Friday, 26 December 2008
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Thursday, 18 December 2008
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
A year or so ago when I was doing some writing tutoring at London University under the Royal Literary Fund scheme I was pulled up sharply by a postgraduate student in the middle of a riff of praise for DH Lawrence as a travel writer. She made clear that she thought the kind of thing I was praising (that marvellous passage in one of his Italian books where he becomes aware of an old woman sharing the terrace in front of the church with him above the lake and the abandoned lemon groves and starts to imagine what she might be thinking) was a kind of offensive or neo-colonial invasion of the victimised Other. Vainly, I tried to argue that humane empathy is what makes us different from the fascists but this is the sort of argument one is always destined to lose. The self-righteous always triumph. And I gave up.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Morocco before which I actually managed to do what I often fail to do: viz. read a few relevant travel books in advance. Elias Canetti's brief but brilliant The Voices of Marrakech, Peter Mayne's The Alleys of Marrakech [now trading under the title of A Year in Marrakech], Edith Wharton's In Morocco, and, best of the bunch, Paul Bowles's Their Heads Were Green all helped me understand the place and its people better. Of course the 'traveller's tale' with its British variant the funny-foreigner narrative can often distort and misrepresent but these four writers, it seemed to me, had both knowledge and empathy and a real desire to understand what they saw. Obviously they generalise and make judgements about another people but the same thing happens in the opposite direction. It's called being human and I can't help feeling that when it stops and the world judders to a halt under the weight of homogenizing cultural globalisation I shall stop travelling and retreat to a hermit's cell in the desert. In the meantime real, as opposed to silly and gimmicky, travel books will always be worth doing.
Thursday, 4 December 2008
A few months later in The Guardian Andrew Motion made the following observation:
"Living through a time of revolutionary change, Marvell does not respond as a propagandist for one side or the other, but as someone bearing witness to interior realities...Matthew Arnold...also reminds us of Marvellian virtues when he tells us that during periods of turbulence and rapid change, artists should avoid the temptation to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 11 March 2000.
Now I know there will be crude, unsophisticated minds who will call this plagiarism but I prefer to see it as a tribute and I am honoured.
And, of course, the new Laureate - seriously - should be female.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Like most literary folk I have always had some worries about the computer - not the fogeyish ones about the superiority of the fountain-pen but more seriously about what they are doing to the nature of our minds. I mean that the constant state of alert that permanent broadband connections now put us in, with a PING! every so often as a new email arrives, is at war with the more sustained kinds of concentration and long-haul mental engagement that serious reading demands. The screen is always there and the web's culture of links which makes intellectual grasshoppers of us all is an added threat to the long, slow silences which reading needs. What am I saying? Junk all computers? Of course not. They are useful and we can't do without them but I think we need to devise some strategies for keeping them at bay. Like switching them off (or not switching them on) more often and for longer periods. I know that people who study the brain are examining the issue of how our whole mode of thinking may be undergoing a transformation as a result of the formation of young minds especially by the net and it's a very important issue that could determine the whole future of literacy and intellectual culture. Meanwhile, here's an interesting discussion of the issue if you didn't see it.
Me, I'm off to Marrakesh for a week where I don't expect to take my laptop with me nor cross the threshold of an internet hubble-bubble café.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
That small but perfectly formed readership which subscribes to the Rail for Hereford Bulletin will shortly be able to enjoy/suffer my diatribe against First Great Western in a piece called "Mr Grumpy Goes to Paddington". How could we get through life if there were nothing to moan about?
Friday, 7 November 2008
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
Will it translate? One of the best contemporary French novelists, Jean Echenoz has been translated (though Ravel waits) once or twice but he is hardly a name to British readers. We seem to like our novels laid on with a wee trowel and this minimalist finesse is, perhaps, not what the British bookbiz scouts have been told to look for.
Sunday, 19 October 2008
Planet, as I have observed before here, is one of the indisputably Good Things about Welsh culture and is always worth a read.
