La Jalousie

25 May

Man, what a bold experiment, what a battering experience! Robbe-Grillet’s hyper-realist nouveau roman doesn’t make for comfortable reading. Given his choice of title, we can’t say he didn’t warn us. We could hardly expect total immersion in the mind of the “green-eyed monster” to be easy. In any case, ARG isn’t interested in making things easy for us. The story, such as it is, is recounted by a disembodied consciousness, whom we must infer to be the wronged husband although he is entirely absent.

The unfaithful wife and the cuckolder exclude the unseen narrator from their conversations, even though they meet in his home. They discuss the novel they have both been reading, “a standard narrative of colonial life in Africa, with a description of a tornado, a native revolt and incidents at the club…”, the novel Robbe-Grillet could have written:

They have never made the slightest judgement as to the novel’s value, speaking instead of the scenes, events and characters as if they were real… Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends.

This passage seems to me a manifesto. You can feel ARG’s frustration with the “realist” novel and its readers’ expectations. The target of its ire remains in place. It feels painfully like eavesdropping on a book club meeting.

Like a stage drama, all of the “action” takes place in one location, at a farmhouse on a banana plantation somewhere in the tropics, switching only between the veranda, the bedroom, the office and the dining room. A limited range of props is used over and again – a hairbrush, the chairs on the veranda, a squashed centipede, a coffee pot, an ice bucket. Sound effects are repeated – the cries of small predators in the bush, the crickets’ nightly chorus, the hiss of a kerosene lamp… The cast is small – A…, Franck, the Boy, our cuckold-narrator. It’s an ensemble piece for small theatre, staged that we may home in on the narrator’s corrosive, disturbing, all-consuming obsession. If anyone has ever made you jealous, you’ll know how it can expand to fill your every waking moment. It’s the totality of the narrative here.

The novel is also an attempt to present the true nature of perception, the fractured nature of our binary vision, the role of the mind’s eye, the apparently irrelevant details that absorb our attention. I can’t help but be reminded of Picasso’s similar endeavours in paintings such as The Weeping Woman. And from these fragmented pieces, the reader must put together the narrative for him/herself. ARG is challenging the reader, fully involving him/her in his creation. There’s nothing passive here. It’s not a book club “good read”.

Are the narrator’s geometrical obsessions an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world, one that is spinning beyond his control? His senses are confused, overwhelmed. The crackling of the centipede’s mandibles becomes the crackling of the brush in A…’s hair, the crackling of flames in the bush from Franck’s crashed car… The accumulation of detail – geometry, sounds, objects – serves to build a version of reality as it is experienced as opposed to its expression in the vieux roman. It also signals a mind in the grip of obsession. Consider this:

The shiny black curls tremble on her shoulders as the pen advances. Although neither the arm nor the head seems disturbed by the slightest movement, the hair, more sensitive, captures the oscillations of the wrist, amplifies them and translates them into unexpected eddies which awaken reddish highlights in its moving mass.

The passage is unsettling. The narrator is spying on his wife in her bedroom through the slats of her bedroom window (a “jealousy window” in French, apparently). He spends much of the novel doing this. It is also extremely affecting. We feel the narrator’s adoration of this indifferent goddess, the wife to whom he is a mere absence.

A… then is an ellipse, something that must be circled around as an insect will fly around a kerosene lamp. The narrator is fatally drawn to A… He is an insect attracted to a nocturnal flame, in perpetual danger of self-destruction. He is weakened, unable to confront her with his suspicions, destined to move around her from the periphery. And this is his tragedy, every bit as moving in its way as the Moor’s original green-eyed monster.

None of the characters comes out of this well, except perhaps the serving boy. Jealousy is that parody song, Jilted John by Jilted John (a heteronym of comic genius, Graham Fellows). As John, the pathetic narrator sings, Oh she’s a slag and he’s a creep/She’s a tart, he’s very cheap… Indeed. I have read that Perec was dismissive of Robbe-Grillet’s novels. I’m surprised. The description of objects to tell the tale of a young couple’s disappointments is the exact method he employed in his early novella, Things. I’m not sure how many more novels with protagonist-as-unseen-voyeur I’d want to read, but I’m glad I read this one.


