Tag Archives: Georges Perec

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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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

Is the Experimental Novel Dead?

15 Sep

I note that Tom McCarthy is once again included on the short list for the Mann Booker Prize. He and David Mitchell are touted as the UK’s leading experimental novelists. I wrote before about my experience of reading McCarthy’s novel, ‘C’ and of being unable to finish it. I found its concern with a narrow band of characters from the upper middle class unengaging. In this, the book has far more in common with the work of William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks, it seems to me, than it does with that of Joyce or Beckett. And experimental? Hmm… The timidity of publishers in our dumbed down age stems directly from the industry’s domination by big, risk-averse corporations. I suspect innovative novels are being written out there but no publisher is willing to take a punt on them or the small returns that they might offer. From time to time, something interesting reaches these shores from abroad, a Roberto Bolaño, say, or Diego Marani and reminds us of what is possible. The experimental novel isn’t dead, then. It’s just being buried alive. 

We could draw a parallel with radio. Compare the conservative scheduling of a commercial station like Planet Rock (playing the same old songs by Status Quo and Deep Purple) with the new and interesting bands played on 6 Music. We’ll miss the BBC when it’s gone. New bands will continue to form and experiment but we won’t hear them. They’ll be ignored by Sky Radio 1 and Virgin 6 Music in favour of talent show winners rehashing easy listening from the 1970s. 

‘What genre do you write in?’ asked a new member of my writing group. ‘He writes in a genre of his own,’ remarked Stephen, a writer whom I’ve known for many years. I would make no great claims for the originality my work. I try to write books that I myself would wish to read. I’d describe my fiction as having an ‘experimental twist’ rather than being purely experimental in nature. I aim to intrigue the reader, not to alienate or infuriate him or her. I combine techniques that I’ve encountered in my reading and hope to create something new as a result. And I make no secret of the influence on my work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and WG Sebald, among others, even if I’m not worthy to clean their metaphorical boots. 

An image from my latest manuscript - thank you, Herr Sebald

An image from my latest manuscript – thank you, Herr Sebald

If all fiction becomes backward-looking, harking back to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century or to tired genre stereotypes, cultural stagnation will surely result. We need the experimental novel, even those of us who do not read it. In the past, innovative fiction has renewed the mainstream. Think of the influence of Hemingway or Kafka. Without it, what will fiction have that television or film cannot offer? 

The extract that follows employs a univocalic. That’s hardly new, I know, but the device pushes your writing in interesting directions, forcing you to give up a little control…

Toomo Tork stows down on Box No. 15.  Toomo’s story follows. 

Locos – lots of locos! – roll by.  Tow tons of goods, stocks, so on or so forth.  Box No. 15 follows Box No. 14 follows Box No. 13… from Moscow to Oslo, Rostock thro’ to Porto, Stockholm down to Brno.  Look now.  Boozy old hobos, Olof or Oolf, hop on or off – Toomo too – go to or fro, got no work or odd jobs only – work on crofts or chop logs – short of food, knock off hooch or hock or scotch, croon songs on dobros of doom or gloom, ‘got no tomorrow, only sorrow’.  Crooks, clowns, snoops, so on or so forth, show ghostly photos of lost towns or sons, old dogs or smoky motors.  Locos roll on slowly thro’ frosty woods of dogwood, cob, broom, holly, thro’ hollow nooks, follow flow of cool stony brooks, by smoggy old towns, sooty lorry or loco works, by spooky ghost towns of low blocks (no doors, no roofs, no floors), roll on now, God only knows why.  Cows low on foggy moors – ‘Choo-choo!’  ‘Moo!’ – flocks of rooks or crows roost on rocky knolls, owls hoot from snowy rooftops, poor dogs howl, woof-woof, bow-wow… 

All words and images © PSR 2105

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…

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All text and images © PSR 2014

Goodreads, badspellings…

25 Apr

Setting aside for a moment, the illiterate title of a website dedicated to reading and writing (is it a horror of messy hair extensions that I’ve subscribed to?), I’d like to consider the merits of the ‘social cataloguing’ site Goodreads. Friends kept on mentioning it, so I thought that I’d give it a look. I allowed Goodreads to import my Twitter account followers and within three days I had almost 200 friends on the site. I suppose this illustrates that the more you work on your ‘internet presence’, the more the interconnectivity of the web kicks in. Does all of this serve any purpose, though?

