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Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)"Perhaps the best resource in English on European modernist literature" – Irish Times"the shameful lowlands of writing" – KafkaAlso available in book form

Updated: 2018-03-17T11:40:43.580+00:00


"The pure, ungraspable fire": JM Coetzee's Jesus novels


Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by Novilla's inhabitants. On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire.Having now read both this novel and The Childhood of Jesus, I share Lowry's judgment, though not as a criticism. While not being a major enthusiast for his work, I have often defended Coetzee from the reviewing consensus on his post-Disgrace novels (which, it should be emphasised, is essentially a British consensus). Except those novels are still clearly of this world, engaging with the meat industry, autobiography and relationship triangles, so the criticism seemed churlish. In both of these novels, however, defence is not so easy, as one proceeds as if over a desert gradually populating with generic CGI figures and buildings, familiar in many ways and yet obviously a construct; a science fiction landscape denuded of that genre's imaginative twists and flourishes. And because the story is thereby infected by an air of arbitrary invention, the drama becomes not one of action and consequence but overall meaning or purpose. Even if we enjoy the story on face value, which I did, the shadow of allusion projected by the titles remains, leaving one in the semi-dark. We are used to fiction being justified despite its indulgences because it can tell us what life is like "in the era of Trump" but, when the title of a novel about imaginary refugees in an imaginary dry land alludes to the founding figure of the civilisation of the book, it can only generate anxiety about clues to a hidden message. So the crossword puzzler goes to town. There's Jesus in the titles, of course, and there's an ethereal woman whose surname is Magdalena; there's a character called Dmitri straight out of Dostoevsky and there's Davíd reading Don Quixote, so some vowels and consonants are already in place. However, as Jack Miles points out, there is also in Simón and Davíd's undocumented previous lives the allusion to the Myth of Er referred to in Plato's Republic in which after death "souls are reincarnated only after crossing Lethe, the River of Oblivion", so the allusions might be only the distant splashing of that river; alluding to a tradition, yes, but also the void over which that tradition stands. After all, they too are only books. Don Quixote, for instance, is known as a satire of idealism that plays on the reader's forgetfulness that the novel is the very work and presence of the ideal. In order to laugh knowingly at the knight-errant's delusions, we must delude ourselves in the same way, which is why John Barth claims it is not only the first novel but the first postmodern novel, itself evidence that the history of the novel should be regarded vertically rather than horizontally.As Lowry pointed out, while enchantment is absent in the novels, idealism is where they're set, summarised by Joyce Carol Oates as a "quasi-socialist state in which conformity, mediocrity and anonymity are both the norm and the highest values". It is a utopia divested of the idea of another world. However, such a world is suggested when Simón reads Don Quixote to Davíd. The boy becomes upset when he does not receive clear answers to his questions about what the story leaves out, so like a wilful, childish knight-errant he makes up nonsense phrases for himself claiming they'r[...]

Smothered Words by Sarah Kofman


Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.  Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less than 70 pages comprising commentaries on a short story by Maurice Blanchot and Robert Antelme's The Human Race, an account of his deportation to a Nazi work camp. But that description is not enough if it suggests another scholarly monograph, as the title alludes to the great tragedy of her life. She was a small child when her father, the rabbi Berek Kofman, was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where he was beaten and buried alive for refusing to work on the Sabbath, a fact that until the opening pages of Smothered Words had remained unspoken throughout her life as a writer: "How can it not be said? And how can it be said? How can one speak of that before which all possibility of speech ceases?"If the fact is now in the open, the trauma is spoken in response to other texts, interpersing commentary with quotation to such a degree that a single voice becomes a chorus. The other writers enable speech. Smothered Words begins by stating that if one is to adopt Adorno's injunction "to arrange one's thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen" then: it behooves me, as a Jewish woman intellectual who has survived the holocaust, to pay homage to Blanchot for the fragments on Auschwitz scattered throughout his texts: writing of the ashes, writing of the disaster which avoids the trap of complicity with speculative knowledge, with that in it which is tied to power, and thereby complicit with the torturers of Auschwitz.(A passage that ought to be noted by those who accuse Blanchot of anti-semitism.) Given her record of publications, one would expect a more formal, scholarly approach, keeping any personal stake out of the study, but Kofman recognises such speech is compromised and it is Blanchot's example that enabled her to speak of "this event, my absolute", and so mitigate any mastery: To speak: it is necessary without (the) power [sans pouvoir]: without allowing language, too powerful, sovereign, to master the most aporetic situation, absolute powerlessness and very distress, to enclose it in the clarity and happiness of daylight.Kofman uses Blanchot's 's 1935 story The Idyll as an example of how writing exercises such mastery. It is the story of a stranger entering 'the Home', a community in which differences between individuals are smoothed out or erased, and in which processes occur that prefigure the camps: welcoming the newcomer by sending him to communal showers, giving him a new name (if not a number) and directing him to a shed where other men live. Kofman discusses the story alongside quotations from Blanchot's postwar reflections on the story to emphasise the idyllic nature of fiction even as it describes terrible things. Storytelling basks in "the 'glory' of the narrative voice 'that speaks clearly, without ever being obscured by the opacity or the enigma or the terrible horror of what it communicates' – not even by death". This is why Blanchot removed the label 'story' from his postwar narratives, famously ending The Madness of the Day with "A story? No. No stories, never again". Robert Antelme's account of his time in the Gandersheim work camp had to confront this issue. After being rescued by his friend François Mitterand, he experienced what other survivors experienced: "No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it." And so Kofman asks "How can testimony escape the idyllic law of the story?" Her answer goes direct[...]

Kingdoms of recurrence: To Duration by Peter Handke


"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air."  Peter Handke"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air."  Gabriel JosipoviciI read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling offers – the "all-appeasing And then..." as Handke has described it elsewhere. But what if air is something apart from that familiar alibi of escapism from too-serious life? If the fiction of who made the statements is any guide, air is a quality of lightness in relation to big themes rather than a retreat from them. It fills the high meadows of Repetition, in part about a brother lost in war, and In a Hotel Garden, in part about the legacy of the Holocaust. So perhaps it is also a matter of literary style, that which provides the aesthetic pleasure some claim is key to the reading experience of literary fiction so-called. Yet contrary to Handke, I think the first two volumes of My Struggle also have air, if the ghostly presence of the numinous over a dense narrative is air.Lightness, style, the numinous – air could be all three.Two editions of Repetition published by The Last Books (2013) and Minerva (1989)For Filip Kobal, air is something else again. At the beginning of his journey into Slovenia on the trail of his long-lost brother, he is drawn to a 'blind window', a bricked-up, set-in part of a station wall: The significance of the blind window remained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back—and here again the sign was at work—was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message—to me it meant: “Friend, you have time.” What sets this apart from escapism is that the discovery arrives not as the regular epiphenomenon of narrative but inherent to it, and as part of a novel it becomes something more than the report of a private epiphany because of the patience taken by the reader to get there. By performing a similar act of attention on a similar journey, the reader receives the same message, breathes some air. Reader, you have time. The blind window has become the book.In another of Handke's works closely related to Repetition, the truest definition of air is sought head on. We have had to wait for it however. Die Wiederholung was published in 1986 and Ralph Manheim's translation two years later. In the same year Handke published Gedicht an die Dauer but that has had to wait 27 years to appear in Scott Abbott's translation To Duration. It's been worth the wait. An example follows on the next page. On the way to the post office Handke hears two voices: one calling his name across a crowded square, which is when he realises he has left the manuscript of Die Wiederholung on a market stand, and another from a quarter of a century before in another city. Duration has this uncanny quality, akin to Proust's loops in time revealed in otherwise banal situations. He writes that he has experienced duration "as a traveller, as a dreamer, as a listener, at play, as observer" but, as Marcel discovered too, it cannot be relied on. When he tries to approach the essence of duration, only individual words come to mind: "spring, snowfall, sparrows, waybread, dawning, dusk, bandage, harmony." Duration is the presence of "the less conspicuous, the more poignant" and is why Handke is writin[...]