Le Citta Invisibili

11 Apr

A pair of stoned dudes sits around, imagining possible worlds. And then the thought occurs to them; are they just a pair of mendicants sorting through the rubbish on the city tip? Shot through with the author’s characteristic wit and levity, Invisible Cities adds another masterwork to Calvino’s œuvre. He dreams for us so that we can share his visions.

And so, Marco Polo returns from his explorations to report to the emperor, Kublai Khan, furnishing him with fabulous descriptions of cities that never were and never can be, fleshing out his accounts with mundane details that are never mundane and musings on ambition and mortality.

Invisible Cities was written shortly after Calvino moved to Paris and was admitted to the Oulipo. It’s no coincidence, then, that mathematics lie behind the construction of the book, just as they did in Perec’s magnum opus, Life a User’s Manual. I found a PhD thesis online that examines this aspect of the composition which is a quarter as long again as Calvino’s book! There’s no space to go into that here.

Part of the fun is to think back and choose your favourite cities. Zenobia, the city on stilts; Armilla, the city of which only the plumbing and sanitary fittings remain, inhabited now by water nymphs; Octavia “the spider-web city”, hanging above a precipice (‘the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long’)… We’re spoilt for choice. How about you? Assuming you’re not among the nay-sayers here, which would you select?

Procopia – “I raise the curtain, the window frames only an expanse of faces…” Gormley installation in Colchester, 2020

All of the jaded, parody reviews above this one serve only to illustrate the beauty of Calvino’s surrealist poetry. They bring to mind the enfeebled versions of the cities the writer sometimes describes. Come, ladies and gentlemen, raise your game. Calvino pricks his own bubble with the Polo-Khan interludes. Find a better angle of attack for your rubber arrows. Inject your satire with a little of the wit and originality that Calvino’s work possesses.

I think it was my recommendation of this short piece to a book club that made me finally renounce such groups forever (or it might have been The Spire – I forget which, but the reaction was the same). I should have known better, of course. Apparently, Invisible Cities is pretentious nonsense. Yes, it’s that lazy, middlebrow label for anything that aspires beyond the norm. We live in an age where poetry is something about which we ought to feel vaguely ashamed or embarrassed. I suspect it’s the suspicion that you think it makes you clever for reading it that goads the book club member. Erm, no, clearly Calvino is the clever one here; his reader merely clings to his coattails for the duration of the journey. “Reading group novel”. That’s actually now a category used by the “industry” (another term that tells you all you need to know). Oh dear.

It’s worse than that, though. Not only are you in danger of being labelled a “pseud” merely for being seen carrying a copy of the book… nothing happens in it. There’s no story (obviously, the stories of the fifty-five cities described don’t count). Where is Calvino’s imagination? There, there, Momma’s gonna read you ‘Harry Potter’, even though you’re a 47 year old banking auditor. I actually have no problem with people who want to read a ripping yarn (or should that be a rip-off yarn in the case just mentioned?) What rattles against the oxidated bars of my gilded cage is the suggestion that a book can be nothing more.

Calvino’s metaphysical comedy speaks best for itself:

POLO: Unless porters, stonecutters, rubbish collectors, cooks cleaning the lights of chickens, washerwomen bent over stones, mothers stirring rice as they nurse their infants, exist only because we think them.
KUBLAI: To tell the truth, I never think them.
POLO: Then they do not exist.
KUBLAI: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying, cocooned in our hammocks.
POLO: Then the hypothesis must be rejected. The other hypothesis is true: they exist and we do not.
KUBLAI: We have proved that if we were here, we would not be.

Ha ha!

