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News round up: Dyer, Adultery and a riddle solution

A few things that have happened, recently, that I’m keen to point people towards:

  • Having been published in both Lighthouse and Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, I’m very pleased to say that my short story ‘The Faber Book of Adultery‘ is now online as part of Issue 83 of The Barcelona Review. Read it here. (And there’s a lovely reading of it by Lee Upton here.)
  • A paper I gave at Birkbeck’s conference on Geoff Dyer earlier in the year appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Threepenny Review, and again you can find it online. Read ‘But Funny: Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing‘ here.
  • I’ve added a page to this site for anyone who’s read ‘Randall‘ and either doesn’t know the answer to the riddle it ends on, or wants to check if they guessed it right. Click here to do so. (And if you’ve read ‘Randall’, why not review or rate it at Goodreads?)
  • Finally, if you’ve not heard about my current blogging side-project to read all 52 of Melville House’s ‘The Art of the Novella‘ novellas in a year, then you can find out about it here.

Today’s sermon: Seeing with Poussin’s eyes

This may be one of the most embarrassingly obvious aesthetic observations every made, but it occurred to me, the other night, as I enjoyed a late viewing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, that to stand in front of a painting of a certain type – of a certain size and scale – is to become intimate with the artist in a very particular way. It is, and I gawped at myself as I thought this, to see with their eyes.

The gallery was quiet, I was there to see the Hockney prints, but took advantage of the near-total absence of people (not least children, not least my own children) to wander rooms I knew well, but at my own pace, and without distraction.

I was looking at a Poussin – it doesn’t really matter which one – and it occurred to me that I was standing in relation to it exactly as he had stood to paint it. It felt like my gaze was caught in some spectral zone, that my eyes were haunted by his, commanded by his, and that I was seeing what he had seen, centuries ago.

Can I explain this thought? Or rather: can I explain the feeling that it was somehow important?

It wouldn’t happen with music. It wouldn’t happen with prose, or poetry, or drama, or film, or dance – or even, really, sculpture.

To create the painting, the artist would have had to stand in relation to the canvas exactly where I was standing. When he lifted the brush the first time, he was standing where I stood. To see what he had created, and decide it was finished, ditto. Continue reading

August Reading: Catton, Wharton, Moore, Robinson

august 2013

August, August, August… disappearing into the rear-view mirror of the year, always the saddest sensation. Gone the sun, gone the skip and bounce in the day, gone the time for reading.

I am now firmly stuck in the middle part of life where August means school holidays, which means a couple of weeks away somewhere hot, which means camping and a pool or beach and the opportunity to read unencumbered by home life and academic/journalistic imperatives, while the kids divebomb around me. But I can read what I want.

What I took away with me this year was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (sadly leaving behind Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers because of space considerations), and three paperbacks from my Myopic/Misogynist reading list of women writers: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

The Luminaries, in a way, is the perfect intelligent person’s holiday read. It is a mystery story (keeps you reading), and a meticulously built historical fiction (allows you to drift away into a fully-imagined, fully-upholstered reverie), but it is also presented via a structure as intricate and labyrinthine as a spider’s web (you need to have the time to concentrate). Like the other ‘big book’ on the Man Booker longlist, Richard House’s The Kills, it wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d want to read in snippets, tired, at bedtime. Both are fractured narratives, with various versions of events orbiting a ‘truth’ that the reader is tasked with putting together themselves.

Of course, the risk with this – with all mystery stories, i.e. with all stories that include the past as a dimension to be explored – is that the myriad possible ‘truths’ thrown up in the earlier sections of the book may well be tastier meat than the ‘true’ truth exposed at the end. Continue reading

Ambushed by Pixies on the school run: how Pop Music works

I strongly believe that it’s perfectly healthy to get obsessed, every now and then, with a piece of pop music. It happened with Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’ (post here), it happened with The National’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ (post pending) and it happened last week with the Pixies’ song ‘Hey’, from their Doolittle album.

It happened like this. It was the afternoon. I’d been working at the computer at home, and it was time to collect the kids from school. (Sad to say, most of the time they go to and from school in the car. It’s a 35 minute walk, up a hill. I know, I know. I did walk to get them today.)

I got into the car, plugged in my iphone and set it to shuffle, and pressed the ignition button. “Hey! Been trying to meet you…” I turned the car and set off. It wasn’t until a minute or so into the song that I realised something was going on: I didn’t know how the song had got to where it was from where it had started. (It’s not my favourite Pixies song, far from it. If you asked me to name my top ten Pixies songs, it probably wouldn’t occur to me.)

