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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. 

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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. 

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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

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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… 

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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.

Hmm…

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. 

Interviews with Experimental Writers: No. 1, M.J. Nicholls

25 Mar

Here we introduce an occasional series of posts to this blog, interviewing fellow experimental writers. First up is M.J. Nicholls, author of The House of Writers and Postmodern Belch. As we shall see, M.J. modestly states that he is not a writer of experimental fiction but merely following in the footsteps of the craft’s great exponents. You can find him on his blog and on Twitter (just click the links). He also works as an an editor at the innovative Verbivoracious Press. 

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The House of Children’s Book Illustrators

What first got you interested in experimental writing?

Reading Flann O’Brien and Georges Perec as an impressionable man-child. A prominent Scottish man then introduced me to Gilbert Sorrentino and the saloon doors were blown open.

Who are your major influences? Why?

Any author with a penchant for wordplay, fiddling with form, and a strong humorous voice. Gilbert Sorrentino showed me the pleasures of play, and the tantalising possibilities of the novel outside the world of conventional fiction. Other authors I worship include Flann O’Brien, B.S. Johnson, Raymond Federman, Christine Brooke-Rose, and the Oulipo writers. The filmmaker Armando Iannucci sparked my passion for humour with his talent for surreal, satirical writing and inventive language.

Are you interested in experimentation in other fields of the arts?

Not with the same fervour as in fiction. I’m an avid viewer of European cinema and its charming curiosities and innovations: most recently, the work of Dutch auteur Alex Van Warmerdam whose warped tragicomedies like The Dress and Waiter exhilarated me with their unhinged imaginative visions.

What would you say is experimental about your writing? What is your writing process?

I wouldn’t use ‘experimental’. I pin that term on proper innovators (see list above), whereas I tend to frolic in their wake. I write with a blurb-outline of the novel and wing the rest. Detailed plans and intentions are too tempting to mash. Usually, I prefer writing in short-burst chapters and use lists, dialogue-only sections, repeated phrases, and semi-confessional shticks, to break up the standard narration.

How long did it take you to write The House of Writers? Where did the idea come from?

About two years. I was worried about the surfeit of writers out there and the dwindling number of readers in here. At some point in the future, when faced with the public’s apathy towards reading, I wondered what might happen to the last cluster of writers who refuse to surrender their pens. So I invented a place for them to practise their professions, albeit in a passionless and programmatic capacity.

What were the particular problems you faced in writing it? How pleased are you with the end results?

At first I wanted the novel to focus on one character and his madcap adventures up and down the floors. I became bored with this narrative, so started a sequence of splintered stories from inside the building. This splintering became more appropriate for the novel, and made the thing more pleasurable to write. I ended up with a more coherent structure than I had imagined. The end result was published, which convinces me it has some worth.

What are you working on at the moment?

The last in a trilogy of novels on writers, readers, and publishers. The House of Writers is the first, and the second (not published yet), The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die, I completed last year. The last novel, The Consultation Room, is ‘about’ the manipulation of readers and writers by middlemen, and the impact this has on the calibre of the literature we’re made to confront in bookshops. 

What are you reading at the moment?

Beckett’s How It Is (an unpunctuated monologue of a man crawling through the mud), J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Volume Two (breathtaking apocalyptic and dystopian parables), and Carlos Fuentes’s Adam in Eden (alongside G. Cabrera Infante, my favourite Latin American writer).

Which one book would you recommend to someone wishing to investigate experimental fiction?

I would invite readers to peruse the catalogues of Dalkey Archive Press, FC2, New Directions, Verbivoracious Press, et al. 

If the Oulipo invited you to join would you do so? What about the Illuminati?

If the Oulipo invited me, I would know they had been seized by the Illuminati. I would perform an intervention at once with a copy of the Oulipo Compendium and a spatula.

There you have it, then.

I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me about his writing. Below is an extract, Writer Portraits, from The House of Writers (Sagging Meniscus Press), available to buy on Mammon-Goliath-Mammoth (otherwise known as Amazon) and elsewhere. 