Time and the unthinkable


A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild BurkeyKarl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in what is otherwise a predictable portrait of a successful author, in which mastery and control of a subject is invariably a given. Other documentaries confronted by such a moment might have rushed to interview physicists and cosmologists and then illustrated their theories with colourful animations and lens flare. Here, there is only innocent utterance.Knausgaard's new book is this utterance developed over book length. Framed as collection of short essays on diverse subjects written for an unborn daughter, they are suffused by an innocence for time and for when time is apparently in abeyance, as in this hesitation before birth. Knausgaard describes digging a hole in waterlogged ground and seeing a plastic bag "Swollen with water, handles up [hanging] a few feet down in the water" and how, in that moment, he sensed the inexhaustible, something transcending its ephemeral appearance, then adding the date of the sighting, as if to bring it into human time. He senses it in early photography when exposure times meant the human form left no trace and only unmoving objects could be captured on film, so a practice that at first appears to be a straightfoward representation of the human realm reveals a world outside of it altogether. When exposure times improved, people became visible and this uncanny experience disappeared. Knausgaard says he thinks the first human to appear in a photograph is actually the devil because his permanence allowed him to be seen. This wonderfully perverse suggestion is reminiscent of the small boy in My Struggle who sees a face in the sea and the son in A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven who understands that seagulls are devolved angels. It reemphasises how Knausgaard is a writer deeply affected by the disenchantment of the world and willing to resist the recourse to the rational in order to bring attention to what has been submerged by modernity.It needs to be said again: the features of Knausgaard's writing that have led to his public success and drew Melvyn Bragg to interview him are only a superficial byproducts of its true subject. When the Norwegian stands before the countryside in the deep south of Sweden telling of how that, as soon as he arrived, he felt at home, it has nothing to do with a personal soap opera and everything to do with the absence the landscape evokes, which, again, is due to time: "everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different". The landscape provokes a powerful nostalgia because "utopia is vanished from our time" and a longing for it can only project backwards onto the past. The churches, he says, are "feats of spiritual engineering" representing "another level of reality" which stood "open to the future, when the kingdom of heaven would be established on earth". If such a feeling suggests a conservative mindset, perhaps one wishing for the reimposition of more hierarchial relationships, his perversity reappears to disarm: That no one seeks the divine level of reality any more and that the churches stand empty means that it is no longer necessary. That it is no longer necessary means the kingdom of heaven has come. There is nothing left to long for other than longing itself, of which the empty churches I can see from here have become the symbol.It's a perplexing statement, as if utopia is at best a wilderness, at worst[...]

The walled and the book


What draws me back to Thomas Bernhard's novels is the wish to appreciate again how each is set in motion. The Loser begins like this.Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn. Now of course he didn't kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.  [Translated by Jack Dawson]There is the familiar subject matter of early death pressing on the narrator, which is compelling in a regular way and enough to distract one from the form, but the pressure is there too in the in medias res pulse of "Even", an unusual word with which to begin a novel ("Auch" begins the original, in case you're wondering), which gives a sense of urgency or desperation to the narration, but then there's the displacement of its immediacy in "I thought to myself" and the sarcastic italics around the cliché. It's an odd combination: dark thoughts and qualifying pedantry. In 1974, Gabriel Josipovici recognised the same dynamic in another author: "When we think of Saul Bellow's work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation." This is also what draws me back to Saul Bellow's novels.Formality and desperation together – this is what I am drawn too. One alone might lead to muso chin-stroking over craftmanship, and the other alone might lead to down-to-earth endorsements for a tour de force of expressive brillance, but when alone neither is quite able to acknowledge their limits: one coats suffering in layers of well-wrought sentences while the other masks literary artifice by turning it up full blast with extremes of language or subject matter. By combining the two, one shows up the weakness of the other, as one end of a see-saw shows up the lightness and the heaviness of the other. In beginning The Loser like that, Bernhard sets the see-saw in motion, something that is both light and heavy, comic and terrible, and impossible to pin down. For me at least, reading like this becomes as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.George Shaw: Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday WeekThe combination of formality and desperation also drew me to this painting, especially as it captures the experience of a provincial working-class English childhood: the straight lines, the brick patterning, the muted colours, the limited horizons. The title is said to provide "echoes of the melodrama and self-importance often characteristic of the adolescent" but it also echoes the latent holiness in Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich and, in terms of experience, Trees and Bushes in the Snow.Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828)As Joseph Koerner puts it: You do not stand before a ‘landscape’ since the thicket blocks any wider prospect of its setting; nor do the snow and alders, pushed up against the picture plane, quite constitute the monumentality of a 'scene’, for they provide no habitat for an event. Looking back, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that, when I visited the Kunsthalle Bremen, the only postcard I came out with was one of Friedrich's Das Friedhofstor. Could formality be the echo of enchantment and desperation the wall? The question lurking behind these attractions and choices is not one of enchantment but: how does one overcome the wall? But perhaps this question is misleading. When discussing his early frustrations with writing, the author who described Saul Bellow's tone of voice talks about what he learned from certain authors:Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to s[...]