I whacked up the volume (Dylan’s exhortation to ‘play fucking loud’ seemed entirely appropriate) and set the song back to the start. By the time we had got back to the middle of the song I was convinced not so much that it was the best thing the band had ever recorded, but that it was, effectively, the only piece of recorded music in existence. Continue reading

Fragment / aphorism / tweet

Going out to sit in a doctor’s waiting room I picked up Lars Iyer’s Dogma to keep me company and, in the few minutes the sadly super-efficient NHS kept me waiting, I was reminded quite how enjoyable it is. Just pitched in to the middle and came up with stuff like this:

What is it that keeps him from cutting his own throat?, W. wonders. What is it that keeps me from cutting mine?

We want to see how it all ends, he says. We want to see how it will all turn out. But this is how it ends. This is how it will all turn out.

Wonderful, beautiful stuff, that sticks its neck out, then pans back to see what the rest of the body is doing – it’s twitching convulsively, of course – and to show how much further out the rest of the body is than the poor old neck and head.

When I covered Dogma briefly in my January reading round-up, I said I thought it worked better as tweets or blog posts than a novel. Now I’m not sure. I think it benefits from being on paper – the veneer of respectability it gives – but I still don’t rate it as a novel particularly (though I doubt Iyer is aiming for it to be that kind of novel). It works best as a book picked up and “dipped into” (in that godawful phrase) and put down again. The tantalising thought that all these bits and pieces might coalesce into some kind of fulfilling, developing narrative is present on every page, and is rewarding as such even when you know that no such thing occurs. Continue reading

Ambushed by Patti Smith coming out of the Dartford Tunnel: how Art works

So there I was, driving my family from south London to visit my parents-in-law in Essex this Saturday, and we had my iPhone plugged into the car stereo – every family member getting two song choices, that’s how we played it. After some JLS and Michael Jackson, one twin said his toy eagle cuddly toy, along for the ride, wanted a song. (He’s eight, but he’s going through a bit of a positive attachment phase, the eagle has become particularly important, and that’s all to the good, so welcome along, Feagle.)

I said there might be Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Bird of Prey’ on the thing, but my wife, scrolling through the listings, said it wasn’t. She read out the nearest options – ‘Bird Stealing Bread’, ‘Birdland’, Neil Young’s ‘Birds’. How about those, she asked?

Yes, play those, came the order from the back. Play those for Feagle.

Well, driving round the M25 in a Renault Scenic is never going to be the best environment for listening to Iron & Wine’s delicate Americana (how does he do that with his voice?), but then Patti Smith came on, those first tentative piano chords and Smith’s matter-of-fact spoken word intro, dipping its toes in punk sentimentality, and immediately I knew something was going to happen.

We passed into the Dartford Tunnel and I found I was gripping the steering wheel tight, focusing on the lights of the car in front. The lyrics, once she starts singing, becoming increasingly distorted, as if someone’s forcing the words through her head, using her as a loudhailer set to maximum distortion – “I am not human” – until they give up half their meaning. This is the kind of music that perfectly fits a car stereo environment. It comes at you like meat, slabs of it, bouncing off the metal frame of the machine, you’re trapped and you can’t escape it, like being caught in waves full of roiling sand.  By the time we came out of the tunnel into Essex, it was building to the powerhouse crescendo, Smith clearly channelling something witchy, troll-like, chthonic, stubbing herself on her own words – “like like like Mohammed Boxer” – and I was driving with my face half-averted from the road, watching the flat autumn Essex fields, physically holding back tears.

Obviously, music can get to you at odd times.

Was going through the tunnel part of it? Was it the fact that I was travelling into Essex, county of my childhood, country of birds and farms and no doubt red tractors, and so of my own parents, who however had moved to Wales ten years ago?

Was it about parenthood? The song has a dead father, and a son, his face “lit up with such naked joy.” Perhaps, but if the song was ambushing me, then I’d seen what I’d walked into as soon as it started. I knew, as soon as it started, that this song was catching me at the perfect moment of my… what? vulnerability? receptivity? And why? It had been an ordinary morning. I’d spoken to my parents on the phone recently. There were no signs I was going through any kind of low-level mid-life crisis.

The album the song is from, Horses, is an important one for me, as for many people. I probably still have the original cassette somewhere. I listened to a lot of music as a kid, but it was all either new stuff heard on the radio, or The Beatles, which was the only pop music my parents owned. (I’ve always considered The Beatles rather like the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs: they’re a given, hors discours, even, and as such hardly worth discussing.)

Horses might have been one of the first albums I bought specifically following lines of influence back from contemporary bands I liked to the stuff that inspired them. (I’d never even considered, in contrast, that anyone had ever been influenced by The Beatles. It would be like being influenced by air, or water.) It was through that album, in part, that I learned about the possibility of art existing outside of time, and not necessarily speaking directly to the people in the particular moment it was made, but to people for whom it was not made, like me. It was Horses that made me look at ‘my’ pop music – the music made for me, that I felt I owned, was mine by right of my existence in a particular time, in a particular place – with a harsher critical eye. Perhaps it wasn’t enough that it spoke to me, now, at the moment it was made. Perhaps it would have to face a reckoning beyond those contingent conditions.

