Javier Marías: Enemy of le mot juste, master of or

There’s a line near the beginning of Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, that made me smile.

Muriel was very rarely confused, on the contrary, he prided himself on being very precise, although sometimes, in his search for precision, he did have a tendency to ramble.

The narrator, Juan de Veres, is describing his employer, Eduardo Muriel, but he could just as easily be describing Marías’s own writing style, which is dilatory in the extreme: it moves forward incredibly slowly, in long, involved paragraphs, trying out words, phrases and descriptions in order to see which best approaches the behaviour being described. It’s not rambling as such, nothing so random or evasive: the prose seems to move through language in circles, returning and returning to particular key terms (best exemplified by the repeated use of the words in the volume titles of his magnificent trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) ; the only forward motion is, paradoxically, inwards, deeper into the psychology of the characters. The prose has great psychological penetration.

One of the ways that Marías achieves this is through comma splices, as in the sentence quoted above. Another is through the simple word ‘or’. When Marías uses ‘or’, it is not to offer logical alternatives at the level of plot, but at the level of the sentence, even at the level of the word. No word is precise enough for Marías. Or rather, words are precise, in their way, but human behaviour is so complex and ambiguous that it might take a number of alternative words to successfully describe how a person is, or behaves.

Here is a passage a few pages further on in the book:

‘What on earth has he been told about this dubious friend of his – or, rather, this friend who suddenly appears to be dubious – what can he have said or done?’ I wondered, or thought. ‘After half a life of utter clarity.’ Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it, now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older.

Six ors in that little passage; two perhapses; one rather. Sometimes the or is doing a simple job, as in the last one, when the protagonist reassesses his age compared to that of his employer at the time he remembers him; sometimes it offers basic alternatives – said or done; sometimes it is an attempt to improve on the clarity of thought or expression, as in the first line.

My favourite, however, and the one I consider most characteristic of this writer I love, is the one that offers a distinction between wondered and thought. Plain synonyms, in most writers’ hands, but not for Marías. He is the master of the fine distinction, that is never fine enough. Rather than describing a character in one way, and basta!, he offers two, three or four alternatives, with the definite implication that none of them are right.

As I writer, sometimes I use a thesaurus. Like many writers I usually end up back with the word I started with. But, probably like most writers, what I’m looking for when I pick the thesaurus up, is the most precise words, le mot juste. Marías, you’d think, uses the thesaurus not to find a better word to replace the one he has, but others to add to it.

I love this style, so much so that I tried to copy it in a story I wrote. Imitation intended, at least, as sincere flattery. The story is The Story I’m Thinking Of, which you can read on the White Review site.

A song lyric: End the Beguine

It’s been a long, hard Winter
And a short, sharp Spring
And you stand at the window (winder)
Like a character out of Pinter
And you don’t say a thing.

Oh, darling…

What’s the point in trying?
And where’s the use in sin?
The way that things are tending
Are we here to begin the ending
Or are we only ending the Beguine?

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
We’ve been through thick
And now by god you’re looking thin
You’re looking at the wrong end of the Beguine

Well I’m sick and tired of fighting
And frightened that I always win
The positions you’re defending
And the messages you’ve been sending
Are telling me we’re ending the Beguine

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
It’s just a trip upon
A ship that is sinking
And the band plays on till the end of the Beguine…

****

This lyric has been hanging around in my head for years. I could sing it to you, but try as I might, when I sit at the piano, I can’t find notes that fit it. Suffice it to say, it’s in a Noël Coward kind of vein.

Today’s sermon: In case you’d forgotten what reading has done to you – Jack Robinson’s By the Same Author

by the same authorBy the Same Author is a thin book by a thinner writer. The book itself is a collection of 39 paragraphs spread over 43 pages – plenty of white space; it doesn’t take much more than an hour to read, but that just means you’ll want to reread it – you’ll want there to be more of it. I intend to not lose sight of; it won’t get relegated to the alphabetised shelves, where – it’s so thin – it would end up being squished right out of existence by Marilynne Robinson and David Rose, neither of whom are particularly doorstops.

