Tuesday 31 March 2009

Lamination Colony

I guest edited Blake Butler’s Lamination Colony and the issue looks amazing. Blake asked me what I wanted it to look like and then he made it look like that. It’s all different-colored boxes that you have to scroll over until a name pops up and then you click on that some-colored box and there is something for you to love there.

There are 100 boxes and 38 writers and over 60 pieces. There is Kim Chinquee, Adam Robinson, Ben Mirov, DS White, Matthew Salesses, Blaster Al Ackerman, M.T. Fallon, Adam Good, Stephanie Barber, J.A. Tyler, Catherine Moran, Cooper Renner, Luca Dipierro, Amanda Raczkowski, Rupert Wondolowski, Whitney Woolf, Lauren Becker, Michael Bible, Robert Swartwood, Darcelle Bleau, Robert Bradley, Jamie Gaughran-Perez, Aimee Lynn-Hirschowitz, Shane Jones, Conor Madigan, Krammer Abrahams, Shatera Davenport, Jordan Sanderson, Stacie Leatherman, Josh Maday, Joseph Young, Jason Jones, Gena Mohwish, Jen Michalski, Aby Kaupang, Jac Jemc, Karen Lillis, and Justin Sirois.

The Absurd in Prose Fiction - Part III: Daniil Kharms

We now return to Daniil Kharms (1905-1942): a non-person for much of the Stalin-Khrushchev period of Soviet Russia. The first selection of Kharms's work in Russia came only in 1988, amid glasnost, while the first collection in English – Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd – appeared in 1971. Recently, there has been a relative Kharms glut, beyond the reprinting of my selection of his work, Incidences. Collections have been published by Eugene Ostashevsky (OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism) and Matvei Yankelevich (Today I Wrote Nothing). More recently, Kharmsian ballets, operas (notably the “music dramas” of Haflidi Hallgrimsson; plus Simon Callow’s reading of “Mini-Stories” to Hallgrimsson’s music), theatricals and so on, whether in Russia or the West, have become almost commonplace – at least within certain niche circles. There has even been talk of a BBC documentary. In the present age of postmodernist fragmentation, Kharms’s time has surely come.

If Kharms seems different from previous absurdist models, or somehow more startling, this may be explicable through his constant adoption of a poetics of extremism. Take, for example, his brevity: not for nothing did he note in his diary: “garrulity is the mother of mediocrity”. If certain “stories” seem microtexts of concise inconsequentiality, others incommode the printer even less: consider the following “complete” story:
An old man was scratching his head with both hands. In places where he couldn’t reach with both hands, he scratched himself with one, but very, very, fast. And while he was doing it he blinked rapidly.
Another “extreme” feature is Kharms’s uncompromising quest for the means to undermine his own writings, or to facilitate their self-destruction. He turns a surgical glance on the extraordinary world of Stalin’s Russia and on representation, past and present, in storytelling and other artistic forms. He operates, typically, against a precise Leningrad background, reflecting aspects of Soviet life and literary forms, passing sardonic and despairing comment on the period in which he lived. He also ventures, ludicrously, into historical areas, parodying the ways in which respected worthies (Pushkin, Gogol and Ivan Susanin) were glorified in print. Yet Kharms’s miniatures can seem strangely anticipatory of more modern trends, reflecting almost a politically correct America, or London’s cardboard city; one extract, “On an Approach to Immortality”, would surely fascinate Milan Kundera.

The most striking feature, for many, is the recurrence of Kharms’s strange and disturbing obsessions: with falling, accidents, chance, sudden death, victimization and apparently mindless violence. Frequently there appears little or no difference between his avowedly fictional works and his other writings. In his notebooks can be found such passages as:
I don’t like children, old men, old women, and the reasonable middle aged. To poison children, that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them!...

I respect only young, robust and splendiferous women. The remaining representatives of the human race I regard suspiciously. Old women who are repositories of reasonable ideas ought to be lassoed...

Which is the more agreeable sight: an old woman clad in just a shift, or a young man completely naked? And which, in that state, is the less permissible in public?...

What's so great about flowers? You get a significantly better smell from between women’s legs. Both are pure nature, so no one dare be outraged at my words.
How far into the cheek the tongue may go is far from clear: the degree of narratorial identification remains problematic. The better known Kharmsian obsessions, too (such as falling), carry over into his notebooks and diaries:
On falling into filth, there is only one thing for a man to do: just fall, without looking round. The important thing is just to do this with style and energy.
The implications can seem particularly sinister, as in this note from 1940, which could equally be a sketch for a story, or even, as we have seen, a “mini-story” in itself:
One man was pursuing another when the latter, who was running away, in his turn, pursued a third man who, not sensing the chase behind him, was simply walking at a brisk pace along the pavement.
Other entries rather more predictably affirm what might be supposed to be his philosophy:
I am interested only in ‘nonsense’; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation.
This last, apparently frivolous, remark was written in 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges.

