Tag Archives: Martin Amis

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

Visitation

12 Apr

I’ve just got back from a restful and productive week at the writing den. Although technically I’m an alien there, the perpetual visitor, I feel no less at home than in ‘my own’ country. I’m beginning to pull together the strings of Work-in-Progress No. 1 and a completed piece of sorts is emerging. And I finished at last the Martian Amis book that I was reading.

This time, I visited in the company of my two children. We have a favourite picnic spot, by the side of a lake with woodland walks. On the penultimate day of our stay, we ate our baguettes and cheese then set off into the woods. My son was the first to spot them. Subliminally, on the periphery of my vision, I thought that I saw something too. I had with me only my rather poor camera phone. The sunlight was streaming through the gaps between the trees and I couldn’t see the screen as I captured the images. Until I got home, I wasn’t convinced that I’d taken pictures of anything at all.

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After the initial shock, the brightness of the colours was the most surprising thing. In film, they’re almost always presented as monochrome, made from some silver-coloured alloy or finished in black or white. As we approached to inspect them, they would drift away from us, always slightly out of focus. No matter how my daughter chased after those shapes, she never came any closer to them.

What were they, then? The big tops of some pan-galactic circus? The mobile homes of a race of interplanetary nomads? The cities of a sylvan people? I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

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I lost site of my children for some minutes. When they returned, they seemed changed somehow. They were angelic, immaculately behaved, their hair even more blond, their eyes greener… Perhaps, during that lost moment, they were taken on-board those beautiful ships.

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On our way home, in the gathering darkness, listening to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, we passed a cottage, located close to the writing den. I noticed that a window was open although all the lights were out. I pulled over and peered in through that window. The interior had been ransacked. There was no sign of the owner. Had he been visited too, then? Perhaps there is some point in the universe where it will always be 18:07 and 26 seconds, earth time.

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And now that I’m home again, I feel that I’ve changed somehow too. I couldn’t say how for sure. All I do know is that I can’t wait for the next visit.

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All text and images © PSR 2015

Writing Update

4 Mar

At the moment, my writing seems to have ground to something of a halt. I’m not “blocked”. I don’t actually believe in such a thing. “Mentally exhausted” would come much closer to it. It’s put something of a brake on my blogging too. I realise that I’ve been missing some of my blogging friends, even though I’ve never even met them physically. The urge to gain those insights into what’s happening in their lives and writing is manifesting itself again.

The twin-pronged approach to my works-in-progress has seen me through up till now. Four months devoted to one, eighteen months to the other, another month on WiP No. 1 and back to WiP No. 2… However, I seem to have arrived at difficult points in both of them, at the same time. WiP No. 1 is theoretically close to completion. I have 100,000 words and much of the tale has been told. So ahead of me lies the challenge of pulling together the words on the page into some kind of coherent whole. I’m also going through one of those phases that all writers will recognise where I’m questioning the validity of what I’m doing. From this perspective, it’s making my task with WiP No. 1 look Herculean and myself in need of some Christ-like powers of transformation. WiP No. 2 has 34,000 words but now I’m wondering whether the idea is too slight to make a novel…

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter's walk

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter’s walk

My mind isn’t even right for reading at the moment. I’ve stalled for the last three months over Martin Amis’s London Fields. I usually read between 20 and 25 books a year but Mr Amis’s tome and my psychological fatigue are getting in the way of this target. I took it on my recent trip to the writing den and didn’t read a single page. The trip was more about recuperation in the company of a photographer friend of mine, who was also in need of a break. And the writing den provides the perfect location. Good food and drink, walking and conversation were the order of the day.

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

On an optimistic note, I start a new job in September. Even though I’ll be yet more broke than I already am – if that’s possible – it should give me more time and energy for writing and to embark on the logjam of projects that I have stored up over the years. For now, though, I’m off to check out some of my friends’ latest musings…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Breaking the Silence…

28 Jan

It’s been an age since I last posted on my blog and now here we are, a whole month into a new year. Total fatigue and labouring on my works-in-progress have combined to keep me away from here. And one can get out of the habit, if not careful. I haven’t got around to visiting my friends’ blogs much either. Sorry! Has anyone missed my musings? Probably not… The visitors have continued coming by, though, half a dozen here, a dozen there. I’ve also entirely forsaken the Twittersphere.

To be honest, 2014 wasn’t the best of years for me. Travel, writing and time spent with my children were all that could be said for it. Otherwise, it was a washout. I’m hoping – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – that 2015 will pan out a little better. So far this year, though, I’ve done very little reading and have become bogged down in the quagmire of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The one thing I have managed to do so far this year (other than earning my crust/keeping my head above water) is writing. I reached the 100,000 word mark on Work-in-Progress No.1 and have switched back to Work-in-Progress No.2, the sequel of sorts to my war novel. From time to time, I’ve alluded to this twin-pronged approach of mine. On the whole, it seems to have worked for me. I’ve now got over 30,000 words of the latter written and much more sketched out. I’m still finding it useful to be able to switch projects when inspiration runs dry and to gain some much-needed critical distance from my work. My hope is that I’ll have at least one of them finished in 2015. The fact that it’ll prove impossible to find anyone to publish them when they are complete due to my not being a stand-up comic or a well-connected débutante is another matter entirely, of course…

Hoping for a more fruitful year than last...

