Archive | July, 2012

The chattering mind

24 Jul

 

The modern novel obsesses about itself. For many writers of novels, and of short stories, the act of narration itself becomes the topic of storytelling. I was culpable of this myself in my first foray into novel-writing, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, which is (and which always set out to be) a study in the art of storytelling, and in which the nature of the story being told is itself always and forever under scrutiny. I was, in those days – and in many ways remain – a disciple of Italo Calvino in this respect.

But how much of this reflexivity can we all take? I am currently reading Marina Warner’s ‘Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nightsand am again struck, as I was in my childhood, by the sheer joy of storytelling in these archetypal and magical tales. I am reminded of Borges’ comment that all great literature becomes children’s literature, about which Warner comments: “he was thinking of The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe as well as Tales of A Thousand and One Nights, but his paradox depends on the deep universal pleasures of storytelling for young and old: stories like those in the Arabian Nights place the audience in the position of a child, at the mercy of the future, of life and its plots, just as the protagonists of the Nights are subject to unknown fates, both terrible and marvellous.”

How far, then, is this mode of ‘simple’ storytelling from the convoluted twistings of what Tim Parks, in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, calls ‘the chattering mind’. Parks identifies this state of terminal parodic self-observation as the status quo of contemporary literary fiction (and presumably includes himself as an exemplar within this category). ‘Mental chatter’ (which several critics appeared to dislike about my Dog) can be seen as the single defining characteristic of this mindset:

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

Perhaps the challenge for novelists now is to find simplicity without being simplistic, to tap into the root of an intuitively convincing, spellbinding narrative that engages the reader at different levels (but without seeming pretentious on this score) and which, while allowing the chattering mind its share of the spoils, does not allow this bullying King Baby total dominance of the reading experience.

Otherwise we keep treading the endless spiral explored by Beckett, curator of the chattering mind school of literature, which, absorbing as it is, leads only to where one began, in endless repetition.

I realize now, in my middle fifties, what a huge, and in many ways, destructive influence Beckett wielded on so many of us growing up in the Godot generation (it was first performed three years before I was born); as much, say, as the influence that Joyce held over Beckett, and  which he spent so long attempting to shed.

Tim Parks again:

Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

I will, however –  no, therefore – continue in my quest to find the hidden passageways that connect A Thousand and One Nights with Endgame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Custard Trolley with llama

16 Jul

Are other people as astonished as I am by this kind of thing, found on any social networking site any day of the year?

Fabulous news! My haiku ‘The last dollop’ has been accepted by poetry mag ‘Custard Trolley’ special haiku edition. I am so thrilled, you can’t possibly imagine! Custard Trolley is one of the most prestigious and longstanding poetry mags of its kind: vibrant, innovative, and welcoming to unpublished or little known writers such as myself. What’s more they charge only $20 per submission, so it’s a bargain! Thanks to all my friends and family who have encouraged me to carry on writing despite so many rejections over the years, my recent nervous breakdown, and the loss of our cat, Tibby. I couldn’t have done it without you all!

This garbage will usually be followed by fifty ‘likes’ and a score of encouraging remarks such as ‘keep on writing, Gerry!’; ‘Always knew you had it in you’; ‘Next the Nobel!’

Why? Why does anyone care? Not specifically about Gerry’s haiku, but about such things at large? Why such a torrent of praise and encouragement? Is there not too much stuff in the world, especially dodgy stuff, bad poetry being amongst the dodgiest stuff around? Am I being a killjoy? Does it matter? Should anyone get worked up about this? Why do I look at Facebook anyway?

Good question. There must be something in me that feels that I am like Gerry, that I am, in fact,  a version of him,  and he of me. This is all so awful I think I should probably be condemned to death, probably by stoning. Better still, should never open Facebook again.

On a lighter note, I find this among my files, though I have no idea from whence it comes. A small delight, reflecting perfectly my own attitude to reading.

Much as we should love to grasp things with a complete understanding, invariably we cannot bring ourselves to pay the high cost of doing so. From books all we seek is to give ourselves unlaboured pleasure: or if we do study, pursue only those branches of learning which deal with self-knowledge and which teach us how to live. This is the winning post towards which your sweating nag should canter. Never bite your nails or use the whip when you come across difficult passages in your reading: after making a charge or two, let them be. Nothing worthwhile is done without some gaiety: persistence and too much intensity dazzle the judgement, making it sad and weary.

 

(with thanks to Eugene Dubnov for the llama)

 

 

 

 

 

Self-knowledge is blue

12 Jul

Marcel Proust

 

I like it when very distinct sources come up with the same material. One of the pleasure of writing a blog lies in sharing this kind of weird shit with my readers.

What to make of this?