I’m also an author-member of Library Thing. I have to confess that I’ve hardly looked at this site and have found it intrinsically uninteresting. Whether this is due to my not having explored its possibilities or its innately boring nature, it’s difficult for me to say. If Goodreads enables the individual to connect with like-minded readers and writers, that has to be a good thing, I think. I’ve linked up with fellow admirers of Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, for example, so maybe this will lead me to other authors that I’ll like, of whom I’m currently unaware. We shall see. And it’s interesting to discover the books that other people are reading and what they have to say about them. I’ve detected the rot of self-promotion seeping in, though, with one writer/reader listing his own work as his favourite. Hmm…

A large quantity of books hidden behind the Christmas tree in the author's front room...

A large quantity of books hidden behind the Christmas tree in the author’s front room…

All social media have their limitations. They’re about the people that you meet and how able you are to interact with them, given the obstacles that each of the sites inherently places in your path. I enjoy blogging and reading the posts that my friends write (please take note, WordPress!). Once you reach a certain number of followers/blogs followed, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Twitter’s USP of limiting communication to 140-word characters ultimately undermines the ability to connect. And that’s to say nothing of the constant stream of self-promotion that makes it all but impossible to pick out anything of interest. It’s the same needle in a haystack that blights your blog feed. I find Facebook pretty boring in the main with the same quizzes and YouTube clips endlessly recurring. And I just can’t get interested in Pinterest or Instagram.

I’ve actually discovered an interesting new social medium. It has connectivity pretty much the world over. There are no advertisements or outages. It’s called RealLife. You go to a café or bar and talk to people. If you don’t like what you find in your news feed or comment box, you walk to another café or bar and talk to someone else. Then when you’ve had enough, you catch the bus home.

The fact that Goodreads is now owned by Amazon strikes me as worrying. That one, hyper-capitalist corporation should have so much control over a vital cultural activity is a disturbing development. Democracy and government, communities and national boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the corporate age.  Kautsky got this aspect of society right, it would seem.

Any thoughts?

All text and images © PSR 2014

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Five

19 Dec

When I kicked off this series of posts, I listed the eight books that I’d take with me but didn’t justify their inclusion. I didn’t think much about it. That’s the game. I just grabbed them and ran. As I’ve already remarked, there are at least a hundred others I might have chosen, but these were the first that came to mind. And my three guests so far have chosen another five that I might well have taken (Lord of the Flies, The End of the Affair, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The titles that I’ve chosen have all influenced my own writing, in one way or another. And they reflect the global nature of my reading tastes. There are just two by my fellow countrymen and they’re both from the 1940s. There are as many entries by Czech authors, which perhaps says something about the desultory state of the literary scene in my homeland. The list is completed by a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Argentinian. And yes, I do read work by modern writers too but nothing comparatively recent popped into my head at that moment (I might have taken Alva and Irva, say, or The Savage Detectives – damn it, I wish I had now…). Three of my choices are novellas and who now publishes those? Come on, all you British publishers, stop being so hidebound. Anyway, here goes.

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A reminder of my eight selections…

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec is my favourite book of all time. I can’t begin to do justice to its splendours. Perec sub-titled it ‘Novels’ and it does indeed feel equivalent to about ten other novels. The characters, the descriptions of the apartment block in which it’s set, the picaresque tales and their interconnectedness, the wordplay and bad jokes… Excuse me for five days while I go off and read it again.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is the literary equivalent of a Tardis. Calvino was blessed with a rich and strange imagination. Reading the descriptions of the imaginary cities in this novella, all of which are also Venice in some sense, is a transporting experience. And the exchanges between Marco Polo (the narrator) and Kublai Khan (the audience) are extremely funny. I introduced it to the last reading group of which I was a member. They hated it. 

I’ve read two other novels by Joseph Heller, but for me, his début, Catch-22 towers above them. I know that this reaction caused annoyance to Heller but who couldn’t be happy with having written one of the most enduring works of the twentieth century? After all, that’s one book more than most of us will ever write. Hilarious and savage, angry and resigned, it’s up there among my favourite American novels along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Confederacy of Dunces

Each of the short stories in Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges could have been a novel in itself, but Borges chose to compose a vast canon in miniature instead. His tales work like those food pills that astronauts used to take with them into space. This collection bears reading again and again. The stories are surreal, funny and unique. Borges was poking fun at the very idea of writing and storytelling, yet wrote magically while doing so. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a modern masterwork – droll, urbane and moving. Reading this complex and fully imagined book proves a totally immersive experience. I got lost in it for days. I bought my mother a copy for Christmas and it had the same effect on her. 

