Archive | May, 2014

Tolstoy didn’t have to paint his own ceiling

30 May

If there’s one thing that we can say for certain about Count Leo Tolstoy, it’s that he didn’t have to paint his own ceilings. I don’t suppose he had to decorate his hallway, staircase or landing either. I, on the other hand, have spent the past week doing exactly that. That’s one of the differences between the count and me. As a consequence, I’ve written nothing during a week off work. It’s one of the problems of being a writer who also has to work for a living, in a job that doesn’t pay very well. The great Russian didn’t have to worry about DIY or the day job while he was cranking out Anna Karenina. There’s a further difference (and it’s not just my lack of an heroic beard). Tolstoy also happened to be a literary genius, whereas I merely claim to be one in moments of arch, exulted self-belief/delusion.

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Restoring my house rather than writing the next ‘War and Peace’…

It’s been a poor week for writing, then. But while I’ve been decorating, I’ve been listening to the radio. I’m currently re-reading Max Sebald’s Vertigo. The late German writer is one of my literary heroes, so I was delighted to chance upon a programme about him presented by Iain Sinclair (another writer whom I admire). I enjoyed it so much that I listened to it again on BBC i-player later the same day. And since then, I’ve been digging into the BBC Desert Island Discs archive. This remarkable treasure trove goes all the way back to the 1940s. It’s symptomatic of the moronic times in which we live that there’s a clamour to stop publicly funding the UK’s state broadcaster. It’s the same impulse that has seen libraries closed down while the richest in this deeply unequal society have been receiving tax cuts. Rant over… I’ve been rummaging through the author interviews. So far I’ve listened to Stephen King, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jan Morris, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Umberto Eco and it’s been a fascinating experience. Guests get to choose eight pieces of music and then are asked which one they would keep if they were allowed only one choice. King and Ishiguro both kept something by Bob Dylan, McEwan and Eco selections from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Morris’s choices were almost all by Irving Berlin, Amis’s by Oscar Peterson. Odd, but there you go… McEwan also chose something by Van Morrison, usually a give away that a guest isn’t really interested in music at all. Listening to writers talk about their lives and work is a great way of learning. All of those self-promoting authors out there on social media, tweeting and messaging about themselves and their books, are missing the point. More listening and less shouting would be a much more productive way of moving their work forward, always presuming that’s of interest to them.

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Stubborn damp patches in the hall resist treatment…

I actually find decorating immensely satisfying. You stand back at the end of a job and look at what you’ve achieved. When I bought my current house in the English suburbs five years ago, it was a total basket case. It was the only way that I could afford to buy somewhere. It had been in the same family since it’d been built in 1925. Nothing had been done to it for decades and every single room needed stripping back and starting again. I’ve only just got around to the mammoth task of redecorating the hall, stairs and landing. It’s an elegant old house with a hint of Arts and Crafts style about it. There’s a pleasure to be had in picking out its detailing. I’m sure that there’s a parallel to be made here with the care and craft required to produce great books.

I’ve also been prevented from writing by an excruciatingly painful infection and an invasive test due to a health scare. Fortunately, I appear to have come through it all. It seems that I may live to write another day, after all. Ah well, I must count my blessings (ouch, that pun is dreadful…). Here are my Desert Island Discs (since Kirsty Young won’t be asking me for them):

1. Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield

2. Norwegian Wood by The Beatles

3. Wonderful Life by Black

4. Love Song by The Cure

5. Sound and Vision by David Bowie

6. No One Knows by The Queens of the Stone Age

7. Sinfonia Antarctica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

8. More than a Feeling by Boston

Maybe I’ll explain why in a future post. What would yours be?

All text and image © PSR 2014

One Star or Five?

24 May

Six years after everyone else, I’ve got around to joining Goodreads. I’m rapidly discovering that the site is crammed with people from around the world who are genuinely interested in books rather than those on certain other sites who are there just to push ‘product’. And among the reviews, all manner of books are presented as works of genius..

One of the most noticeable aspects when you look at members’ reviews is how certain books seem to polarise opinion. A five star review will be followed by another with one, often stating that the reader couldn’t finish the book. These are books that ‘get a reaction’, and in general that must be a good thing, surely. And it seems to me, that it’s books at either end of the spectrum that provoke this sort of response. Books that I love (by inspirational writers like those in the photo below) will receive eulogies from like-minded readers only to be dismissed by other readers as ‘boring’ or ‘pretentious’. Examples of ‘kidult’ fiction, on the other hand, will be declared literary masterpieces by the critics of Calvino and Borges.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever... It  could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever… It could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I belonged to a writing group, my own work would receive a similarly split response. I tend to think that you must be doing something right if your writing pleases kindred spirits while annoying those with limited horizons and no work ethic when it comes to writing. I’ve remarked before, which side of the divide you’ll find me on. There’s no sense in standing on the sidelines of your own blog. I’ll be manning the barricades in defence of complexity and depth, ambition and experimentation, throwing metaphorical Molotov cocktails at writing that’s lazy, juvenile and shallow.

Curiously, even as I type this post, sitting in Caffe Nero, there’s a man, clearly on a blind date, slating The Great Gatsby as preposterous and pretentious. Fitzgerald’s book is far from being my favourite book, but I can appreciate its craftsmanship and originality. I suspect that Romeo’s one star review is a reflection of his philistinism and intellectual laziness. She seems to think he’s wrong too. It must be his chat-up lines, rather than his erudition, attracting her five star reviews…

All text © PSR 2014. Image found on Goodreads – its provenance is unknown to me.

