Everything McEwan

Last Thursday the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas, announced that it had secured the rights to hold the entire literary archive of novelist Ian McEwan. This collection is to include drafts of stories, notes, letters, and his complete 17 years of email correspondence history. All for the bargain price of £1.2 million. I’ll take two! At least we’ve discovered one way to make a fortune from a career of writing literary fiction. Though I imagine the filming of his novel Atonement didn’t hurt.

Vincent Van Gogh, self portrait, 1889

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

The grubby details of filthy lucre aside, this announcement prompts other prurient thoughts. The first concerned the contents of his email archive. Is it truly the entirety or just those between his literary buddies Amis, Hitchens, Barnes and the rest? Or will there be every piece of trivia imaginable, from the restaurant booking enquiry, train ticket refund complaint, spam emails that somehow made their way past the filter and were never deleted? Will personal details be redacted? If so, how long will it take before those redactions that seem reasonable and necessary today, become the subject of conspiratorial, literary intrigue and over-reaching scholarly debate hamstrung by confirmation bias? Will McEwan be tempted to delete any emails that paint him in a less flattering light, or did the library pay extra for a signed guarantee that the archive would be delivered whole and unexpurgated?

In light of this, one wonders if I, and other aspiring writers of today, should now put a little extra effort into each and every email that is sent, peppering them with literary gems and flecks of waggish wit? Imagine, how disappointing if they were found to be uniformly trite and bland, of absolutely no exterior interest. Will there be anything in McEwan’s correspondence to approach the poignant sentiments that Vincent Van Gogh expressed when writing to his brother Theo?

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.

I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.

What dominant captains steered Van Gogh, and he was greatness-bound.

Letter to Thoreau – Published in Brev Spread

This week I’m delighted to announce that my short story, Letter to Thoreau, has been published in a literary/arts magazine called Brev Spread. You can find it at their homepage or directly download the magazine hereLetter to Thoreau is a playful epistle, a gentle pastiche, the unaware writer of which challenges Henry David Thoreau’s conclusions that he famously reached in his volume Walden.

In addition to my story, the issue is packed full of artwork, short stories, essays, poetry and an interview. Starting at the very beginning, particular personal highlights include the melancholy front cover artwork by Annlyn Huang (visit her website for more here ), which features a heartbreakingly tender moment of a lonely red car singing its life story to itself, and to unknown distant observers, as it navigates a tangled road. Is it driving towards a future life, or is it heading back in time into the confusing morass of memory, which becomes evermore difficult to unpick and navigate with any reliability the further back it reaches? The red car is us, and we it; we must explore our individual memories alone.

A second highlight is an extensive interview with Rob Wilson, a poet and Professor of Literature, Creative Writing, and Cultural Studies at the University of California. The discussion is chock-full of thought-provoking deliberations on poetry, the act of writing, philosophy and the purpose of education & universities. I leave you with an excerpt from Promise Place by Rob Wilson, which I found particularly striking.

But the name must not eclipse the cenotaph

of your photography or wild barley brush growing over origins,

asking no one for help.

Brev Spread Issue 14 - Front Cover

Front cover from Brev Spread Issue 14 – Travelling Nostalgia by Annlyn Huang

 

 

Review: The Ring by Roberto Saviano

In Gomorrah, a book for which Roberto Saviano received both awards and death threats, Saviano’s target was the Camorra (a mafia-like organisation). While that book stood proudly in plain sight on bookshop shelves, the words within unfortunately sent him into hiding. Uncowed, in this slender but powerful book, The Ring, two short stories, told in two distinctive voices, see Saviano once again sets his sights on the mafia, but they are not the only target.

The Ring - Roberto Saviano

The Ring by Roberto Saviano

Opening with a quote from French writer Boris Vian, “If you must have blood, then give of your own, if it so amuses you.”, the thematic tone of the book is set and one can hear it throughout – a subtextual refrain, delivered in a wearied anger. The first story, The Ring, tells of a mafia revenge tragedy, recounted by a friend of the victims. Deft touches reveal cultural traditions without fuss, while the narrator tries to make the reader and an old female friend understand the truth of his situation. His frustration is clear, as she presumes his friends to have been mafioso. The mafia saw them as guilty by association and had them killed, she sees them guilty of being mafioso because the mafia killed them. They’re guilty either way, no matter what, condemned for being alive.