Wednesday, 15 October 2008
I am just back from Venice where I had a very enjoyable experience reading from my poetry collection The Narrators and from some more recent work. My host was the poet and bookseller John Francis Phillimore, seen here attempting to translate the last of a group of my poems into Italian, an hour or so before the event at his HQ, Old World Books on the Ponte del Gheto Vechio in Venice. A phrase from my slightly fanciful poem "Landscapes" that reads "the man with khaki shorts who writes books in the winter" was exercising John and his assistant at this point while I cowered in another corner of the shop clutching a glass of Prosecco. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in which we took over a local trattoria and enjoyed a splendid meal and wine. I hope the poems flowed too.
Friday, 10 October 2008
This attractive thought comes from the new Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Jean-Marie G. Le Clézio. We are accustomed in Britain to greeting Nobel Laureates with baffled incomprehension on a sliding scale from guilty ignorance of the range of world writing to (more often) defiant parochialism. In this case I am ashamed to say I hadn't even heard of Le Clézio but he sounds interesting.
He delivered this quote yesterday to a firework display of popping flashbulbs at the headquarters of his publisher Gallimard
"My message is that we have to go on reading novels because it is a good way of understanding the real world. The novelist is not a philosopher or a technician of language but someone who writes and asks questions."
Friday, 3 October 2008
I once created great amusement with one of my writing students by comparing myself to a carpet-layer. If I had to fit a carpet it would take me a week to do one room. I watch with amazement, therefore, when professionals whip in and do it in less than an hour. If you are skilled, gifted and have a natural aptitude for something you will do it more quickly than someone who writes only one letter or email a week with laborious slowness. Don't believe them if they tell you they just write 400 words a day for a living.
[The above took me nine minutes!!]
Tuesday, 30 September 2008
There has been a fair amount written about the current literary season or rentrée in France and one of the high profile titles is by Catherine Millet, author of the notorious The Sex Life of Catherine M. which was translated, for reasons that aren't hard to find, into 45 languages. It contained a remarkably frank account of her lifetime of sexual libertinage and perhaps some of her readers were expecting more of the same with her latest. It is called Jour de souffrance or Day of Suffering (but an epigraph from the standard French dictionary Robert points to another meaning of that phrase - a window that looks out on to someone else's property without giving right of access). The theme of the book is sexual jealousy, the bit that got left out of the last one. CM's discovery of this phenomenon dates from her discovery, on the table of her grand Paris flat that she shared with her long term partner, the writer Jacques Henric (who presumably consented to join her in this act of intimate self-display) of a photograph taken by her husband of a naked young woman, pregnant, together with a notebook in which he records another sexual infidelity. The book is about the shock of this discovery, its effect on her subconscious life, the series of "crises" it puts her through, and her ultimate survival. The irony that someone attached to her own "vie libertine" should be outraged by someone else doing the same thing should properly flash at us in large neon letters. But CM doesn't see it this way. In one passage she disdains on aesthetic grounds to go down the trite and commonplace road of "what is sauce for the goose etc" and seems to argue that her varied sexual life was her thing or "truc" and that everyone knew about it which makes it OK but Jacques' secret sexual life was not on the table so she is right to be devastated by the discovery of it.
If this sounds like a bit of highbrow smut it isn't. Catherine Millet is a distinguished art critic and writes with forensic insight into her own mental processes and reactions in a way that could easily have become narrow and obsessional but somehow it doesn't. Her references to artists are always relevant and insightful and there is more about her early life as a rebellious schoolgirl in a Paris suburb falling in with poets and artists and becoming an art critic and editor of art press and her dreams of becoming a writer. There are some fine Proustian moments as when she picks out a long blonde strand of hair from what she thought was her motorcycle helmet (she is short-haired) and realises she can never wear it ever again. As a companion piece to the earlier shocker it is more reflective and more introspective. It won't sell like hot cakes like its predecessor but I think it is the better book.