To call the author thinner still is a nod to those familiar with their Dashiell Hammett. The author biog tells us that Robinson has “also written as Jennie Walker… and Charles Boyle”, Boyle being the man behind CB Editions, which publishes this slip of a book, as well as all manner of interesting material. He is a publisher of the old type, unbeholden to anything but his own taste. The previous book by Robinson that I’ve read is Recessional (2009), a barely bigger scrapbook of rants and screeds against political austerity and our conservative country. I don’t like it half as much as this one.

In the first paragraph of By the Same Author we learn the title of a book, XXX, which the narrator (Robinson, for the sake of argument) has recommended to him (for the sake of argument) by a waiter after he, the waiter, runs up to return a different book by the same author which he, Robinson, had left on a café table. One of those moments of connection. (Eric turns up again, quite a lot. Expand By the Same Author along certain lines, and their relationship would end up something like that of Lars and W in the Spurious trilogy.)

Over the page, in the second paragraph, we learn the name of the writer: T.S. Nyman. The book, then, is about Nyman, and XXX, and Robinson’s relationship to her and it. There is no narrative, no development, just an accumulation of reflections on a writer and her oeuvre. For example: a coach trip to Cardiff where Robinson sits sat next a girl reading XXX, and they spend the entire journey excitedly reciting it to each other; watching Nyman give readings, terribly, on YouTube; a glance at her author biography; an event in Paris billed as an appearance by Nyman that turns out to be a terrible solo male contemporary dancer. Continue reading

Books of the year 2015

2015 books

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, trans. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon (Les Fugitives)

Reading is all about discovery, so this book had me primed for maximum impact. Why? Well, it’s a new translation of a book by a French writer I’d never heard of, about an American actor I’d never heard of, and specifically her sole directorial outing, which scarcely anyone ever has heard of. Wanda (1970) is out of print on DVD, and only turns up very rarely indeed on the festival circuit. Yet, while I’d jump at the chance to see it, at the end of this distinctive and thoughtful piece of writing, I certainly felt like I’d got a handle on it, or rather a handle on what Léger, the author, thinks of Loden, the actor, and on what Loden thinks of her film’s hero, Wanda, and, through her, the elusive, fugitive woman on whose story her movie is based. In hugely reductive terms, this is Geoff Dyer’s Zona meets Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick: an open and intelligent piece of art criticism drifts into broader critique of social and cultural issues, and is honest about the fact that it can’t do any of these without also being autobiographical. That it is published in a beautiful edition that gives a boutique twist on the classic French livre de poche style, by a brand new British publisher proudly asserting their ownership of an important but overlooked niche, only adds to the charm. Book of the year.

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (Tuskar Rock)

All the stuff about the dissolving boundaries between fiction and non-fiction comes together in this revelatory novel-memoir-cultural critique, which has been steadily spreading its influence since its original publication in the US in 1997. The book starts out as a playful wallow in the abasement of unrequited love and failed creativity – as film-maker ‘Chris Kraus’ becomes besotted with a sexy ex-pat sociologist – and ends up performing a measured but comprehensive demolition of the cultural apparatus that is organised to mispresent and devalue her experience, both private and public. If Miranda July’s The First Bad Man set out to eviscerate the idea of the female author as ‘quirky’, then perhaps this does the same for ‘hysterical’. Kraus weaponises the language of critical theory by hauling it out of its safe zone (safe for men, safe for the status quo) and exposing its blandly sexist foundations – exposing herself and others in the process. It’s a high-wire act, and naturally I am reading it very differently from people who were involved or close by at the time, but, as with Knausgaard, we the readers are in the privileged position of being able to distinguish ends from means, and what Kraus comes up with seems more important than any toes she stepped upon during the process. It’s not written with the ‘general reader’ in mind, and I skimmed some of the Deleuze and Guattari bits, but this is off-set by some brilliant, scathing, undiluted writing about desire, and the differing strangenesses of coupledom and – is this a word? – singlitude.

(I reviewed I Love Dick for The Independent: here) Continue reading

Whence and whither the short story? Notes on Philip Hensher’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story

penguin british short story3

 

The new Penguin Book of the British Short Story is a magnificent production – and at £25 apiece for the two volumes you’d hope it would be. One of the consequences of its magnificence, beyond the 90 writers it includes in its 1,500 pages, from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, is that 25 pages of it are given over to an extended introduction from the editor, Philip Hensher.