I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell countless times. This little book is very nearly perfect. It’s almost impossible to think of any way in which it could be improved. Every sentence is crafted with beautiful economy. Though the characters are archetypes they’re also unforgettable. The intelligence behind the book is phenomenal. Even the ending is unimprovable. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. 

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner is the least well known of the books on my list. It’s a ripping yarn and at the same time a serious reflection on the nature and exercise of power. As with Orwell, the writing is flawless. Anyone who wishes to learn how to craft a sentence need look no further. And as with all of the books on this list, it’s also seriously funny. Here are my favourite lines, spoken by the Flight Lieutenant to the narrator: “I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man. 

Like Animal Farm, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is pretty much perfect. This is dark, ultra-modern über-comedy, the meaning of which is always just out of reach. Kafka remains the undisputed master of the opening and closing sentence. Consider the beginning of Metamorphosis, at once horrific and killingly funny. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.  

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Viinsbørg Smetz has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items…

And let us not forget the choices made by the man responsible for this series, Viinsbørg Smetz. ‘Whom?’ I hear you ask. Ah, well, you haven’t met Smetz yet as you’ve haven’t read my latest novel. Come to that, I haven’t finished writing it yet either.

Viinsbørg Smetz, occupant of Compartment 45D-4, has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items. Like his fellow residents, Smetz left his apartment in great haste. He has copies of the Rail Noorskii national timetable and the nuunoorskiidikktjonaar (the standard reference work on our language, still as yet incomplete). The remaining books – works in translation, for the most part – are an eclectic mix of the literary and the popular. And so Steppenwolf and Anna Karenina by Hermann Hesse and Count Tolstoy respectively sit alongside Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. There are a couple of plays also, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Peetrus Paanis by J M Barrie. Two further works for children, Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales complete the collection.

Place yourself in Smetz’s position. Which books will you save? You must make up your mind swiftly. The train will be leaving soon. Time is of the essence. You’ll be given a copy of nooriisjaanrr, the sagas that relate collectively the history of our country, and a dictionary (Noorskii to English, French, German, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin). The other eight items are yours to choose. You must hurry, though. It’s a difficult if not impossible task. Perhaps you’ll still be there, long after the final call to passengers has been made, running your eye across the shelves in your apartment, running your finger along the spines, stricken by inertia, unable to choose which books to take and which to leave behind…

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The only extant photograph of Viinsbørg Smetz

 All text and images © PSR 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part One

22 Nov

I’ve been very short of writing time in recent months. As a consequence, my work-in-progress has been somewhat neglected. So, no, I haven’t written fifty thousand words in the last four weeks… I did manage to fit in a writing afternoon one day this week, though. And in those precious hours, I sketched out the idea for a short passage.

Most of the characters in my book have left their homes in a hurry. They have with them very few possessions. One character finds himself living in a confined space with a tiny bookshelf that will only accommodate eight books. I’m not going to tell you which eight books he has selected, not for the time being, at least. From time to time, my book is in the habit of addressing the reader directly. In this case, it asks him or her which eight books he or she would choose. I tried it out for myself, first of all. 

When I first thought about, it seemed that they’d have to be long books. That way I’d get more reading material. And then it occurred to me that trilogies by some of my favourite authors have been collected into single volumes – Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino, William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, for example. I decided that this was cheating. Those thick tomes would never fit on my character’s tiny bookshelf. And in fact, some of the very best books are also very short (regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novella as a literary form).

Time is short. I must choose quickly or all will be lost. So here’s my list, in no particular order, apart from the first:

  1. Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  4. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  6. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  7. The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
  8. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
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The eight that I rescued…

To be honest, if I’d picked the list on a different day, seven of the titles would almost certainly have been different. It’s my intention, over the coming weeks, to invite some of my fellow readers and writers onto this blog to share with us the eight books that they would take with them into exile and to tell us why.

Look at your bookshelves now, groaning under the weight of your collection (they must be or you wouldn’t be reading this blog). If you had to leave your home and could save only eight of those books, which ones would they be? It’s a difficult task, isn’t it? Nigh on impossible, you might say. Perhaps you’d still be there, long after the call had come to leave, running your eye across those shelves and your finger down the spines, paralysed into inaction, unable to choose…

All text and image © PSR 2013