Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Suburban Imagination

One of the most damning criticisms that literary critics sometimes use is to describe something as "provincial." Yet, though there might have been a time when writers and artists were gathered in cultural centres like London or Paris, it seems to be a rarer occurrence than the opposite. Successful writers find themselves going wherever they can make their writing unencumbered. In the first half of the twentieth century this even meant finding places where writing would be away from censorship - hence English and American writers based in Paris and elsewhere. I guess we see with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, that even our Western democracies are sometimes highly deficient when it comes to providing sanctuary for those with something to say.

I'm not so sure our world cities are quite so amenable (or cheap) as they used to be: so whether a contemporary Lawrence, Vidal or Burgess would find their various remote hideaways so plausible is hard to know. The "international" writer can apparently survive anywhere not far from an airport after all.

Yet I'm less interested in this internationalism than in what is sometimes lost of the imagination when it moves into the hub of contemporary life, rather than being external. Surely it is the suburban imagination, and the running away from the suburbs into some counter-life which inhabits much of the great pop music; from Bowie and Roxy Music, to New Order and Joy Division - though I'm not sure we cultivate that same sense of distance nowadays: who even knows where bands originate from?

I was listening to a digitisation of a cassette I recorded in early 1985 - so nearly thirty years ago, which I was just turned 18 - and what's surprising is the breadth and depth of my deeply suburban imagination at that time. I had yet to travel abroad or work or live away from home or have a girlfriend or earn money or go to university, yet my imaginative tapestry was already quite rich; what it wasn't was in any way provincial, though there's definitely some naivety as well.  I was creating characters in my songs; writing about God and the devil; namechecking worldwide terrorist atrocities from napalm to Northern Ireland;  and still occasionally writing breathlessly teenage love songs. 

There's a trend of late for YA or Young Adult fiction, and I've even heard of it as referring to fiction that was aimed at "up to 25 year olds". Its a strange infantilisation of the imagination. Certainly our creative opportunities were more impoverished than anyone writing or recording today; yet somehow we found a way - whether it was Science fiction or horror novels, VHS films, or vinyl records. Actually when you look at what my cultural diet was - Stephen King, Douglas Adams, "Dracula", Troma movies, Channel 4, "Blade Runner", the Cure, Simple Minds, Velvet Underground, Love - its hardly surprising that there's hardly a provincial bone in my intellectual body. There's something about the suburbs that makes you crave for an "otherness" wherever you might find it. In a big city like London or New York, or even Manchester, you can well believe that the whole world is at your fingertips or at least not further than a dark alley or a closed door away; but in the sticks you have to create your own openings between the neatly-coiffured lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs.

When I went to Lancaster University in 1985 it was life changing, life affirming in many ways, but in one way it always disappointed me: for much to my surprise I found myself more cultural (or at least counter cultural) knowledgeable than many of my peers (and quite a few of my lecturers); rather than interesting me in new worlds, more often they were playing "American Pie" on their acoustic guitar, listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, reading middle class fiction and watching "Top Gun."  I was the one with the Psychic TV t-shirt, the Test Department records, and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Blood and Guts in High School."

In a sense university "mainstreamed" me in a way that probably wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed outside in the culturally bereft Midlands - there I'd have had to continue to mark out my particular, peculiar space, probably whilst holding down a dreary job at the tax office or Woolworths or whatever. My first novel, still hidden in my bottom drawer, and begun a couple of years later, was set in my Midlands landscape but, like Iain Banks, whose work I very much admired at the time, one scarred by secrets.  I obviously don't regret leaving the somewhat stultifying world that I grew up in - and I'm aware that most people I've met since who share some of my cultural markers also grew up in similar places, with that similar suburban imagination. We had to leave, but in leaving to the bright lights of the big city I think sometimes we can lose a little bit of our imagined sense of cultural place, by virtue of being in an actual one.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It All Happens Here

Well, its been very busy this last week or so, and will get busier I think. I went along to hear Evie Wyld read from her second novel "All the birds singing" at Anthony Burgess on Monday; a very good crowd for a Monday night, and good to see MMU supporting its current students, with a couple of readings as "support." I was planning to repeat the visit on Thursday for Olivia Laing, but a friend was around, and we stuck in the Northern Quarter catching up.