Going Missing

27 Dec

Well, it’s been a very long time indeed since last I posted. Thanks to those who, in dribs and drabs, have continued to call by, from time to time. What excuses can I offer? There have been a multitude of complexities and complications in my life, as usual. I’ve also been immersed in the task of putting together some kind of finished version of my latest work-in-progress (it is, after all, over 165,000 words…). If any of my internet writer acquaintances fancy having a read through the manuscript, I’d be most grateful. And this project will very soon result in a welter of web-based activity, all of which is rather exciting…

In the meantime, here are some images from my travels in France in autumn, which it strikes me, I haven’t yet blogged about. How remiss of me…

All text and images © PSR 2017

Mexico City

23 Sep

Last year, I spent two wonderful weeks in Mexico City. It’s a unique and vibrant place. I recorded some of my impressions on this blog. Below is a montage from a multitude of colourful scenes. 

The building in the top right hand corner is Mexico’s oldest skyscraper, I believe, famed for surviving the 1985 earthquake undamaged. Which brings us to recent events… My wife spent a decade living in the city. Many of her friends live there still, all of whom have been touched by the terrible consequences of the latest earthquake in the city. Below is an appeal she has made on behalf of the country and its capital. 

Dear friends in the UK, Colombia and all over the world. LET’S HELP MEXICO AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE.

We can make our donations here:




AMAZON: You can also buy products of a selected wishlist that will be donated to the Red Cross:


There’s a humanitarian crisis everywhere you look, even in our own countries, but today I would like to ask you to put your eyes on México. After the recent earthquakes, many people have died and many others are and will be suffering the consequences of the tragedy in short and long-term. Many people have lost their homes and jobs, and the emotional consequences are huge. But Mexican people are strong and resilient. I know it because I spent some of the most amazing years of my life there. Mexico is my home too and half of my friends live there. I’ve undertaken research into reliable institutions that are receiving monetary donations. Please be assured that your contribution will be in good hands and will serve its purposes. Any contribution will be of great help. If you can’t donate please spread the word or just let Mexican people know that your heart is with them. Any other ideas about how we can help from our homes would be welcome.

If these options don’t work for you, your closest Red Cross Centre can provide further information. Feel free to contact me if you need help related to information in English as some of the information is completely in Spanish, but please have in mind that we don’t belong to any organization, we’re just a small family trying to help the best way we can.

All images © PSR 2017

Inspirational Holiday Reading

17 Sep

Apparently, we’re supposed to read ‘beach novels’ on our holidays. Well, I went swimming in the North Atlantic and read quite a lot over my summer break. But there the comparison  with such expectations ends, I think.

As a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring, I think, than reading a thoroughly researched and well written biography about one of your literary heroes. A few summers ago, I read David Bellos’s excellent biography of George Perec, ‘A Life in Words’. In Bellos’s book, the writer’s life becomes a fitting addition to his canon, a Rabelaisian tale about a unique individual. This summer, it was the turn of ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’, Jonathan Coe’s biography of another experimental writer, B S Johnson. Reading it, I was fired up again about fiction and its possibilities. Uncharacteristically, I even felt moved to thank the author on Twitter for spending eight years researching and writing the book… These days, the general reading public knows Johnson, if at all, as a writer of ‘difficult’ books who killed himself, in apparent despair, at the age of forty. In Coe’s words, Johnson comes across as a complex man, difficult but much loved by his friends. The insights into his creative processes and artistic aesthetic, and the barriers inherent in following such a path, are instructive for any writer seeking to work outside the mainstream. 


My favourite beach… 

One work mentioned in the biography was a collection of short stories by Johnson and Zulfikar Ghose, ‘Statement Against Corpses’, in which the two writers were supposed to reinvigorate the form. By all accounts, they managed no such thing – not that I can comment as the collection is long out of print and I don’t feel like spending over £100 for an old copy, only to have this view confirmed. Instead, I finished reading ‘Difficult Loves’ and ‘Laughable Loves’, early collections by Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, respectively, and was reminded of why I love the work of both writers. Calvino was already exploring worlds through minute and apparently mundane details, much as he would in his final, brilliant collection, ‘Mr Palomar’. Kundera’s comic stories expose the absurdities often found at the heart of human relationships. 


