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Archive for April, 2010

A true story

When I was at university studying English Literature, I was invited to attend a lecture from a distinguished visiting academic who claimed to have discovered a modern poet who was comparable to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was quite highly regarded in those days so this claim caused a sensation. The lecture theatre was packed.

The middle-aged academic addressed us in tremulous tones. He was reading from handwritten notes something that seemed like a story because it was written in the third person. It told of a sensitive middle-aged man who was shown some poems that moved him to ecstasy.

It was quite a long story and the details were vaguely embarrassing. Our lecturer, who was dressed in a faded blue corduroy jacket, looked up shyly from time to time to check we were all still listening. We were.

The poet was only twenty-four, he told us. The implications for poetry in England were immense. This poet’s staggering range and depth were like nothing in the English canon. At once profound and polific, the poet’s work had the virtuosity of genius. The man who was handed them realised that his world had just changed … changed utterly.

He ended, euphorically, “I am here today to tell you that I was that man. And I have brought with me that poet…”

There were gasps in the auditorium.

A tall willowy blonde stepped onto the podium. She demurred with a breathy giggle, composed herself quickly, and read us some poems.

Silence.

A very long silence.

This lecture was followed by a brief flurry of interest in the international press. There were some sarcastic and bitchy exchanges in literary journals. And the poet’s career ended abruptly. Her prolific output ceased.

This series of events made a lasting impression on me. I can remember nearly everything with astonishing clarity — except, sadly, the poems.

I don’t have the gravitas of a distinguished poetry specialist at one of the world’s leading universities. My words carry little influence. But I still think I should be careful of praising too highly the works of living writers whose reputations are still unformed.

That’s why I’ve been silent on the subject of 4:Play, a collection of stories by Jess C. Scott. These stories are too complex to be called erotic, too creative to be classifiable, too genre-bending to be conventionally published and far too hot for me to handle.

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Disgrace is the kind of novel that can make you want to stop everything, find a quiet spot somewhere, and do nothing else till you’ve finished it. It can restore your lost love of reading. It can sustain you through other books that are not quite so good because you know books have the potential to be this good and so they’re worth persisting with.

I’m not sure why I liked Disgrace so much. I could no doubt analyse the experience and come up with some plausible literary explanation but I’d rather not. I’d rather just enjoy the aftermath and read another book while I still have the enthusiasm.

The book I’ve chosen was a present. It’s called The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but then I wasn’t sure I’d like Disgrace either. You’ve just got to make a start, haven’t you?

I made a start and fell asleep. Well, look, it has sentences like this:

“That image of streets in furtive chaotic flight, and of the Seine panorama being rolled up, was frightening for the first minute; then a lassitude in which reedy fantasies wavered began like smoke to fill Henrietta’s brain. She relaxed more on the sofa, shutting her eyes. But she could not hear the clock without seeing the pendulum, with that bright hypnotic disc at its tip, which set the beat of her thoughts till they were not thoughts. Steps crossed the ceiling and stopped somewhere: was Miss Fisher standing by her sick mother’s bed? She can’t be dying, she wants to know about me. The stern dying go on out without looking back; sleepers go out a short way, never not hearing the vibrations of Paris, a sea-like stirring, horns, echoes indoors, electric bells making stars in the grey swinging silence that never perfectly settles in volutions of streets and empty courts of stone.”

I was so bemused by this paragraph that this morning, upon waking, I decided to do at once something I’d promised myself I would leave till the end, which was to read the introduction by A.S Byatt. What did Dame Antonia make of this strange, old-fashioned book? I was desperate to know.

“I began the book, a compulsive reader, having already worked my way through most of Scott and much of Dickens, expecting to find a powerful plot, another world to inhabit, love, danger. I found instead my first experience of a wrought, formalized ‘modern’ novel…”

Hang on a minute, Dame Antonia. Modern? Modern, did you say?

” a ‘modern novel’, a novel, also (and this I remember clearly as being supremely important), which clarified…”

Clarified? Clarified, are you sure?

“… or would have clarified if I had been clever enough to focus it, the obscure, complex and alarming relationships between children, sex and love.”

Ah, well I know I’m not as clever as you, Dame Antonia, so if you couldn’t focus it, what chance have I? But I can see how reading this sort of novel might be good for me.

Dame Antonia’s introduction is quite gripping actually and it braced me sufficiently to make me go back to the novel with a renewed sense of purpose. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the evolution of literary intelligence and the subject of reading generally.

Among the interesting things she says of her first reading of the book, when she was a child of ten or eleven, is this:

“I learned, from that reading, two things. First that ‘the modern novel’ was difficult: it stopped and analysed little things, when you wanted to get on with big things — it made it clear to you that you did not understand events, or other people. And, more important, more durable, I learned that Elizabeth Bowen had got Henrietta right. Adult readers are given to saying, of children like Henrietta, that ‘real’ children are not so sophisticated, so articulate, so thoughtful. What I remember with absolute clarity from this reading was a feeling that the private analyses I made to myself of things were vindicated, the confusions I was aware of were real, and presumably important and interesting, since here they were described.”

Yes, thank you, Dame Antonia, for reminding me why I like to read. I am not alone in my confusion, that much is clear. I am having to read this book very carefully, but I am finding my childlike analyses of certain things vindicated, just as you say. I only wish I could have read it at the age of eleven, like you, when it might have accelerated the learning process and obviated some of my more embarrassing sexual catastrophes, not to mention my many literary faux pas.

