have to come along that ensure these vital channels stay open. They are, of course, just built on the internet itself, and just as the Victorian house stays up without foundations, maybe these will as well, or, some new internet building regulations will come into place which means that we could more easily switch from Twitter to Twitter2 or whatever. My browser of choice, Firefox, is proving a little temperamental as well, and again its a free product for which I've never paid a penny. I don't think Rupert Murdoch will be able to successfully charge for content (The Sun? The Times? The Sunday Times? News of the World? They seem properties that are all so built into the physical world, with the websites only as add-ons, that a radical (and expensive) investment programme would be needed to even get them up to the level of the Guardian) yet maybe we'll all be willing to pay for mobile services/clients etc. in return for some service guarantees. I can see a whole business being built around portability of data/service for freelancers for instance. Someone more technical than me just needs to draw the diagram.

Yet we seem overly frantic still. There was yet another digital event (TedX) in Liverpool last week. It seems that the fast-moving world of technology requires this constant reiteration. It's perhaps the same for art as well; there's a brief sojourn whilst we take breath, but half of the artistic world will be heading up to Edinburgh, as players or audience, the other half, probably sat on the beach planning their September consumptions. It's why, in certain areas at least, the recession seems to have had a limited effect. The speed of modern life is like the replicating soldiers in that Dr. Who episode "The Doctor's Daughter", with, on the one hand, generations passing in a blink, and - on the other - a slowness (say, to the passing of the baton between generations), that seems increasingly culpable. Speed on the one hand, and delay and resistance on the other. It is a disastrous combination.

I'm half way through Helen Carr's "Verse Revolutionaries" and hardly half a dozen "imagist"-like poems have yet been written. The only incomparably great poem that Pound has yet written is his remarkable take on the Anglo-Saxon "The Seafarer." Yet things will speed up, artistic revolution, when it happens, being measured in days, weeks and months, not years and decades.

All thoughts of the moment, and I need to find time to relax and get away, contemplating a trip to Norfolk/Suffolk next week, since I'm already down in London; and at the same time, a desire not to let the year's most languid month slip away unheralded. I had a dense, doleful dream last night which seemed to be a little bit of a warning to get my house in order. Like the world, I've got the everyday actions, as well as the longer term plans. What get's broken is something in the middle.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Tonight's Poetry Fun

It's the August episode of The Other Room tonight at the Old Abbey Inn. I'm hoping to attend, although I don't know this month's poets, that's often been the case and I've not yet been disappointed. A chance to see friends as well.

When I'm in London in a couple of weeks I'm hoping also to get to the ICA for Poor.Old.Tired.Horse - an exhibition of concrete poetry, which I was alerted to by George Szirtes blog. No surprise that a poetry scene that has such a visual element is being showcased at a gallery, but it highlights again how poetry (and literature in general), sometimes can only get attention by disguise. Our expensive galleries need shows to put on, of course; literature without its cathedrals, loses out. Can you imagine if the same efforts and energies had been put into promoting modern poetry as modern art over the last twenty years? It's why I was so dispirited by Belinda Webb's reductionist take on the preservation of literary houses, such as Gaskell's in Manchester. I'd rather we had a better way of preserving the physicality of literature, but given that "the nation" feels a need to preserve and promote that very British invention, the Opera, a little literary restoration hardly seems out of order. (To put it in perspective: Manchester has a population of 2.5 million people; only the parsonage at Haworth, just outside of this, comes to mind as a literary landmark.)

I'm reading Helen Carr's immense study of the imagists, "Verse Revolutionaries", and the "revolution" has yet to happen; so its the period detail of the connections and influences of this small group of writers, all outsiders in their own way, that is so fascinating. Flitting between the book, and the Library of America's Collected Ezra Pound, you see how slow and painful any revolution was. Pound in particular was wanting a literary career of the old kind, it was when he realised this was no more a possibility, that he moved to becoming an iconoclast. Returning to America in 1910, he finds no literarily convivial scene in New York, had he come back three years later, its beginning's would have been there.

Reading this, its hard to recall that literary (and artistic) revolution can happen in a few years, across a generation. There's been, if anything, a counter-revolution in poetry since the sixties at least, particularly in the UK. Yet, I feel that despite the same conservatism of taste of the majority of the tiny poetry establishment that reminds me of the Royal Academy fellows up in arms in BBC's "Desperate Romantics". Reading of the small runs of books that Pound and others were producing in the first decade of the last century shows how poetry never changes in certain aspects. Poets would meet together to read their work, and sell editions of 50, 100 or 200 through friends, contacts, subscriptions and occasionally shops.

What would an anthology of poetry from this first decade of the 21st century look like? More like the Georgians, than the imagists I think. Yet, after too many years when the canon has been closed to any experimentation, it seems clear to me that the small audience who are fanatical about poetry are looking beyond a narrow view of what poetry can be - and, in parallel at least - finally a frustration at the either/or of poetry for "page" or "stage". As The Other Room and other events show, even more esoteric poetry can be electrifying live, it doesn't rely on the tired tropes of "performance poetry."

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Faded Grandeur of Certain Ideas

I have had W.G. Sebald's "Rings of Saturn" waiting to be read for too long. I was looking for it before my recent visit to Norwich, as we were driving out to Sebald country during the week. I looked everywhere in my boxes of books to no avail. Yet on arriving back after the week, there it was at the top of one of the boxes, on show, as if to say, "I've been here all along." A slightly Sebaldian moment, I now feel.