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Back to my question. I could just be missing the subtlety here. Perhaps the film was making a satirical point, just not choosing to do it with a heavy hand. Possibly, but the evidence is slight. The tenor of a lot of criticism, in the wake of the decades of Theory, has been to deprecate strong opinions, stances, commitment, "grand narratives", political engagements, in favour of a non-judgemental showing. With hierarchies of value no longer attractive in the intellectual sphere there is a kind of loose, post-modernish tolerance or letting-it-all-hang-out with everything "equally valid", no course of action privileged over another. So this is the kind of cinema we increasingly get. For those of us more inclined to be engagé, perhaps the answer is to supply our own imaginative retributions. Here was one cinema-goer directing in his head a scene of carnage from the rear of the Barbican cinema!
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
I have just been sent details of a new book website called www.untitledbooks.com whose sales pitch is below. It looks pretty funky to me and is run by two literate young women who say they are aiming at a "young" audience with their "young" site. Very exciting and I wish them the best of luck but, hey, what about us post-twenty-year-old fogeys? Don't we read too? I just typed in my name in the search box and guess what came back: "Sorry, nothing was found on this search. Please try again with an alternative keyword." Sob, sob, I have ten titles to my name. [On reflection, maybe I didn't use the bookshop-bit-of-it box. Vanity on hold.]
Untitled Books is a young, hip, beautiful new web site bringing the most exciting authors and their work to a young, discerning audience. It is a literary service and online bookshop that combines an authoritative selection of book recommendations, with continually updated, exclusive editorial content.
Great reads from the entire spectrum, from classics and forgotten gems to new titles, are handpicked by literary experts and brought together in one place to provide simple, quick and insightful advice for anyone seeking that next unputdownable read. Books are arranged in themes such as Desire, Intoxication, Great Adventures and Violence, to encourage the type of browsing associated with real life bookshops and guiding you to the best in non-fiction, fiction and poetry.
This digestible approach is complemented by the online magazine, featuring articles, author recommendations and interviews with big names such as Julian Barnes, Philip Gourevitch and James Frey, and championing the writers producing the most exciting work at the moment. You will also find articles, interviews and new short fiction published on the site each month. Authors recommend their favourite books, what inspires them and who to watch out for. Untitled Books also aims to find, support and promote the work of up and coming and new authors. Every featured author’s work can be bought via the site, making Untitled Books an essential destination for readers, authors and publishers.
And for the literary lonely there is a brilliant, offbeat, occasionally extraordinary lonely hearts page.
Untitled Books values its independent approach; there are no incentives to publicise certain books, nor pressure to follow trends. The articles and the recommendations are produced purely in the interests of those who love books and want to discover great reading and new writers from around the world and across the genres. Untitled Books brings you the best writing out there.
Monday, 15 September 2008
The Independent on Sunday ran a feature yesterday asking whether "intelligent literature" could survive the e-book future. I think the answer turned out to be Yes.
One of the more notable contributions to this Sunday morning symposium was from Sue Thomas, who "teaches the world's only MA in creative writing and new media at the Institute of Creative Technology at De Montfort University".
"The aim of my course is to produce 'transliterate' writers – ie, literate across many different kinds of media. When we think 'literacy' we think about print and transliteracy is about shaking off that domination of print which has, in a sense, I think, been a distraction.
"The internet has caused us to rethink what we mean by literacy: the [traditional] idea of literacy implies that before print people were illiterate – but, in fact, people simply were literate in many other things, such as oral and visual culture.
"One of the writers from my course is Alison Norrington, a chick-lit author: she learnt how to take her stories beyond the book on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, by making little movies, by sending her heroine into Second Life. Another is Christine Wilkes, who has a filmmaking background and wrote an interactive memoir using design and programming. You don't need to be able to read and write much to tell a story.
"Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel: it's such a recent medium – we've only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, 'We've always had novels.' No we have not!"
My problem with this is not its argument that we take non-print culture seriously. Of course we should. It is with the language here. Why has the "domination" of print been a "distraction"? Why is one "cynical" about the supposed "cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel"? Shouldn't writers and people concerned with the future of "intelligent literature" be able to write clearly and logically and use words with a little more precision?
