Yesterday I was at the South Bank’s Women of the World festival, deputising as host for a book group that met to discuss Elena Ferrante’s marvellous second novel, The Days of Abandonment. Reading it again ahead of the weekend (the third time of reading), this remains, for me, one of the most visceral and eye-opening pieces of fiction of recent years.
The story, for those that don’t know it, is about a woman, nearing 40 and with two young children, who is walked out on by her husband, and the spiral of mania, hatred and despair this sends her into. The story is full of violence and passion – more is abandoned than just a wife – but it never loses its grip on language or narration. It is as much a philosophical novel, as a psychological one. It’s also got a sex scene in it that has made me look at my partner with new, fearful eyes – it’s entirely naked in the way that Kerouac meant when he titled Williams Burroughs’ novel for him: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” On the one hand, this is the book that should be given to every new husband, just on the off chance they might, one day, be tempted by a piece of young flesh. It shows what abandonment can mean to the person you not just betray, but drop: what that can do to the sense of self. On the other hand, for reasons I won’t spoil, this would probably be a bad idea.
Obviously one of the topics of discussion during the group was Ferrante’s anonymity, and the fact that it would be hugely surprising if this was allowed to last, and lo and behold when I got home, I found stories on the web informing me that an Italian journalist thinks he has unmasked her. Denials followed, from everyone concerned, but even if this particular journalist was wrong, it’s bound to happen at some point. Fuckers.
Rather than dwelling on that, however, I thought I’d share another topic of discussion in the book group, which was – as with any book group – other writers and other books that this particular writer or book brought to mind. Everyone present scribbled down these recommendations, but here they are for general information:
Another book about betrayal and the end of a marriage: Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds (poetry: not the first time I’ve heard great things about this)
Another book written by an anonymous author: Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, an entirely absent author, though one with an active Twitter feed – a way of reaching readers while bypassing the usual literary rigamarole. Poetry, again.
An even more ambitious form of anonymity: Wu Ming – a group of anonymous Italian novelists who write and publish their works collectively under an assumed name. They previously operated as Luther Blisset, under which name they published the successful novel Q.
Another book about a female friendship: We racked our brains trying to think of other novels that rivalled the Neapolitan Quartet for its portrayal of a life-long female friendship, with all the love, affection, rivalry, tension and comfort that entails. Someone suggested The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing, a novella about two old friends who both fall in love with each other’s teenage sons – a brilliant sounding conceit, and definitely one I will be checking out. (It was filmed as Adore, aka Two Mothers, starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts. In book form it is available as a standalone film tie-in, called Adore, or as the title story in a collection of four novellas, The Grandmothers.)
Another book about female friendship: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. I chipped in with Sula by Toni Morrison. Someone also mentioned A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara as a take on male friendships written by a woman – the reactions were the usual mixture when this book comes up.
Another book that treats violence against women: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James – the previous book by the author of the Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Another (female) Italian author to check out: Margaret Mazzantini. There was one Italian woman in the book group, and she explained how she was rather surprised when she first saw the attention that Ferrante got in the UK. She was well-known in Italy, she said, and well-regarded, but was not necessarily lauded and celebrated quite as she is here. She suggested Mazzantini as the one of the most popular contemporary novelists, whose new book always causes a stir. Currently available in translation: Twice Born and Don’t Move, with another book, The Morning Sea, coming out May 2016.
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
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
To Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday night to hear and join a debate on ‘the purpose of the arts today’, based on Raymond Tallis’s book Summers of Discontent – essentially a careful selection of his previous writings by writer and gallerist Julian Spalding. This isn’t one of those socio-political treatises that tries to explain why we should go on pouring so many millions a year into the Royal Opera House, or why the Arts Council budget should be slashed or increased, but rather a philosophical discussion of what the art encounter, whether it be literature, music or theatre, can give us, as existential, post-religious human beings.