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Mr Nicholls

Movements

Freed-in-Fiction

The Freed-in-Fiction movement was the hippest club for intellectual dropouts, child/wifeless male academics, and assorted creatives unwilling to face up to their personal problems. A coterie of exhausted English Lit & Creative Writing students, failing upon graduation to rise to the challenge of carving careers for themselves in teaching or editing or corporate proofreading, decided that their fictional creations were far more alive and interesting than their real lives, and elected to neglect the quotidian in favour of vicarious living through their novels. One of the founders, Dan Inch, laid down various rules to help direct the group, the first being a complete shunning of publication of any kind—to publish was to acknowledge that books (and themselves) existed in the real world, whereas they were looking for an ontological loophole that excused them from the business of living (choosing to dismiss their actual corporeal presences on the planet as irrelevant). The second was that their physical presences on the planet were to be treated as part of their ongoing oeuvre—an unwritten extension of their books through the medium of movement and speech. This unhinging of reality, naturally, led to deviant behaviour. One writer in his novels had written an antihero who went around shooting corporate criminals and having sex with random beauties whenever one wandered into the narrative. This behaviour, replicated in real life, was not repeated, although the author beat up random bankers, shop managers, or anyone who appeared to be indulging in capitalist excess, and conducted himself in improper ways around women with pinching and unsolicited touching. These writers were commonly regarded as laughable and clueless until a harsh winter finished them off.

The New Established Writer Movement

New writers, i.e. those who had been passed over by agents and publishers for decades, chose to establish themselves as established writers. To achieve this, a list of books published overseas was invented, alongside false overseas agent and publisher contact info (including false agent and publisher websites), and new (i.e. old) manuscripts were sent to UK publishers with the salvo of a respected publishing history (in Australia or New Zealand) to help pique the interest of agents and publishers. If successful, The New Established Writers would find their latest (or earliest) novel published and, depending on sales, find their non-existent backlog sped into print to meet the demands of a burgeoning audience. Most of the writers had ten or so complete novels in their drawers, and in some cases a whole catalogue was “re-issued” simultaneously (with the author having to typeset and print fake copies privately to send to their real publishers so facsimiles could be made). This movement was exposed in a similar manner to the The New Writer movement some years earlier, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Serial Listing Movement

These writers believed that the furniture of conventional novels was superfluous; that the ordered line-by-line dialogue of characters was superfluous; that the linear page-turning plot was superfluous; that deep insight into the human condition was superfluous; that the finger-tingling all-over assault on the brain and body produced by the most masterly of stylists was superfluous; that the words on the page themselves attempting to communicate something or nothing at all were superfluous; that double or triple meanings were so many layers of mouldy custard within a smelly trifle; that the spooky transference of art from brain to page was mystical bunkum; that the physical rigor required to bring books to fruition was a lazy dreamer’s hyperbole; that the bitter sacrifice of sanity, soul, and sexual needs was the pitiful cry of a loner; that all the precious components of timeless literature could be reduced to a series of blank lists with no substance or heart. The movement was criticised as a direct nouveau roman rip-off, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Anti-cis-heteronormativist Movement

This movement set about rewriting literature with the assumption that all characters were trapped in false gender identities, and by allowing characters to realise their true gender roles, free literature from the oppression of the cis-heteronormativists who had been imposing heterosexist ideals on readers since time immemorial. The first rewrite was Jane Eyre, with the famous heroine recast as a pangender transitioning towards a more male-centred outlook. The plot was tweaked to castigate Rochester for his persistence, where he learned to respect Jane’s complex gender position and stronger romantic pulls towards female sexual partners. Further rewrites included David Copperfield realising himself as a queer heterosexual, which better explained his attraction to Dora Spenlow; Molly Bloom identifying herself as a “fifth sex”, outside both genders, outside all non-gender classifications, a separate class known as Bloomism—sort of a magnet for all sexualities, genders and non-genders; and Raskolnikov as a transsexual in process of becoming a woman so he could be kept by a husband and write without having to concern himself with making a living. This movement, while an amusing contemporaneous reimagining of the patriarchal canon and a necessary riposte to the tyrannous influence of university syllabi, suffered due to the lack of talent involved in pastiching the originals. A harsh winter finished them off.

