Tag Archives: Milan Kundera

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. 

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