Which half-complete track to follow?

Unfortunately, though, since returning from continental Europe, the demands of my day job and other stresses and strains have sapped my creative energies and progress on my fiction has been slow. I’ve arrived at a time-consuming stage in my vast work-in-progress, tying up all of its loose ends and re-arranging sections within its complex architecture. I’ve also been thinking ahead to my next project, of which I’ll write more in a future post. I have to decide between three options that I’ve had kicking around for some years now: a part-finished novella, a half-completed sequel and an epistolary novel of which I’ve planned much but written  little. Whichever one I choose, though, the work of those who’ve gone before – Perec, Johnson, Calvino, Kundera – remains a guide and inspiration. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Turning Saints to Stone

10 Sep

My wife and I spent a little time this summer at Brittany’s Valley of the Saints. And what a great concept it is. High on a domed hill, commanding views over the depopulated landscape all around it, the setting for the sculpture park is spectacular. The figures represent local saints, frequently concerning themselves with farming and fishing, reflecting life as it was lived in the region until comparatively recently. With submissions from such a wide pool of sculptors, it’s inevitable that the standard varies. In any case, it’s all subjective, I guess, so here are some of my favourites (and isn’t that the late Sir William Golding holding the fish?)… 












All text and images © PSR 2017

Photographic Memory?

26 Jul

A photographic memory isn’t something I possess. I’ll read a book and shortly afterwards I’ll be able to remember precious little about it – the story arc, perhaps, a character and event or two but not much else. This is a common experience, I think. And alongside all of those books, read and then forgotten, are the ones on the shelf yet to be read, books by favourite writers, waiting to be selected. It’s a happy prospect. I’ve noted here before my love for Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera. I have early collections of short stories by both, one called Laughable Loves, the other Difficult Loves. And I’ve never been able to remember which of them wrote which. I’ve resolved this question, at least, as I’m reading the latter and it’s written by the former. Remember. Calvino – Difficult. Kundera – Laughable… 


Is it necessary to photograph the covers of these books to validate the reading experience?

In each of the stories in Difficult Loves, Calvino takes a small event and interrogates it, often to some philosophical end or other. In this, it reminds me of Mr Palomar, the novelist’s last work before his early death deprived the world of his genius. 

I was reading ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ and thinking how remote from our current age it seemed with its references to governesses and wet nurses, when I encountered a passage of remarkable prescience and relevance to our times. You’ll forgive me if I quote from it at length:

You only have to start saying of something: ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ and you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore in order really to live you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second, to madness.


It’s as though Calvino had dreamt up Facebook and Instagram in some terrible dystopic vision (blogging too, at least, in its lifestyle guise, I guess…) and perceived their alienating, dumbing-down effect. There he was, living among the Italian elite some seventy years ago, recognising that what we need is to live each moment rather than try endlessly to record it, showing us that the catalogued artifice is not a substitute for existence, that images and captions are no replacement for genuine human experience. 

Who says that books and old things have nothing to teach us? Those who spend too much time using the cameras on their smartphones or scrolling through the resultant output, I suspect. 

Text © PSR 2017 and the heirs to the literary estate of Italo Calvino. The covers of the paperbacks are © Picador and Faber Books. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Three

14 Jun

Today’s auditory recollections come from PK Read, another fellow blogger and novelist. An American, Paula lives on the French-Swiss border these days. Her WordPress blog can be found here. A poetic writer, her ten sounds are deeply lyrical. And the place in which she grew up sounds as though it would inspire such lyricism. I read a recent manuscript of hers and it was beautifully written and gripped me from the start. Expect to see her novels on the shelf of a library or bookstore some time soon. 