This Catholic idea of original sin runs throughout The Ring, apparently the mafia have found it to be just as useful a tool of social control as the church has. Extending the religious parallel presents the town as a kind of purgatory, the inhabitants of which are eager to leave if only they could find the opportunity. But there are none, there never are. By his repeated emphasis of this point, the author surely intends an implied criticism of the Church. Where are they in all of this tragedy?

In the second story, The Opposite of Death, a young girl is widowed before she can even reach the altar, her husband-to-be killed whilst serving in Afghanistan. The narrative unpicks the negotiation of the aftermath of his death, which death too is put at the feet of both the government and mafia. The young deceased enlisted in the army to escape the clutches of organised crime. Violence seems inescapable. Only the state-sanctioned version has the veneer of respectability, yet it’s clear, through the enumeration into blurred forgetfulness of “the latest war”, that Saviano takes a dim view of his government. For in both organisations, power and reward flow equally to the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, and how.

If it is the young men who suffer most directly, their women and families left behind are shattered, destroyed in a different way and able only to mourn and to reach some reconciliation with their fate. It’s not clear that they ever will. Throughout the book, the ring of the title is a recurring motif and an appropriate symbol of the apparent eternal state in which his country and its citizens are destined to reside. Wedded, too – a marriage of convenience to organised crime, with no prospect of a divorce.

Altogether the book runs to an economical 75 pages, but the one thing Saviano refuses to be economical with is the truth. On the front of the dustcover there is a quote from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago:

I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and the courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano.

I’m with you, Saramago; literary heroes, I’ve discovered, are transitive.

The Self-Destructing Book – Part Two

In last week’s blog post I considered how a self-destructing book might alter the approach we would take to read it. This week I continue on the theme, taking that cautionary tale into the realm of possible nightmare…

Imagine that your self-destructing book now disappeared word-by-word, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence. Read too slowly and the words would disappear before you even had chance to look at them. It’s a booby-trapped book – as soon as you open the front cover the timer begins to tick, and won’t stop until it has devoured all of the words.

Presented with such a gift would you start at the beginning and try to read fast enough to stay ahead of the wavefront of disappearing ink? All done in the hope that you were not reading so quickly that you weren’t actually reading at all but merely glancing over the page with deadened eyes. Or would you start further in, sacrificing the front portion of the book in the name of the latter pages? That way all the better to absorb the words that you did manage to read. Either way you lose.

There is an app, Write Or Die, aimed at encouraging writers to overcome the hesitancy of perfectionism and creative block, to “just write”,  by gradually deleting their words if they type too slowly. Perhaps it’s time there was an equivalent for the reader? Previously beyond technical reach, the app as literature opens up these new possibilities for the form and allow us to examine our relationship with a text.

Imagine now the next step in the evolution of this self-deleting book: we join it not at a clearly defined beginning, but catch it at wherever it happens to be in the story. We don’t know how much we have missed, we don’t know how much is to come. Would you want to read a book like this? In some sense this book would be the epitome, the very embodiment, of realist fiction. Life happens and once the moment is passed, all we have is our unreliable memory of it. Moreover, as we soon learn as children, life is happening continuously, whether our eyes are open or not. The ephemerality of life and text become one. In such circumstances the oral tradition might once again become preferable.

Assuming that you did decide to enter into this mirrored reality, what if it was the most enjoyable and interesting that you had ever read? So captivating that the thought of having to stop is unbearable. You’d have to eat, sleep etc. at some point though, and while you were gone, the words would continue to appear and disappear, and you’d never know what they said. Worse, the subsequent material might no longer make sense and you might no longer enjoy reading it. That great pleasure of your life would have vanished. And so perhaps you’d try to keep reading and reading and reading until your met your demise.

