Tag Archives: Italo Calvino

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. 

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

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.

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

Report from the Writing Den

20 Apr

I’ve just returned from the writing den and a very restful week in the Breton countryside. There was a trip to the coast with beach-combing, a visit to a beautiful town filled with timber-framed buildings, long country walks and a meal at a crêperie for a friend’s birthday.

My reading material consisted of the first draft of a writing friend’s very long novel. It was just as well that it was entertaining and well written! And then I began re-reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. It’s every bit as good as I’d remembered.

As mentioned, I’ve recently switched from writing one work-in-progress to another. I’d actually left this manuscript on the back-burner for a year and a half. For all that, I’ve managed to get fully immersed in it again already and I’m currently feeling pretty confident about it. It’s a sequel of sorts to the war novel that I’ve written. As I’ve remarked before, it’s probably deeply unwise to embark upon the sequel to a novel that has yet to find a publisher. But it’s a book that I want to write, so what the hell! Even if it turned out to be a work of genius, such is the state of UK publishing, it probably still wouldn’t make it into print. I’ve added another five thousand words or so. Almost from the outset, I’d imagined a sequence of three books – the first set in the Second World War, the second in the Cold War and the third in the near-future. I even wrote a couple of thousand words toward the last of these projects, so all in all, it was a very productive break.

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Early spring view through the writing den window

I noted that I’d finished reading Tove Janssons’s Moomin books to my children and that we were going to have to decide what to read next. We took The Wizard of Oz with us and we’re now near the end. They’ve enjoyed the story and I’ve enjoyed doing the voices (you should hear my Dorothy…). Any suggestions for our next read will be gratefully received.

HappyEaster or Ēostre’s festival, whichever you prefer!

All text and images

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