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Will Self and the ghouls of literature

5 May

 

Like most people with an interest in the subject, I read Will Self’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian on the Death of the Novel  with a strong sense of déja vu. The novel has ‘died’ so many times already it must be truly sick and tired of being dead. Following the Washington Post’s recent revelation that poetry is dead also, should we be concerned?

Readers of Blanco’s Blog will be familiar with the writer’s various tussles with the novel, not simply the discomfort imposed on the reader by having to wade through so much baggy stuff in order to consume the kernel, so to speak – if there is one – but also the demands made on the author in struggling to keep the damn thing fresh and alive, when it should just lie down and die.

Will Self’s argument, fluently expressed – although, as usual, not only hyperbolic, but perhaps a tad Thesaurus-retentive (e.g. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic) – moves towards its expected conclusion with unerring certitude: the novel is dead; long live the novel:

The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

Insistence on the death of the novel (never mind of its author) was once answered quite superbly by a character in Don Delillo’s The Names (my favourite of his), who expresses the idea of the novel’s zombiehood thus, and I cannot think of a greater or more delicious challenge to any would-be novelist:

“If were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”

 

 

 

 

Juan Rulfo and the terror of the blank page

4 Jan

 Juan Rulfo and accomplice

Juan Rulfo and accomplice.

This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.

Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).

I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.

According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:

Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.

“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”

Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.

Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”

 

 

 

 

 

Killing your darlings

1 Jan

2014

For the past few years, whenever people ask me the dread question of ‘what are you working on’ I have mumbled something about a novel called The Blue Tent. The truth is, I have been writing TBT, on and off, since 2006, although the process has been interrupted by other projects, including a memoir  and a couple of volumes of translation. However, the writing and completion of the novel has always re-emerged as a pressing need, like an addiction, or (I imagine) a particularly demanding affair with a psychotic lover. I had to get the book done. I needed to have completed another novel (note the pseudo-retrospective quality of this thought). I finished the first full draft in September 2012 and have been revising, when time allows, ever since. The Blue Tent became my secret life. My closest friends even knew it by name, but none of them had read a word of it. I became irritable when not working on it, and fractious when I was. At times I would resort to talking the book up: writing it, I told myself, I would discover what kind of a writer I really was: it would even, after a fashion, make me whole.

The Blue Tent started out as a modern fairy tale about the attempt of an individual to understand the weird and incomprehensible events that begin to overtake his life after a tent appears in the field next to his house. But in the end the activity of writing the novel became contiguous with the inability of the protagonist to act within the story; his torpor began to mimic my own. It was a mess.

Yesterday, in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, I was lying awake, as so often occurs, pondering yet again the structural perversions wrought by the unruly novel, and I realised, after an hour and a half of twisting and turning, that I would have to get up and write things down.  This is a familiar pattern. At a quarter to five I made tea, and then ascended to my study in the loft.

But this time, rather than work on the novel, I read through the notes I had made on it over the years and realised that the book was fucked. FUBAR. I didn’t love the story any more; the characters didn’t interest me (and even if they interested other people, I was not inclined to keep working with them); the premise was interesting but essentially it was just an idea that could have been developed in any one of a thousand ways. The way that I had chosen to develop the idea had brought me to a dead end, and I was stuck. The feeling in my gut told me, without hesitation: Stop it, just Stop.

Feeling a little dizzy at the ease with which I had reached this decision (such moments come with the force of a revelation, even if, when you think them over afterwards, the thought has actually been on a slow burn for months, or even years) I googled ‘abandoned novels’ and the first article to come up was Why Do Writers Abandon Novels? – by Dan Kois in the New York Times. It begins as follows:

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel Fountain City — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992. What was to be the follow-up to his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, instead was a black mark on his hard drive, five and a half years of work wasted.”

I felt better already. Schadenfreude. I hadn’t wasted that long. Not five and a half years. Not really. I’d written 60,000 words and done numerous drafts, some of them longer, but Chabon had written 1,500 pages, and was probably working on it full time.

Kois’ article surveys a number of writers’ views and experiences of abandoning a novel – or rather, putting it out of its misery. If something is making your life a misery, “erasing” or “burying you alive”, isn’t it merely an instinct for survival to kill it before it gets you?

Stephen King (as so often) had useful advice on the topic: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”

And then of course, while acknowledging that the book is not turning out as you might have wished – feel it sinking, to follow King’s analogy – you start making compromises with yourself. If you have a publisher and agent waiting for you to deliver, the pressure is on. You begin looking for arguments to convince yourself to let the book go, to just finish it, find a vaguely unsatisfactory resolution (one less unsatisfactory than all the others), publish it – if anyone wants it – and be damned.