Thursday, 11 September 2008
The other casualty of the day was Salman Rushdie, grand old man of the litprize culture, who was left off because his work is "patchy" and, presumably, the pages hadn't moved for Michael and his team in this instance. The Guardian called this a "rebuff" but maybe his "great literary skills" were simply having a holiday from the Booker. A holiday from the Booker. Now there's a good plot idea.
Friday, 5 September 2008
This cartoon from last Friday's Le Monde makes fun of that annual French ritual la rentrée littéraire [the new publishing season] into which are packed, it seems, most of the year's new literary titles in order to have everyone lined up for the autumn literary prizes. Each year there is the same article concentrating on how many titles are coming out. I have tried to get comparable figures for the UK but my Googling skills are evidently not what they were. The headline news is that 676 novels are published this year in France compared with 727 last year, a seven per cent drop. Back in 1998 there were only 488. Of this year's 676, 466 are French and 210 by foreign authors. It goes without saying that the British proportion would be a lot less than this.
The cartoon shows an unmistakeable Gallimard book cover with the title: "Take me, everyone!" with the implication that this is a publishers' orgy, throwing themselves at the public.
Yeats once announced, in the Cheshire Cheese, as he looked around at the massed ranks of poets thronging the bar: "There are too many of us." Obviously, he did not consider himself supernumerary and this is the point surely: that if we say too many books are published we never actually mean our own. And in one sense not enough books are published if we fail to find truly excellent ones in the cascade of trash.
As I keep saying in this space, the problem with contemporary publishing is the narrowing of range, the lack of ambition, the failure to encourage real originality and real innovation, the playing safe with more-of-the-same which is what you get when the marketing people rather than the people with genuine literary taste are calling the shots.
Monday, 1 September 2008
Thursday, 28 August 2008
I've said here before how puzzled I am that most literary bloggers seem to run a mile from contemporary poetry. Stephen Romer's Yellow Studio might be worth trying if you are suffering from this particular phobia. It's one of the best collections of 2008 and a substantial volume where all his skills of tender eroticism and lovely fluency of line are on display. The final section of the book, which contains a series of poems written after the death of his father, is particularly striking. Published by Carcanet under its "Oxford Poets" rubric (an obscurity explained by the fact that they bought up Oxford University Press's outstanding poetry list a few years ago when the venerable OUP's marketing people told them to junk their poetry) this volume was even reviewed in The Observer when it came out, a treatment normally reserved for the poetry celebs. Go on, try it.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Out in the Edinburgh streets one is accosted by performers handing out flyers for their shows and one man (whom I suspected of being a religious zealot rather than a mime artist) stopped me and said: "Are you interested in the Truth?". Entering into the ludic spirit of things I replied: "No, I prefer Lies." What larks.
Sunday, 10 August 2008
Get your running shoes on and get down there!
Monday, 4 August 2008
The current éditions de Minuit paperback comes with a fascinating interview with Toussaint by Laurent Demoulin in which the author talks about his approach to fiction. They discuss how this kind of writing can best be labelled. One possibility is to call it, as some French critics have done: "Le nouveau 'nouveau roman'" or even "école de Minuit" after the publisher who has promoted it. British critics would probably plump for "minimalist" but Toussaint himself has proposed "roman infinitésimaliste" which I don't think needs translating. As he puts it in the interview [my translation]: "The term 'minimalist' merely suggests the infinitely small, whereas 'infinitesimalist' refers as much to the idea of the infinitely large as the infinitely small: it contains the two kinds of infinity that one should always encounter in a book." His art of maximal suggestion through minimal means works for this reader.
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
All this is by way of saying that I have, belatedly, caught up with V.S.Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival (1987) which is marketed as a novel but is plainly an account of his own arrival in the Wiltshire countryside in the mid 1980s to witness changes in that rural society in the shadow of a crumbling country estate on which he lives in a rented cottage. It could easily have been marketed as a straight autobiography but the publishers aren't daft and it's subtitled "A Novel in Five Sections". I doubt if a single 'fact' has been changed and - this is the crucial thing - reading it one is convinced that this is a book about Naipaul himself at every stage of the way. On the other hand, the fictional format (or willing acceptance of its ground rules one might say) works perfectly. It's an expansive novel that repeats and recapitulates and does its business at leisure. In the end it works as a reading experience so what more could one want?