The final situation I’ve described seems to me to be analogous to “The Entertainment”, the fatally addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A film which, by the way, claims more than a few victims in that novel. If a book like this existed – one both potentially unending and maximally entertaining – would you choose to read it? Would you dare take that risk? Or would the risk lie in not reading it?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part One

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Fortunately, most objects are much less prone to self-combustion than the tapes and discs handed out to members of secret spy teams. Imagine though, for a minute, if our books did behave like that. What would it do to the way you approached the text? First though, the acknowledgement that paper books already are self-destructing – the paper will yellow and then crumble and the ink will fade under daylight – but the processes by which this happens move so slowly that, outside of history departments at universities, no one really gives it a thought. However, if the rate of destruction were to be increased by several orders of magnitudes, from centuries to days or even hours, such that the destruction is likely to happen whilst we are still reading, then we might not be so blasé.

The first thing you notice is a pleasant warmth in your hands, something to counter the artificially-chilled room, followed closely by the delicate smell of smoke, the source of which your repeated sniffing is unable to discern. You look down and see the energy manifest as the visible. You drop the book to the ground and stamp on it, but tenderly, trying to quell the burgeoning flames, at the same time looking for a glass of water, anything wet, to quench the fire. But it’s too late, the book is far more burnt than not, and you give up. The words are no longer yours to read, its wisdom, poetry and pleasures taken away from you forever and you must walk away and try your luck elsewhere.

Suppose that this spontaneous combustion were not the product of TV spy-craft or the overactive imaginations of internet conspiracy theorists, but a well-documented risk associated with all books. Trojan books that are the logical conclusion of those destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What would it do to your pace of reading or your approach to the text if you knew that the next time you returned to the book it might no longer exist?

Would the book be more valuable due to its potential scarcity or less so as a now unreliable storage method for information? Once you’d acquired the book would you try to read it deeply to maximise your enjoyment and insight from those sentences that you had read, or would you read it quickly hoping to find the most important bits of the book before they disappeared in flames? Would you take notes as you read or try to copy each page wholesale? Or perhaps you’d decide to abandon the book as a format and occupy your time with something entirely different?

Now, I confess, this is all merely a hypothetical danger, no one is going to make and sell a book that could scar the reader or burn down their house. The publishers’ legal departments would see to that. The firemen of our society are not those of Bradbury’s fictional world. We’re safe after all, sorry to have alarmed you.

Ebooks, on the hand, burn with a cold flame: delete the file and smother the memory chip with layer upon layer of random binary digits, the original document now rendered truly irretrievable. As it happens, the terms of service of ebooks bought via Amazon or Apple, mean that the book can indeed vanish in that manner, as these cases here and here, rare though they may be, confirm.

So I’ll ask again, how would this change the way you view your books?

Gutenberg 3D

Not the title of a Hollywood blockbuster about the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, chock full of CGI special effects that bring to lurid life his system of moveable type, but rather a reference to Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, that will come with a limited edition 3D-printed cover.

On Such a Full Sea

So is this perhaps the first signs of a revival of interest in the printed book as an object to be desired and cherished? Or is it merely the autonomic twitches of a dying form? In the jargon of stock market analysts – did we just watch a dead cat bounce?

This particular piece is certainly well executed, with the interplay of the title on the book and its continuation into 3D text suggesting motion and a dynamic quality to the words. Limited edition status aside, the suggested current price of $90 alone indicates that this is a niche product.

But let’s look ahead slightly to the days, surely not long in coming, when 3D printing and 3D printers in the home, have become, if not ubiquitous, then at least commonplace. This kind of slipcase could be produced much more cheaply and even printed by the end-user by downloading the requisite CAD files from the publisher’s website.

That said, it’s my hunch that the electronic versions of books available for download on Project Gutenberg became a lot more popular with the arrival of e-readers. Even though printers were a feature in most homes and offices, it was never that appealing or convenient to print out novels at home. This idea could fall prey to the same inertia.

On the plus side, even if it doesn’t see widespread adoption, in this long-tail age of the internet it doesn’t need to become a mass-market idea to be successful and enduring. And these 3D slipcases are just the beginning.  Surely there is room for all manner of innovation in the combination of 3D printing and the printed (by whatever means) word.