I also feel I should probably have read "The Emigrants" first; but that's to come I feel. "Rings of Saturn" is one of the few books of the last 15 years that has already achieved the status of modern classic, though I wonder whether it will last. Sebald's tragically early death, and the acclaim that all his books have received, as well as his obvious uniqueness are probably reason enough for his easy elevation to such status. Yet, speaking to a few friends (the sort who attend reading groups) they'd not heard of the book. I almost wonder if the acclaim that came with its publication and shortly afterwards is already fading a little? Again, that would be at one with the book.

It's not a novel as such, though we may as well call it a novel; since it uses the novelist's arts. A travelogue around the Suffolk coast, it's also a rumination on history, or rather the shards of history that you find here, there and everywhere in any slightly venerable part of the British isles. Suffolk's history encompasses greatness; and wars; and its proximity to Europe makes it have a particular interest to a European writer like the German Sebald. One wonders what the Germans make of it? It would be near impossible to imagine a German-based English writer writing a similar meditation.

It's beautifully written - and translated, by Michael Hulse - yet there's a couple of things that jar; whether in original or translation it's hard to know. The tendency for the narrator to slip into another's voice as he tells their tale is disconcerting. The narrator (presumably Sebald, he has no other name in the book), is like the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, yet the voices of other peoples' stories aren't differentiated enough. As I say, disconcerting. As is the companion, "Clara," who pops up unannounced on the last page, apparently - according to a review I read - fished out of the previous book. In a book so precisely wound, and with such a sense of the various circularities of history, these odd moments of imprecision stick out sorely.

What the reader - or this reader, at least - found mesmerising was the "connections" made. Whether internal to the book, or to my own life. I was surprised, but reassured to find Manchester, Borges and Amsterdam all present amongst the settings and characters; and I'm increasingly drawn to the Suffolk landscape he walks slowly through. (Though no mention of Borges visit to Wythenshawe, a Sebaldian trip, I think.) What struck me, as I read the detailed diversions and ruminations on a history that encompasses geography (or is that a geography that encompasses history?) was how this sensibility seems a past one. The slow pace seems to speak of a dissolution of the spirit, a breakdown, nature as "Cure" possibly; but learning - as a crutch that can hardly hold the weight. It seems that this is the crucified learning of a Casaubon, unrealistically trying to find the "key to all mythologies." Death stalks the pages. The simple death of a scholar or the genocidal deaths of Cathars or Jews or 19th century Chinese. It is the two wars of the 20th century that dominate the book, however obliquely they are looked at. The carpet bombing of Germany was launched from the fields of the East of England; yet Sebald circles round this anger, as he circles round so much.

It is the circularity of the maze at Somerleyton, re-remembered in a dream after the visit. He is not immmune to the absurdities of the English class system, but like Lampedusa seems unhappy for what is lost - the great houses, the great families. It strikes me as a modernist book, or pose, in the sense that it looks outward into history for a pattern book for the world that he is living through. Although written and published in the middle nineties, its a reflective book, that seems to speak more through the remembered impoverishment of the Britain of the fifties, sixties and seventies. The tragedies of the Suffolk landscape seem long ago, forgotten.

I realised, on finishing the book, how little I could relate to the sensibility; that there seemed a lack of either the anger or engagement that the present demands, and a certain sunken resignation in the lessons, learnt and unlearnt of the past. It's a book that allows you to put your own spin on it, and perhaps that's part of it's appeal; yet its reluctance to go beyond the accumulation of esoteric fact, makes it a philosopher's argument; like the maze, impossible to find the centre of, or, once there, the way out. A sombre book, it wins out by the liveliness of its observation, the quirky charm of the miscellany, and by the sense that you can't really take it too seriously. A good book, no doubt, but already, I feel, fading a little into the margins. The faded grandeur of Somerleyton Hall, or the streets of once-fashionable Lowestoft seem matched only by the fading ideas and tropes of 20th century Europe. It is a book of remembrance, at its angriest when remembering the Belgian Congo or carpet bombing of old Germany or the Opium Wars, at its most hopeful when recalling a handful of writers and eccentrics. Against the frozen backdrop of history, these smaller histories are our warming flame.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Class of '97

I like the Guardian's summer reading fiction specials. One name this year was unfamiliar, except, strangely familiar. Competition winner Lisa Blower, was actually on the M.A. in novel writing with me in 1997 at the University of Manchester. Already working in commercial radio, that's where she went back to after the course, and I never knew whether she finished her novel - similar to her story it was voiced from the point of view of a young girl in Stoke in the eighties. 35 now, the picture of her in the paper was immediately familiar, and she's now left commercial radio to study "creative and writing at Bangor."

We were an unusual group, that class of '97; at the time there were only half a dozen or less M.A.s in the country, and our focus on the novel stood out. There were about 12 of us on the course. The course was in its 4th year, I think, and had a good track record - Anna Davis, Sophie Hannah, and one of the Peep Show writers and others were earlier alumni. These things take time, of course. Mark Powell had a two book deal almost immediately after the end of the course; Heather Beck became a lecturer at MMU and had her novel published by a small local firm; further down the line Lee Rourke's "Everyday" collection of stories came out from "Social Disease." It was a nice surprise to see Lisa's name, a dozen years on. It's a good story as well.