Monday, 21 July 2008
Saturday, 19 July 2008
Friday, 18 July 2008
Monday, 14 July 2008
If you are interested in the life and work of Bruce Chatwin you may want to know about this day conference on Saturday 19th July in Oxford. It is organised by Jonathan Chatwin (no relation!) of Exeter University in conjunction with the Centre for the Book at the Bodleian Library and New College Oxford. Chatwin's widow, Elizabeth Chatwin, will be speaking alongside various other scholars and critics. As the author of the first book on Chatwin (in 1993) I shall be presenting a paper myself and taking part in a panel at the end of the day with Elizabeth Chatwin. There is a useful Chatwin website by the way.
The Conference is the first ever in the UK though I recall having attended one in Turin on 11 December 1997 called "Chatwin: oltre il viaggio..." [Chatwin: Beyond the Journey] and have the T-shirt to prove it. I nearly brought the house down by addressing the conference in Italian (coached by my wonderful interpreter) with the words: "I am sorry that I cannot talk to you tonight in Italian." I then delivered my paper in English. It was also the first time I have written an article in a continental newspaper because that morning I had an article in La Stampa. I wonder what Chatwin's current stock is like in Europe? On that evening in 1997 he was the last word in literary chic.
Saturday, 12 July 2008
Today is the first anniversary of this blog and this is the 99th post. I was about to deliver myself of some profound reflection on the art of literary blogging but then I suddenly, and uncharacteristically, decided to honour the virtues of silence. Instead contemplate this image of Venus from the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Friday, 11 July 2008
After a rather jejeune display of the annual BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery (very conventional, almost photographic realism has made a massive comeback in this annual exhibition) it was a delightful shock to step into the new Wyndham Lewis Portraits exhibition at the opposite end of the corridor. Many of these are familiar, not least as Penguin and other bookjackets, but they really do confirm Lewis's mastery of draughtsmanship. Modernist greats like Eliot, Pound and Joyce are here and, er, Edith Sitwell and there is a magical drawing of Rebecca West I hadn't seen before. Lewis lived at an extraordinarily exciting epoch of artistic vigour and newness. His aesthetic battles seem like real ones where ours are with triviality, crass marketing and the invasion of the arts by celebrity culture. It's a tiny exhibition for a fiver but still unmissable. It's on until 19th October
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Monday, 30 June 2008
In the end the article pointed to what I see as an optimistic future. The wind will blow around the establishment biographers but the field may become open to writers who do it differently, taking an unconventional angle, and rejecting the standard cradle-to-grave life. New forms, new ways of discussing the writing life, are welcome. It goes without saying, however, that the work remains the thing and the only book about a writer worth reading is the one that sends you scurrying back to the texts.
Wednesday, 25 June 2008
There seems to have been a sudden small eruption of interest in the Victorian traveller, Sir Richard Burton, with a recent TV documentary by Rupert Everett (which I missed because I was travelling myself in Turkey) and now a new novel by the Bulgarian-born novelist Iliya Troyanov who writes in German. I have just filed my review of The Collector of Worlds for The Independent so I will keep my powder dry for the moment except to mention in passing that Burton of course features substantially in my new book about the Victorian travellers, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire.
I just wanted to say that the translation by William Hobson is fluent and readable and achieves what all translators want to achieve I would guess: the feeling that one is actually reading the novel in its original language. The production is also up to Faber's customary standards except that I noticed several examples of what are traditionally regarded as grammatical howlers: use of "comprised of", "totally disinterested" to mean "totally uninterested" and "dependent" where it should have been "dependant". Apart from demonstrating that one has been paying attention to the book under review is anything served by pointing this out? (For the record I didn't in my review.) Or should one take up the cudgels on behalf of 'proper English'? Some things can no doubt be dismissed as pedantry (except that the 'disinterested' issue results in the stripping of a useful word of its entire meaning) and if, overall, the prose is excellent, why cause trouble? Also, with growing evidence that undergraduates are struggling with basic English (I have direct experience of this) perhaps these nit-pickings are a luxury we can't afford. Bigger problems need tackling. Or should it be zero tolerance?