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John Malkovic and Jessica Haines in Coetzee's Disgrace

On Sunday I had lunch with my daughter. We talked about all the books she is reading and wants to read. We went to a book shop and I told her I was reading too many books already to think about buying another. She said “Buy one and start it straight away. You could read it as well.” She has boundless enthusiasm.

So I bought Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and I read it on the way home.

I’m very glad I did. It is very refreshing to read a book about human beings for a change. It is written with a heartfelt simplicity and is the perfect antidote to the coruscating cleverness of Martin Amis in London Fields.

I keep wanting to parody Martin Amis. I feel he is wasting my time. I don’t feel like that about J.M. Coetzee. You can’t parody sincerity.

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Luca Guadagnino with Tilda Swinton

“You dare yourself to make these childish fantasies real,” says Tilda Swinton, talking about her 20-year collaboration with Luca Guadagnino and their ambition to make an operatic film in the style of Visconti or Antonioni. “We egg each other on.”

They’ve egged each other on slowly but surely over the last 20 years and now, finally, we are able to see the fruits of their collaboration, I am Love.

There is no doubt that Luca and Tilda have a passion for cinema. There is a lot of love in this film. Listening to them talk about the creative process is inspiring. They really whet your appetite.

But I didn’t like the film. It is beautifully made. It is lovingly made. It is a very intelligent and a very sensual film. But it is boring.

I think it exemplifies the huge risks that every creative artist takes. You can have a great idea. You can have a great creative team. You can execute your idea with infinite care. You can bring to it passion and exquisite craftsmanship. But you can still fail to excite your audience.

It is the first of a series of collaborations, they claim, in which they will explore the unique language of cinema, and they have already secured the funding for the next in the series, which will be an homage to Michael Powell.

I don’t know much about Michael Powell but I will certainly change that over the next few months. If he inspired Tilda and Luca I think he must be some kind of god.

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London Fields, in London

I’ve broken my new year’s resolution and I’m angry with myself. I’ve started reading a long book.

It’s a hardback first edition of London Fields by Martin Amis. I was going to sell it but the research I did suggested £5 would be the most I could get. It cost me £12.95 back in 1989 when that was a lot of money so I thought maybe I should read it instead.

The reason I’ve had it so long without reading it is that I can’t read hardback novels. They’re too cumbersome. And it’s a waste to buy the paperback when you’ve already got the hardback, isn’t it?

I wish publishers wouldn’t publish hardback fiction. I stopped buying it back in 1990. I’ve learned my lesson. It’s about time they learned theirs.

Of course, Martin Amis has a new (hardback) book out. I’d like to read it but this time I’ll wait. London Fields will do until The Pregnant Widow is published in more manageable form. I’m never in a rush to read a long book.

One of the reasons that London Fields is a long book is that Martin Amis is fond of repetitive rhetorical devices. You know, saying things twice. Or three times.

Not only that but he likes to go back over parts of the story again and tell it from someone else’s point of view.

He’s obviously envious of one of his main characters:

“Guy Clinch had everything. In fact he had two of everything.”

Martin Amis wants two of everything too and you can find two (and sometimes three) of everything on almost every page. Many of his words, like Guy Clinch, feel supererogotary. I don’t mind that, though. You can snooze while you read. I recently read a very short book by Len Deighton that was written so tersely that I had to keep going back and re-reading whole chapters two or three times to pick up the hints I thought I must have missed. Martin Amis does all that for you. You just have to keep going fowards.

“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit. You got that? And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look, and feel, like shit.”

Of course the punctuation changes subtly so those of us who stay alert don’t feel we are wasting our time.

And we’re certainly not wasting our time. This is literary fiction. Not only are we having fun but we are improving our minds and morals. Did I say fiction? Silly me. As the narrator probes the lives of his three protagonists, his repetitive woodpecker pen wants far more than that.

“I must get into their houses. Keith will be tricky here, as in every other area. Probably, and probably rightly, he is ashamed of where he lives…Keith will naturally be tricky.

“With the murderee [Nicola Six] I have a bold idea. It would be a truthful move, and I must have the truth. Guy is reasonably trustworthy; I can allow for his dreamy overvaluations, his selective blindnesses. But Keith is a liar, and I’ll have to doublecheck, or triangulate, everything he tells me. I must have the truth. There just isn’t time to settle for anything less than the truth.

“I must get inside their houses. I must get inside their heads. I must go deeper — oh, deeper.”

Martin Amis can’t resist making fun of illiterate signs in pubs and shops. Illiteracy irks him. For a man who ponders every word at least twice it must irk him doubly, triply, exponentially. But once you become conscious of his addiction to the double, the triple echo, it becomes itself something to mock, a laughable vice of style.

Martin Amis, rather than his fictional narrator, must take full responsibility for this clumsy mannerism because it’s there even in his preface to the novel, signed with his own initials. Struggling with various naff ideas for the title of his novel (he almost called it Millennium — imagine!), he says:

“But as you see I kept ironic faith with my narrator, who would have been pleased, no doubt, to remind me that there are two kinds of title — two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name for something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along: it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page. My suggestions (and they cost me sleep) are all the first kind of title. London Fields is the second kind of title. So let’s call it London Fields. This book is called London Fields. London Fields …”

So. London Fields it is. A long book with a hypnotic and not unpleasant rhythm that is sometimes funny for the right reasons and sometimes funny for the wrong ones. By Martin Amis. A literary author with a sense of style. And lessons for us all. Lessons in love, lessons in life — and a short, sweet lesson in how to choose the title for your next literary novel. (Don’t call it Millennium!)

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