The _______ Movement

Four men who did no writing whatsoever and bragged about their lack of achievements at writing groups, readings, and events. Their belief that more than enough fiction had been penned over the last three centuries was illustrated with the blank notebooks they carried around and the no pens in their pockets (if approached for a pen, they made a show of patting their pockets and declaring: “Sorry, we never need one!”), and if presented with a book published after their inception, they refused with the refrain: “Sorry, for us the buck stopped a while ago!” (the buck meaning new books). In writing classes, the men would sit in silence, staring into space during the live writing portion, infuriating the teachers by insisting on a four-minute silence during their allotted reading aloud time. At author readings, the men would turn their backs on the authors during the readings from their new books and listen to loud punk on headphones, resuming their attention after the applause. If the author’s first book had been published after the group’s inception, the men would book seats and not turn up to the events, leaving the chairs blank as a protest (despite the fact the rooms were usually empty anyway). On online workshops, the men would embed pictures of blank pages, or include a sequence of blank ____ lines, and delete the abusive feedback. One time, an ex-vintner with a first novel out castigated them for wasting his time by standing up to ask a question and singing the chorus to ‘Fernando’ by Abba, humiliating them after the show by exposing their movement as a testament to their own failure as writers, and their pathetic need to flaunt their failure by spoiling the success of others. The harsh vintner finished them off.

Interview text ©PSR and M.J.Nicholls 2017. Novel extract and author photo © M.J. Nicholls 2016. Graffiti image © PSR 2017. 

 

Where Armorica Ends

24 Feb

Finisterre. In some ways, the name tells you all you need to know. Land’s End, the Celtic Fringe, where Europe ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins…

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Travel around the small towns and villages of rural Armorica and you’ll find a society at the edge of the world. The young people, those with professional ambitions, the holidaymakers – they’ve all left. One by one, the amenities are disappearing too. It’s obvious that some of the former café-bars there have closed. The buildings are falling into disrepair. The drapes drawn across the windows of others inform you that they’ve served for the last time. Long ago, Christopher Hutt wrote an insightful and prophetic book about public house closures in England called The Death of the English Pub. I don’t know if a similar work has been written about this phenomenon in northern France, but the pattern is being replicated here, some thirty years later. 

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And those same processes are taking place across Europe. The internet, retail parks, supermarkets, the privatisation of social life, the agglomeration of industry and jobs into the European core… the causes are multi-fold. Smaller communities Europe-wide have had the heart torn out of them. The spaces where village life would have taken place – the chapel, the bar, the games pitch – are public no longer. 

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Sail west from Armorica, then, and you reach America. The pun isn’t mine. It belongs to the master of wordplay and encryption, James Joyce. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” he wrote in the second sentence of Finnegans Wake, that great and impenetrable meditative word-game, “had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor…” As an Irishman, Joyce knew well the “scraggy isthmus” of Europe’s Celtic Fringe. He chose to live in Paris – arguably, as a great artist, it was essential that he worked out of one of the continent’s great cities – but he never stopped writing about Ireland. Those remote and rugged places lay claim to you and won’t let go. 

I’ve seen it happening from my own provincial patch of the writing universe. The Writing Den lies some fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. When I first started spending time out there, it had four bars. The Bar des Sports with its boules pitch is long gone, as is the crêperie and bar with its cast of reprobates. Last year, after several changes of ownership, the bar-restaurant that served as the local truck stop closed its doors.  Now only the Bar Tabac remains open. The post office, grocery, butcher’s, newsagent, hairdresser’s, children’s clothes shop and stores selling electrical appliances and gardening supplies have gone too. The depopulation adds to the quiet and charm. The ruins are charismatic. They increase the region’s hold over me. But I worry where this decline will lead, when it will end. It may not be the end of the world but it sometimes feels as though you arrived there. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Alas, Harry Math’ws

26 Jan

Alas, Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

Avant art, anagrams, grammar-play

Abstract, Dada, Yank astray

Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

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All text © PSR 2017, with apologies to E.J. Thribb.