Thursday, 12 June 2008
After torrential rain on Monday in Saloniki it was nice to get back to sunny English weather.
Friday, 23 May 2008
Reading John Gross, author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, in today's TLS, on the continuing role of the essayist (he was reviewing Stefan Collini's Common Reading collection of essays) at a time of high academic specialisation, I shared Gross's (and Collini's) uncertainty about the future of this phenomenon. As a non-academic writer (in the sense of not having any university affiliation) I have sometimes fallen into the trap of academic-baiting. But the old conflict between Grub Street and Academe now seems merely self-indulgent. All those who care about literature and its continuing life in modern societies need to pull together these days. Trying to think of a good example I decided that Primo Levi was a fine representative of the essayist and his "To a Young Reader" in Other People's Trades was one of his best. One of his pieces of advice in this essay was to show work to other people but: "Not another writer: a writer is not a typical reader, he has preferences and peculiar fixations, faced by a beautiful text he is envious." Levi also added that his stylistic goal was "that of maximum information with minimum clutter". That wouldn't have got him a job in a department of English in, say, 1990.
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
"I myself have been an avid reader from the day I first learned to read at the age of five. My mother and grandmother were also great readers and I am proud to carry on the family tradition. I read voraciously all kinds of books from different genres. By the time I was ten years old, I had read every single book in the children's public library in Waterloo Liverpool where I was brought up, and the librarian finally gave way to my pleading and allowed me to join the grownups' library where I continued to take out the maximum five books every week until I left school. I believe it is one of the great sadnesses of today that fewer young people, particularly boys, are reading books."
I used the same Library (I'm a couple of years older) and I'm sorry that all that reading didn't rub off on this memoir which sorely needs some literary panache (say I, having read only a few pages standing in a chain bookstore).
Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Sorry, that was naughty of me, a catchpenny headline, for poor Frank L is no longer a force in the world of criticism. But the recent "Booker of Bookers" ballyhoo set me wondering about the perennial obsession with rankings and prizes and names excluded from or put in a canon which, supposedly, the last decade or two of High Literary Theory was meant to have put paid to, with everyone "equally valid". When it came to defining an exclusive canon the critic F.R. Leavis (who cast a long shadow over anyone "doing English" in the post-war school and university system) was up there with the best of them. My old Prof. of English at Liverpool University, Kenneth Allott, complained that Leavis wanted literature to be "like a well-swept room" that contained only a few exquisite pieces of furniture. Another word for this is English Puritanism which Leavis (of Huguenot stock actually) embodied - open neck shirts when collars and ties were the norm and a clean-limbed muscular approach to the business of literature. I used to have problems with my chums on the Left in my Bennite days because, as a dedicated hedonist, I found the puritan streak of the progressive classes got up my nose (especially when the latter was buried in a decent beaker of wine) but it's still with us. Leavis's famous "Great Tradition" published in the austerity year of 1948 was his triumph of lofty prescription. Moving some books the other day I found that I had it still, a second hand copy of the first 1962 Peregrine edition, which, as you see, has three of his superstars on the cover (and cost its first owner only nine bob!). There ought to be a word to define this accidental rediscovery of the contents of one's own library (biblioserendipity?) where one opens up at page one and reads: "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad..." That's FRL for you, shooting from the hip. No prisoners, no argument, this was the Great Tradition. Then you notice something about this list of the great English: half of them are, er, not exactly English. An American and a Pole sit alongside Jane Austen and George Eliot. One doesn't normally think of Leavis as a multicultural kind of guy but, look, he also ticks the gender positive box with half of his Gang of Four women. And here's another thing you didn't know: old man Leavis ran a piano shop in Cambridge with the slogan: LEAVIS SPELLS PIANOS. It's a funny old world.
Monday, 5 May 2008
The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism.
This is what I was asked in 2006 by the Buenos Aires Herald in an interview, together with my reply: "What do you feel is the strongest argument for biography, and which the strongest against the genre?