Tallis’s premise is that we as humans suffer a ‘wound’ in the present tense of our consciousness, such that we can never be fully present in our lives, but are always late to our own experiences. Art, he says, can help with this by showing how disparate formal elements can be integrated into one unified work; it offers both a model for how to do the same with our own scattered and disparate memories, thoughts, impulses and anticipations, and also a hypothetical space in which to do that work. It gives us a here and a now to be present in.
I was asked, along with philosopher Roger Scruton and classicist Stephen Johnson, to respond to Tallis and Spalding’s remarks, before the debate was opened to the floor – my ‘role’ being that of novelist, and of novelist about ‘the arts’. My no doubt disjointed comments amounted to some of what follows:
that I fully approved of the notion of the wound in the present tense, and of art’s ability to – partially, temporarily – heal or alleviate it, and of doing so by modelling and facilitating formal integration (where, as Tallis points out, ‘form’ is taken to mean the inside, rather than outside shape of things), but that this is surely an ideal, rather than a usual occurrence.
Tallis was starting from a position where he talked about “art when it is at its best and we are at our most connected” – when, to my mind, most of the time neither of those things is true. (In fact there’s a lovely description in his book of listening to a Haydn Mass “while the squeaky windscreen wipers are battling with rain adding its own percussion on the car roof” – and that is think is how we experience most art.)
As a novelist, I want my writing to be at its best, and my readership at its most connected, always, but as a novelist who writes particularly about the arts (the contemporary art world, in Randall, and the world of pop music in my new book), what I’m interested in is the ordinary failings of poorly connected people responding to less than great art – but who, crucially, are no less committed to that project of arriving at a place of integration and connectedness.
I gave the example of seeing Fleetwood Mac at the 02, a pretty good gig in a dismal setting by a band of which I’m not particularly a fan. (I love the album Tusk to bits, but can do without the rest of their stuff.) I responded variously to the music, leaping up at the songs I liked, nodding along to the rest, but what really got me was the response of the other audience members. There were men in the 60s, podgy and balding, as I’ll doubtless be at that age, standing there agog on the concrete steps, hundreds of metres away from their idols, faces slack and eyes streaming with tears. Continue reading
On Wednesday evening I was at the penultimate Kate Bush gig. I went without expectations, hoping only to experience whatever it was that Bush, whose songs I used to play obsessively on the piano as a teenager, chose to present to us. To give myself over to the moment.
But, of course, five minutes in, found myself blindly scrawling notes all over the book I happened to have with me.
At times the show was immensely powerful, immensely moving, *punch*-moving. It’s not just that you’re in tears; it’s that the contortions your face conspires to achieve seem to involve new combinations of muscle groups, and leave you grimacing like a gargoyle.
At times it was just bad.
Let me try and explain myself.
(By the way, the novel I’m writing now, to follow up ‘Randall’, which was about contemporary art, is about pop music, and so this idea is very much on my mind: of what expectations an audience might have of a live show, and what duty the artist might feel they have towards those expectations. Was it Bush’s job to give us what we want? Or our job to accept what she creates/offers? Or some compromise between them?)
Bush’s voice, the music, were everything you might have hoped. It’s not that she was in the room; it was being in the room with the music.
(And of course, this is highly personal – and yet also not: if you took a straw poll of what people wanted to hear, you’d get what? One: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (bad luck) and Two: As much of Hounds of Love as possible (lucky you).)
Hearing/seeing/experiencing her sing ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ was like being hit like bullets that had been racing towards you for years, decades. Certain lines jumped down off the stage and rampaged across the heads of the audience: lyrics I’d heard thousands of times, made vivid, made crucial.
“Tell me we both matter, don’t we”
That, in particular, was a dagger blow to the body. What she put into it, added to her intuitive understanding of what the music (her music) was doing behind her, drove the song to new depths – or heights – of expressiveness.
(She sang barefoot. She only played piano for one song, a solo encore. ‘Among Angels’ from Fifty Words for Snow. It was lovely to hear. It’s a terrible song.)