What a good exercise this is! It’s been 30 years since I lived in my homeland – the northern coast of California. And even though I’ve lived other places I loved, when I think of ‘home’ my mind goes straight to that place, a small peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay in West Marin county, just north of San Francisco. Most of the peninsula is national park land, with small inroads of humanity into an otherwise unlogged wilderness surrounded by water on three sides. So here are my sounds:

The rustling and slow song of tall bay trees in an approaching storm, their trunks rubbing against one another in long notes

My father whistling across the forest to get my attention, to call me to dinner

The quiet snick of a breaking twig as an unseen animal notes my presence on a narrow dirt path

The razor call of a red wing hawk from far above

The distant sound of the ocean on low roar on the opposite side of the ridge



The foghorn from the lighthouse 

The crackle and spit of bay logs on a pit fire

The snap and bubble of meat on the grill

The first bars of a song played on my dad’s guitar

The sound of rain percussing on the wood shingles of the cabin roof above my head, late at night, fire out and belly full, the echoes of a song in my mind


Thanks for inviting me!

And thank you for taking part, Paula. There’ll be more auditory memories appearing soon… 

All text © PSR and P.K. Read 2017. Images © PSR 2017. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Two

10 Jun

In a previous post, I wrote about the exiled narrator of my novel-in-progress and the ten sounds he misses from his homeland, “the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs…” and so on. My friend and fellow writer, Mari Biella, has very kindly taken the time to share the ten sounds she misses from home. Originally from the UK, Mari lives in Italy. You can find her blog here. Mari is the author of the excellent “Loving Imogen” and “The Quickening” And here are her auditory memories…

Disjointed memories, partial recollections, fragments of stories… when I’m writing I frequently find myself using these things as a starting-point, and then embellishing them until, gradually, they begin to take on shape and substance. Many of those memories, now I come to think about it, are either aural in nature or coupled with sounds, like when you hear a song and are instantly transported back to a particular time or place. For instance, and in no particular chronological order…

One. I once lived in a fleapit in the inner city, in a crumbling old building next to a railway line. The trains rattled past day and night, with surprising punctuality, and the house frequently rattled with them. At first it was annoying. Gradually I got used to it, and over time it became a comforting sound: come what may, the railway timetable remained a constant. On summer nights I used to sit outside in the shoebox-sized garden and watch the lit carriages slip by in the darkness. Who were the people on that train? Where had they been, and where were they going? What were their stories? Did they guess that someone was sitting out there in the shadows watching them?

Two. Trains were just one of the many and varied sounds that accompanied my life in that place. Every quarter of an hour, day and night, a clock in the nearby civic centre chimed. When all was well and life was happy it sounded like the reassuring voice of a friend. On long, restless nights when I couldn’t sleep, however, it seemed to take on a mocking air, contrasting the relentless passage of time with the strange feeling of stasis that accompanies sleeplessness. I sometimes wondered how many other insomniacs were out there listening to it and feeling the same.

Three. It was an eccentric, colourful place, that area, inhabited by a rich blend of people. Waking early in the morning, I frequently heard a woman on the street below calling “Lena! Lena!” Peering out between the curtains, I would see her standing on the pavement, staring up at an upper window of the house next door. Sometimes Lena came to the window and whispered something back; sometimes she didn’t. I’ve always wondered about the purpose of these early morning visits. I’ve also wondered why, since mobile phones were ubiquitous by this time, the visitor in question didn’t just call or message the mysterious Lena.

Four. One of the advantages of the inner city is that everything you reasonably need is close by. I lived within a stone’s throw of a major sporting venue, and on Saturday afternoons when there was a match or game I would frequently lean out of my window and listen to the distant roar of the crowd. It was such a joyous sound, so full of excitement and exuberance, that it made me smile just to hear it.