But it is about fathers and sons, too. Although big into books, my parents had never been into pop music, and what I got from pop music was not something I felt I could communicate to them. A pop song about a dead father thus carries its own freight of tragic irony. (Ian Bostridge singing ‘I Will Go With My Father A-Plowing’, with its own farm setting, perhaps I could share with him – especially for its list of birds, my father being a walker and a birdwatcher, if not a farmer.)

My father’s not dead, and he’s unlikely to leave me a little farm in New England, but he has given me a feeling for Essex fields – the turned clay stretched in vanishing lines towards the horizon and scattered with a thousand lapwings, perhaps, birds you never see anymore – though of course I never knew that sensitivity was growing in me at the time, because I was too busy listening to Patti Smith, inching my way back, with growing confidence, into the exotic crags and gorges of art and creativity.

And now, as these things go, I’m a father – and although it’s the parents dying on you that brings you to a certain critical pitch of existence (what’s that line by Martin Amis, something about finding yourself suddenly at the front of queue?) being in the lucky position of having both children and parents has its own weirdness. It’s like being caught in a hall of mirrors, surrounded on all sides by visions of what you were and what you will be. You’re falling unavoidably towards a future you can see etched on your father’s face, and, at the same time, as if you’re all tied together like mountain climbers, you’re dragging your own sons after you, to take your place in the middle ground.

So, because of the importance that music has, or has had, for me, my children spend less time tramping across fields and nature reserves, and more time listening to music. (Not a direct correlation, but still, you get me.) They have their JLS and their Michael Jackson, and that’s all on the iPhone for car journeys, and they have They Might Be Giants, and some lovely covers of Woody Guthrie kids songs, and they know a certain amount of Beatles, some Kinks, Madness, Flaming Lips, White Stripes… all those classic kids groups. Patti Smith, though, that I’d never force on them.

Yet now here I was, driving, arms not shaking exactly, but certainly internally vibrating, out of the Dartford Tunnel, finding myself in the throes of some kind of emotional rubdown, in that way music has of working on you like sandpaper, rubbing you raw. And the music, with its strange, warped spine of alien guitar, and with the hugely, beautifully and in the end incredibly ordinary and necessary pounding piano chords under it, and Patti Smith dragging out her words like they’re her intestines that are being dragged out – “We are not humaaaaaaaaaa” – until the statement becomes at once undeniably true and absolutely its own contradiction (nothing more human than denying your humanity, nothing more hopeful than singing the blues).

And the reason I’m nearly crying is because I daren’t look round and see what effect this music is having on my children. It’s too soon, of course: they’re into JLS and Jacko, and you can’t rush these things, but I think I’m crying because I would give anything to know what was going through their minds, and bodies, in that moment, on an ordinary Saturday morning car journey, as they heard Patti Smith working herself up into her shamanistic frenzy – “I won’t give up, don’t let me give up.”

Does this music have the same effect (might it one day have the same effect) on them as on me? Is there a gene for getting all torn up over Patti Smith? Or will I have to drum it into them? Or, most bathetically of all, am I going to respond to their Patti Smith moment, when it comes, as my father responded to mine – in such a way as they’ll think their music means nothing to me, because I just haven’t got that kind of connectivity in me?

Art – with music, naturally, as human artistry’s pinnacle and consummation – is the great connector, but the connection is momentary, and uncertain, and in the end you find it connects you to yourself, alone. That’s what Patti Smith was singing about, in 1975, and that’s the response she produced in me, 35 years later. And I would trade my cassette of Horses, just now, to see a flock of lapwings in an Essex field.

“We like Birdland.”

My inspiration

Just found the link to a short piece of mine originally broadcast on Resonance FM, as part of a series of shows called ‘In Search of Inspiration’ made by Sharon Gal. Most of the weekly show is her in conversation with various people (not just ‘creatives’ but a tai-chi teacher, charity worker and health visitor in the episode i’m in) but mine was a prerecorded segment.

Listening back to it – never a fun part of performing or reading anything aloud – I’m not sure about ‘the balloon of art’ as a metaphor, but I’ll stand by what I say towards the end, about how sudden, dramatic moments of inspiration occur. Here it is:

The Eureka moment comes when you realise you can dispense with an assumption about your character, or plot, or situation, that you didn’t realise you had been relying upon. Those tiny camels my main character had been trying to create for her lunatic billionaire employer in another story (he wanted them small enough to go through the eye of a needle, naturally), but which obviously didn’t – couldn’t – exist… well, what if they did exist already – to her surprise, and mine? Surprise yourself, and you surprise your reader. The solid wall you had been leaning on suddenly gives way and a secret passage opens up into a part of your work you never knew was there. The shape of the house, the shape of the work, starts to reform inside your head. The possibilities expand to fill its empty corners, its new rooms.

Sharon has archived the show here and I come in at about 13:30 mins.