Hensher makes a point of acknowledging as inspiration AS Byatt’s 1997 Oxford Book of English Short Stories (37 writers, some two thirds of whom make it into Hensher’s list) and although her introduction is of a comparable length, she spends much of it talking about her individual choices. Hensher takes a more general approach. I read the introduction this morning, and although I’ve only dipped into the stories themselves, Hensher’s excellent piece gives enough prompts for thought about the short story as a form that I want to get them down right away.

As is traditional in these things, Hensher gives apologies for absence (Anna Kavan, David Rose and Gerard Woodward among them) and boasts of exclusion (HE Bates is witheringly expelled), offers qualms over the wobbliness of the admissions criteria, and attempts at definition, but what I found most useful was the long look Hensher takes at the publishing history of the short story.

As much as any art form, how we experience the story is integral to its make-up, but whereas the novel has, notwithstanding the ancient history of serialisation and the advent of digital technologies, generally offered the same reading experience, the short story has seen a complete upheaval in the means of its delivery. Once, it was read in periodicals of often staggering popularity, sometimes devoted to the form, sometimes showing a more varied mix, whereas now it comes to us by and large in the form of author collections.

Hensher reminds us that until well into the last century the short story was one of the most lucrative forms available to professional writers, and while this is not exactly forgotten it’s worth considering quite far this aspect has evaporated from the legacy of the short story, for current and recent generations. If, pace Dr. Johnson, no man but a blockhead wrote, except for money, then certainly you’d have to be a major blockhead to write short stories for it under the present circumstances.

He avoids repeating the old saw that the short story is always undergoing or on the verge of a rebirth or revival; in fact his assessment of the current state of the form is far from positive. Naturally he puts this down to the lack of outlets willing to pay writers for their stories, commending The New Yorker for giving British writers such as Zadie Smith and Tessa Hadley the time and space to develop the art, where nowhere in Britain is willing or able to.

He is clear, too, that the dominant structural support offered to writers today, the short story competition, is in no way a satisfactory alternative. Continue reading

Elena Ferrante: Four ways in to the Neapolitan novels, and no way out

ferrante2


To Lutyens & Rubinstein last night to help launch the final instalment of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, along with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love), Tessa Hadley (The London Train etc), and Susanna Gross, literary editor of the Mail on Sunday. We had a fascinating discussion, with help from the attentive audience, though as was pointed out by I think Cathy, this was largely because by the end we were less certain of our thoughts and opinions on the books and its author than we had been at the beginning.

I’ll say a little about my personal take on the books in a moment, but perhaps the best way of sharing something of the spirit and content of the evening would be to introduce the four passages that each of us chose to read. This was very much unplanned: we only decided to do it when we met up just before the event, but of course we all had our favourite bits marked in our copies and knew precisely what we’d like to read. What was so fun about this element was that it was different to a standard author reading, where – and I know I’m guilty of this – the author reads a bit they’ve probably read a dozen times, because they know it works, or it’s funny, or has got some sex in it. (And the humour, or comedy, of Ferrante is something that got discussed: Susanna said she remembered precisely the two points in the four books that made her laugh, and we agreed that while the books aren’t funny as such, and are full of violence, pain and misery, still there is something of the human comedy that runs through them; if their 1,600 pages were simply unremitting tragedy and trauma then we wouldn’t skip through as eagerly and easily as we – most of us – do.)

We read our passages in the order they came in the books, and introduced them by saying what the books and the author meant for us personally.

