PS I would recommend anyone who is interested in war poetry to keep a watchful eye on Tim Kendall's War Poetry blog. Indispensable.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
I was in Arras at the weekend and walked out (in defiance of the tourist office who said it could not be done except at the wheel of a car) to Bailleul Road East Cemetery where the poet Isaac Rosenberg is buried. A few weeks before he died he wrote (the reference is to a poem by Walt Whitman which remained his gold standard for war poetry): "I have written a few war poems but when I think of 'Drum Taps' mine are absurd." They are not absurd and ("Break of Day in the Trenches") among the best. Just a stone's throw away is the (far more populous) German cemetery where several Jewish headstones can be seen among the stark rows of iron crosses. A rather concrete poem about 'the futility of war'?
Saturday, 14 February 2009
Hearing that the first volume of Beckett's collected letters had just been published I reached up to the bookshelf and pulled down at random a slim volume of his novellas that I hadn't looked at for years, including, appropriately for today, First Love. This is Beckett on high form, with that exquisitely mordant irony permeating the whole mad tale ("having lunched lightly in the graveyard"). But to my horror I discovered that the pretty little Penguin (see right) was riddled with typos and in some cases whole sentences were mangled and redistributed, making no sense. For a verbal artist like Beckett, whose words are placed with forensic care, this was lamentable and I flung the book across the room, quickly retrieving the 1984 John Calder Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 which had a perfect text.
I know that Beckett is inimitable and that no one now can write like him, or should even try to, but how rare it is to encounter in contemporary fiction such exquisite style, such purity and intensity of focus. Is it that the talent isn't there or that we don't know how to let it speak, to encourage it? Not a question, I think, that will be troubling the Booker judges.
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
One of the famous stories about the novelist, Malcolm Lowry, whose centenary it is this year is about the loss of the manuscript of his first novel, Ultramarine, when it was stolen from the open Bentley of Chatto editor, Ian Parsons, while he nipped into the office for a minute on his way to Scotland. The story ended happily when a carbon Lowry had thrown away, but which a friend had fished out of the bin, enabled him to rewrite (which he generally did endlessly anyway). But reading Parsons' account in Gordon Bowker's fascinating collection of Lowry reminiscences, Malcolm Lowry Remembered (1985) I was struck by Chatto's endorsement of their reader's report which said that it showed more potential than achievement and for that reason they should do him. "I don't think we shall make a penny, and I think he'll get very mixed reviews...He will never, I think, do four-square circulating-library books, but his talent is one to be encouraged." Would such a memo circulate in Chatto/Random House today?
Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am sceptical of literary prizes, which are more like a lottery than a reliable critical benchmark but I have just read Atiq Rahimi's Goncourt prize-winning novel, Syngué Sabour, (more about that title in a second) and I found it truly excellent. Rahimi is an Afghan exile living in Paris and his three previous books were published in Persian. This is his first in French and, like Kundera, he seems to write like a native. Something approaching 'controversy' has been stirred up by the fact that he chose to write in French and by a certain smugness (see an editorial in Le Monde) about enlightened France being the host for this chilling tale of the brutish misogyny of the Taliban). There are some interesting critical responses on the publisher's website.
The title refers to a Persian legend about the stone on which all human suffering and misery was projected and which, one day, would explode, scattering grief finally to the four winds. The French sub-title is Pierre de patience or 'stone of suffering'. I see that most people seem to be translating this as 'stone of patience' which is literally what the French subtitle says but I wonder if the Latin root of 'patience', meaning to suffer is in there somewhere? It is set in Kabul ("or elsewhere" the author suggests) in a single room where a woman watches the paralysed body of her brutal husband, probably a Taliban fighter, and, since he cannot speak, projects onto him all the pain of her life (much of which derives from him). He becomes her syngué sabour and the final éclat of her repository of grief is powerful and shocking. It is written in a tantalising mix of Beckettian spareness and Arabian Nights fabulating richness and it is a stunning and shocking read. One only has to compare it to another short, highly focussed novella, Chesil Beach, to appreciate its remarkable quality.