Shattering the Muses by Rainer J. Hanshe & Federico Gori


Televisions schedules have lately featured many programmes following chronic hoarders as they try to overcome their pathological behaviour. The process is always the same: film crews enter outwardly normal homes to find labyrinths of cardboard boxes, magazines and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Interviews with the inhabitants follow that invariably reveal the hoarding is compensation for a great absence. When attempts are made to clear a room, the owner panics and refuses to let anything go. One man in his sixties insisted on keeping a school textbook found at the bottom of a box because, he said, he was thinking of becoming a teacher. When told it was forty years out of date and useful to nobody, anxiety and confusion contorted his face.In every programme the viewer becomes a witness to the destruction of hope, with the house clearance acting like L-Dopa on one of Oliver Sacks' patients catatonic for the last forty years slowly discovering their true age. But all is fine in the end because, in the last ten minutes of the show, the hoarder always relents and allows the team to clear and redecorate the house. As the credits role, we see them smiling with friends and family, ready for a fresh start.Watching what is effectively the same programme over and over emphasises how closely possession and dispossession coincide: a man who holds onto a book as the promise of a better life finds its absence delivers exactly that. It's a concurrence that also gives pulse to Shattering the Muses, a beautifully designed, large format book from Contra Mundum Press, whose pages are illuminated by the flames of the bonfires it documents.In a stack of quotations, short essays, anecdotes, poems, slogans, drawings and photographs, the book records proclamations against written works from biblical times to those announced by the Nazis, and from the loss of a few books at an airport to the cataclysm in Jaffna. And while there is no obvious narrative, some pages do tell stories, most notably that of Miklós Radnóti as he wrote poems secretly on a forced march across Hungary, hiding them in his jacket.In the appropriately ominous prose of the blurb, it is said the book "proposes that 'apocalypses' are not eschatological, but ontological, ever-present, continuous events that threaten us", which is certainly borne out by the content. But there is plenty of evidence that Shattering the Muses is not the straightforward humanistic lament over man's inhumanity to manuscripts that this suggests.There is a tendency to think like the hoarder who sees only what can be 'cashed out' in the world, which we see frequently in newspaper headlines about newly discovered works by famous authors that will potentially "shed light" on them and "enlarge our knowledge". Silence is not something we can talk about in public. It isn't what we expect. It isn't the right kind of knowledge. Perhaps building a library is an attempt to make silence physical.Whenever the lost books are mentioned, I think of Kafka's Berlin notebooks confiscated by the Gestapo. If only Dora Diamant had given them to Max Brod! Her biographer Kathi Diamant has organised a search of archives in the hope they are somewhere in eastern Europe. It's a thrilling idea: new works by Kafka. And if I daydream about the moment a researcher opens a file and recognises Kafka's spidery handwriting, I wonder also about our uncertain relation to the works we do have. It might be that silence, an apocalypse of sorts, rises up before us there, in every extant work. Is this why we seek the new?Adding to the hoard might demonstrate a misunderstanding of what Kafka's work reveals to us or, worse, a betrayal. He wrote a story – The Silence of the Sirens – in which Odysseus puts wax in his ears so he could not be lured by the sirens' song. But Kafka adds a further twist on the classical story and says "the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their sile[...]

The world as refuge: re-reading The Space of Literature


But where has art led us? To a time before the world, before the beginning. It has cast us out of our power to begin and to end; it has turned us toward the outside where there is no intimacy, no place to rest. It has led us into the infinite migration of error. For we seek art's essence, and it lies where the nontrue admits of nothing essential. As part of a plan drawn by nostalgia and anxiety, I have been re-reading a few chosen books, wondering how might they re-present themselves to me after years of superficial memory and neglect. I have written about one I read in May. In June I re-read Blanchot's The Space of Literature (as translated by Ann Smock). The first few pages of the second felt like a chore blocking the discovery of new books – haven't I read this enough? – but I was soon reading each chapter as if it was I was returning home after decades of wandering. What I write now will be an attempt to understand and explain this reaction so won't be a comprehensive summary. The italics are quotations.The first thing to say is that 'criticism' isn't the right word for The Space of Literature, and, despite the many philosophical terms, allusions and adoptions, most notably from Heidegger, 'philosophy' isn't either. What sets Blanchot apart from any definable genre is that his writing exposes itself to its own analysis, or, rather, the analysis exposes itself to writing lacking such a possessive pronoun.The opening chapter asserts the 'solitude' of the written work: To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself. The work is even separate from the book, which we might see as a vessel borne on the surface of a submarine current: Writing is the interminable, the incessant. This means that the space of the title is not a privileged realm for a few "great writers"; it does not have borders or features with rules to be learned but is at a remove from such power. Mallarmé felt the very disquieting symptoms caused by the sole act of writing.  Blanchot cites Kafka's comment that he has entered literature when he replaces 'I' with 'He', but adds that this metamorphosis is more profound: In doing this, the writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. Mastery over words puts the writer in contact with a fundamental passivity that cannot be grasped: To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking. Instead, in a stirring paradox, mastery consists in the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written. This a curious formulation. When we admire the tone of a particular writer, he says, it is not the writer's voice we admire but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on the word. He compares this to classicism in which the calm of the regular form guarantees a language free from idiosyncrasy, where impersonal generality speaks and secures the writer a relation with truth. But such calm requires the stability of an aristocratic society in which a part of society concentrates the whole within itself by isolating itself well above what sustains it. We might say that genre fiction is an aristocratic form.Blanchot's preface to The Space of LiteratureThe imposition of silence is necessary because writing is an exposure to an outside – what might have been called the divine, the sublime or the infinite, and which Blanchot refers to the other night or the other of all worlds. And it is in incantatory prose and such hyperbolic phrases, otherwise unthinkable in literary criticism, that exposes us to how strange literature is in itself. Once you become accustomed to what at first appears as anachronistic and even absurd (certainly to English eyes – I remember a friend giggling as he read the opening pages), you might also recognise such excess defines us as human: in excess of body, in excess of world, akin to the internal perspective of lan[...]

"Summer reading"


Last week in the TLS the good and the ghastly offered their summer reading plans so, without anybody asking, here's my alternative list.The left and right choices are related in that, for Bernhard, "Trakl’s influence on my work was devastating; if I had never heard of him I would have come a lot farther by now". (I now realise some time after posting that it's exactly 25 years since I saw the edition below of the Gesammelte Gedichte on display in a small town's library in the Sauerland region of north-west Germany and thinking in that moment of an impossible future.)There are already two volumes of Bernhard's poetry in translation so, while one can't have too many translations, I do wonder what there is in addition to Princeton UP's In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon, also translated by James Reidel, and Peter Waugh's On Earth and in Hell. There's also Reidel's translation of the long poem Ave Virgil, which I believe was written in London, published in Conjunctions: 53. In contrast to Bernhard, I know nothing about Franz Fühmann but At the Burning Abyss has a great subject and an even better title. It might be worth noting that both this and Bernhard's poetry are published by Seagull Books and both editions are absent from its website (at least, I can't find them). Fortunately, the excellent University of Chicago Press has stepped in with pages for them, with the latter described as "a gripping and profoundly personal encounter" with Trakl's poetry. The middle choice, The Eroticization of Distance: Nietzsche, Blanchot, and the Legacy of Courtly Love, was prompted by Joseph Kuzma's brilliant essay The Intimate Blanchot, which I read earlier this year. It challenges the assumption that his works "evoke sterility or even coldness" and instead argues Blanchot's fiction and criticism of 1940s and 50s reveals "the most profound intimacy occurs only when separation has been experienced, and affirmed, in its most radical form". This occurs to me as fundamental to the experience of literature. I'm especially keen to read this because, along with Jeff Fort's recent The Imperative to Write and Leslie Hill's Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing, two of the most remarkable books I've ever read, we appear to be in rich period of Blanchot studies in English. There's also John McKeane's forthcoming translation of Christophe Bident's biography.What's notable in this list is that there is no fiction. Sometimes, while I await happy contradiction, I wonder if other forms offer more right now. An example might be Pierre Joris' translation of Paul Celan's Microliths, whose publication was postponed from February but, fingers crossed, might appear next month. Meanwhile, extracts are available here.Finally, what's alternative about my list is that I won't likely be reading any of them, as the combined cost of those pictured is £99. [...]

A commentary on myself


Robert Minto belongs to a rare and special group of people: he bought my book. Even rarer, he wrote a response, classifying it alongside Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry under a new genre, apophatic criticism: “a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits”. Whatever the validity of the label, this is one the best things ever to happen in all my years of blogging, as I realise there are some critics who will never receive anything more than a cheque in the post. If there is one thing that has kept me writing for so long, it has been to find words for an experience of literature that appears to differ so markedly from those at the cash machine, so to have that recognised and appreciated in this way is not only gratifying but a great help.

You can read the whole thing here.