Marcel Proust, in the last volume of A la recherché du temps perdu, having lost his footing on an uneven paving-stone, is reminded of an instance in Venice when, similarly, he had lost his footing, and through a process of accumulated memories of this kind attempts to measure the definitive instance of recall, the moment in which the whole process of revelatory recollection comes together. And his moment of revelation arrives in the colour blue, or azure:

The happiness that I had just experienced was indeed just like that I had felt when eating the madeleine, and the cause of which I had at that time put off seeking. The difference, purely material, was in the images each evoked; a deep azure intoxicated my eyes, impressions of coolness and dazzling light swirled around me and, in my desire to grasp them, without daring to move any more than when I had tasted the madeleine and I was trying to bring back to my memory what it reminded me of, I continued . . . to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one.

It would seem that this swimming about in the blue, as an image of self-awareness, or imminent revelation, was something familiar to the ancient alchemists. Lindy Abraham, in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery writes:

[T]he mercurial water and alchemical quintessence are frequently described as being sky blue or azure. Paraclesus introduced the symbol of the sapphire from the Cabbala into alchemy, where it came to signify the arcane substance. Thomas Vaughan described the tincture as having the colour of a certain inexpressible Azure like the Body of Heaven in a clear Day.’ He called the Stone ‘an azure Heaven.’ Elsewhere Vaughan wrote that the water of the sages was a ‘deep Blew Tincture’. To clothe in an azure shirt or garment means to make projection of the tincture on molten metal in order to convert it into silver or gold.

And finally Thomas Vaughan himself,  alchemist and brother of the great poet Henry Vaughan writes in his Aula Lucis:

Hence you may gather some infallible signs, whereby you may direct yourselves in the knowledge of the Matter and in the operation itself, when the Matter is known. For if you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it – which cannot be without our secret fire – you shall find that the matter no sooner feels the philosophical heat but the white light will lift himself above the water, and there will he swim in his glorious blue vestment like the heavens.

If you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it . . . prepare, dear reader, to swim into the livelong blue.

 

 

 

 

 

Random fragments

8 Jul

Italo Calvino

 

In El País, Javier Cercas writes on the qualities of silence. He tells a story about a meeting between Borges and the famously reserved Italian novelist Italo Calvino in Seville in 1984, at a conference they were attending. Calvino’s wife, Chichita was an Argentinian, and an old friend of Borges, who was, by this time, completely blind. The two of them, like true porteños, dived straight into conversation, and it was a while before Chichita mentioned to Borges that her husband, Italo, was also present.  Yes, replied Borges, I know. But how, said Chichita, when he hasn’t said a single word? I recognized him by his silence, said Borges.

I read this last month, while spending a few days in Spain, where I visited the beach near Llança quite late most afternoons. At this time of year, mid-June, most of the beachgoers are locals, and I was alarmed to notice the numbers of obese Spanish children and teenagers. Whereas, living in Britain, we have become accustomed to this, and have lived with it continuously since the nineties at least (if not from the days of Billy Bunter) in Spain it has been a radical and a rapid transformation. When I first visited Spain in 1959 (where I spent my third birthday at the house of the Langdon-Davies’s in Palamós) it was still in the cycle of post civil-war poverty, before the influx of mass tourism. Then there was the transition, after 1975, and the hedonistic explosion of social life in the cities; then the property boom, and the rocketing of house prices. When I returned to Spain in the mid 1990s every other car was a BMW or a 4 x 4, and everyone was up the gunnels with debt (as they still are) and now, inevitably, the country has reached the final and definitive stage in the establishment of a global economy: the children are fat.

So, as I read the newspaper, I cannot avoid the sight of a group of pudgy 11 year olds, munching Pringles and gobbling Magnum ice creams, all washed down with cans of Red Bull. How depressing this sight is. Ten years ago, when we lived here and my children went to the local school, these same kids would have been content with a ham or cheese sandwich, an orange and a bottle of water. I acknowledge there is a massive tendency for people to overrate the benefits of the past, but this is no exaggeration. The change towards childhood obesity is visible and has been incredibly swift. I cannot see the Spanish footballers of the future emulating Xavi, Iniesta et al, if they follow a diet of this kind.

Yesterday was the last day my younger daughter Rhiannon spent as a teenager. She and I went shopping at the supermarket together and she chose a few items, which she kept separately, in her own basket. As she went to pay I saw that in it were two cartons of Pringles, half a bottle of Gordon’s gin (a birthday present for her best mate) and two packets of Jelly Tots. Could the paradoxical state of being a teenager ever be more eloquently expressed, caught between the comforts of childhood and the terrors of adulthood?

Jelly Tots candy packaging

Jelly Tots candy packaging (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

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