The Manchester Histories Festival begins today - and there's things on all week. I really like the Histories festival, because sometimes you get the sense that Manchester, unlike York or Chester, isn't seen as a particularly "historical" town. Yet there's lots of local groups, and lots of layers of history even in a city that really burgeoned less than two hundred years ago. Next Saturday there's a full day celebration in the Town Hall, which in previous years has been great, but there's also lots of things going on in the city centre and elsewhere all week. One literary response to the festival takes place at Blackwells on Thursday: Ruined is a literary architectural dig, short stories about lost places in Manchester.

Whether by accident or design next weekend also sees the history being joined by the future - with the 2014 FutureEverything being a  few days of music, art, conference which is a full programme after last year's more limited event. Again its at the Town Hall - but also around the city - particularly around the Co-op section of town near Victoria.

Bridging both of these next Saturday evening will be a fantastic light display around Albert Square as part of the Big Digital Project which has involved communities across Greater Manchester creating images to be projected in each borough, which will be brought together on Saturday for a unique presentation.

If you're in London next week then its the launch of issue 2 of Verse Kraken, the magazine of hybrid art, which I'm pleased to say I'm a contributor to. The launch is at the Dogstar in Brixton.

Lots of art going on as well. I've really enjoyed the Artists Room presentation of Bruce Nauman, the American artist, which is on at Preston's Harris Museum, and proving that painting is far from dead, a wonderful collection of work from Iain Andrews, including a spellbinding diorama is on at the Castlefield Gallery.  Last night was the opening of Horse Falling, a temporary shop in historic Ancoats, on the corner of Great Ancoats Street and Jersey Street. I missed the launch but hope to get there shortly.

So, it really does all happen here... enjoy.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elbow's Post-Rock Triumph

I go back a long way with Elbow, the Manchester band whose sixth album has come out this week. That statistic in itself seems amazing. They were "the most likely to" in the late 90s (alongside baggy survivors Doves) but their debut e.p. "Noisebox" featuring "Powder Blue" limped out on a small label in 1998, and it wasn't until 2001 that their long-delayed debut album "Asleep in the Back" came out. I'd seen them loads of times before then, and they were both different than other bands of the time and fitted in. It's worth recalling that their use of interesting sonics was already their on that debut E.P. so though the debts were there to Radiohead and especially "OK Computer", they were already exploring a different unfashionable terrain. Also, given that the other Manchester bands of the period were guitar bands like Nine Black Alps, Doves and Oceansize, they packed a reasonable sonic assault.

Yet over the years Elbow have not so much morphed into the stadium act and national treasure they are today, but slightly adapted the formulae that were there at the start. Here's a band, after all, whose second single was the heart on sleeve "New Born".  A band who has always been more than a sum of its parts, I don't think we particularly noticed singer Guy Garvey's lyrical eloquence at first - though we've always loved his slightly droll honeyed vocals, which have always had more width to them than Thom Yorke's and more earthiness than Chris Martin's. When Coldplay thundered onto the stage there was always a wonder whether the world had room for more than one post-Radiohead band, especially when Coldplay were so successful; but Elbow were always pursuing a different agenda.

That first album was painstakingly assembled after a number of disasters, and even includes the exact mix of "Powder Blue" from that original E.P. The band have always been aware of their sonic possibilities, and very early on that moved away from the rock template of fast bit/slow bit which has sustained millennial rock ever since the Pixies and Nirvana. Early Elbow showcase gigs often contained only five or six long songs, and though not many people mentioned the dreaded "prog rock" the people who got them liked that they had that more nuanced musicianship.

The two albums that followed on from their well regarded debut were more commercial, rockier in parts, but like a lot of bands during the decade, you felt that there might be a sense of diminishing returns, despite great songs like "Grace Under Pressure". The most important track from this period however came in"Station Approach" which opened "Leaders of the Free World." This beautiful song was picked as a favourite by non other than John Cale. Here was the Guy Garvey we'd come to know as a great northern story teller, nostalgic for the home town that him and the band could never quite come to leave (and that the "town" was both Bury and Manchester, and a certain mythical place of their childhood memories was part of the charm.) The Cale reference wasn't surprising, for Cale - particularly the mid-period sonorous ballad writer of "Music for a New Society" became another touchstone for Garvey's singing; not the kind of influence you'd find in Coldplay, however many times Eno produces them.

