Category: Reading

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.

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

by the same author
By 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 that 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

Reading as scree-running, reading as sex – Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past

zweig

Walking and reading; walking and writing: the two binaries are trotted out with predictable regularity. Whether it’s the alert passivity of the flâneur, or the active self-absorption of the rambler, the act of self-propulsion seems deeply linked to the verbal. Both possess an obvious linearity and velocity, that nevertheless allow for a wider and more various perception. You and your feet go forward, and that forward momentum frees your eyes and your mind to wander off on either side, or elsewhere altogether. I wrote about this myself in an old post: Cars, trains and feet: talking, reading, thinking.

But I’ve been wondering, just recently, if walking is the most appropriate analogy to reading we can find. The thought occurred, and an alternative, while reading Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past, which I’ve had in its lovely new Pushkin Press edition for a while, but not cracked open until this weekend. I read it in a gap in reading my latest Melville House novella, Christopher Morley’s charming Parnassus on Wheels – for the simple reason that I had too few pages left of that book to last a train journey, and wanted something else shortish to while it away.

After its enigmatic opening section, in which a man and a woman share a train journey, themselves, in freighted silence – they are reunited after a long time apart, but are prevented from expressing themselves to each other, and to the reader, by the busyness of the train carriage… after the uncertainties of this opening section, I read it quickly, slipping down the pages with eager ease. Or even – slipping the pages down, as if they were gulps from a tall glass of water on a cold day. I was reading it quickly – too quickly perhaps? Continue reading

The pleasure of the text, and the pleasure beyond the text – thoughts on a part-read Peter Stamm novel

all days are nights

The walk to the station, the sunlight aslant on the pavement, the thought slides back to the book in the bedroom, pen stuck between the pages as a fat marker. The morning, spent reading in bed. The new book reached for on the bedside cabinet, I’d read maybe half of the first paragraph of the first page, the day before. Now, after working a night shift last night: half an hour reading a new book, alone, in bed. What could be sweeter?

Then, two hours later, on the walk to the station, comes the thought. The book in my hand, and the book in my head. The pleasure of the text…

The pleasure of the text, as opposed to what? The after-effects of reading, its manifold, multi-faceted, confused and conflated gifts-that-keep-giving, to sink into cliche.

More and more I feel like I’m less concerned with whether a particular book is ‘good’, as with the question of what is reading? What is it for? What do we get out of it?

The book in question is All Days Are Night, by Peter Stamm, a new novel I had requested from the publisher (Granta, thank you) in the hope of reviewing it. I have another book by the author on my shelves, bought with my own money, unread. He is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while (I remember a recommendation from a bookseller at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, his favourite author); the covers themselves recommend the contents, delicate and forceful, oblique, like that sunlight, mildly erotic, like the sunlight; I’m in the mood for some of that clarity I suppose I think I can best get from contemporary European translated fiction – something about being close to, but at a remove, filtered but not diluted.

I’m in bed, I pick up the book, and after two stabs, two starts at the opening paragraph, I am in – like in water. The book starts in water:

Half wake up then drift away, alternately surfacing and lapsing back into weightlessness. Gillian is lying in water with a blue luminescence. Within it her body looks yellowish, but wherever it breaks the surface, it disappears into darkness. The only light comes from the warm water lapping her belly and breasts. It feels oily, beading on her skin.

Continue reading

A year in reading: 2014

year in reading 2014
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”

I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.

What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.

The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading

A fresh vision of hell, the old dead scanning the new

First, read this:

Euston. All the way down the train doors burst open while the inky ribbon of platform still slipped by. Nobody could wait for the train to stop; everybody was hurling themselves on London as though they, too, must act upon some inhuman resolution before it died down. She, now it came to the point, was to be the last to leave the carriage; she stopped to stare at herself, as thought for the last time, in the mirror panel over the seat. Picking up her suitcase, stepping out onto the platform, she looked from left to right, then began to walk along the flank of the train. The few blued lights of the station just showed the vaultings up into gloom; toppling trolleys cut through the people heaving, thrusting, tripping, peering. Recognition of anybody by anybody else seemed hopeless – those hoping to be met, hoping to be claimed, thrust hats back and turned up faces drowningly. Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older, she thought she could have thought; but she felt nothing – till her heart missed a beat, her being filled like an empty lock: with a shock of love she saw Robert’s tall turning head.

It is from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, the first book of hers I’ve read, and one that I wrote about here. A struggle at times, I’ll admit, in its density – aptly exemplified by the paragraph above – but shot through with writing of such luxurious intelligence that it made scanning your average contemporary novel feel like drinking dishwater.

Let me pull the line out for you, that in particular struck me:

Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older

Now, firstly, this may be an idea, or an image, that has appeared elsewhere before this. (I haven’t read Dante through even to the end of Hell, for example.) But certainly it is a pointedly modern twist on traditional conceptions of damnation.

Hell here is not the flame-grilling of old time religion, nor the more existential crisis of definitive knowledge of one’s banishment from God; no, here it is simply the boredom of transit, become torment through extension ad infinitum.

Bowen’s novel is set during the Second World War, when air travel was not yet common, but still it’s easy enough to transpose the scene from railway station to airport. Easy enough, but still there is some elucidation needed. The damned, here, are in Arrivals, whereas we all know that it’s the Departures Lounge that most equates to our contemporary idea of purgatory: an unliveable public/private space that is merely the physical manifestation of dead time; designed only to keep us from the Paradise of our holiday destination; comprehensively fitted out with worthless and useless distractions; and peopled with hordes of people just like us whom we hate by virtue of their showing, objectively and unanswerably, quite how bored and badly behaved we, too, are.

So we’ve got to somehow merge those two places, Destinations and Arrivals. The boredom of Departures, plus the disappointment of Arrivals. The moment of arriving in Hell is one in which the passage from the plane, via Customs and Immigration, and leading to that first glimpse of the Arrivals lounge, with people leaning on the angled metal barriers, some of them holding up cardboard signs or clipboards with names on… but the realisation that we are not about to be released and set loose into the free but dirty post-plane world of holiday or home, but that we will never leave, that our arrival is into another Departure Lounge, but one from which we will never depart for anywhere…

…and in which the only entertainment is watching the newcomers arrive – perhaps we make the trip especially to meet those we loved, back on earth – and to see their expressions drop from anticipation, through realisation, to despair.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bowen.