The strongest argument for literary biography is that it surrounds the work with a nourishing stream of relevant background information that cannot fail to increase understanding of the text. In addition, I think that the record of how a literary life was lived is always instructive, it has an intrinsic interest quite apart from its hermeneutic value. And let us be candid: we are inescapably interested in our fellow human beings. The case against has been put - with terrifying persuasiveness - by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve where he says that the life and the work are independent of each other, that the work proceeds from l’autre moi not the man or woman we meet convivially in the street."
I would add to this that Kafka (one of my subjects) and the beauty and transcendent mystery of his work remains above and beyond any explication based on his biography but that if we know about his Prague background, his Jewishness, his relationship with his father, his frustrated love affairs, his existential fears, we approach his work a little better-prepared, a little less thick-witted, a little more alive to its textures and meanings. It's a modest aim (and some biographers in recent decades have been very immodest indeed) but it is, I would contend, a perfectly decent one.
Monday, 28 April 2008
Wednesday, 23 April 2008
Today, apart from being my birthday and Shakespeare's, is St George's Day, and the Prime Minister has been instructing us to celebrate it - no doubt in the interests of "national identity" on which he is so keen. Having been aware of this day for the past 50 plus years (for obvious reasons) I have watched with fascination as this obscure feast has gradually become a major date in the calendar. This is due mostly to the fascists and the brewers who have been most assiduous in promoting that chap from Asia Minor, George, and his red and white flag which the Union Jack, one thought, had superseded as a symbol of the unity of this fractured isle. Anyway, in the spirit of things here are some good solid old English oak leaves to look at. Well, actually, they are Welsh ones, from the Radnor Forest, and are the logo of my poetry press, Rack Press. What complicated things nations are. No wonder people wrap themselves in the mindless comfort of the flag. Have a nice day!
Thursday, 17 April 2008
Sunday, 13 April 2008
Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea
Friday 11 April
It will be a chance to meet the poets and hear them read and have a free glass of wine.
Byron Beynon's Cuffs, Steve Griffiths' Landing and David Wheatley's Lament for Ali Farka Touré will be launched at the Centre at an event starting at 7pm.
We look forward very much to seeing you there.
Contact: 01792 463980
Wednesday, 2 April 2008
Tuesday, 1 April 2008
Monday, 31 March 2008
The illustration here is of the frontispiece of a book of travels in India by Emma Roberts, one of many enterprising and insightful Victorian women travellers covered in my book.
Friday, 28 March 2008
Apologies for the low profile recently. Easter and overwork are the culprits but now there is to be a burst of activity according to a schedule that has arrived today from my publishers. This will enable me to do a bit more orthodox blogging as I set off promoting my new book, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire about the Victorian travellers and explorers. Next Tuesday, 1st April, is publication day and I shall be launching the book with a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival. The next day, just to complicate matters, I am in Liverpool to celebrate the recent publication of my other new book about Liverpool (see details to the left here) at a reception at the Everyman Theatre at 5.30. Do come along if you are in the city on Wednesday. Production delays have caused this rare co-incidence. On Friday I shall be closeted at the BBC doing radio interviews. You lucky folk in BBCs Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, and Hereford and Worcester (so far) will be able to hear the interviews. Later in the year I will be at other festivals, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August and I will be sending dispatches from those fronts.
Yesterday I was at Queen Mary College University of London in Mile End being grilled by some very clever students about my Liverpool book as part of their course on Contemporary Writing. As well as studying contemporary writing the students have some visits from the live animal and I thoroughly enjoyed an interesting and lively discussion.
Monday, 17 March 2008
My new book from Liverpool University Press, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool is the occasion of an interview with Mark Thwaite at the Book Depository. It will be launched in Liverpool on 2 April at 5pm at the Everyman Theatre (where Peter Postlethwaite is due later in the year to wow the European Capital of Culture with his King Lear).
As Mark quite rightly points out below, he is another fine citizen of that great city, as well as a superlative bookman.