Hoping for a more fruitful year than last…

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what I’ve been working on.

Imagine, if you will, a hill high in the Wednesfordshire Wolds, close to the early warning station at RAF Kellingwold.  A shaft of brilliant white light descends from the sky, concentrated upon a clearing in a beech wood.  The light is so bright that it would blind anyone that happened to look upon it.  Fortunately, the eyes of every man, woman and child on the planet are closed, as are those of all the creatures of the land, sea and air.  The clocks have stopped and the world is asleep.  The white light fades to orange, leaving behind a disc shaped object in the centre of the clearing, some twenty-five feet in diameter.  Its exterior is perfectly smooth and shines like brushed aluminium.  The spacecraft has crossed the universe to be here, at this exact location, at this precise moment in time.  A porthole appears in the side of the craft and a tall figure in human form steps down onto the grass.  His skin has a green, metallic sheen.  The figure strides out of the wood and across the silent fields.  Motionless birds are suspended in the air around him.  Ten miles above the earth, two jet bombers hang like decorations in the sky.  He walks past the sleeping sentries at the gate of the RAF station then on into the building unopposed.  He continues along the corridors and at 1451 Earth time, he marches into the operations room.  The computer screens are frozen.  The printers have fallen silent.  The officers are slumped before their screens.  He finds the young man that he’s looking for and taps him gently on the shoulder.  The officer wakes.  The spaceman whispers something in the officer’s ear then touches his shoulder again.  Instantly, the technician flops down at his desk once more.  His work completed, the figure makes his way back toward the spaceship.  Once the craft is a hundred miles or so above the surface of the planet, he presses a button on a large, wristwatch-like instrument wrapped around the cuff of his upper-body garment. 

You must say these words, “Klaatu barada nikto.”

All text and images © PSR 2015

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Backwards Narrative

26 Feb

When Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow was first published back at the start of the 1990s, critics were swift to point out that the idea had been cribbed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s book features a number of experimental techniques, unusual in a work that has proved so popular. The narrative is anything but straight, bent out of shape through a series of time shifts experienced by the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. There is the old metafictional trope whereby ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ appears as an occasional character in the book. The key passage for our purposes, though, is the backwards narrative device used to throw the harsh light of irony upon terrible acts, to make sense out of the unintelligible. Billy is sitting in his living room watching a war movie on his television. He sees an Allied bombing raid on a German city, but as he does so events run backwards. Thus we find that the bombers “flew backwards over a German city that was in flames” and “opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes”. And so it goes. It’s a brilliant device, producing a fiendish transformation in which acts of war are turned into ones of mercy.

The harping of critics notwithstanding, I found Time’s Arrow to be the strongest of Amis’s books. And so while he might not have been the maker of this infernal device, it was Amis who rose to the challenge of sustaining its use across the entirety of a novel, employing it to investigate another of World War Two’s horrors, the Holocaust. Necessarily then, it’s a work of the darkest imaginable irony. Tod Friendly – Amis has a genius for names – is the alias of Odilo Unverdorben, a  former doctor at a Nazi death camp and now an old man hiding up in the USA. We travel back in time with him to the depths of human depravity and his involvement with events at Auschwitz. Here is an example – “…to prevent needless suffering, the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive. The Kapos would go at it, crudely but effectively, with knives or chisels or any tools that came to hand. Most of the gold we used, of course, came direct from the Reichsbank. But every German present, even the humblest, gave willingly of his own store”.

Harrowing it may be, but it’s a story that must be told and retold so that we never forget. Hearing a Holocaust survivor relate her experiences back in the 1990s was probably the most moving and inspiring event that I have ever had the privilege to attend. And a quarter of a century from now, almost all of those who had the courage to speak will be gone. Amis has put Vonnegut’s clever technique to work in a remarkable piece of writing that ought to make a contribution in keeping alive the memory of those dreadful events. Time’s Arrow joins La Disparation, that sustained lipogram by Georges Perec  (whose own mother died in the Holocaust), in which the letter ‘E’ never appears. Both then are bold, experimental novels, seeking to find some way to articulate the unspeakable – by omission, by relating events backwards…

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Running the same whether viewed forwards…

A similar principle, of course, is contained within the palindrome, that push-me-pull you of the written word that can be read either backwards or forwards. In its pure form, it reads exactly the same both ways. That great hero of experimental writing, Georges Perec is credited with creating the world’s longest, The Great Palindrome (well, he was GP, after all) weighing in at over five thousand words. Wow! If you’ve ever attempted this, you’ll know how very difficult it is. It is, perhaps, the ultimate constraint (see a forthcoming post for a fuller discussion of constrained writing). In a perfect world, the term itself would be palindromic, a ‘palinilap’, perhaps. Such asceticism is not always possible or indeed, desirable. A relaxation of the rules allows for sentence or paragraph order to be reversed. While this compromises on purity it increases scope. There are elements of all three in my short story, So reflect, etc: elf, Eros. Again, I have found it to be a technique that can be used to ironic effect. Do try it yourself at home, but be prepared for the long hours of mental torment…

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…or viewed backwards

All images and text – except quotations from Slaughterhouse-Five and Time’s Arrow – © PSR 2013