From this bare island


From the front page of Brighton & Hove Council's free newspaper.That word, invariably connected to public art: accessible. What does it mean? The Festival is held once a year across May, heralded on the first Saturday of the month by the noisy, pavement-blocking Children's Parade that disturbs my trawl of the North Laine's secondhand bookshops. Otherwise I never notice that the festival is on, so promotion of these "arts hubs" must be irreproachable in its motivation. After all, as Kate Tempest says in the flyer pushed through each resident's letterbox, art should be "no big deal – just life itself". It's central to her theme of giving people's lives back to them through art: "We are so busy being human, we can lose touch with how bright and clear life is". She recommends attending as many events as possible and treating it "like you are a pilgrim on a quest". In doing so, you might find something that connects you to "a deeper and more soulful level with the truth of lived experience".  What strikes me in this familiar appeal to accessibility and relevance is the allusion to religious belief and practice, not only in her choice of words but also in her Pint at Emmaus pose. Isn't this what is most removed from the everyday? Of course, the choice of words might be the casual coincidence of marketing hyperbole and democracyspeak, but it does stand out.In what might also be a coincidence, this month I began reading Eamon Duffy's monumental study of traditional religion in England between 1400 and 1580; that is, before and after the English Reformation. The Stripping of the Altars describes in detail how the Catholic liturgy gave shape to the lives of the ancestors of those to whom Kate Tempest is appealing. It outlines a religious calendar packed with candlelit ceremonies and elaborate processions, with the four main ones embracing pre-Christian festivals marking the turning-points of the seasons. We have only to imagine the transformation of modern society around Christmas multiplied throughout the year to recognise how this would not only knit a community together but give a context to individual devotion. Reading it, one becomes aware of an alien world whose ruins are all around us.The ghost of such festivals appeared to me as I was trying to cross a road blocked by the Children's Parade or, more accurately, the parents watching from the pavement. The children were excited to be dressed up and ready to march behind a group-made float (the one I saw was a galleon made from turquoise crepe). As they banged their drums and blew their whistles, their natural urge to show off was released and legitimated by the event. Any resentment I felt about the noise drowning out the podcast in my earphones was mitigated by this brief apprehension of the world of my ancestors. For all the relevance to current social and political concerns of the festival's events – Tempest's own performance is "set against a backdrop of global crisis" while a dance event (contain your excitement) "focuses the subjective and objective gaze within private and private spaces" – this simple procession seemed more authentic and effective.I haven't attended a main festival event since 1993 (an Elvis Costello gig), for the same reason I have never willingly attended church. The Books and Debate category I find especially repellent because of its overt lack of literature. However, last year I did enter a thousand-year-old church to see a fringe performance by Alain Louafi of Stockhausen's Inori. It was the first time I'd heard his music on such a scale.For 73 minutes (the introduction was precise) Louafi mimed to the music, making gestures synchronised according to the instructions Stockhausen had given him. Sometimes they were prayer-like, sometimes not. Here is a review of the event. All I can say now [...]

This business of speech: In a Hotel Garden by Gabriel Josipovici


“There is an element, in any good novel, of something that cannot be taken away without dissolving the whole book. If you remove everything else, that’s what remains. But what that core quality is, is hard to say. You can talk about it in negative terms. It’s not that the novel is so terribly exciting from a psychological point of view. It’s not that it has such unusually interesting or original insights into structures of contemporary society. It’s not that it’s so fascinating to get to know the characters, however eccentric or unique or typical. It is something else entirely, and it’s that insoluble quality that has to be there. That’s really all I can say.” – Dag SolstadBefore I had finished reading Mathias Énard’s Compass – the link goes to my review – I re-read Gabriel Josipovici’s 1993 novel In a Hotel Garden, perhaps because it has just been published in French translation and I wanted to remind myself of why I read it so often in the mid-1990s, or perhaps because I felt that, despite its many qualities, something was missing from Compass and this was the first place that occured to me to look for its name. I assumed it wouldn’t hold up to memory and fade in estimation to match the colours on my copy's spine because many of the novels that followed – Moo Pak, Goldberg:Variations, Everything Passes, After and Infinity – are more adventurous or unusual in form and content. Could it be really as special as I remembered?In a Hotel Garden is certainly a very quiet novel, told almost entirely in dialogue and set in everyday situations, which one reviewer compared to those in the gentle comedy of Posy Simmonds’ cartoons of English middle-class life. It begins with two friends chatting while walking a dog on Putney Heath. Ben tells Rick about his holiday in the Dolomites with his girlfriend Sandra, in particular about meeting Lily, an Englishwoman staying in the same hotel. His curiosity is piqued because she hestitates to explain her reasons for visiting northern Italy. At first she says she needed space to think about her relationship with her partner Frank in London, who she would probably leave if she didn't love his dog so much. Ben has the chance to learn more because, as Sandra struggles to adapt to the altitude, he spends more time with Lily, chatting over coffee and then trailing in her wake on a day-long walk in the mountains. However, rather than the beginning of a traditional love triangle, the drama surrounds Lily’s reticence and Ben's persistence in trying to get her to talk. When she finally does, she admits she wasn’t sure herself what draws her back to this part of Italy. She now realises it is because of a story her grandmother had told her about how, as a young woman on holiday in Siena with her family, she had met a young Italian man, also with his family and staying in the same hotel. They spent a great of time together in the hotel's garden. A romance appeared to be developing, even though he was already engaged and he had to leave soon for Trieste to continue his studies. They agree to meet in the same hotel the next time the family visits but, before that happens, he writes to tell her that he is marrying his fiancée. Despite this, he keeps writing letters as if nothing had happened. She never replies. Eventually he stops and his final contact is to send her a toy donkey, a gesture that upsets and offends her. Soon she gets married herself and has a family, but cannot let go of that time in the garden, repeating words to her young granddaughter: The garden in Italy, she would say. I don’t know how I imagined it. The word garden took on a kind of magic for me. The words hotel garden. The words garden in Italy. The garden, she would say. The hotel garden.Later, we learn that t[...]

