November 28, 2008

David Foster Wallace, Rolling Stone and the leaving-be of dead geniuses

I guess the Rolling Stone piece on David Foster Wallace is old news in the States, but the magazine doesn't carry quite the same cultural weight over here so I only read it last week. It's a well-written, well-meaning piece, I think, very readable - almost compulsively so - and with some quotes from DFW, that would be cherishable in other circumstances ("if I'm hanging out with you, I can't even tell whether I like you or not because I'm too worried about whether you like me"). But there's something vaguely distasteful about the whole thing, this urge we have to pry into his life and the lives of those who loved him (loved him, not his books!). From the title onward ("The Lost Years & Last Days of..." - what "lost years"? the guy seemed pretty fuckin' productive to me...), the piece also plays the "tortured genius" card to the max, which is how we like our real-life geniuses, it seems, perhaps deep down because we want to punish them from being cleverer than us. But surely you reduce DFW as a writer and as a human being by shoe-horning his life and work into such a cliched old narrative? At times the article treats him like Hal (the computer, not the young prince) - an oversensitive uber-brain that eats itself. In fact he was a great writer who also happened to suffer from and struggle with mental illness, much as Charlie Parker was a great musician who had to suffer from and struggle with heroin addiction. The one doesn't make the other, or illuminate it.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here. I guess just that there's nothing we all like better than a dead writer, preferably a brilliant one who has been given a genius medal. It gives us something to write about (like this equally despicable little piece) and in doing so we all get paid - either directly or through basking in reflected glory, or just generating a few more hits for our pathetic little blogs. Really, we should all just read "Infinite Jest" again and shut up. Or not read it. But definitely shut up.

November 27, 2008

Sara Maitland, Silence, Leonard Cohen and that Monky Business

Despite the Crunch I find myself still obsessed with property-porn - those bits in the weekend papers where they show you pics of beautiful little houses you can't afford in interesting places you've never been to. In particular, I look out for crofts on isolated Scottish islands, even though if I were ever to live in such a place, I would go insane quicker than you can skin a sporran. All of which goes some way towards explaining my obsession with a new book by Sara Maitland. I didn't really know her work before, but this socialist/feminist/christian has spent the last few years in search of silence, culminating in building a small house in the middle of the moors of Galloway, where she seeks to spend 80% of her time in total solitude and silence. Anyway, she's written a book about it and you can read a chunk of it here. Alternatively (or additionally?), there's a nice piece about the bothies of Galloway here, complete with photos (one of which I've stolen and used here, tut tut).

I'm not sure what fascinates me about the idea of silence. I remember reading a piece about Leonard Cohen when he was a Buddhist monk (I think I just found it here (you may notice a preponderance of links from the Guardian newspaper group here, which tells its own story)) and being transfixed by the idea that he had retreated up a mountain to serve a Buddhist master, even though I hate getting up in the morning, hate doing as I'm told and am a mouthy bastard at the best of times. What is it then? Just escapism, I guess, although I suppose it's possible that in the consumption of others' silence as Alt.LIfestyle there's some deeper need that I should be addressing (earplugs?). Not ready for a monastery yet, though, I don't think. Oh, and while we're on monks, here's a quote from Thelonious: "Wrong is right". Ya know dat.

November 26, 2008

Roberto Bolaño - "2666," "Part 3 - The Part About Fate"

Jesus Christ, I'm out of my depth. First up, as I've said before, I'm not a literary critic, or even a book review drone. Second up, this is a remarkable book, something which people better qualified than me will spend years unpicking. The ending of "Part 3" is one of those rare reading moments when your hair stands on end and you feel the cold creep up your back. Or maybe that's just too much cough mixture. No, I'm reasonably certain that it genuinely is amazing.

So, the plot. Part 3 concerns Oscar Fate, an American reporter dealing with political and social issues for a small Harlem magazine. When the magazine's boxing correspondent dies, he is asked to go and cover a fight in... Santa Teresa, Sonora. Once there he hears about the abduction and murder of over two hundred women (based, I presume, on the real situation in Ciudad Juárez) and decides this would make a more interesting story. His editor refuses to cover it. He goes to the fight, where the Mexican boxer is easily beaten. Whilst there he bumps into a Mexican reporter he has been hanging out with and a very beautiful girl: Rosa Amaltifano, the daughter of Oscar Amaltifano, the central character of the previous section. I won't tell you what happens after that. I don't want to ruin any of it.

