Wednesday, 28 October 2009
The media obsession with cultural anniversaries is not always complete – look how the books pages missed the fact that this year, nearly over, has been the centenary of Malcolm Lowry – but here's one you definitely haven't thought of. This month is the 35th anniversary of a literary experiment by that delightful and inventive French writer, Georges Perec. In October 1974 he decided to station himself for three days in the place Saint-Sulpice in the posh 6th arrondissement of Paris in St Germain just north of the Jardin du Luxembourg and make a record of everything he saw. Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien (Attempt to exhaust all the possibilities of one particular spot in Paris) his little book is a record of what he saw. All those apple-green 2CVs, buses, Japanese tourists, aubergines (I'd forgotten that's French slang for a traffic warden), taxi-drivers, flâneurs, children, dogs, dossers passed by as he sat in cafés drinking coffee or vittel. Perec loved to tease out the poetry of the ordinary and what might sound like an exercise in obsessive tedium is in fact fascinating as we see a little quartier of Paris under the microscope. The artist, of course, sees what we don't always see and this is of course selective and proves that, in writing, the glory is in the detail and in what is selected rather than left out. This tiny book, with its occasionally glittering observations, has made my week, in that glum period after the clocks went back.
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
I have just finished a fine new collection of poems by the Irish poet and novelist, Martina Evans, called Facing the Public and published by Anvil (£7.95). This is one of the best collections I have read for some time, drawing deep on her experience growing up in Ireland, the youngest of ten children, in a bar and shop in Cork in wonderfully deft and supple narratives. "These look like easy, anecdotal poems," Alan Brownjohn said of an earlier collection, "but they bite." That's certainly true of the new collection too – for beneath the swift-flowing narrative surface lie the raw anguish of childhood experience, and of family life, and the wider political legacy of sectarian and political violence. There's fine, dry humour here that suddenly lays bare the shock of raw experience or betrayal as when she tells of being invited to sit on the knee of a rather too friendly pseudo-progressive Franciscan at her boarding school: "I thought he was the liberated uncle I never had/so when he asked me to sit on his lap/I was genuinely sorry that I couldn't oblige." These are unillusioned pictures of Irish family life, with a sharp political perspective that is taken in by no one. Some of the short prose-poems made me impatient for more of those equally skilful and sharp-seeing novels like Midnight Feast that made Evans's reputation. "Tragedy and cheerfulness are inextricable," Bernard O'Donoghue has said about her poems. The mixture is compelling.
Saturday, 17 October 2009
I step into Stanford's travel bookshop in Covent Garden and what do I see: I have finally become part of that doubtful company: the Three For Twos! The evidence is in this picture that my A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire (Abacus, 2009) is on the front table as part of a 3 for 2 promotion. 16 years after my first book was published I have finally crossed this Rubicon. Will life ever be the same again? Have I joined the fraternity of schlock? Well, not if being adjacent to Mark Mazower's Salonica is what it entails. I must digest this.
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
One of the joys of having finally turned into my publisher a big non-fiction book is that I can return to poetry and I have just come across a glorious (untitled) poem by Elizabeth Bishop written some time in the late 1930s and published for the first time in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters which came out last year in the Library of America series.
Here is the opening stanza:
It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.
Read on p217ff