It was three years until their fourth album, which was self-produced and released via a new record label. "The Seldom Seen Kid" was the record that took Elbow to another level. Their songwriting had always been good, but here, you felt only Nick Cave was as consistently excellent, and whilst Cave will never be a mainstream love, Elbow had perfected the large stadium live set, whilst connecting with the audience far more intimately than other bands in that arena. In many ways the musical template that the band were now putting together behind Garvey was more "post rock" than "indie" or "alternative", where dynamics of the sound were manipulated to create a sonic canvas on which Garvey's northern poetry could gambol in surprising directions. Live this would expand into longer expanding crescendos whilst on record what might have been criticised for being "mid paced" in a lesser band, was increasingly intimate. This mix of the intimate and the expansive is the magic alchemy that I don't think any of their contemporaries have managed to perfect.

"The Seldom Seen Kid" mixed a knack for northern soap opera with a much wider sense of togetherness. A track hidden away towards the end of this album, "One Day Like This" was picked up by the BBC for its 2008 Olympic coverage, and though a minor hit it became Elbow's most recognisable song - a veritable anthem. In addition the album won that year's Mercury Prize.  The companion album, "Build a Rocket, Boys" came out to equally good reviews and sales, and by this time Elbow were an "event" band, appearing with the Halle orchestra or at Jodrell Bank, or, amusingly, having a beer brewed for them, by local Stockport brewery, Robinsons. Like a lot of much loved bands they have a very loyal local following, and yet this tight knit local band have a far more mixed following than the usual "football crowds" of the Roses or Mondays. At the same time Guy Garvey became more of a household name through fronting a radio show on Radio 6, where his good taste and dry manner became very popular. Knowing that you'd probably bump into him in Big Hands or the Temple of Convenience down Oxford Road highlighted the charm of a band that could remain local heroes whilst conquering the world.

The last band to breakout on any kind of scale from Manchester, their sixth album, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything" on a first listen refines the Elbow style even further. Finally there's the confidence to move away from anything remotely "rock" - ("Neat Little Rows" on the previous album was fun, but felt a little out of place) - into a multi-instrumental soundscape that perfectly suits them at this time in their career. Always adept at poignant tunes, some of the music is as beautiful as ever, and here the lyrics expand to talk of the changes in life, as a band gets into its forties. At the same time, Garvey the observer, finds new subjects following a sojourn in New York where he was invited to write a libretto. Musically the band have never sounded quite so subtle, and if on occasion in the past, their tendency for the big crescendo and trumpets and choir, has had elements of crowd pleasing about it, here the light and shade of the record seems carefully balanced. Always a good rhythm band, the slow songs are never entirely slow, the bigger songs, never too ungainly. Like Nick Cave's new Bad Seeds, recent Radiohead, and even the Coldplay of "Viva La Vida", Elbow have kept making vital rock records by bit by bit replacing the usual tropes of rock music with their own subtle colours. Over a decade and a half into releasing music, they remain a local triumph.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Head Twists on Both Ways

I've always been interested in the differences between poets and fiction writers, partly because I'm someone who writes both - yet historically, there are very few writers who were equally good at both. Hardy and Lawrence come to mind; yet other examples are quite few and far between. Yet many contemporary writers try both. Sometimes its clearly a sidetrack, such as novels by Sean O'Brien or Simon Armitage. Often, one is abandoned at some point, like Larkin's fiction, or Sarah Hall's poetry. In other cases, the success of one overwhelms the other - thinking of Margaret Atwood's fiction over her poetry, for instance. Some novelists have been "occasional" poets - think of Anthony Burgess's "Byrne" and his translation of "Cyrano De Bergerac."

Since the start of the year I've been mostly writing fiction, and the notebook that I carry around with me has been nearly empty as a result - for though its not always the case, I tend to write poetry longhand and fiction to computer. A lot of emerging writers on the contemporary scene seem to write poetry and short fiction - and there's a point where I was beginning to think that it is the novel that is the outlier, and that short fictions, flash fictions, prose poems, poems are all very closely related; yet I realise there's probably something else going on here.

