Archive | July, 2012

To read widely or read deeply?

21 Jul

Widely or deeply, then? That, over the last couple of days, seems to have been the question for discussion in the Dove Street Inn with my writing and reading friends. Do you find a few writers whose work you love, plough your way through their works and then revisit them on numerous occasions?  Or do you keep seeking out new writers, constantly searching for new and different reading experiences, aware that life is brief and literature vast? Gabriel Zaid’s brilliant little volume, So Many Books, seems to say it all. So which approach is better?

To an extent, of course, it’s a false dichotomy. You can do both, up to a point.  It depends partly on how much time you have/make for reading. I don’t have a TV, and yet still I only manage to read around 20 books in a good year (yes, I keep a reading diary and have done since 1999 –  how anally retentive is that?). Perhaps our mutual friend, the World Wide Web might be to blame…  My friend, Jon, on the other hand, reads around 40 books a year, and we’re not talking about trash here either. It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s a wide reader. And then there’s my friend, Steve, who took redundancy as a postman and now dedicates his days to reading – ah, what a life – but tends to find writers whom he likes and then mines their canons deeply.

For myself, I’m always looking out for something different to read, but when I find a book that has some special quality to it, I’m tempted to find out more about the author. Sometimes it leads to a dead end, sometimes to a road opening out toward the horizon. I loved Magnus Mills’ first two novels, The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that they’re comic masterpieces. I read the third, the fourth, the fifth… each with a sense of anticipation and each, ultimately, with a feeling of disappointment. Conversely, everything I’ve read by Perec, Calvino, Kundera and Golding has been worth the time and effort.  Some writers restrict us to just one book. John Kennedy Toole, author of the brilliantly idiosyncratic A Confederacy of Dunces, wrote no other book.  He took his own life after almost every publisher in America had turned down his manuscript.

It’s obvious, really, that reading writers in translation is likely to open up a world of possibilities for discovering new books of interest (though we’re also reliant on the quality of the translator’s work unless, like my father at 81, you’re reading books in French, German and Italian). English writers, though their craft may be admirable, rarely seem to be writing about themes that grab my attention. It may well be that those books are out there but with my limited reading time I’ve missed them.  So instead, I find myself reading translated works at least half of the time.  In the last year, I’ve read Roberto Bolaño’s wonderful The Savage Detectives, Ferenc Karinthy’s disturbing dystopia, Metropole and Diego Marani’s disorientating tale of the Winter War, New Finnish Grammar. As ever, I’ve gone back to Perec to read A Man Asleep and Things: A Story of the Sixties, both of which were a delight. I returned also to Kundera and The Joke, a book I’d started and then lost – it happens to me more often than it should. It just served to reinforce how trivial is the subject matter of so much that gets published in this country.  And then, of course, there’s America, a whole world in itself… I read Visits from the Drowned Girl, Stephen Sherrill’s rather disappointing follow-up to The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, which was truly unique. The Dice Man, though, was entertaining, but still shockingly amoral after all these years.

Which brings us to Haruki Murakami.  Both Jon and Steve have told me that I should read him. The guy in the Bond Street Waterstone’s said the same. He recommended HardBoiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  I read it. And though it had some nice touches, I was distinctly underwhelmed.  Ah, but it turns out that I’ve read the wrong book…  The bookseller was mistaken. I should have read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore.  Generally, I’ll give an author a try and decide to cut my losses if I don’t enjoy the book that I’ve chosen. A couple of years ago, it suddenly struck me, that at the rate I read, I shall only be able to explore a few hundred books more at most (cheerful thought, isn’t it?).  It makes that next choice all the more important. Given the respect that I have for my friends’ opinions, though, I shall be taking Norwegian Wood with me to Brittany.

If you embark on these voyages of discovery then you need a guide, some kind of chart to follow, a navigator to interpret for you. That’s where friends come in. You don’t have to have met them, though.  They don’t even need to be alive.  What better guide to the fiction of the first thirty years after the war is there than Anthony Burgess’s Ninety-Nine Novels?  I found this short guide to be invaluable, a gift from the widest reader and writer of them all. I was so taken with it that when I came across another second-hand copy, I bought it to give to a friend. I’ve yet to do so. Any takers?

Have I answered my own question, then?  I’m not sure.  It’s all a matter of perspective. The legendary Norfolk-born-and-bred philosopher, Norman Hart, once had to deliver a speech on the theme of ‘Travel Broadens the Mind’. His conclusion was that it doesn’t, that you should remain in Norfolk instead, in God’s own county.  And perhaps for some of us that’s just what we need.

Jon is getting married in seven weeks’ time.  So I shall take this opportunity to say all the best to him and Suzy.

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Worlds to explore

Image © PSR

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Citizens of the Woof Polite…

19 Jul

Citizens of the Woof Polite, you have everything to gain by your chains.

As I’ve already declared, I’m a great admirer of the French-based literary movement, the Oulipo. L’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature was home to some of my favourite writers. Those experiments with constraint produced fascinating works of literature: Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual in which works of art are meticulously constructed only to be systematically taken apart with a palindromic symmetry bordering upon madness, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies in which the guests at a wayside inn are unable to speak and so we must infer their stories through cards drawn from a tarot pack, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style where the same prosaic tale about an argument on a bus is retold 99 times as a dream, as a haiku, as a mathematical expression…

I am no mathematician, being rather an economist by training. Nor am I fluent in French, despite spending several weeks a year at my Breton writing retreat, ‘Kerplonk’. So when my fictional output is published and subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize (struggling writers have to be optimists, you know), I’m unlikely to receive my invitation to the Oulipo (optimistic but a realist too). I have no option, then, but to propose a new, Anglophone movement instead.

And so here it is, my rallying cry to those writers in English who love to use constraint and playfulness in their work. This may be considered a first draft for a Woof Polite Manifesto. The straight narrative is no longer required. We have television and documentary for that if we desire. We need writers who aspire. Join the fight against Enid Blyton for grown-ups, against wizards and vampires and biblical conspiracies. Come and join me in this literary movement of one, the Workshop of Potential Literature or Woof Polite (the comic writer, Alexei Sayle once noted that anyone who uses the term ‘workshop’ to describe a group of people who don’t actually make anything must be a ‘prat’, but we shall overlook this). Stuart Kelly, author of  The Book of Lost Books, you’re a shoe-in. J Huw Evans, my friend and fellow East Anglian writer, you’re a Polite Woofer even if you don’t know it. Lipograms, palindromes, anagrams, buried sonnets, constraints of every kind, let us use whatever weapons we find to hand.

Citizens of the Woof Polite, you have everything to gain by your chains.

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Citizens of the Woof Polite, you have everything to gain by your chains

Image © PSR