Susanna read from the second book, The Story of a New Name, from when the still teenage Elena has taken Lila along to her professor’s house for an evening of intellectual debate. Lila, the spikily intelligent but essentially unschooled best friend, says not a word all evening, while Elena tries valiantly to keep up and ingratiate herself, but once they’re out in the car, Lila sounds off to her husband, Stefano: Continue reading

Echo and appropriation: Damien Hirst / Gordon Burn / Randall

randall-damien

A week ago I was travelling to the University of Sussex to give a conference paper on Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist when I got a message I didn’t understand from Mark Blacklock, author of I’m Jack (which I haven’t read), talking about ekphrasis and artists’ jokes. I replied with one of those odd, polite Twitter queries that have you worrying that someone, either you or them, is going to end up looking silly in (sort of) public. He replied:

I’m thinking here of Randall’s shit smear paintings and Damo goofing off about that idea in Sex and Violence

Me: ah – but (shit!) does Hirst preempt me, the bastard – where in Sex & Violence? (I have it but haven’t read it – too scared to)

Mark: I’ll dig it out when I get home – I had assumed an ingenious ekphrastic extrapolation – even better if it’s coincidental!

Then, later:

Hi Jonathan: so the line is p.327. discussing his film Hanging Around. Burn asks: “So how autobiographical is it? ‘It’s only  autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.'” As I say, I assumed this was a seed of an idea. Coincidence only makes it better.

If this means nothing to you, then Mark was talking about my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, which is a sort of alternative history of the YBAs. The titular artist takes the lead, Hirst-like role, and has his first success with a series of large, colourful Warhol-esque screenprints based on his and his friends’ shit-smeared toilet paper squares – works he styles as ‘portraits’, and which then grows into a cultural phenomenon: everyone wants a Randall…

Nevertheless Randall insisted that everyone – all the great and good and rich and famous that queued up to ‘have a Randall done’ – produce a ‘holograph’, as he called it, in situ, in the studio. You wanted a Randall portrait, you had to sit for it.

Now, in writing this book, I took great pride in the idea that I had ‘invented’ all the artworks myself – it was part of my sell to myself of the novel that, Randall aside, this wasn’t a roman a clef. So it was a shock to realise that Damien Hirst had, in fact, pre-empted me. Or was it more than this? Had I stolen from him?

The quote comes from Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writing on art. It’s on my shelf. I bought it, but didn’t read it, a few years ago, and most definitely long after I came up with the idea of Randall’s Sunshines paintings.

I had read Burn’s book of interviews with Hirst, On The Way to Work, and it’s not in there; I have just now reread the 1996 interview to be sure. I didn’t read Sex & Violence because I was scared – scared that I might find stuff so good I’d want to rip it off; scared I’d find stuff I’d already invented, or thought I’d invented; scared of the amount of stuff Burn knew about all this art, all these artists, when I actually knew very little, and was relying on the quality of my imaginative invention to stand for the quantity of work and opinion the YBAs produced.

I was scared, basically, of Burn’s insight and facility as a writer. I knew that, if he’d written a novel about the YBAs, he’d have made mine look like a piece of flimsy trash. Continue reading

Blue/Green: A short screed on nature writing and the general election

field of wheat

Photo: Jim Champion. Used under Creative Commons license


I have an ambivalent attitude towards nature writing. Yet when I had a message from Joanna Walsh yesterday morning – as the full impact of the Conservative victory in the British general election began to sink in – asking me if I wanted to contribute to a series of fictional and creative responses to the news in 3am Magazine, it was landscape that suggested itself to me. This is how it started:

The fields are blue, the woods are blue, the hills are blue, the meadows and fens and floodplains are blue. Open your window and the chances are that what lies before you, as far as the eye can see, is blue. The grass is blue, the trees are blue, the lanes and motorway verges are blue, the hedges and edgelands blue, the greenbelt and brownfield blue. The view is blue. Click here to read the whole thing (it’s not long!)

election mapIt was the political map that did it. So blue, and such an ugly, saturated, inexorable blue at that. At the time of writing the piece, the very tip of Cornwall (the St Ives constituency) hadn’t declared, as it has to wait for votes to be flown in from the Scilly Isles before it can start counting. But still it occurred to me that you could start in Cornwall and walk a long, long way through the country before you saw any red, or yellow, or green. I voted Green, in the city, and of course we think of England as green – the hedges and fields, the full-to-bursting meadows and cool rolling hills, when in fact much of that blue map, that should be the countryside – should be green, if not Green – is nothing of the sort, is an arable wasteland.