A bit like a toy doll, being a writer gives you a head that twists on both ways: and sometimes that's prose and sometimes that's poetry, and it seems when it's the one, its not the other and vice versa. At least in my experience. For when I'm writing a story I'm concentrating on structure, often colouring in an idea that I've had so that the "boat" is watertight; yet with a poem, though I'm obsessing about line and form, its more like a colander or garden riddle, something which contains and holds, but which lets the detritus escape. I visualise the two forms in that way, as well - so I think of a poetry in abstract terms, as a visual or musical representation that is nice to look at, but ideally can't be paraphrased; whilst a story is more sculptural, or filmic, a physical thing with a particular corporeality to it.

And it seems that my head needs to be recalibrated for the different tasks, the different skills. There are moments of crossover of course; stories that are as mysterious and abstract as certain poems; and poems that tell a story. Recently I wrote a poem about a drunken writer in the bar who "used to be someone", but the poem didn't really work. I realised suddenly that this was the subject for a story - and the story, when completed, did the job perfectly well. I'm not sure it would work the other way round... yet looking at those writers who have written successfully in both formats, I think its often that their concerns are shared between the different medium.

For despite the apparent ease with which poets try their hand at fiction now and then, and the likelihood that most fiction writers have some poems somewhere, they generally do seem different breeds. The main difference is in their reading. I know lots of poets who hardly ever read long fiction - and this might be why the "short story" appeals to them, as something they can fit in with their poetry reading. Similarly, though for different reasons I think (poetry getting less publicity than novels for instance), most of the novelists I know might enjoy the odd poetry reading but they rarely read or buy it. Oddly, on Facebook, the poets are far more active than the novelists - finding an outlook for all those words they don't have room for in their poems perhaps, whilst the novelists are in a corner scribbling down any conversation for later re-use.

Yet given a clear wind I've written a novel in a year, rarely more, though its been a while since I've had that clear wind. Whilst a collection of poems would take me, I reckon, four or five years. The sustained poetry writing that some of my peers do, as its "what they do", is something that doesn't come into my work pattern.

So here I am, apparently writing fiction - short, and long - again; poetry hasn't so much taken a back seat, as is sitting their on the hob in a slow cooker, slowly gaining flavour as I try and put together a full collection. The calibration of my head is different and I've written two stories since Christmas, with three or four in various states of disrepair. There are poems as well, of course, but they feel accidental of late. 

As someone who writes both, and, I hope to think, with equal faith in the mediums, I wonder if "success" in a particular direction would send me into one camp or another. There are plenty of contemporary writers, like Sophie Hannah, Nick Laird and Helen Dunmore who manage to keep both plates spinning, so its maybe not that unnatural a balance - the irony is that "literary" kudos attaches more to poetry, whilst monetary success often attaches itself to long fiction. Beginning to read Eleanor Catton's massive "The Luminaries" I'm not exhausted as much by the length, but the longeurs. For though I've been writing fiction of late, its been of the compacted variety - the pace of a long novel is both more sedate and much baggier. The pleasures are shared equally between the mediums.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About England

I feel that we're going to get a lot more talking about England over the next few months, if only as a counterpoint to the Scottish independent debate. In a curious piece in the Observer from David Vann talks about his mother's "ideal place" being a thatched cottage in Devon. Its perhaps not only Americans of a certain age who see England through its most ridiculous clichés. Bill Bryson's ironic travels round England offered a curious mix of nostalgia and condescension that we don't mind because Bryson is so obviously a certain type of Anglophile. Yet it got me thinking how absurd that this non-typical version of England is still seen as "typically" English. Perhaps we do the same when we go to America, though I'm not sure - that country-continent is so vast that we surely don't talk about New York and mean America? (Though the "Great American Novel" is often a West Coast Jewish novel...)

Those writers who to my mind seem to write best about the country - E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy - are often one kind of outsider or another, so there's much to be said for that outsider's perspective. "Howard's End", "The Woodlanders" and "St. Mawr" for instance, are of a particular time and place, that nonetheless resonate with a timelessness. They do not need to even mention England to reek with it. (All are to a lesser or greater extent about class, for a start, and about outsiders.) Rather T.S. Eliot's England than John Betjemans. Being English, of course, is different if you're from the home counties than the English Midlands or further north; though as a Midlander I've always felt that we are comfortable in our Englishness in a way that eschews any unhealthy nationalism. An invaded England would see the Midlands conquered as it was during the Norman invasion, but we are far enough away from the borders that such a takeover is never, to my mind ever going to change our Midlandsiness. Kent may be forever French, Lancashire Irish and Northumberland Scottish, but the Midlands is always Mercia.