But this is not an option. It would plague me forever to let a book go out in that state. While, on the other hand, the sense of liberation that has accompanied the killing of my darling is something to be cherished. This ‘failure’ feels, in fact, nothing like failure at all: it feels like being unchained from a madman.

In the meantime I will take Samuel Beckett’s advice, and learn to fail better next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Short story versus novel

13 Oct

Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.

This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk.  Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:

‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’

I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.

And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.

Ways of Going Home

8 Mar

Ways of going homeAlejandro Zambra’s first novel, Bonsai, won awards and brought the young Chilean poet international fame.  Bonsai is an elegantly-turned story which can be read in an hour, but is hardly, as some claimed on its publication, a classic destined to revitalize Chilean literature. It was followed by The Private Lives of Trees, which received comparatively less favourable reviews, but retained international interest in the author.

In this, his third and longest – but still very short – novel, translated by Megan McDowell, Zambra uses the ploy of describing the author at work on his new book, which, needless to say, is the one we are reading. Zambra adopted similar metafictional devices in its two predecessors and has evidently decided to stick to the formula.

As in his previous works, the new novel – strictly speaking a novella – evokes a wry and somewhat precious romanticism reminiscent of Murukami, with the central love affair subject to the corrosive influences of memory. But in Zambra’s world, this theme alone does not stand up to sustained scrutiny, and he shifts between the narrative present and revisiting the circumstances of a comfortable upbringing during difficult times. The most powerful passage concerns a meeting with his parents around the time of the 2010 Chilean elections, when the narrator’s father comes out with the line his son most dreads hearing: “Pinochet was a dictator and all that, he killed some people, but at least back then there was order.”

The most provocative idea in the book is the claim that the generation of Chileans born, like Zambra, in the years immediately following the coup of 1973, is composed of ‘secondary characters’. Our young hero suffers a vague sense of guilt at having been felicitously spared a personal legacy from those years of torture, disappearances and exile. And the narrator’s confounded utterance: “I’m the son of a family with no dead” is almost identical to one used by the protagonist of his previous novel, The Private Lives of Trees.

But Zambra’s narrator seems muddled as to what precisely his generation’s anomie actually involves: at one point he describes his peer group as:

“deserters, I think. We’ve become war correspondents, tourists. That’s what we are, I think: tourists who arrive with their backpacks, their cameras, and their notebooks.”

This leaves the reader wondering, well, which are you exactly: a deserter, a war correspondent or a tourist? There is a hell of a difference between the three, and the author’s unwillingness to differentiate indicates either laziness or a worrying lack of interest in his own thesis.

Zambra at his best offers an intimate recognition of his central characters, and he can evoke a setting with succinct brevity. He is a writer who works confidently from within his preferred metafictional formula, but we cannot escape the conclusion that Ways of Going Home is overly self-referential, and lacking in real depth or acuity. It is a readable but ultimately frustrating story aimed, like Bonsai, at a young adult market.

 

This review first appeared in The Independent on Tuesday, 29th January 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The itch

5 Jan

scratching

 

Wikipedia’s entry on itching goes as follows:

Itch is a sensation that causes the desire or reflex to scratch. Itch has resisted many attempts to classify it as any one type of sensory experience. Modern science has shown that itch has many similarities to pain, and while both are unpleasant sensory experiences, their behavioral response patterns are different. Pain creates a withdrawal reflex while itch leads to a scratch reflex.

My own scratch reflex has been horribly over-employed these last two nights. I wonder if it has anything to do with a change of climate, being currently in a temperate dry place rather than the cold wet place where I normally reside? I came here to do some work, and while I have managed to do a fair bit of writing, I have probably done just as much scratching, often in the more personal or inaccessible zones of the body. I haven’t scratched like this since having scabies a long time ago.

The doctor back home told me it might be a side-effect of the medication I am on (great, I thought, another side effect to go with the fatigue, loss of appetite, anaemia, depression and rage). He also told me – get this – to try not to scratch.

Well, as you can imagine, I laughed like a cretin, since the very essence of having an itch is – as the Wikipedia entry makes clear – to activate the scratch reflex. You think, I’ll just give it a little scratch, and the next thing you are at it like a monkey. When you use your fingernail to scratch the spot where the irritant is, you not only remove the irritant but you irritate a whole shedload of other nerve endings. This means your itch itches more, hurts more, and you consequently scratch more. So my doctor’s advice was actually very helpful, if only I was able to heed it.