It was that disjunction that set me writing, my revulsion at the blue of the country I should love, and the fact that, truly, the countryside is being de-greened, de-countryfied, de-natured, year on year. The tight little bursts of red on the political map of England are alive, vivid, angry; the vast swathes of blue are empty, dead, sprayed with the pesticide of conformity, industrialisation and conservatism. So I wrote an angry piece of nature writing, coating everything that should be vivid, individual, dappled and various with a thick slick of monotone blue. And this got me wondering about what it is about nature writing that I find problematic. Continue reading

News: ‘Randall’ longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize

randall-demond-elliott
I awoke this morning to the thrilling news that my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which goes to the best debut novel of the year. Ten books, which will be whittled down to three, and then to one. As always, it’s interesting to see how the list divides up – into male and female writers; into publishing big hitters and indie outsiders (including Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, from the crowdfunding imprint Unbound); into those that have already appeared on other shortlists and those that haven’t; into those I’ve read and those I haven’t. Elliott himself was a literary agent – “an elfin agent of genius” – who made his way in publishing by getting an interview at Macmillian aged 16, getting himself fired from all the best houses, then going on, as an agent, to discover Jilly Cooper. A profile on the prize website describes him as “waspish, witty, an uncanny mimic and a sometimes outrageous raconteur”. Edith Sitwell called him “a most impertinent person”, while to Leo (wife of Jilly) Cooper he was “a consummate showman”. D’you know what? I think Elliott would have loved Randall. He would have made him laugh. You can read more about Randall on my website here, and then why not head over to the Galley Beggars website where they are celebrating the longlisting by selling the book at the excellent price of £7.50! And if you’re a bookshop, or a book group, or a festival, or a street corner, and you fancy a reading from Randall – laughter, cleverness, art theory and toilet humour all guaranteed – then please get in touch!

* The shortlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize was announced on 15 May, with the three books to make it through Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley, Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing.

Thinking out loud with your body: Theatre, film, tragedy, Carson, Binoche, Antigone

antigone

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I was at the Barbican at the weekend to see Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone, in Anne Carson’s new translation of Sophocles.

No, that’s a lie. I was at the Barbican to see Juliette Binoche playing Antigone. What I saw was Van Hove’s production.

Binoche – she looked at me once, I swear! And at one point was sat on the edge of the stage, not twelve feet from our Row B seats! – was great, but really she wasn’t there as an actress; she was there as a star. The performance she gave came filtered through my preconceived sense of her as a ‘personality’, itself partly made up of all the characters I have seen her play on screen till now, each of those characters only ever iterations or manifestations of her presence – that mixture of watchableness, knowableness and unknowableness that go to make a star.

(I don’t mean this facetiously. An actor is someone who is good at pretending to be other people. A star is someone who is good at pretending to be themselves, or themselves as others see them. In the cinema a film is projected onto a screen. When that film features a film star, there are a hundred, two hundred, a thousand additional projectors. Each audience member is a projector.)

That Juliette Binoche is as good an actress as she is means that this situation didn’t devolve to her simply standing on stage being Juliette Binoche. At most, she was stood on stage being Juliette Binoche being Antigone. But she was never being Antigone.

This suspicion, that the production was a vehicle for its star, wasn’t helped by Van Hove’s attitude towards her. You got a strong sense that he would rather have been directing her in a film.

(You can see a staged reading of Anne Carson’s Antigonick here, which is largely identical to the script of this production. There is minimal additional movement in Van Hove’s production, minimal set. What there is, in addition, is the cinema.)

The stage, in Jan Versweyveld’s design, was set out in letterbox format, with a wide, flat backdrop that was often used for film projections, and a raised stage that put certain scenes very much at screen level, while other scenes took place on a slightly lower transverse strip across the front of the stage – the difference in height between them being roughly the same as that in a cinema between floor and screen.

In the opening scene the backdrop showed a desert landscape. Binoche entered from the left and walked slowly across stage, her hair and clothes tousled by wind coming from the wind machines off-stage to the right. It was like a scene from Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, with Juliette Binoche recast as Count Almásy staggering across the Libyan desert.

Faced with an auditorium full of people wanting to see a film star in the flesh, in the four dimensions of theatre time and space, Van Hove starts by giving us Binoche as if on film. Continue reading