Compass by Mathias Énard


You will likely have already read many reviews of Mathias Énard’s novel: a “seductive narrative” (Irish Times) that consists of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter’s “insomniac monologue” (Economist) about “scholarly adventures” (Guardian) and Sarah “his unrequited love” (New Republic) that “has appeared on our shores at precisely the right time” (Washington Post) because it is “an encyclopaedic survey of the intersections between oriental and occidental high culture” (Literary Review)”. And you might also have noticed that it has impressed many other readers – “a book that I could vanish into forever” (Times Flow Stemmed) – and inspired them to seek out the many books it refers to and the many pieces of music it describes – “My ‘to-read’ stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week” (Book Binder’s Daughter). The lone dissenting voice complains that despite such riches “we are left with no key or route, no governing perspective ... no source of interest beyond the torrent of allusive gags and proper nouns” (New Statesman). Leo Robson suggests that its “fabulous wealth of cross references” (Irish Times) are instead the “fruit of marathon library sessions” and that, for instance, (my example) expanding on an anecdote about the villa in Tehran of a professor who sought and failed to memorise the 4,000 lines of Hafez’s Divan is either a cover for the “sturdiness of conception” that this novel lacks or a satire on the world of academia “with its specialist journals, university sub-departments, colon-heavy lecture titles and peer-reviewed articles”. This doubt about what is otherwise supremely easy and pleasurable to read on a sentence-by-sentence level in Charlotte Mandell’s “symphonic” translation (Washington Post), very much the opposite of Robson’s claim that Énard’s books are “intransigently difficult to read,” emphasises the anxieties created by the juxtaposition of such content in a novel. The implicit assumption is that it is a gimmick.If Compass describes in detail how musicians have also partaken of Orientalism’s imperial embezzlement, then why has it taken a form usually reserved for intense descriptions of everyday life, such as Molly Bloom's or Clarissa Dalloway's? And, if that premise is so topical, why mix it up with stuff about a pitiful personal longing and opium addiction? Énard is himself an academic who has lived and studied in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, so why didn't he write a monograph for a university press instead?Perhaps the learning on display is really only the foregrounding of what other novelist call ‘research’, that attractive activity that here mitigates what is otherwise an indulgence of imagination, providing the reader with the material to suppress disbelief and reviewers the means to appease doubts about the value of fiction from the perspective of a daily newspaper, but, more importantly in terms of Franz Ritter's existence, also minimises the distressing situation he is in: floating between night and day, sleep and sleeplessness, illness and health, and exposed to his original fascination (the Orient and Sarah) as a compass is exposed to magnetism and trembles under its otherwise invisible influence. Marathon library sessions in the past might now help suppress the horrors of the present. The stories become an “endearingly futile attempt to ease his pain” (Irish Times); the pain of distance, the pain of loving someone and something that he knows, perhaps finally, can only ever remain on the other side of the world. Why else is he a musicologist, a discipline that seeks to turn what is closest to us, perhaps the most human, and yet what is also the furthest away, perhaps the most myst[...]

The disappearance of criticism


Critic's block "Criticism is as inevitable as breathing," wrote TS Eliot, "and we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it". Nothing uncontroversial about that, as the proliferation of online book reviews suggests.But what if breathing is difficult and you don't know what passes in your mind? I've often wondered why certain books by certain authors fascinate me without any satisfactory means of saying why. I don't mean only those with complex arguments that require careful precis or that are especially 'poetic' or 'experimental', but something less tangible, connected to the style and content but connected to something else too. There are many books that invite the terms of discussion – In Search of Lost Time, for example, because it is the narration of its own coming into being – and yet, even then, accepting the invitation seems beside the point. It's an obscure problem, as what is stirred in the reader is soon displaced by inviting aids. Eliot presents one in the same essay when he emphasises the author's continual surrender to the order of tradition. The otherwise blocked critic might then seek a slot in the filing cabinet of what's gone before and call that articulation. Focusing on a book's genre designation and its faithfulness or not to that genre is a prime example of this iron lung approach, as is, say, the more aspirant tasks of excavating The Waste Land's relation to the Great War or explicating Proust's philosophy of time.Can criticism ever be more than bureaucratic evasion? Perhaps not. Perhaps instead criticism saves us from art, filtering only an illusion through to us, mistaking epigones for the thing itself. What I mean is explained by John Banville in his essay Survivors of Joyce in which he distinguishes between works of art from which one can learn because they allow glimpses of how they were made – Proust again, though Banville's examples are Beethoven and Henry James – and those from which one learns nothing and leave one speechless, ready to abandon writing altogether: The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do not mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.Banville acknowledges the last example is problematic, excusing Ulysses from the first group because "knowing a thing, however intimately, however deeply, is not always the same as understanding it", and all the facts about Ulysses do not capture its "quality of the numinous": To repeat: great art, I am convinced, does not 'reveal' itself to us, does not open outward to our needs; on the contrary, it is great precisely because it is closed against us.Criticism saves by ushering us beyond what ever is closed and tells us that the book deals with X, tackles themes of Y or is a meditation on Z. Distance is its Beatrice. To imagine an alternative, we should remember what happens to the writer Bergotte as he gazed at the yellow wall in Vermeer's painting.Banville's selection comprises only accepted classics, so to me it has the air of received opinion rather than a personal encounter, which is unfair, so, to counter the aura, I should select a few random examples of my own that refuse expression: Peter Handke's Repetition, Paul Celan's poetry and Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London. Except, when I do, I realise I have written about all three – so perhaps I wrote to mitigate my ignorance of what sets these works apart and convinced myself it was articulation while kn[...]

Death by Saudade by Enrique Vila-Matas


The first collection of Vila-Matas' short stories in English translation is named after the fifteenth story in the table of contents, but might better have been named after the seventh, Death by Saudade because it compresses Vila-Matas' work into a black hole. Just as Harvill Secker’s abbreviation of Montano’s Malady, his second novel in English, excludes any mention of illness, the choice of this title disguises the nature of his fiction with a predictable play on genre.This is entirely understandable, as publishers must assume potential consumers read for what is misnamed 'entertainment' rather than to assuage saudade, a Portuguese term with no equivalent in English but defined by Wikipedia as "a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves". Indeed, to misquote Kafka, we might wonder how can one take delight in stories unless one flees to them for refuge. There's the extra worry for the publisher in that potential readers are notoriously resistant to short stories, as they minimise the pleasures of following a character as they traverse deep time. To mitigate this, short stories are narrated more often than not in the first person, with Vampire in Love no exception.  Death by Saudade in particular is narrated by the owner of a dry cleaning shop telling of his childhood fascination with the plenitude that lay beyond home and school, inspired by a friend's stories of his seafaring grandfather. Watching the activity on a busy street replaced reading great novels, he says. He becomes intrigued by a female vagrant who approaches women and appears to whisper something in their ear. To hear it himself he dresses up in his mother's clothes but, rather than hear any exciting secret, he is seized by her "wild, magnetic, mirror-like eyes" and feels a gust of wind on his face:"I fled in terror because I had suddenly understood that what I had just seen, with utter clarity, was the face of the evil ravaging the streets of the city and which my parents, in low, cautious voices, called the wind from the bay, the wind that drove so many mad."From then on and into adulthood he feels like a vagrant himself, travelling to evade anxiety and melanchoy all the while "filled with the temptation to leap into the void". He walks through the city of Bernardo Soares full of beautiful places to make the leap. Back home he tries to paint what he saw on the street but never finishes anything. The plenitude that promised so much in childhood is revealed as something else: "I say to myself that life is not achievable while one is alive".Saudade (1899) by Almeida Júnior(note that she is reading) You might think all this means Vila-Matas' fiction is negative, not life affirming, depressing even; everything 'entertainment' seeks to repress. This is because Vila-Matas is attuned to the enigma of fiction, of this strange need to read and write – here projected into travel and painting. His fiction shadows its logic. Why, after all, has the dry cleaner spoken at all? And why are we listening in this way? The issue of the story before us is neither whether the narrator is convincing, reliable or anything else, nor whether the form of his narration is traditional, experimental, modernist or postmodernist, but the paradox of saudade: a word whose meaning requires translation even in its language of origin, a condition that is magnetic and mirror-like, pinning the sufferer to mortality and reflecting their denial, and yet that which gives life purpose and meaning, which returns us to the child wanting to discover what is beyond and so to fictionalise himself as a woman to do so, then to duplicate the breeze in paint, and so to accommodate it, to make life and death [...]

That's your wood s lot


In the early days I posted this to Spike Magazine's Splinters blog.

