Category: Reading

Disk, Dyer: Memoir as (cough) quest narrative

I only started reading Jenny Diski after she died. I went out and bought the as-good-as-posthumously published In Gratitude, which brings together material from her LRB diaries about her life with cancer, and about her time living with Doris Lessing, who took her in as a teenager when she went off the rails. When I finished that, I asked for recommendations as to where to go next. Skating to Antarctica, came the response, so I tracked that down and read that.

I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards memoir. I always ask myself: am I reading this book because of the facts of the life it describes, or because of the writing? (Please don’t tell me that it is pointless to try to separate form from content.) (This ambivalence towards memoir is perhaps bound up in the fact that my own life is far too uninteresting to merit memorialisation.) So, Jenny Diski had a chaotic childhood, being fought over by two belligerent, neurotic parents, both of whom attempted suicide at least once, and acted towards her in ways that occasionally bordered on child sex abuse, and she spent time in mental institutions, and she got cancer: lucky her! She has stuff to write about. I’ve lost no one. No one’s mistreated me. My life has been lucky and privileged and healthy. What a bummer.

Of course, what makes Skating to Antarctica such an excellent book, and more than just a high-quality misery memoir, is what she does with these life experiences, with this content. Her formal brilliance works both at sentence level, and in broader, structural terms – in the way, for instance, that she uses a solitary trip to Antarctica to frame the story of her childhood. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the book is powered by an irony that seems at once languid and vigilant. (“Indolence has always been my most essential quality,” I see I have underlined on one page.)

I loved it, and I recognised it as being kin to another writer I love, Geoff Dyer. “Very Dyer” I noted, near-anagrammatically, next to a couple of passages.

Here is an example:

The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is either lovingly preserved in its natural state or derelict, depending on how you choose to look at it. If derelict landscapes, like the murkier parts of King’s Cross and the old unreconstructed docklands appeal, then Grytviken is a pearl of desolation. A rust-bucket ghost town, left to rot in its own beautiful way.

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In defence of the comma splice: Katie Kitamura’s A Separation


I’d been planning to write about the comma splice for a while. Reading Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation (Clerkenwell Press), I made a note that it would be a useful book to quote from, as it uses the device a lot. Then I read, yesterday, that Lionel Shriver had picked up on the same thing in her review of the novel in the FT, in order to criticise it. She writes:

Kitamura’s relentless joining of complete sentences with commas is grating, giving the text the look of weak secondary-school essays. One example of hundreds: “This was hardly surprising, the bar did not seem to be set especially high, Stefano, for all his merits, did not seem like an intellectual force.” What do those errant commas achieve? For this reader, irritation, distraction and impatience. Liberal deployment of full stops would have left the prose cleaner, clearer and crisper, while sharpening the voice.

Shriver does acknowledge that this is a genuine stylistic choice on the part of Kitamura, and that the first-person voice she chooses for her (unnamed) narrator is “otherwise strong”.

I think the use of the comma splice is highly effective, and key to the success of the novel. Before I say why, a general remark about writing and grammar.

Insofar as there are grammatical rules, the comma splice is an error, a joining together of syntactic units that would be better served as being treated as full sentences, i.e. separated by full stops. As I tell my students – as teachers everywhere tell their students – rules are there to be broken, but I want to know that you know you’re breaking the rule, and ideally I want to know why. That is, I want to be confident that your comma splices are there for a clear and definite stylistic reason, and not because you think what you’re writing is ‘correct’ English, or never knew that it wasn’t. (All comments about the validity of such a concept as ‘correct English’ should be saved for the end of this post, by which time hopefully they will be forgotten.)

In Kitamura, then, the comma splices are there for a definite reason, which is to do with the presentation of the narrator’s state of mind. A Separation is a first person narrative, that starts in the past tense:

It began with a telephone call from Isabella. She wanted to know where Christopher was, and I was put in the awkward position of having to tell her that I didn’t know.

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Books of the Year 2016

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Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

I loved Outline, and I love this, its sequel and the second in a projected trilogy. Transit shares with the earlier book its dispassionate writer-narrator, Faye, and a super-cool novelistic intelligence, and the simple but effective premise that Faye narrates her dull, everyday encounters – with her ex, her hairdresser, her Albanian builder and others ­– without explicitly ever giving her side of the conversation.

We get what they say in direct speech, but what she says only in paraphrase. She is utterly reserved, absent in except in her reflections, appraisals, judgements. There is no plot arc, no sense that any of these people suspect that this person is spending the entirety of their time together processing and narrating it, rather than committing to the encounter on equal, human terms.

The risk with these books is that they avoid the tricks writers usually use to make their stories stick in your memory, and this does mean that they start to lose traction the moment the reading ends. Six months on, all I could really remember from Transit was two great set-pieces: a damp literary festival, and the Cotswolds dinner party that ends the book.

This isn’t one of the great dramatic, explosive literary dinner parties (think of James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Out Descent), but what it is, is true to life, rather than true to books. Doubly so, in fact. It is realistic both in how these kinds of things pan out, and in how we see them as they’re doing their out-panning, from behind a pane of glass called consciousness.

I remembered, too, that the book ended brilliantly, that it makes most novel endings seem bluntly contrived.