The picture, by the way, is of Liverpool's Liver Buildings topped by one of the famous Liver Birds.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
I think it was Hazlitt who said that whenever he heard about a new book he went and read an old one. Not exactly in that spirit perhaps but noticing that Hanif Kureishi had a new book out I realised I hadn't read the last one that was sitting on my shelf gathering dust. His memoir of his father, My Ear at His Heart: Reading my Father (2004) is one I should have read, having made a couple of attempts to write a little about my own father in two books, A Short Book About Love (2001) and my latest, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool as well as in a couple of published poems. Where I made some fleeting references (in the future I will be doing this at greater length) Kureishi devotes a whole book to his father who worked at the Pakistan Embassy in London as a minor functionary but who harboured a life long desire to be a writer. His son discovers an unpublished manuscript by his father and it sparks a book-length interrogation supplemented by much autobiographical material. It's a fascinating book in many ways though Hanif K will strike some as not an easy person to love. There's a narcissistic streak as when he writes coolly: "I liked women, their bodies and their concern for me. Sometimes they liked me." Elsewhere he points out that working as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre was good for picking up girls and having sex with them in the toilets after the house lights went down. Kureishi has no problem about such revelations and it's not so much his rather glum accounts of sex and drug-taking in the suburbs but the strange absence of women in his description of his family life that is puzzling. His mother, for example, who was a painter and who took him every day to the library he says (a feat that surely merits a mention alongside his father's literary enocuragement) is virtually invisible and his only sister, Yasmin completely out of the narrative. An article in last week's Independent by her suggests that sibling rivalry is a big issue with the Kureishis and, if Yasmin's charges are true, he has misrepresented both his family and her as well as being cruelly nasty about her own writing career. Family feuds are best kept out of and the truth is always hard to establish but it's odd that someone so right-on as Kureishi is, without being actively sexist, so uninterested in the lives of women, particularly, it seems, those (including former partners) who have found themselves in his books. It's an old issue (he himself mentions Philip Roth's experience of being reviled by his extended family for the way in which he portrayed his community) and one that probably won't be going away.
Monday, 3 March 2008
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
I've just been thinking about James Joyce's notion of the "epiphany", that moment of illumination that every artist spends his or her time hoping for. In Stephen Hero Joyce writes: "By an epiphany he [Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments." Photographers too have this hunger to seize what Cartier Bresson called "le moment décisif". Willy Ronis the photographer called his trade a "chasse aux images", during which it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of wily game got away from the huntsman. But I wonder how conscious all this is? Like happiness which can never be sought but which visits us as a gratuitous by-product of whatever thing it is we were doing, the artist's shaft of light just suddenly shines out at precisely the moment when it wants to. The trick of course is to be trained, poised, limber, for the moment when the heavens open. That is what differentiates an artist like Joyce from the rest of us, I suppose.
Wednesday, 20 February 2008
The death this week of the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, credited with inventing the nouveau roman or 'new novel' in the 1950s, has once again highlighted the supposed differences between the 'traditional' and 'avant garde' novel. John Sturrock, that excellent interpreter of French culture to the reluctant British, wrote in his Independent obituary: "He had come to literature, unusually, from mathematics and the hard sciences; and rather than perpetuate it, his declared intention was at long last to bury it." As Sturrock goes on to show R-G softened over the years and it was a late novel, La reprise (2001) that I last read and found it actually richly imaginative, mysterious and atmospheric in its immediately post-war setting, and the plot (the bit that is always the bone of contention between the Anglo-Saxon realists and those pesky continental 'experimentalists') was intriguing - though don't, please, ask me to summarise or explain it! I wonder if some of this is just a storm in a teacup, especially when many of the 'avant garde' techniques have been quietly appropriated by the 'mainstream' novelists. I am currently re-reading, and finding myself lost in admiration for, E.M. Forster's Howards End. Written in 1910 before the nouveau roman circus arrived in town it gives me as much pleasure as La reprise. As with those people who hate contemporary classical music because it doesn't sound like Mozart I feel that you don't need to choose. You can have both. You can double your pleasure. As a professional hedonist I wouldn't want it any other way.