There's some pretty clunky plotting in this section and some stuff which I'm sure an editor would have advised removing if there had been time before Bolaño's death (why introduce a character as Quincy Williams, only to say that everyone at his magazine calls him Oscar Fate and refer to him like that through the rest of the book? Though I may be missing something...). But the sheer, disconcerting brilliance of his prose and imagination renders all that besides the point. People talk about books being "haunting" far too easily. "2666" makes you feel as if you are being haunted.

November 24, 2008

Roberto Bolaño - "2666," "Part 2 - The Part About Amalfitano"

The shortest of the five books or "parts" of "2666," I've realised that to do it justice I need to tell you a little more about "Part 1".

So, "The Part About The Critics" revolves around four academics who, for various reasons, all specialise in the work of an obscure German author called Benno Von Archimboldi. In the manner of a joke, we have a Frenchman, a Spaniard, an Italian and an Englishwoman. They meet at various conferences and become, first, friends, and then something more. But there's also a hole in all of their lives, a dissatisfaction which seems to have its personification in the "hole" of Archimboldi himself, a Pynchonesque figure who only his publisher and a few chancers have ever met. Eventually they get a tip-off that Archimboldi is in Santa Teresa in Sonora in northen Mexico and three of them travel out there to try to find him, as if the act will somehow rescue them from the essential meaninglessness of their lives.

Whilst in Santa Teresa, a Chilean academic from the University is tasked by his boss to look after them. This is Amalfitano, a person who they treat with a kind of patronising affection, but no real interest. The second part of the book goes back before the Critics' arrival and focusses on Amalfitano's own early days in Santa Teresa, including his recollections of his dead wife and his time living in Barcelona.

Despite its brevity, it's a much messier section than "Part 1," a kind of phantasmagoric unravelling, which is perhaps even more concerned with dreams than Part 1 and ends with Boris Yeltsin singing philosophy. There's a clue here, perhaps, as to the theme of the book: "Life is demand and supply... but that's no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history... So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it's also Dionysian mists and play." Or is Yeltsin a stand-in for Garcia Marquez and what he says obviously meant to be bullshit?

After the elegance of Part 1, Part 2 is hugely disconcerting and disturbing, but in an utterly satisfying way. We begin to learn a little more about the mass murder of women in and around Santa Teresa which seems to be the central linchpin of the book. And we're left wondering whether Amalfitano is going mad or whether something even more odd is being enacted.

Bolaño also throws out what can only be seen as a challenge: "Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown." Despite his quiet irony, it's clear what kind of book "2666" is...

November 21, 2008

Louis Scutenaire

Apparently it's the 110th anniversary of the birth of René Magritte today, at least if Google is to be believed (and why would they lie about it?). He's one of those artists who it's tempting to take less than seriously. His images have become so mediated and compromised that it's hard to look at them as anything more than blueprints for adverts. Last autumn, however, I read an article by Bernard Marcadé about Magritte's Période Vache, a kind of (failed?) revolt against the snobbery and growing dogmatism of the French surrealists. As much as the art, though, what really captured my imagination was a quote from the introductory essay written for the original exhibition catalogue by Louis Scutenaire, a fellow Belgian Surrealist and close friend of Magritte's: "We’d like to say shit politely to you, in your false language. Because we bumpkins, we yokels, have absolutely no manners, you realise.” It seemed so perfect for the book which I was just about to send off to the printers that I added it as one of the quotes at the front. The translator of the piece, Shaun Whiteside, had not seen Scutenaire's original essay, "Les Pieds Dans Le Plat," so I tracked it down to make sure the two sentences ran into one another. The first page, which I photocopied, is (badly) reproduced above. I wish someone would write an English translation of the whole piece. As for Scutenaire himself, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and why would they lie, haha) he became disillusioned with the commercialisation of Surrealism immediately after the war. So he was a little way ahead of me...

November 20, 2008

All Publicity = Good Publicity...?