All I could do last night was take a valium and keep my hands clenched together under the pillow, in an attempt to exercise the kind of self-control that would do credit to a monk dedicated to obliterating the demands of the flesh.

There is, I suspect, a literary aspect to this scratching business. In fact the whole thing reeks of metaphor, if only because writing itself at times resembles an act of scratching. Initially one writes in order to relieve an itch. However once the process has begun, the initial itch is replaced by something quite monstrous. Then we find it impossible to stop scratching. I wonder if this has anything to do with being on the seventeenth draft of a novel?

 

 

 

Writing in bed

7 Oct

Mark Twain writing in bed

 

I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.

Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.

Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.

Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.

The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”

“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”

But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.

No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:

“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”

Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.

If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Terra Nostra’ by Carlos Fuentes

17 May

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

Carlos Fuentes, who died this week, wrote a great number of novels and stories, as well as some exceptionally fine essays. He was, along with Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Octavio Paz, representative of a generation of Latin American authors who took the world by storm in the 1960s and 70s.

My first and most lasting encounter with Fuentes took place when I was 22 years old and recovering from an accident, when I read the fabulous and hallucinatory Terra Nostra, the opening lines of which are reproduced above. In spite of the far greater success of his other novels, such as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Change of Skin and The Old Gringo (made into a movie with Gregory Peck), for me it is Terra Nostra, a sprawling, futuristic epic, concerned with the beginnings of Europe’s occupation of America, the phantom marriage of Elizabeth, Queen of England, with Phillip II of Spain, and dark investigations into medieval Paris, all tied up and shaken (as far as I can remember) with lashing of surrealist humour and a good deal of neo-baroque terror, that will summarize  Fuentes’ achievement.

Funnily enough, Andrés Neuman’s description of his own novel, Traveller of the Century, as ‘a futuristic novel that happens in the past’ comes to mind as an entirely appropriate description of Fuentes’ antecedent.

In his Introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition, Jorge Volpi writes: “Terra Nostra is not a simple novel. It is a malfunctioning time tunnel; the entrance to a labyrinth of mirrors; a hell – or a purgatory – in which all memories and echoes intermingle; the gigantic rotting place of history; a jig-saw puzzle put together incorrectly or Chinese boxes that become deeper every moment . . . the underwater tunnel that joins Europe and America; the black hole that connects past, present and future . . .”

I have Terra Nostra in front of me now, the 2003 edition, with an afterword by Milan Kundera. Nearly 800 pages of it, and the pages are big. I wonder if re-reading can ever re-capture the excitement and hunger of reading a great book the first time round? Maybe the pleasure of re-reading are entirely distinct from those of first-time discovery. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just peek inside, flick through the pages, see what leaps out . . .  perhaps this is a preferable way to revisit old favourite books and places.

At Swim-Two-Birds and an absence of frantic sorrow

14 Jan

 

My favourite novel when I was nineteen years of age and had just moved to London was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and it was with some pleasure that I dipped into an article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books last week entitled ‘Flann O’Brien’s lies’. The essay weaves a fascinating connecting thread between O’Brien’s Dublin, Borges’s Buenos Aires and Pessoa’s Lisbon, and considers these three writers as sharing a fundamental sense of marginality, living in these sea-facing cities, all three of them writing fictions in which ‘they invented further personae and indeed further worlds’ –  all three of them writing under alternative identities.

‘An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst.’

Thirst was certainly a passion of O’Brien’s, and it eventually killed him, though this, of course, is not what Tóibín means, strictly speaking.

I have always thought At Swim-Two-Birds was O’Brien’s best book. Although people generally go on about The Third Policeman, I was never such a fan. The Poor Mouth – his own translation of his Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht –  was hilarious, although I daresay I missed a lot of the nuances. The rest of his work, notably The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are derivative or cannibalistic of his earlier stuff. The newspaper column in The Irish Times was fabulous. But with his first book, O’Brien achieved something he would never quite manage again.

‘The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer recreates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.’

The article also quotes an extract from Henry James, which indicates precisely the kind of novelist James despaired of, and precisely the kind of writer O’Brien was: one who had not the remotest interest in earnestly capturing a particular quality of truth that pretends or claims to be lodged in reality, and who thereby recognizes that ‘realism’ is itself only a particular, stylised mode of representation. For O’Brien, and others like him, the point of fiction lies elsewhere, and largely, though not exclusively, in the telling itself.

Finally, Tóibín cites an absolute gem from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that is one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’

 

 

 

The Vagabond’s Breakfast: a perfect stocking filler (wash thoroughly after use)

18 Dec

 

Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’

Scott says:

The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.

The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:

Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”

It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).

Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.

 

 

 

 

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