In Vann's piece, that he's rewriting "Beowulf" made me smile - this is as mythical a part of England as the perfect cream tea. For "Beowulf" only reappeared a couple of hundred years ago. "The English no longer care much about their older tongue" he says and I'm not sure if its meant to be a rebuke. The English language is one of our great marvels, an Anglo-Saxon infected by French, that in some ways is as adaptable as the English spirit, and its origins, I think, are less interesting than what we've done with it since. This Old English epic was only published in 1815, so remains a strange kind of myth - one that opens a window on the past, that we then know was shut closed. For if there is an England it exists surely in the gap between our myths and our history, and perhaps more so than other nations, exalts that gap. Our patron saint, George, is himself a cipher, as "real" as Captain America or Spiderman, whilst our most exalted king, Arthur, is mired in myth, was king of a region not a nation. England, in this reading, exists before the Norman invasion, and the English, as opposed to Celts or Britons, existed in the centuries before William the Bastard, when we were in turn ruled by a series of invading kings, often from the further north. Auden's view that the north was one country crossing the North Sea, is one that gives an alternate seeing of England, that nonetheless would have resonated before the 11th century.

We existed before the Normans, and didn't become them, though the nature of our country changed.The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, that Old English history of ours, survived a little after 1066; but our lands, our monasteries, our territories, our religious sees and secular fiefdoms were handed over to leaders and priests who prayed in Latin, who spoke in French. When our literature reemerges in the 14th century, it is recognisable to a contemporary reader. England and its language have survived, and will thrive. 

Yet though the English language is part of what I think of when I think of England it is only part, after all we bequeathed it to the United States, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere - increasingly we have bequeathed it to the world as its second language; yet this version - and I write this after four days in Rome, where our colleagues from round Europe converse exclusively in English - is not the language that I grew up with. It has less colour, is more functional; if anything it lacks the variety that the spoken English of an England of distinct regional identities had.

For language is also political. Whether its the "received pronunciation" of the old BBC presenter, or the more recent "estuary English" of TV soaps, there is always a determinism in official forms. Once, it was the written form that would be seen as the language of officialdom, and it still exists in our laws and bureaucracies, but mass consumption media such as radio and TV mean that our dialects may well merge or die out entirely in the next generation or two. Out of this, and if Scotland became independent, it is not hard to imagine that a new England would emerge, that would be increasingly dominated by London and the South East. English nationalism in this instance becomes an oxymoronic southern English nationalism.

But if character can survive the Normans, I think it can survive Alex Salmond and the Bank of England. Its always ridiculous to allocate verbs to a diverse people, yet as the comedian Al Murray - Pub Landlord so acutely skewers, there are certain recognisable English traits that we laugh at their absurd truth. I do think that though I relate to our national creation myths - Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men - our contemporary fantasies, Harry Potter et al, are recognisable only as shadows of a wider tableau of English storytelling that seem more about a surface England of boarding schools and country houses, that are only "mine" from a distance. Our ruling classes have always been adept at changing the story. Whether its the adoption of Windsor by our Germanic monarchy or the popularity of Downton Abbey as an "upstairs downstairs" soap opera for all. England's ability to absorb outside influence, in language, in nationality, remains one of its defining traits - but here, I can see that Scottish friends would have be as making the cardinal sin of using English and British interchangeably. Where England doesn't exist it is because it has taken on the mantle of that larger version. It was the British Empire, it is the OBE that a colonial writer might rightly object to, not an "order of England".

From my perspective; Midlands born and bred, Northern-inhabiting, I am comfortable with "an" idea of England. But is it real? Am I equating a white, working class, provincial Protestantism with an idea of "nation"? Yet all of those terms I would have issues with myself - yes, they are part of the mix, but the whole of "England" is more than that. Our create intellectual heroes are still rarely celeberated; I'm thinking of Tom Payne as much as Alan Turing; whilst our artistic heroes are often those who gave us the official version: the German Elgar, Gainsborough's horses and Constable's countryside; the William Blake of "Jerusalem", the Tennyson of "Charge of the Light Brigade"; the Kipling of "If." The underplaying of our radical inheritance remains, too, an English trait. For a revolutionary England is always not far away, and as much a myth as St. George and the dragon. For England is also Orwell, whose twin satires "1984" and "Animal Farm" are quintessentially English in that they are "couldn't happen here" yet are "about" here. It is why our greatest writer's greatest works are about a Dane, a Scot, a Moor, and two Italian lovers. Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, is not part of my Protestant inheritance, his plays are set anywhere other than Stratford, yet we visit his birthplace and say "yes, this is England", the same as in the Parsonage at Haworth or the beach at Aldeburgh or looking out across Grasmere.