This is the Place to Be, by Lara Pawson (CB Editions)

I reviewed this in brief for The Guardian (not available online, alas) and it’s hung around in my head, as I knew it would from the moment I opened it on the tube. Brilliant and uncompromising is what I said in the review, but there is more to it than just the brutally candid reflections of a one-time BBC correspondent on her time reporting in war-torn Angola, and on what awaited her when she tried to re-enter ordinary life.

The book’s brilliance is in its discovery of a form to match the subject matter. This is the Place to Be is written in fragments, in unindented block paragraphs separated by white space. Sometimes the link between paragraphs is obvious, sometimes not, sometimes tangential, sometimes delayed. Writing in fragments is a risky business, but this is textbook stuff. (Literally so, if I ever get around to writing the book I want to.) Continue reading

The sad story of the Dutch Book of Short Stories

 

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I picked up Penguin’s Book of Dutch Short Stories with a keen curiosity – in part to see what I could learn about this country’s literature beyond what I know, which really comes down the books of Cees Nooteboom and Gerbrand Bakker. I love both these writers. (Here is my review of Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come at Night, though for me Rituals is the killer text. And here is my review of Bakker’s June, and here (£) my review of the quite stunning The Detour.)

Well, I learned many things, including the reason why I (we) know so little of Dutch literature abroad, so much less than that of other European countries, and I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection, but what I also learned, that took a little digging, was that the saddest story of the collection was not in it, but of its very creation. I reviewed it for Minor Lits. Read on…

In search of the Good Sex writing

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I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)

It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…

Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales – strange loops and the suburban gothic

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There are worse things in the world, but still I do get riled at the rise of trick-or-treating in the UK. It’s partly the arrant commercialism of the event. I hate the fact that supermarkets cashing in twice over, with the rinky-dink witch and zombie costumes shelved right next to the bags of orange and black themed candy. The now-extinguished penny-for-the-guy, by comparison, offered a simpler, less costly and more direct transaction between kids and adults: handfuls of loose change given in tribute, for the stuffing of old clothes and tights with balled up newspaper.

But it’s also the way that trick-or-treating leaches any real sense of fear from the traditions of Halloween – for the kids at least. They aren’t scared; they’re just in it for sweets. If anyone’s spooked by trick-or-treating it’s the parents, so fearful of the idea of their children wandering around at night that they insist on chaperoning them. You have to hope their kids don’t catch sight of mum or dad’s face, a rictus of stranger-danger hypervigilance and forced jollity. That would give them a shock.

I’ve never taken my kids trick or treating, like the dull dad they insist I am. One Halloween, though, I did take them to the local cemetery to hang out. It didn’t work. London suburbs: far too much ambient light. I’d like to think that the country graveyard on the edge of the village where I grew up would have been a different matter, with its wonky headstones and moonlight-blocking yew trees.

When I think of trick-or-tweeting, I think of E.T., with its mass takeover of the streets by children, producing something like the benign anarchism of a May Day carnival or Saturnalia. There is freedom here, it’s true, but no fear of the dark, no sense of the dead hovering just out of sight, needing to be appeased.

Does this antipathy translate into a bias against US horror and gothic writing? Is this why I’ve never really read Shirley Jackson, beyond her classic story ‘The Lottery’, which is apparently the one story all US schoolchildren will have read by the time they reach eighth grade? Well, perhaps – but then I don’t really read gothic and horror as a genre. (The only book I can think of that gave me sleepless nights is Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.) A reader of literary fiction, i.e. prose tragedy, I suppose I prefer despair to fear. The world is quite bad enough without ghouls and ghosties.

So it is only right and just that I give my full attention to Jackson’s work, in this new selection of short stories – although quite what decisions lie behind the selection is unclear, as two of the three collections they are taken from are already available in Penguin Modern Classics. And, presumably, all of her tales are ‘dark’ – aren’t they? Continue reading

A short screed: Anita Brookner and the writing ‘House Rules’

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Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.

This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:

What was the author trying to do?

Did they succeed?

Was it worth doing?

(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)

Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?

I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.

*** Continue reading

In praise of spoilable books: the books that one must not speak of

Among other things, I am a book reviewer. In other words, I spoil books for a living. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of writing – or otherwise communicating – about books recently, prompted by my reading of a novel, Sergio Y., by Alexandre Vidal Porto. I had been  been sent it by the publisher, and for a few weeks it had sat on the shelf in my study where these free books sit. I file the press releases in a separate folder, without looking at them; usually I give at least a glance at the front and back covers, and at the first page. Opening the post often happens when I’m in the middle of writing something quite different, and I don’t want to be distracted. That particular to-be-read shelf functions in a specialised version of the usual to-be-read shelves: the books sit there, patiently, quietly advertising themselves by their spines, and I glance at them as I pass, occasionally pull one out, glance at it or flick through it, put it back. Who knows what combination of memory, intuition and hope makes one reach for a particular book at a particular time. It would be lovely it there was something magical about it.

Two days ago, I reached for Sergio Y. Continue reading

For charity’s sake: high street serendipity and Eveline Mahyère’s I Will Not Serve

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Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?

The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.

I buy a lot of books from charity shops.

They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.

All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.

The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious. Continue reading

A short Ferrante-inspired reading list

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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.