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
2013 was the second full year that I’ve written a monthly blog about my reading, and this time I’ve decided to put together a ‘year in reading’ summary that lists the books covered, which isn’t quite the same as the books read. As I tried to explain in a post that was supposed to be a similar summary this time last year, but failed to be so, how we read – how I read – is so much more than a list of books ‘read’.
It’s also worth repeating that the whole point of these blog entries was to take the opportunity to to write about books in way not really allowed in book reviews – with no summary, no context, not necessarily any judgement, but rather an interrogation of the reading experience, or what reading the books made me think.
They are generally written without a plan, but at a rush, and posted before I can think too carefully about what I’ve said. But, generally, the topic that emerges – if it does at all – is one that has been preying on my mind.
Links to ‘proper’ book reviews given where appropriate. Otherwise, click on the link at the end of an extract to delve into that particular set of digressions.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
The Woes of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolano (Independent review)
First Novel, by Nicholas Royle
A Great Big Shining Star, by Niall Griffiths (Independent review)
plus a digression on physical vs digital books pursuing my graphic index of the mind obsession
I’ve had the Penguin Essays of George Orwell for decades. Perhaps I read it all when I got it, when I had time, but since then it’s come down from the shelves only on occasion, but each time it does, I flick through and remind myself what’s in there. Not deliberately, just as a part of the what the book operates. Click here to read the post Continue reading
Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading
Clearly I’m running late on my March reading. The pile of books looks impressive though, doesn’t it? March must have been a good month, for reading. (Okay, the Knausgaard, A Man in Love, stretched over to early April – and here’s my instant response posting on it, that I wrote when I should have been writing this.)
Some of the books were read to external deadlines – the Patrick Ness, Ruth Ozeki and James Meek all had to be written about – and so tended to be fitted around life. They got read in bed, at the desk, in a random chair, always with half an eye on the page count and half an eye on the calendar. Never the best circumstances for reading, and of course that ends up being reflected in what you write about the books. A book review is a particularly clumsy form, a rushed attempt at a pre-emptive backwards glance, a quasi-historical contextualisation before that context has had time to adhere.
Others, though, got read in their own time, those pockets of space that occasionally, if you’re lucky spring up for a book, or around a book, or in response to a book, and coax it into being read, and read properly.
(This is part of the greater argument about the novel as bourgeois object, that it flourished in response to middle class people having time to read novels… which argument goes on to say that the novel is doomed not because of its internal flaws, but because of the culture in which it lives. It’s an argument I think I probably agree with.
It’s not just that television takes up so much of that precious bourgeois time (‘quality time’ – can there be a more bourgeois phrase?) in most people’s lives – think of the rise of the box set as middle class cultural artefact, and of the digital hard drive attached to the TV… people have long talked of having more books in their house than they will ever have time to read. Now, for the first time, people have more television selected and stored in their house than they will ever have time to watch. Continue reading
Why Knausgaard? When I have a dozen other things I should be doing, at least three blogs I have lined up to write? Well, sometimes you just have to sit down and blog it out.
In this instance, the post was brought on last night when @gillybethstern hijacked a Twitter conversation about The National to ask: Any of you read the latest Knausgaard?
My contribution was:
I finished Vol II over w/end. Easy to SAY it’s superb. Harder to say WHY, to which Gillian replied
Agree. But I am enthralled, even when he boils water or fries up his meatballs. Then me:
and unties his shoelaces and takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket…
She’s right, and those laces and jacket were already underlined in my copy of the book, that I finished in a glorious sunny binge this weekend just gone, during a 24 hour stretch staying in a nice hotel in St Ives on my own – one of those pockets in time that allow you to really immerse yourself in a book, with no distractions.
Nobody wanted me for reviewing duties on this, the second volume of Knausgaard’s epic, six-volume succès de scandale, My Struggle, so this is my opportunity to just sit down and bash out an attempt at that question: Why Knausgaard? What is about his books that fires me up in a way that simply no other books do, at the moment?
@seventydys tried to answer it thusly: The quality of attention. How the facts are held in language. Nope-can’t do it.
This then is nothing so considered as a review – instead, here are a few of the comments I scrawled across the tops of the pages I read, and a few of the lines or passages I underlined, with hopefully brief attempts to explicate them. Continue reading
Seeing the hoohah surrounding the release of the Matrix Bros’ film adaptation of Cloud Atlas got me thinking back to that book, which I kind of enjoyed, while finding the Russian doll structure – with each story stopping halfway through, until you get to the middle one, the sixth, which runs in full, after which you get the endings, in reverse order – frankly annoying.
Not that I’m against narrative games, but that seemed very much for the sake of it an elegant refinement of an approach to structure that was beginning to look like a piece of schtick on Mitchell’s part. No question but that he can write, but the permanent hopping around in his first three books, the refusal to commit to or ground any of his well-appointed lit fic stories, to allow them to make a claim for their own psychological truths (or wherever it is you find your value), but instead disseminate his meanings throughout the various texts in rather nebulous forms of symbolism and connectivity (to quote myself from the review of another book, best forgotten, he “scatters his thematic overtones across the centuries and leaves it to the reader to pull them together into a single chord of meaning”)… all had me irked.
In fact, I’ve only read the first three of Mitchell’s books, the Narrative Gimmick Trilogy, you might call them, and of them I most enjoyed Number9Dream. I was big into Haruki Murakami at the time, and I loved it for its breathless (its Breathless) propulsion. Cloud Atlas just seemed like an attempt to get all grown-up over something that had worked fine as a young adult fireworks display. (And I mean ‘young adult’ entirely sincerely. I was 30-odd when I read Number9Dream and I wish I’d been able to read it earlier. That book is precisely what young adults should be reading.)
Thinking about Cloud Atlas produced two thoughts: one that Steve Aylett had used something like that very structure in his novel The Inflatable Volunteer. From memory, each chapter ended at a particularly cliff-hanging moment with a character beginning a further tall tale, which is then told in the next chapter, and so on. Then, halfway through, as in Cloud Atlas, the stories start winding up, sending you back up towards the surface, the original mise-en-scene. A simpler Chinese box format than Mitchell’s, but its headlong reverse chronology (like Heart of Darkness on the wrong drugs) was hugely compelling.
To extend this thought before I get to the second one, what I didn’t like about Cloud Atlas was that it didn’t have the guts to make me care about the characters, in that particularly hokey lit fic way, which was annoying, because I like doing that, and Mitchell so clearly has the talent to write a properly moving realist novel about proper, living breathing characters, that muscle in on your life (which happened with my favourite story of the novel, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’), but he backs away from doing so, instead offering up a glossy postmodern spin on some rather mushy Eastern philosophy that, to my mind, is absolutely not a step forward from dull old honest-to-goodness realist lit fic.
The second thought about Cloud Atlas is that the reason I resented that tricksy gimmick, of layering the stories like opened novellas laid one atop the other – and that makes all of this just a preamble to my real February Reading – is because that’s how I read anyway.