I’m listening to ‘Running Up That Hill’ now, on headphones, as I type, and it’s nothing, nothing like as powerful as it was in that room. It sounds insipid. It may never have the power it had before. It’s a song made to be played live. There it was living, growling, thumping. She whipped it up, whipped it into shape. It took over the room. There was no room for the room in the room. It was all song.
These few words on Francis Plug’s How to Be a Public Author, which I haven’t read yet, but which lies on my desk, personally inscribed by its author, Paul Ewen. The book is a satire on the literary world that follows the odyssey of a would-be-writer through a series of encounters with actual, real authors at book-signing events.
The pathetic, though loveable figure of Plug is the very personification of our current confusion over the relation of the flesh and blood author to the words they write, and the relative values of both. It’s finely balanced in its humour (I’ve heard Paul read from it a few times now) but there is one aspect of the book that I find particularly acute, particularly acid.
Each chapter of the book treats a particular real-life author – all those featured are Booker winners – and each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of the title page of their book, signed to Francis Plug. There are over 30 such pages, some of them featuring more than one book. Ewen has clearly been preparing his attack for many years.
So far as I can tell from the sections I’ve heard, the authors featured are in no way mistreated. They are not the butt of the joke; Plug is. And yet, by including those signature pages, Ewen has turned the screw on them in an almost immeasurably subtle way.
How many books does an author sign in their career? (I’ve signed maybe 200 copies of Randall since it was published in June of this year.)
How many signed books do you have on your shelves? (I’ve maybe 20 of them; it’s not something I go in for.)
More to the point, why do we want our books signed by authors?
Is it to increase their value?
Hardly! The ‘modern first edition’ bubble has long passed, surely. I remember buying a signed first edition of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, but thankfully that was a fad that very soon passed. (You could argue that the rise of the ‘special’ or ‘collector’s edition’ is a response to the sheer ubiquity of the signed copy. You get signed proofs now! The author’s signature becomes less valuable the more prevalent, the more compulsory, the more important it becomes.)
Is it then as evidence of some personal connection? Continue reading
Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.
Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.
As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:
Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”
One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.
In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning. Continue reading
Well, it’s been launched, and now it’s in the shops. Here’s what Foyles say, and you couldn’t ask for a better sell that than, could you?
And reviews are starting to appear: this one from the profane and anonymous BookCunt (so I’ll never get to thank her!) and another, with a pleasingly thorough unpacking of the art world aspects of the book, at The Literateur.
Its first print review came in The Sunday Telegraph, where Toby Lictig called it “both absurd and eerily believable… Gibbs’s novel is more than mischief: as with all the best lampoons, it dissects things that really matter and have gone awry.” (read full review)
In a wonderful and utterly meaningless synchronicity, I hit my 100th post on this blog just as I launch my debut novel, Randall, published by the indie darlings of the UK literary scene, Galley Beggar Press.
We launched the book on the Tamesis Dock, a delightful boat-pub on the Albert Embankment. The book’s not officially published until 19 June, but there was the small matter of a World Cup to avoid.
The evening was a blast – thank you to everyone who came – and I had a good opportunity to realise that it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seriously given my signature some serious practice.
I occupied myself during the day by laying a treasure trail of sorts around London, leaving specially inscribed copies of the book at auspicious spots, as in offering to the departed ghosts of the YBAs. Here they are: Continue reading
So last night I was in Shoreditch, that dull old provincial backwater, reading at the 8th birthday celebrations of hip alternative book night Literary Death Match. And, I’m even more delighted to report, I won! I was the winner!
Now, as anyone will tell you who has been to a Lit Death Match before, or has been crowned as one of their 360 previous champions, this is not something that should be equated with being, y’know, better than anyone else in the competition.
Indeed, the very amiability and absurdity of the whole process pokes a wry and really rather sensible snook at all the other literary prizes out there. Julian Barnes famously called the Man Booker “posh bingo”. Well, this was decidedly un-posh bingo, no matter that the night’s hosts, Adrian Todd Zuniga and Suzanne Azzopardi, did try to raise the tone somewhat with their stylish get-ups.