That Gut-wrenching Moment

15 May

Sometimes in a book, there will be a short episode or event of such power that it casts its shadow over all that precedes and comes after it. Typically, it will be a moment that shocks you then leaves you desolate. It’s a rare achievement and etches the book into your memory. To be truly effective, there can be only one such moment in a novel. We’re not talking about plot twists here. Post-Tales of the Unexpected, plot twists have become as hoary an old cliché as describing something as hoary and old. It might be a revelation, stripping away much that the reader had previously believed about that fictional world. It doesn’t have to be, though. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has such a moment as does Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (in order to avoid plot spoilers, the scenes to which I’m referring have been relegated to footnotes at the end of this post). They would be powerful books without these moments but their inclusion adds to them immeasurably. Much less well known is Andrew Cowan’s Crustaceans, a work of subtlety and power also containing one of these pivotal moments. Such scenes haunt the imagination and memory, sometimes years or decades after you first read them.

Andrew Cowan's novel, as its title suggests, contains an unforgettable trip to the seaside...

Andrew Cowan’s novel, as its title suggests, contains an unforgettable trip to the seaside…

More recently, I read Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole, the first of the late author’s books to be translated from the Hungarian into English. I keep visiting the book store in the hope that another translation has been commissioned and that it’ll match up to this book. Sad but true – that’s the kind of book junkie I am…  Metropole contains one of those episodes, perhaps the finest example that I’ve come across to date. Whereas those in the novels by Orwell and Ishiguro darken the despair that we already feel, Karinthy’s episode offers a moment of hope, following a series of reverses in the protagonist’s fortunes. That the hope proves to be illusory only deepens its impact. The original Hungarian title of the novel was Epepe, named after one of its principal characters. This was deemed insufficiently marketable, one assumes, when the book was translated into English. During the period of the Hungarian People’s Republic, such matters would have been unimportant (some things about the past are better…). I’m guessing that the new title was intended to carry echoes of Metropolis, to suggest an ultra-modern and alienating city such as the one depicted in Fritz Lang’s silent movie. I suspect it also carries a hint of this key moment, which takes place at a metro station…

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t managed to achieve this effect in any of the books that I’ve written to date. It’s not for the want of trying, though. It remains an aspiration. I wonder if any of my readers know of novels that utilise this powerful technique…

Plot Spoilers

Nineteen Eighty-Four

It’s the point where Winston and Julia’s run-down love nest is revealed to have been a trap and they’re arrested by the Thought Police.

You were the dead, theirs – that is, the proles’ – was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two equals four. ‘We are the dead,’ he said. ”We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully. ‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them. Winston’s entrails seemed to have turned into ice… 

Metropole

The protagonist, Budai has arrived by mistake in a city where nobody speaks a word that he can understand. And then he has an encounter.

One time, heading home on the metro, he was just descending the long escalators… when he suddenly spotted a man holding a Hungarian magazine. It was no mistake… This was such an unexpected shock that he had no sooner registered it than the man holding it, an elderly, grey, bespectacled figure in a worn green overcoat, had already passed him and was now behind him… Budai screamed out… ‘Hello! Look this way!’ The man addressed turned around, his expression astonished, as if hearing a voice from another world. 

Needless to say, Budai loses track of the man among the crowd at the metro station and never sees him again.

Never Let Me Go

The novel concerns people who’ve been cloned, merely for the purpose of providing donor organs for others. The gut-wrenching moment comes when the characters realise that the donations won’t stop if they survive their fourth donations. The narrator comments:

“There’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. It’s horror movie stuff…”

All text © PSR 2014 except the excerpts quoted from the named authors. Image © PSR 2014.

Readers and Writers

10 May

This site is all about reading and writing. I’ve had little time or head-space for either recently. As a consequence, both my work-in-progress and this blog have been somewhat neglected. My life has been going through one of its periodic phases of turmoil. And so the same has been true for reading.  I have, though, managed to finish re-reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a book much concerned with the relationship between reader and writer, a theme beloved of semiologists from Roland Barthes onward. I’d already been thinking about this relationship as a result of joining Goodreads. Initially, my membership was just as a reader. For me, reading’s every bit as important as writing. Noticing that just about everyone else there was listed as a writer, I thought I’d better join the bandwagon. Curiously, for a site of this nature, some members have thousands of friends but mention not a single book that they’ve read… Odd. Everyone is a writer these days, it would seem, but often not a reader. I’ve just written a review of Calvino’s novel on the site, where I described it as an ‘event book’, one of those that divides your reading into a before and after. It’s a book that’s had an enormous influence on my approach to writing.

Readers don’t need to be writers. Writers, though, it seems to me, must be readers. Having engaged with the writing community from time to time over the last couple of decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some talented writers who are passionate about books. The worst work that I’ve encountered has always come from those who don’t read. Either such writers read nothing or they read and re-read the same safe, genre-restricted books. There’s an entire world of great writing out there from which we can choose to learn, or not, as the case may be. And when it comes to their own work, bad writers tend not to re-read and they don’t revise. That’s where the real work of the writer takes place, of course. Craftsmanship, painstaking attention to detail… it’s all too much trouble for those who are more concerned with the vainglory of authorship and artefact than they are with the written word.

And talking of reading and Goodreads, I found a the list on the site compiled from the votes of some 37,000 readers and entitled ‘Best Books of the 20th Century’. The top fifty comprises titles that make me despair for the future of the novel, the product of what we might term the infantalisation of the intellect in the 21st century. That J K Rowling (nos. 6, 22 and 37) could teach Calvino a thing or two about writing, apparently. Georges Perec (I couldn’t find any of his works in the top 600) has much to learn from Richard Adams (no. 41). At the same time, some great books have been voted for too. A genuine divide does seem to be opening up in the world of books, like that between the resistance and the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 (no. 11),  between the revolutionaries and the police in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (no. 174). I know which side I’ll be fighting on. How about you? Exciting times indeed…

05-10-2013 17;56;13

All text and images © PSR 2014