Five. We were fans of silly accents in my family. We’d frequently put on exaggerated Welsh accents, or – when we contemplated life across the Severn river – lapse into a daft West Country drawl. We tried our hands at most British regional accents, as well as RP. References to romantic love were frequently made in an impassioned French accent. We attempted American, Mexican, German, Russian and Swedish accents, with varying levels of success.


Six. There have been many times in my life when I haven’t owned a TV. In addition to an endless stream of letters from the TV licensing authority, this entailed relying on the radio for news. I frequently listened to Radio 4, and was enchanted by the Shipping Forecast. The repetition of the sea areas was almost hypnotic, and produced all kinds of images in my mind: fog, fishing vessels, gale force winds, immense waves crashing against rocks. Carol Ann Duffy commemorated the Shipping Forecast in her poem Prayer, and sometimes it really did sound like a strange liturgy.

Seven. I’m an unabashed landlubber, but the sea fascinates me. In Britain, of course, you’re surrounded by the stuff, and – like many British people – I never lived very far away from the coast. I used to go there quite often, sometimes for no other reason than to listen to the wind and the waves. I particularly loved the cry of the seagulls. Sometimes their call seemed to embody the intoxicating freedom of wild, wide open spaces; at other times, it sounded melancholy, almost heartbroken.

Eight. I miss the sound of the rain and wind lashing against the windowpane on stormy nights. I always thought it was very romantic, very Wuthering Heights-esque. Italian weather has a varied repertoire of its own, of course, but it doesn’t seem to extend to that particular combination of wind and rain – “horizontal rain”, as we used to call it.

Nine. I miss the sound of the English language in general; I particularly miss it as spoken by the natives of the city where I lived. “Dark” was pronounced as “dairk”, “park” as “pairk”. “I live in Cardiff” became “I lives in Cardiff”. Expressions of opinion were often prefaced with “not gonna lie to you” (“Not gonna lie to you, but I don’t like coffee that much”) or softened with “not being funny” (“Not being funny, but you’ve put on some timber since I saw you last.”) It was customary, when getting off a bus, to take your leave with a cheery “Thanks, drive!”

Ten. The last, much-missed sound is not peculiar to Britain, still less South Wales. It is, simply, the sound of a city. I live on the edge of the countryside now and, though I like it here, I do sometimes miss the clamour of the urban environment. I began this post by writing about how many of my stories are born of other, incomplete stories. In a city, surrounded by humanity, you are surrounded by many such fragments, and I sometimes feel the lack of them.


Thanks to Mari for sharing these with me. The first of her auditory memories turns out to be similar to one of my narrator’s.

My bedsitter is right at the top of the building on the third floor, where the rooms are smallest and the rents the lowest.  It’s accessed via a side door, leading to the servant’s staircase…  At night, I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of trains pulling into the central station about a kilometre away from here, their diesels thrumming and brakes screeching.  The din might keep another person awake.  I can’t sleep without it.  I often wonder if one of them might be mine.  And when I’m missing my home country, I burn the pine-scented incense cones to remind me…

There’ll be more from the sound archives of remembrance in a future post… 

Text © PSR and Mari Biella 2017, images © PSR 2017

Integration: its beauty, its ugliness

6 Jun

The world becomes ever more integrated. In many ways, to my mind, it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been reminded of this phenomenon over the last week. My Colombian wife and I were in France, listening to Jose Gonzalez, a Swedish-Argentinian who sings in English. I read novels by an Austrian, a Frenchman and an American and began one by a Norwegian. We’d driven down via Belgium from the Netherlands where we’d been staying with my wife’s Colombian friend and her Dutch husband. Along the way we passed lorries coming from every corner of the EU – Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Italy… How sad that Little England has begun to turn its back on the world. Ah, well… And as we travelled back to England, I began to hear news of the latest terror attack, one of the uglier aspects of our global society, perpetrated by individuals with their roots in Pakistan, Morocco and Libya. These events will only end when we’ve truly begun to understand one another and to embrace our differences. 

Below are some of the sights I encountered along the way. 









All text and images © PSR 2017