Looking at wood s lot's web archive, I see it began in 2001, the year after Splinters, which makes Mark Woods one of the veterans of literary blogging. When I moved to This Space, wood s lot featured on the blogroll from the start in 2004 until late last year when it became clear that July 13th's entry was its last. It happens, I thought: Spike itself and Ready Steady Book, another site discovered from the referral feed and whose name I also questioned, also closed without any valedictory message. I wondered if, given the blog's political stance, Mark had given up in despair, and recalled in my own despair how a friend had told me that when Magritte was asked whether he believed in Heaven, he answered "Yes, when I am working". But Languagehat reports that there were darker, sadder reasons for the silence, and the work is over. RIP Mark Woods.

"Literature belongs to those who are at home in the world"


The #Readwomen hashtag has apparently been so influential and successful that of the eight books on the Richard & Judy Book Club Spring list, six were written by women. (There are other examples to confirm its success, such as the much more valuable Goldsmiths Prize, won by female author in its first two years.) However, this didn't stop criticism that the authors were all white. When I observed that this was churlishly moving the goalposts, the critic moved the goalposts back and told me to "count up proportion of women on any bookshop table". Of course, health and safety laws discourage authors from gathering on tables already laden with books, but the remark did prompt me to wonder why I never look for books by authors who share my background. That is, why don't I count the number of books by working-class authors?You might find this question demands clarification. How can you tell whether an author is working class? Do you search by name, photo, the subject matter of their book? You could spend all day guessing. For years I didn't even realise I was working class, so what chance the name on the spine of a book? Now that I know, I've become more aware of how it has informed my reading and writing. But not in the way you might expect. This won't be a mini-Bildungsroman tracing a path from the shadows of dark satanic mills into the light of streets strewn with mung bean salad. One reason is that being working class in England is often a synonym for Northern, and I'm the least northern Englishman. Any more of a southerner and I'd be French. The experience of being working class in the deep south appears to be distinct and difficult to summarise. Lars Iyer's Office Life series goes some way to define an estrangement embedded so deeply as to be imperceptible.When I first felt the need to read books of any kind, I was more or less uneducated and long-term unemployed. My friends had moved on and I had no idea where to start. No guidance. The local newspaper didn't have book reviews and there were only the occasional references on television, mostly concerning a book's relation to pressing current affairs. Certainly the long aftermath of the Falklands War and the Miners' Strike had jolted me out of the conservative, patriotic assumptions absorbed from my surroundings: a naval town with a high turnover of inhabitants as families moved in and out according to military needs, and in which class was on the one hand clearly defined by where you lived – Christopher and Peter Hitchens grew up in the posh area because their father was an officer – and obscured on the other by military cohesion against the perceived common enemy. Everyone was, so to speak, in the same boat. Indeed, Peter Hitchens and I share a psychogeographic thing for the local ferry. I crossed the harbour first to get to Fratton Park ("the best atmosphere in world football" according to Ronaldinho) and then the big central library and secondhand bookshops. Eventually reasons for the journeys would coincide and for 50p I bought an old Penguin paperback of Canetti's Auto da Fé on the way to a match and read a few pages on the terrace before kick off (1-1 v Fulham). The ferry dominates my dreams as a chimera of escape and return, and whose place in waking life is taken, in a curious inversion, by books. What I sought then was not a supplement to current affairs but reasons for this imperceptible remove: why is there nothing rather than something?An anecdote might help to explain the difficulty of this search: In a bookshop before Christmas I overheard two grandparents loudly seeking a novel their granddaughter had specified she wanted. I paused [...]



“What I want to tell you is so intimate, so veiled, so vague, that I fear I’ve occasionally been too precise. Forgive me.”  Stéphane Mallarmé, April 1864 This is not a books of the year post. While I enjoy learning of other people's books of the year choices, the genre has come to frustrate me because the comments leave so much unsaid, summing up a selection in the shorthand of industrial standards and ignoring the small, obscure transformations experienced as sentence follows sentence, which for me are often more valuable than the larger work; or, rather, that which gives value to the larger work. Yet they go unsaid. And I don't mean a sentimental reaction to a drama well-orchestrated by the masterly author or the ingenuity of a mot juste, but something released from the words that cannot quite be adequately explained by their overt content. So while the books pictured here are those I've read and valued this year, it is not the books as such that I want to discuss.In 1885, Mallarmé told Paul Verlaine that after so many prose pieces and verse he wished to write a book that would be "architectural and premeditated, and not an anthology of random inspirations, however marvelous". This is the fabled Book that has led to so much commentary. It's my small contention that this is a false opposition, as such structures are necessary for such inspirations and are why, for instance, the canned products of OuLiPo are often uncanny. The latter go unsaid because the experience is always unclear and the magnificent structure provides the perfect shadow for silence. One imperfect example that I can recall is browsing in a bookshop, opening a copy of Enrique Vila-Matas' novel Montano's Malady and reading the epigraph: "What will we do to disappear?". I had then to buy the book, for what ever had been stirred in me depended on the mass of pages that followed, as the glistening surface of a swimming pool depends on the sky above and the depths below. Speaking of why he writes novels and stories rather than poetry, Gabriel Josipovici might be explaining this when he says the experience of fiction: has as something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.In Search of Lost Time is a perfect example because the vast length of the book is necessary to expose those famous ecstatic instants in their ecstasy, and yet still we talk about them as discrete, anecdotal features. The effect of Vila-Matas' epigraph on me might be different in that a need was triggered for such an unsealing, something that approaches what Heidegger called die Lichtung, a clearing in the forest. The recognition of that need itself became a clearing.For a long time I've been very aware of the value of such moments. It is one year since This Space of Writing was published. The blog's tenth anniversary gave rise to a need to change, to move on, to go beyond reviewing and discussing ideas and concepts, to walk over the paint that has defined this corner. While going from blog to book had troubled me I knew that after all these years in the shameful lowlands of writing it was time to follow Werner Herzog's famous penguin toward the mountains. How, I didn't know. On a whim as fleeting as flipping a book open to the epigraph, I copied and pasted a selection into a Word document to see how they read in a different space. I was surprised by how they did. Ismo Santala has since written [...]