England contains multitudes, and yet becomes reduced, sometimes, to images of London buses, and Devon teas, of thatched cottages and Policemen, of the First world war soldier and the khaki-clad squaddy at Camp Bastion, of Gazza and Rooney and Bobby Charlton, of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, of David Bowie and Morrissey, of Mr. Bean and Alan Partridge. Any attempt to create another pantheon becomes either subsumed (the punk replacing the beefeater) in the official record, or becomes an alternative narrative that runs only in parallel, part as laugher track, part as barely audible hum. Yet it is the hum that I sometimes hear more clearly. Whether that's Derek Jarman, Wyndham Lewis, Louis Macneice, Cornelius Cardew, George Eliot, Alison Lapper, Gillian Wearing, David Hockney, Marc Bolan, John Peel, Mark E. Smith, Barbara Castle, Bruce Chatwin, Emily Pankhurst, Tony Benn, Magnus Mills or Brian Eno.

For England is no longer an island, it has borders, and even borders within its borders; yet we have characteristics of an island race. We speak only our own language, and refuse to teach our children any other, whether French, German or Mandarin; we are confident enough to set our art anywhere in the world, and call it our own, but strangely weak enough to want our incoming artists to become English as T.S. Eliot did. Then they become our own.  The greatest sin an Englishman can do is leave; which is why we've never forgiven Auden; yet beautiful as the land is, we don't even notice how many millions of us now choose to live abroad. Whereas the Irish diaspora can always be welcome back home, ours are not even acknowledged. Yet, our "ambassadors" are often best let go - after all what good does Tony Blair do us sitting at home brooding over what might have been? What role could we find for David Milliband that could use his skills for us? If Rebekah Brooks escapes censure, do we really think there's a job for her here? But these mega rich aren't likely to be the ones who want to come back on their death bed, though I imagine they will continue to pontificate on England from afar. 

When Michael Gove or other Conservatives talks about our history it is a partial, simplified one that seems to see history as a grand narrative, punctuated by battles and statues. Yet, as we see in more fraught areas of the world, nation is as much about character as it is about language, location or political organisation. It is why self-determination remains such a key demand from people across Europe and elsewhere, for culture and custom may become subservient, but character seems to stubbornly remain. I can't imagine living anywhere else, if only because I feel English, yet is my own little Englands, and Little Englanders I have frequently tried to get away from. England and Europe are the two poles to my identity and they don't seem particularly contradictory; though I wonder whether like someone checking my horoscope I am looking for those traits in myself that are most obviously Piscean or those Piscean traits that are most obviously me. My England, its safe to say, will not be the same as yours - it will certainly not be Michael Gove's, and that described by David Vann is no more real than Coronation Street to a Salfordian.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

I don't find time to read enough "classics", though whenever I read an old book I find different qualities than in newer fiction. Asking on Facebook which Nabokov I should read apart from "Pale Fire" and "Lolita", a range of selections came up. I wanted to read one of his Russian novels, and The Luzhin Defense (or "The Defence"), his third novel, written in 1930 under his émigré pseudonym "V. Sirin" intrigued me.

Chess is one of those pastimes that has fascinated other artists, whether film makers, songwriters or novelists, though like cricket, its a game that I understand only in the rules, not in the nuance. Luzhin is a young boy from an aristocratic St. Petersburg family whose world will be disrupted by war and revolution, though neither of these events really impinge as much as the personal horrors of being bullied at school, or his estranged unemotional family. The book is in some ways a biography of a man, in the same way that John Williams' "Stoner" is, but that conventionality only goes so far with Nabokov of course. In other ways, the life story is an extended metaphor, a game of chess in itself. Nabokov writes beautifully of course, and Luzhin's (it rhymes with "illusion" appropriately) childhood is told with the same sensitivity to a lost world as we find in his later exemplary memoir "Speak, Memory."