To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

An Incisive Remark About Samuel Beckett

He believes in the cadence, the comma, the bite of word on reality, whatever else he believes; and his devotion to them, he  makes clear, is a sufficient focus for the reader’s attention. In the modern history of literature he is a unique moral figure, not a dreamer of rose-gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the waste land…

The critic Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett (quoted on the cover of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works).

“The bite of word on reality”. Is there a more incisive or lucid piece of criticism than that? And one so neatly expressed at that. It evokes a certain vitality of words, which possess a visceral danger when let loose to describe our world.

Cover of The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett

Biting.

The word association it provokes is insightful too. Bite. Teeth. Incisors. Incision. Cut. With words, he cuts open the world, peeling back the layers, to reveal both the glorious complexity and terrifying gore.

But most of all, contained within this quote is the suggestion that the world, that reality, will show the bite marks and forever bear the scars of its mediation through Beckett. Read him, and things won’t ever seem quite the same again.

The Secret Life of a Bookmark

What happens when you place a bookmark between the pages of a book? Surely the answer is that it waits faithfully for your return, at the place you left it, ready to indicate to you the page at which you should resume your reading. But does it?

Despite appearances to the contrary, a bookmark left in a book is not stationary, but in fact is moving closer to the front with each passing day, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Furthermore, the greater the complexity and depth of the fictional universe, the more complex the narrative and more numerous the characters, the faster does this invisible journey occur, as the previously-read facts slip from our memory. Take this to its conclusion, and if you leave the bookmark alone for long enough, then there’ll be nothing for it but to restart reading from the very beginning of book.

It must have happened to us all, the physical corpus of the bookmark remained exactly where you left it, but when you opened the book at the indicated position, everything printed there seemed foreign and unfamiliar. It’s as if on selecting the bookmark you create a secondary and shared consciousness that exists between you and it. The bookmark, previously inanimate, is now animated by this communal soul, and it’s this spirit that is really marking your progress through the book. Perhaps it’s a three-way split, a biblio-trinity of you, the bookmark and the front cover, which cover exerts an irresistible pull over the the bookmark and inexorably drags it forward.

Given the depth of this relationship that we form – one which forges a spiritual bond with us, becoming nothing less than a surrogate for memory, our emissary in the world of the novel – it is strange that we often show remarkably little care when choosing it: a recent receipt from the supermarket, a used train ticket, a postcard received just that morning. Occasionally we might deign to use a beautiful piece of leather expressly designed for the task, such as this Medieval owl design from the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval owl bookmark

Medieval owl bookmark from the Bodleian Library shop, Oxford

This is the usual way of things then, and in spite of our haphazard selection, it always seems to turn out fine. Return to the book frequently enough, and it will have slipped back only a few words, a paragraph at most. Within this margin of error, the bookmark has behaved as expected. More or less.

If we allow, however, the possibility of this reverse motion, what’s to say it can’t go the other way? It certainly seems like it’s a necessary corollary. If so, how? Under what circumstances could this happen?

Imagine now, that class of books that are essentially plot-driven rehashes of already extant novels, the trashy thrillers, crime or romance novels of the world. In any given sentence there will be no revelatory prose that’s worth reading for it’s own sake as a piece of miniature poetry, the characters are carbon copies of others we have already encountered, and the book could almost be reduced to a précis of the plot. For such a book, any discussions you might happen to hear that reveal the plot developments would be transmitted to the bookmark, any reviews you read, cultural references, parodies, affectionate or otherwise, would increase yours and the bookmark’s knowledge of the book. In response, the bookmark would begin to inch its way toward the back of the book. Hear enough, and you won’t have to actually read a single word.

In Italo Calvino’s categorisation, humorously outlined in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, these would be the Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written or Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel – perhaps whilst sitting in bed and you happen to notice that it’s late and therefore time to go to sleep – and you gently insert a bookmark and put the book to one side, just remember that while you might be sleeping, the bookmark isn’t, and is instead diligently making its way back to the front. Where it stops when you wake, is a secret between the two of you.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!