The extreme of literature: Stuff by Charlie Hill


In 1986, the New Musical Express described Maurice Blanchot's The Madness of the Day as a '14-page micro novel' rather than a short story, or even a récit, the form Blanchot had redefined. Thirty years later, the choice of genre appears only obscure and uncontroversial, except, on closer examination, it raises questions about our hopes and expectations for writing, which is why I raise it now.To be fair to the NME, this book is difficult to summarise in generic terms because, while it appears to be a valedictory commentary on a life in which events promise the familiarity of anecdotal episodes leading to a satisfying conclusion, it also floats free into something like allegory: I have loved people, I have lost them. I went mad when that blow struck me, because it is hell. But there was no witness to my madness, my frenzy was not evident; only my innermost being was mad. Sometimes I became enraged. People would say to me, "Why are you so calm?" But I was scorched from head to foot; at night I would run through the streets and howl; during the day I would work calmly.There are no names or dates and the frequency of loves and losses unspecified, so the subject is not the singularity of a life but the gulf between inside and outside, as if narration is trapped and speaking of its confinement. Writing subsumes all names and dates, all frenzy and madness. No matter how fast it runs, how loudly it howls, tranquility prevails. So, by labelling The Madness of the Day a 'micro-novel', the NME's reviewer seeks to turn attention to what it calls 'urban ruin', to what is outside, a process of empirical history and the happy territory of the realist novel, despite the horrifying erasure of time.One might say then that The Madness of the Day seeks to express madness in the form of reason itself, and what the novel can only evade in plentiful narrative. This is also the paradox of Charlie Hill's 30-page 'micro-novel' Stuff, which is otherwise very different in its content. It begins with the narrator describing his route to a supermarket in a town in the English midlands. He walks via roads called Woodthorpe, Livingstone and Hazelhurst. Tree roots have broken through pavement, skips outside redevelopments are piled high in rubble, a house on Hazelhurst has a UPVC porch and cars displaying patriotic flags – "Berghof re-imagined by the Daily Express". On either side of their front door they have large fluted plastic plant pots, the sort you see at garden centres in Warwickshire. I think there must be all manner of socio-anthropological connections between garden centres and fascism, I mean this is where it starts, isn’t it? First they came for the cushioned swing seats …This is Frankie Boyle channeling Frank Bascombe, even down to the American-style street names, and we are at home as readers and provincial Britons. If it is very different, what it has in common with The Madness of the Day and Richard Ford's trilogy is that such descriptions emphasise only distance. "Why am I telling you this?" the narrator asks: "Because this is how it was, this is how I used to be. I used to be alive". The banally compact title is then a sarcastic pointer toward disgust or horror at the stuff of life, and which projects into a 450-page industry-friendly tome that refuses to exist. "I burned with the life of it all" he says, but now there is only disenchantment, emptiness. In desperation and confusion he tries to break the routine, which leads to an argument with his girlfriend. He behaves oddly with his boss, skips work and tries to recover carefree youth in a bowling alley. But every act[...]

Thirty years of reading


This year marks thirty years since I started reading. Below is my first and only handwritten book list of all the books I read that year in the order I read them. Yes, I am embarrassed. In 1985, I had read a short book about the miners' strike and Twice Shy, a Dick Francis crime novel, but it was not until my birthday in January 1986 when I borrowed from the library Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being that everything changed. I'm pretty sure it was mentioned on a TV show and the pretentious and hyperbolic title had attracted me. What ever it was, from then on I never stopped looking for more to read. It's clear now that I had assumed every novel would have the same seriousness and philosophical weight, especially if it was published by Faber & Faber, so it was with some dismay and confusion that I continued for the next two or three years. Even as I enjoyed mainstream literary novels the way most people still enjoy mainstream literary novels, I also wanted something else.'People' spelled that way deliberately; I was a crazy rebel in those daysAll I remember of Kundera's next book, which I bought new in a £2.95 paperback, is Salman Rushdie's blurb on the back cover: "A masterpiece, full of angels, terror, ostriches and love", my reaction to which prefigures my current loathing for newspaper interviews with famous authors in which we're told they will talk about "climate change, living with depression and the perfect cup of tea". Books are full of words – get over it.Koestler's sudden appearance among the novels indicates the want of something else. In those days, my local library had a limited selection; just a few narrow shelves of non-fiction dating from the 60s and 70s: Sartre's What is Literature? for example, so it was difficult to read widely and difficult to realise one wasn't reading widely. I had little guidance and had to follow my nose, hence the appalling prevalence of Colin Wilson books the following year.New Musical Express A couple of years earlier I had discovered John Peel's radio show and had begun to buy the NME every week. I don't recall many book reviews and this clipping has no date, but Handke's Slow Homecoming and Bernhard's The Lime Works were both published in 1986, so I assume it coincides with my first year of reading. The description of Blanchot's Madness of the Day really excited me; not the 'urban ruin' sop to social realism but '14-page micro-novel' and the loss of the facility to tell the story even as it is told. I would get excited about such a book even now. However, at that time I had no idea how to get hold of them. My library was too small and provincial ever to stock such books and I wouldn't have known how to order them.Soon after, in somewhat lovelorn manner, searching where I could, I crossed the harbour and walked the short distance to Portsmouth Polytechnic's library. In the catalogue I discovered a copy of Blanchot's The Sirens' Song, at that time one of only two translations of his essays (the other being Lydia Davis' translation The Gaze of Orpheus and other literary essays, published in the US) and found the edition on its shelf with its dust jacket removed. I carried it to one of the built-in plastic desks and leafed through what seemed like sacred pages. But I felt so furtive and out of place (I had left school with two 'o' levels and was on the dole) that I left without reading very much. Here's a picture of a rare secondhand copy I found years later with the cover removed for authenticity. Kevin the Brontosaurus admiring the grain of the clothThirty years on, I have many b[...]

The virtue of a prayer


I'm still bothered by Karl Ove Knausgaard's fear that the poetry of Hölderlin would not open to him even while he carried on to have a successful literary career. It's worth quoting at length:You could write a whole dissertation about Hölderlin, for example, by describing the poems, discussing what they dealt with and in what ways the themes found expression, through the syntax, the choice of words, the use of imagery, you could write about the relationship between Hellenic and Christian modes, about the role of the countryside in his poems, about the role of the weather, or how the poems relate to the actual politico-historical reality in which they had arisen, independent of whether the main emphasis was on the biographical, for example, his German Protestant background, or on the enormous influence of the French revolution. You could write about his relationship to other German idealists, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Novalis, or the relationship to Pindar in the late poems. You could write about his unorthodox translations of Sophocles, or read the poems in light of what he says about writing in his letters. You could also read Hölderlin’s poetry with reference to Heidegger’s understanding of it, or go one step further and write about the clash between Heidegger and Adorno over Hölderlin. You could also write about the whole history of his work’s reception, or of his works in translation. It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up.I'm still bothered because I don't know what it means. How would you know when poetry has opened up to you? If the intensity and patience of scholarly attention does not guarantee its opening, then what withdraws itself? Knausgaard sidesteps an answer by telescoping the question through the anxiety of his younger self that if poetry did not open to him he was destined for "a life on a lower plane". But what are the profound insights of poetry if not those unpacked in the library of close readings?The presence of My Struggle suggests that Knausgaard expected poetry to open up empirically rather than as an idea, and the six volumes of empirical data is necessary to evoke this painful absence. For instance, his experience of looking at a reproduction of painting by Constable is the expression of an opening that allows no apparent worldly meaning. Compare this with Simone Weil who, despite being raised in a secular Jewish household and with no history of religious devotion, told a friend how, as she recited a poem by George Herbert, "Christ himself came down and took possession of me":It is called Love. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.Poetry as the revelation and presence of divinity. A difficult idea. But, if we seek the origin of language, such difficulty might not be so alien to atheistic secular thought. In March, 2015 Noam Chomsky discussed his study of language with the physicist Lawrence Krauss. He was asked to explain why he believes that what is important about language from an evolutionary perspective has nothing to do with external communication but what is internal. "The core property of language", he says, "is its use in creating and formulating thought" and contrasts this with the idea that language evolved as an instrume[...]

Un-English review


The novelist and critic Jeff Bursey has reviewed This Space of Writing in the Winnipeg Review. He says the book "reaffirms the high quality of [my] writing and allows for an immersive experience in, primarily, Modernist writing and themes as found in the dead and the living". He also takes issue with the TLS review back in April.

As this is the fifth review from a fifth different country and the only negative one comes from my own native land, my sense that there is something profoundly intellectually fearful and withdrawn about this little England seems borne out. Perhaps that's why I am drawn to such damned un-English writers mentioned in the review. Indeed, I'm told the third review, in boeklog, says the book is fighting battles long won on the continent.