Once Luzhin's chess ability sets him even further apart from his dislikeable peers, he becomes a driven child, taken on by an impresario who acts as a second father, but with no more empathy than the first one. Luzhin's father is a writer of boy's adventure stories, plucky tales, where "Tony" is a fictionalised version of Luzhin. Such unwanted fame gives Luzhin even more trouble at school and it is obvious that he is a disappointment to this weak man, whose own marriage is compromised by his affair with a younger aunt. His mother is a willing invalid, and Luzhin's childhood is as brutally unpromising and damaging as so many in literature. The usual opportunities for a quiet child are not his, either, though he enjoys Phileas Fogg and Sherlock Holmes, as much for the structures of their adventures and deductions as for the escapism. Nabokov rushes us from this early pre-chess life, and the subterfuge he has to undertake to play the game, and we find Luzhin again in a post-revolutionary Europe, a ridiculous figure, his Grand Master status on the wane as other younger players usurp his techniques, and making money from playing "blind" exhibition matches, whilst reaching a limit in the grand tournaments he competes in throughout Europe. His parents dead, and, with his powers waning, his mentor moving off into the new movie business, Luzhin finds himself checking into  a health spa that he remembers from his childhood, where a younger Russian woman, herself an émigré from the revolution living in Berlin, takes an interest in him, half out of curiousity, half out of pity. She has unwittingly hitched herself to an impossible task: for Luzhin himself is as unknowable and as abstract as the game he plays.

Their awkward courtship, where Luzhin asks for her hand more like a drowning man than a suitor, sees him entering into the pseudo-Russia of the émigré community, where entire apartments are decked out in nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia. Luzhin's chess playing sees him reach a limit in competing against an Italian Grand Master, and he collapses mid-game, his "defence" against this formidable opponent apparently unknown, and becoming a puzzle for chess fans ever afterwards.  Picked off the street by a bunch of German revellers who assume his prone state means he is one of their own party he is dumped at this fiancées house, where the disapproving family at least take on the role of his repair and convalescence.

Released from the asylum, Luzhin is recovered, but his ailment is seen as being his obsession with chess, and he not only has to give up the game, but for all mentions of it to be avoided. Only after he marries, does the impossibility of this separation become apparent. He only needs the hint of the game to recall the puzzle that he left following his breakdown, and unable to mention it to his wife, in an unconsummated marriage, he begins seeing the world around him as a giant chess game, with repeated patterns and moves from his childhood. Life, like the game, becomes a project which he has to solve, and Luzhin's "defence" is as impossible in life as it appeared in the abandoned game. As the past refuses to leave him alone, with his chess mentor wanting to use him in a film (or as gambit to bring him back into tournament play), his wife wanting him to visit the grave of his dead father, an old school acquaintance bringing back memories of his unhappy school days, and a young Soviet woman who knew his aunt coming to visit, he sees that the chess game of his life is being played around him again. Locking himself in the bathroom of his apartment he scrabbles to find an escape through an open window. The novel ends with the door bursting open, and his fate ambiguous.

It's a short, compelling novel in many ways, though its the early part, in Russia, which - like "Speak, Memory" - is the most exquisitely written. In other parts, one is reminded of the essentially comic side to much of Nabokov's writing. Certain scenes are Mr. Bean-like farces of near-physical comedy for the inarticulate, lugubrious Luzhin to fall around in. I'm reminded of later, darker characters - from absurdist drama perhaps - in this Luzhin. He's what Americans might call a putz. How can we have such sympathy for such a man-child? I think that Nabokov's metaphor possibly extends here. For "here he is", Old Russia, and look what you've done to him - took him away from his homeland, and his usual methods, as absurd as they were, and put him where exactly? He's a travelling freakshow. There seems a Weimar-ish absurdity to this portrayal; a character in a freak show that chimes with the times. Yet the chess motif is also vitally important of course. Though the signature of the book may not be structured too tightly to that of a game, it is structured: and part of the unreality of the novel is this use of metaphor. Yet it is a playful construction, rather than a restrictive one. Later Nabokov would be more elaborate in his scaffolding, but here's there's something of a construction nonetheless.