If Mark Waldron ever looked at this blog I'm sure he would be glad to know that he is attracting international interest. Last night alone I had two hits on my post about his book. One was from the Rheinland in Germany and they'd Googled his name. Hit! The other was from Anakara in Turkey and they had Googled "Dog Sex". Oooooooooh. I guess that's my fault. Sorry Mark. And, if you've found this post by the same route, I can only apologise. What you long for is not here.

"2666" - Part 1, "About The Critics"

Finished the first part of "2666" last night. It's perfect. A superb, beautifully constructed, free-standing short novel. In a foreword at the start of the book, Bolaño's family say that as he was dying the author told them to publish "2666" as five separate books. The implication is that he only suggested this so that the family were financially supported after his death, hence their decision to publish "in a single volume, as he would have done had his illness not taken the gravest course." But I think there's certainly an aesthetic argument for doing it just as he suggested. The ending of "The Part About The Critics" is so uncannily right that it seems a shame to start in on the next volume. I won't be able to stop myself from doing so, but maybe it would have been good if I'd been forced to.

It also makes me wonder why FSG didn't go the whole hog and release the "2666" paperback box set in five books. Now that would have been something... (although, flicking through, I realise it may be because Part 2 is only 65 pages long!)

November 19, 2008

Life, Friends, Is Boring - John Berryman

The poem itself is about four and a half minutes in. He has a nice pint during the interview and seems more than a little drunk. I'm not sure you'd want to be stuck in a pub with him for too long but I like his introduction: "Poets don't get much fanmail, but I had a lot of mail after I published this Song in the United States. I may say that the mail was entirely hostile."

November 17, 2008

"2666" - the first 100 pages of "The Part About The Critics"

I'm nervous of spoilers and - as you will know if you've ever read any of my posts - I'm no literary critic, so I probably have much less to say about this than I should, but there you are. My main observation so far is how different "2666" seems to the rest of Bolaño's work. For one thing, there's no sign of his alter-ego, Arturo Belano. For another, the settings are literary conferences in London, Paris and all parts of Germany, rather than amid drunken avant garde poets in Mexico City and beyond (although having said that, at p110, the characters have just arrived in Sonora, also a kind of Ground Zero in "The Savage Detectives," if I remember rightly).

As you'd expect from any self-respecting writer, Bolaño is suitably acid about the critics, although in a fundamentally sympathetic way: "those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood." Which, in some ways, sums up the theme of the book so far - people leading empty lives and searching for a meaning.

But really, the first hundred pages, as well as a really funny story of a menage a trois, is a folded together density of dreams, potted biographies, precise, simple prose and the occasional rush of hallucinatory mania. Something about the tone reminds me of Perec a little - there's a playfulness here, but one which doesn't undermine the seriousness or the underlying melancholy of the story.

Incidentally, I enjoyed the guest appearance by Rodrigo Fresan, who turns up at the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens on page 60. The joke is, of course, that Fresan wrote his superb novel "Kensington Gardens," without ever having visited London.

Blah. Enough.

November 14, 2008

Roberto Bolaño - "2666" in English

It's arrived! After various traumas with the Post Office my three volume, paperback boxed set of the US edition of "2666" has finally reached me (apologies for the quality of the picture).

I'm intrigued by "2666". All the hype suggests that it's Bolaño's masterwork, published posthumously to huge acclaim (which in itself can interfere with people's critical faculties). But my sister (who lived in Spain for a decade) also heard that it was in some way cobbled together by his family after his death, although this seems to be contradicted in a brief foreword. Certainly things seem to have taken a turn for the murky in the estate of Bolaño since Andrew Wylie took over, as this report suggests. I have to say that the more there is to read by him, the happier I am. May more books be discovered in dusty drawers for many years to come.

Incidentally, I also received New Directions' paperback of a selection of the man's poetry in a bilingual edition just yesterday (Bolaño's, not Wylie's, though I hear he writes a mean photocopier sonnet/bill). I looked at "The Romantic Dogs" late last night but my already weak critical faculties were subject to huge system overload and I have nothing of interest to report.

Talking of being tired, I want to apologise for the rather platitudinous ending to my not very revealing post on Harry Mathews. I wrote it just before I tried to read "The Romantic Dogs" and the whole Insight Thing was obviously in short supply.