UPDATE: Whispering Stories and Review 31 have since added a sixth and seventh review, mitigating the English impatience.

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard


The long post below criticises the dominant mode of fiction as practised in English, with the main complaint being that fiction inhabits the minds of its characters, telling us what they feel and think without any concern for boundaries and what crossing boundaries might destroy. As I admitted there, this is a naïve complaint, as it is precisely because the novel is one of the few places where there are no constraints on human knowledge and control that it is so popular, providing as it does readers and writers with an escape from the otherwise dominant experiences of uncertainty, confusion, dispossession and solitude.But what if the writer seeks instead to respect these experiences rather than appropriate them as part of a story, as experiences undergone by characters? Well, one example arrived when I began reading Dostoevsky's The Devils, a novel narrated by "Mr G---v" describing events within his circle of friends and acquaintances. For all its familiarity as a lengthy 19th century novel of social and political intrigue, there is insight only through what is overheard by the narrator in person or reported to him in person via those friends and acquaintances, with all of the qualifications that entails. The shadow of narration is thereby cast over events, and there is no privileged knowledge beyond that already allowed. Whatever the intentions of the author, this subtle constraint has major effects.Kevin the Brontosaurus reading Goethe DiesIt is perhaps no coincidence that of The Devils Thomas Bernhard wrote: "Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work". These adjectives are the words I would have used to describe his own books when I discovered them, written it seemed to me on the edge of collapse. Aged 19 and expected to die of TB (the initials might be more appropriate than the full name) he read the book in a hospital bed: It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Devils had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me.Twenty years later, living on but still threatened by constant ill-health, he published The Lime Works, a novel beginning with an ellipsis and in the midst of hearsay and speculation: ... when Konrad bought the lime works, about five and a half years ago, the first thing he moved in was a piano he set up in his room on the first floor, according to the gossip at the Laska tavern, not because of any artistic leanings, says Wieser, the manager of the Mussner estate, but for relaxation, to ease the nervous strain caused by decades of unremitting brain work, says Fro, the man in charge of the Trattner estate, agreeing that Konrad's piano playing had nothing to do with art, which Konrad hates, but was just improvisation, as Wieser says, for an hour first thing early in the morning and another late at night, every day, spent at the keyboard, with the metronome ticking away, the window open ..."While this has Bernhard's characteristic music, it bears only faint relation to the monological exaggerations and opinions th[...]

The authorisation to invent


The BBC marked Holocaust Day 2015 by showing the nine hours of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah over consecutive Sunday evenings. I had seen the film almost thirty years before when Channel 4 showed it in full with, as a mark of respect and good taste, a placeholder instead of ad breaks. The decades haven't erased memories of steam trains, lush Polish meadows and crease-faced locals nonchalantly recalling a time when there was a death camp on the doorstep. So why did I watch it all again, hour after hour? allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="360" src="" width="480">Certainly there is a mesmeric quality. Lanzmann dispensed with overt narration, dramatic re-enactment, period footage and photographs to concentrate on interviews with survivors and ex-guards, sometimes in formal settings, sometimes in cafés, sometimes accompanied by slow tracking shots over forest clearings. You wait as answers are given in Polish, German or Hebrew and then repeated in French, which is when the subtitles in English appear. Perhaps it is the patience this demands that allows for a certain ease to extend between you and the terrible stories being told. Until, that is, a farmer in the village of Treblinka repeats the cut-throat gesture he made to those arriving in cattle trucks. The gesture erases time and space: this man's finger going across this man's throat was seen by those inside desperate to learn their fate. While there is nobody to describe it from their angle, there you are, the viewer, trapped in this a moment of impossible proximity. You wait for something to emerge and imprint itself on the landscape. As nothing ever does, why do we watch?Perhaps the answer is plain Schadenfreude; a horror film thrill from a safe distance. There is of course the alibi of knowledge, and we might make the claim that Shoah helps us to remember that such events came to pass in otherwise bucolic pastures, in an otherwise civilised society, and so helps to maintain vigilance in our own. But this is a retrospective if not disingenuous reason when, apart from Raul Hilberg's brief analysis of Nazi bureaucracy, the film presents only the spoken words of survivors, with all the hesitations and struggles common to one-sided interviews. Shoah tells rather than shows. Or, rather, if something is shown, it appears in those hesitations and struggles, in those peaceful woods and meadows, and our knowledge is embedded in the experience of listening to a single person in their struggle to speak; an experience of distance rather than of the consumption of facts downloaded for future use. The film thereby submits itself to the domineering rhetoric of those who aim to debunk testimony, and indeed within seconds online you can find hectoring accusations directed one survivor in particular. This great weakness is its great strength. Repeated listening does not so much reinforce belief in the facts related by the survivors as heighten sensitivity to what is being communicated, which might not be so readily accommodated.At least one question is raised from this conclusion: is the experience of watching Shoah uniquely dependent on sight, sound and enduration? That is, how might a form such as the novel create similar demands and effects on a reader when, in contrast to the form of Shoah, control and unity are considered key to its success and value? The question might at first appear arbitrary or naïve, but the consequences fo[...]



Showed up to Heathrow today for the two-thousandth time. Got into my taxi and I learned Nick Cave's son died. The news hit me like a bus into a hill.                                                                          from Exodus by Jesu/Sun Kil Moon He fell from a chalk cliff last Summer, July 15th, two miles east from where I sit writing this and beside the cycle path along which I have cycled west many hundreds of times, slogging into the prevailing wind. In the background to this photograph is the final uphill ramp before home.   MirrorTwo years before, as I slogged along the same path in the same direction, Nick Cave's car overtook me as he filmed 20,000 Days on Earth. Here he is in the film driving by the black patches on the cycle path that I had just rolled over. 20,000 Days on EarthHis son is reported to have died in the hospital a hundred yards from the church where, on August 1st, I saw Sun Kil Moon perform a cover of The Weeping Song. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560">Four weeks after that, on a sunny Saturday morning, I considered cycling eight miles west to the crossing by the airport I have used many times to reach the narrow lane and country silence around St Botolph's, the Saxon church in the village of the same name, minus the saint and the apostrophe. An obscured medieval wall paintingThree hours later, this happened. Sunday MirrorInserting the song, these images and these words is an attempt – another attempt – to cover the distance of survival, to approach the aura of proximity to this, the distinguished thing.Perhaps it is notable that when I was actually involved in such an event, this time very much to the north rather than to the east or the west, no memory was retained, no experience as such, and is thereby no closer and no less foreign. This is the route to the south:[...]

"Sensitivity for the invisible"


For years friends have told me about how different literary life is on the continent: reviews less suspicious and less petty than they are here, audiences more interested in the books than the author's celebrity, more interested in discussing ideas than suppressing them, and the culture generally more receptive to new writing rather than the hollow echoes of epigones. Well, now I have direct experience.

This is a screenshot from page one of Alexander Carnera's review-essay on This Space of Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique's Scandinavian edition, released monthly as a supplement to the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. From what I understand it is very positive, with the automated translation of the title – sensitivity for the invisible – indicating the focus, which pleases me greatly.

Perhaps what distinguishes little England from the continent is itself indicated in the name of that paper: Class Struggle. What can one expect save haughty disdain from a cruel and cretinous elite seeking only to protect itself from the invisible and instead promote bilgewater as the finest wine?