Reading a more minor work by a major writer has its own pleasures. There's none of the "Lolita" theme that Martin Amis has worried about as being his repeating trope, though there is the idea of aman who is unable to function in the adult world - whose marriage is that of mother/son, nurse/patient - and seems to be a lens through which Nabokov can offer both candour and absurdity. For despite being a burlesque figure (I'm reminded of that other misfit in a poor marriage, Quoyle in Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News") it is through his obessions and innocences that we see the world that is described. Like "Citizen Kane" there's a prelapsarian moment which becomes the point where all things went wrong; where the young boy is told he will now be known by his family name "Luzhin"; yet there's no "Rosebud" for Luzhin, rather, he hangs onto chess as a life raft that takes him away from a world that is infinite in its disorder. In one of many affecting scenes, we see him looking at the atlas of the world and finding no sense of order or meaning in the way the planet's land masses are laid out. The chess board offers this secular man a sense of spiritual meaning like no other thing; yet in its infinite variations, there is also the impossibility of a life "won". I liked the book a lot.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Haring through March

Years take a while to start these days, don't they? But yesterday was 1st March and if 2014 is going to mean anything, then it needs to get its act together. A year from now we'll be gearing up for getting rid of the Tory/Libdem coalition that has wasted so much of the country's energies since elected in 2010. A hundred years on from the anniversary of the Great War, its ominously we watch the troubles in independent Ukraine. Can Russia ever be powerful without being dangerous? That a united Europe remains more an ideal than a reality is highlighted by the sabre rattling to the north. I have just returned from Rome, where colleagues from across Europe met, perhaps for the last but one time on a project that has been running just over two years. A Europhile before my recent travels, I've strengthened my belief in Europe the more I've seen in it, and coming back to large queues as mostly British people have to show their passports to get back into their own country, I sometimes wonder at the logic of this petty nationalism. In or outside of the European Union, we will, I suppose, always be grateful for a queue.

I've some time off, but its already filling with activity - and annoyingly, major changes at work might mean I have to go in for a critical meeting next week. My cultural fixes have been anything but cerebral this last week or so, so I'm determined to read a bit, to write a bit, to listen a bit, to watch a bit, to see a bit.

A new exhibition of work by painter Iain Andrews is beginning at Castlefield Gallery on Thursday as well - so another thing I'll miss the launch of, as I'm up in Newcastle, improbably seeing some roots reggae at the Sage.

Though I'm sad to miss it, I urge Manchester literary types to get along to Blackwells on Friday where Birmingham's Charlie Hill, and Manchester's Nick Royle and David Gaffney will be reading from and discussing their "Books" (the title of Hill's new novel). The following day, Poets and Players return to the wonderful John Rylands library with three poets and some music. Its usually a pleasant event, as well as being free.

There's an interesting feature by Robert McCrum today talking about the fate of midlist writers, whose advances (and sales?) have collapsed.  A little light on fact, as is his tendency, it makes a serious point about our literary culture - in that it is no longer a given that a writer will be read, remembered or even published, however much acclaim they receive. I met Paul Bailey back in 1998 when we were studying on our  M.A. and he was a shadow from the past (albeit an entertaining one) back then; I don't think any of us - particularly those of us not living in London or having had a very non-literary job for years - felt that a writing career was a road to riches; and there's always an element of thinking that for there to be room for younger writers, then some of the older ones need to make way. Yet, I think this is exactly the sort of thinking that has impoverished the country over the last few years: beggar my neighbour and I'll feel better. I know several acclaimed younger authors who gave up or delayed writing after a first, second or third book - as their advances shrunk or their book deals disappeared. Maybe there are other solutions out there. A writer like Rupert Thompson or Paul Bailey has a suitably impressive back catalogue, yet there's no heritage industry like there is in music (unless they are regulars on Radio 4 or the festival circuit, performing "the hits"), and yet there's much to admire in these writers' work. They, at least, are still writing, yet as I mentioned recently when talking about the mid-90s chemical generation authors, whatever happened to them all? In this literary steeplechase, I begin to think my own (unpaid) marginal position has its advantages after all. I don't think literature deserves or needs special pleading in this day and age, and wish McCrum and his co-editors would look deeper into the fervent and fecund literary undergrowth that I'm involved with, but at the same time, a culture that doesn't value its culture, becomes a society that doesn't recognise its culture, and in the end, won't be able to recognise itself.