November 13, 2008

Harry Mathews - Tangled Up In Blurb

I've been trying to think of a reason to write something about Harry Mathews on here for as long as I've been typing all this nonsense - trying to find something interesting to say about him, or at least to find an interesting link to give to people. I have failed. But my previous post on Paul Griffiths allows me to cast some light on an under-rated part of Mathews' writing - some of the shortest, most haiku-like, most constrained of his output. His book blurbs. I have found over the years that where Harry blurbs, the book is always worth reading. Griffiths gets the following: "I found let me tell you a beautiful and enthralling work, as well as a great success in Oulipian terms." Which is enough for me. Doug Nufer, who I've also posted about before, got "A scientist whose experiments are consistently successful acquires the status of genius, and this is the proper status of experimental writer Doug Nufer." Which, if it were about me, I would have tattooed right across my chest in huge black, Gothic letters. Though, obviously, I would have to change my name to Doug Nufer. Then there was Richard Beard, who received "A wonderful book – hilariously upsetting from beginning to end" for The Cartoonist and "Lovely, funny, touching, and exciting" for Damascus. Now, setting aside the generosity of his compliments, the important thing is that Mathews is always right. All those books were (are) more or less as good as he told me they would be. Yeah, as the Grand Cardinal of English Language Oulipiancy he kind of has a duty to support all members of the church of creative constraint. But unlike the more snotty, academicised wing of this tendency (which I admittedly may have imagined) he seems genuinely to want and foster as broad a church as possible.

In many ways, I think, Mathews is a model of how an author should live his life. He writes exactly what he wants to write when he wants to write it. He doesn't seem to get upset about its reception or the fact that a writer of his skill and talent should be way better known than he is. He appears to do what he does because he loves doing it. And that's reflected in his blurbing and hence support for a kind of writing he genuinely believes offers up a chance to make books new, to liberate readers and writers. So he gives - in his writing and beyond - again and again and again.

I'm sure if I met him he'd turn out to be a right bastard, but luckily I don't need to. I have his books. If you haven't read them, I would recommend you getting them, too.

Paul Griffiths - "Let Me Tell You"

Interesting new book coming up from Reality Street. Paul Griffiths has taken all the words that Ophelia is given to speak in "Hamlet" (483, fact fans) and used them and only them to write a short novel in which the soon-to-be-dead lassie tells us her life story up until the beginning of the play. You can read quite a long extract in The Golden handcuffs Review and it really is very good.

(I wanted to find a good pic to use for this piece but it was all John Millais, so instead I half-inched this shot of Daisy Bell - daughter of ALexander Graham Bell - resuscitating a drowned lamb with a prototype artificial respirator. Aw.).

November 10, 2008

November 08, 2008

Mark Waldron - Dogs, Sex and TV Programmes from the70s

As you'll know if you've looked at recent posts, I read at the 3:AM PP evening last Tuesday. And what larks it was. Also on the bill was a poet called Mark Waldron, who I hadn't come across before. He was promoting his new book, "The Brand New Dark," published by Salt, read from memory (if that isn't a contradiction?) and performed a section from a long, erotomaniacal piece about Dougal's obsession with Florence. It was intriguing enough to follow up online and - thanks be to Salt! - I found you could download a pdf of some of the poems. I haven't had a chance to read them all yet, but my first impressions are very good. Now I just need to buy the book...

(Incidentally, looking for an image I stumbled across this cover to the soundtrack to "Dougal & The Blue Cat" and a shudder of cold fear riffled through me. Does anyone else remember how terrifying "Dougal & The Blue Cat" was? (Apologies for the middle aged nostalgia confessional)).

November 07, 2008

More Old Links from a New Man

What with my last links being at least 15 years old, I thought I could get away with this one from May. Micachu is meant to be recording something for an artist on Big Dada next Monday but besides that I've got nothing to do with her except I think her music is really good. She's a fantastic contrast to all those singers using a UK accent as this year's pop affectation, she records hoovers and is signed to Accidental, which is itself some kind of recommendation. Oh, and the film is really funny. Have a good weekend!

Pynchon On Sloth

Wandering the byways of the internet I came across this. It's fifteen years old but very good and funny. It's in the New York Times archives so you have to register but it's free and there are other goodies to find, like this, in which Mr Pynchon asks whether it's okay to be a Luddite and coins the immortal phrase, "except maybe for Brainy Smurf, it's hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual". Amen.