Image of HM © Ingrid Estrada

Books Yet To Be Read

1 Dec

I’ve just been reshuffling the contents of the bookshelves at Sutton Reeves Heights, in preparation for exciting events. I’m pretty good at decluttering and find it immensely therapeutic – except when it comes to books. I once managed to give away over 800 of them, but that was some twenty years ago. I’ve taken quite a few to the charity bookstore today. But I could do with getting rid of a great deal more. The ones that I’ve read and might read again, the ones yet to be read… They arch their spines at me, defying me to put them out in the cold. 

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New bookshelves appearing…

I’ve alluded before to another trouble I have with books (click here to see). My problem is that once I’ve reached a certain point in a book, I feel that I can’t abandon it. This is ridiculous, of course. I’ve mentioned the difficulty I had in getting through Martin Amis’s London Fields and J A Baker’s The Peregrine. Both books had their merits but they were long and dragged on at times, taking me many months to complete. For the last six months or so, I’ve been stuck on Roy Jacobsen’s Borders. I really enjoyed his Burnt-out Town of Miracles and thought that Child Wonder was an evocative masterpiece. So when I found a newly-translated work by the Norwegian writer in my local bookstore, I bought it straight away. It concerns the Wehrmacht becoming mired in Stalingrad. And it begins promisingly enough, switching between one surreal vignette and another. But it’s left me feeling equally bogged down, somewhere around page 208 of its 281 pages…  

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And yet more shelves…

I’ve acquired two new books by one of my favourite writers, the French experimental novelist, Georges Perec. They’re sitting on those shelves, waiting to be read. They also happen to be his first novel and his last. The latter was thought to have been lost before being found in an attic a number of years ago. I was aware of Portrait of a Man from David Bellos’ superb biography of Perec, A Life in Words. But now I actually have a copy. And, yes, of course, only Perec’s first book could be his last… As for 53 Days, Perec died before completing it, unfinished by the writer rather than the reader. I already possessed a French copy that my father has been reading, but that’s another tale for another post. My American edition of the book – also translated by Bellos – has the extant text plus lots of notes the author made and curious-looking appendices. How exciting is that? And so I’ve come to a radical conclusion. I’m not going to finish reading Borders. Instead I shall start reading 53 Days, in tandem with the immensely talented Colombian illustrator whom I’ve previously mentioned.  

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… and yet more books

I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by Georges Perec, except A Void (La Disparation), his full-length lipogram, omitting the letter ‘E’. I admired it but didn’t much enjoy it, again taking several months to read it. Life a User’s Manual, on the other hand, I have read several times and experience the opposite sensation every time – I don’t want it to finish. That, it seems to me, is the mark of a novel’s success and an inspiration as I stumble toward the finishing line with my own latest work. 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Automatic Writing

15 Nov

I’ve chanced upon a new way of generating stories. My primitive smartphone has apparently developed the ability to send text messages all by itself. It’s a new form of automatic writing. As I was walking into town, I pulled the device out of my jacket pocket to find out what time it was and discovered the following message, addressed to no one:

I was sitting on the bus going home when I saw O’Donnell. Missed your Carlson 😦 

Clearly, it’s the beginning of a story of some kind. But who are O’Donnell and Carlson? And to whom is the first-person narrator addressing himself, this person who somehow lays claim to Carlson? It’s a little disconcerting to reflect that one of the main characters in my last work was called O’Connell and my current one contains several characters whose  surname is Kaarelssens… Has my phone begun to pick up on my subconscious, then? Maybe it’s not so dumb after all.

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The author and his neanderthal-phone.  Disturbingly, The Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy lies just behind his right shoulder…

The things our devices do for themselves – and mine’s not even an Android. The third sentence was absolute gibberish, mind you.

Could okloplooooojn meet two-inchoooa?

I’ve previously considered using predictive text to generate surreal, nonsense pieces in the manner of the Oulipo’s ‘S Plus 7’ technique, replacing the nouns in a piece with the ones that follow at seven alphabetical removes (let’s face it, it’s still preferable to the ‘S Club 7’ technique which replaces all meaning with inanities). So far I’ve resisted. It would appear that my phone has taken matters into its own hands. If you should happen to receive a nonsensical message from me in the near future, blame my phone.  

Maybe you can infer more about O’Donnell, Carlson and that third man than me or my phone. If so, feel free to complete the paragraph for us both in the comment box below. 

All text and images © PSR 2016