All this may be approached through the propositions of the absurd outlined above, or indeed by reference to the nature of the surrounding reality: in times of extremity, it is the times themselves which may seem more absurd than any artistic invention. For that matter, Kharmsian “incidents” (and “incidences”, “happenings” or “cases” – all possible translations of sluchai) have their ancestry in a multitude of genres and models: fable, parable, fairytale, children’s story, philosophical or dramatic dialogue, comic monologue, carnival, cartoon and silent movie – even the video-nasty. All seem present somewhere in Kharms, in compressed form and devoid of explanation, context and other standard trappings. Kharms, indeed, seems to serve up, transform or abort the bare bones of the sub-plots, plot segments and timeless authorial devices of world literature, from the narratives of antiquity to classic European fiction and the wordplay, plot-play and metafictions of our postmodern era. Kharms offers a skeletal terseness, in opposition to the comprehensive vacuousness of many more conventional literary forms.

As well as translating selections from the writings of Daniil Kharms (see above) and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America (Hesperus, 2005), Neil Cornwell is author of The Absurd in Literature (Manchester UP, 2006) and editor of Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd (Macmillan, 1991). He is also Russian editor for the online Literary Encyclopedia. This article is the last of a three-part series.

Monday 30 March 2009

John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick – a fast-track process

It is with great sadness that I announce to the world I have given up reading Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick on page 10. I have just seen AA’s prophetic comment on my previous blog entry, which says: “Better go straight to The Plague – or any other book by Camus, for that matter – skipping The Witches.” Here’s my verdict on the book:

Did I like the book?
It ain’t my cup of tea. Not badly written, but baroque and overwritten to the point of paroxism. Too much fluff and – I can’t figure out what the heck is happening. I read the first ten pages three times, during three separate sessions. I give up.

What did I like most?
Er, the editing and the production, for once. . .

What didn’t work for me?
Just as for Sinclair Lewis, the prose seems to grow in a sort of tumorous way rather than flow naturally.

Would I publish it?
No. I loved the man when he was alive, and now I feel slightly guilty because I don’t like his work now that he’s gone. I am sorry, but even if many consider him one of the finest writers in the great American tradition, this book – for me – reads like the ichthyological parts of Moby Dick.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I would pass.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Giving up on page 10 is not a good sign.

The best bit in the book?
I read too little to find one.

The best scene in the book?

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
After the nasty comments I have made in the past about other Penguin Classics titles, I must admit that this book, both for editorial care and quality of typography, package etc. is refreshingly good. I think the new Penguin Classics are miles better than the old ones in terms of quality. It’s a good sign.

My final verdict?
I’ll probably pick up another Updike book some time – possibly one from the celebrated Rabbit trilogy. But I am in no particular rush.

The next book I’m going to try will either be a Ionesco play or a Céline novel. More soon.


Saturday 28 March 2009

The Outsider by Albert Camus – the jury is in

I remember reading Camus’s Caligula a few years ago and being very impressed. I have now decided to try one of his celebrated short novels and see if it lived up to its reputation.

Did I like the book?
Yes, I think it’s a masterly work. It gets the reader straight into the story – great characterization, great scenes. Oddly funny at times.

What did I like most?
The unpretentiousness of the style, and the ease in which the existentialist themes are weaved into the storyline. The narrator’s voice, and consequently the story, is very believable.

What didn’t work for me?
The translation is generally good, but there are quite a few oddities – mostly concerning the choice of words. It’s a shame I don’t have the French text to hand, as I’d have liked to check the translation against the original. I think I spotted a handful of mistakes.

Would I publish it?
Without a doubt. If there’s a publisher in UK who could do a better job than Penguin, that would be – ahem – us: it would just fit nicely with the rest of our French classics list (Céline, Artaud, Ionesco, Duras, Robbe-Grillet etc.). I hope I can hang in there until it comes out of copyright on 1st January 2031. I’ll make a note on my diary.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I would call an extraordinary publishing meeting and start getting printers’ quotes.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes, from beginning to end. Everything is in the balance to the very last paragraph.

The best bit in the book?
Probably towards the end, when the narrator is in his cell and as the priest is trying to make him turn to religious thoughts he says: “I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I didn’t have much time left. I didn’t want to waste it on God.” How can you beat that last sentence?

The best scene in the book?
There are many. The funeral, the killing, the process. But what I liked most is how Camus managed to bring alive the characters in the book – Raymond and old dog-beating neighbour – with a few light touches and bits of dialogue.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
Ora veniamo alle dolenti note. This Penguin Modern Classics edition – which appears to have been acquired by the Kew Library towards the end of 2002 – is falling apart. It was taken out for the first time on 3rd December 2002 and the librarian scribbled the following note on the 22nd November 2008: “Spine noted”. From this I gather that a Penguin Modern Classics spine is made to last around six years or twenty-two reads (I counted the date stamps). Perhaps some sort of obsolescence is built in it, as in my watch strap. The paper seems to suffer from jaundice, and it’s full of strange yellow and brown stains. I think the paper’s dying. I haven’t spotted any typos, but there’s lots of in-house decisions that are questionable (for example: “he’d talked to me about mother” – surely it should be “Mother”?), and missing or misplaced commas, missing hyphens etc. What I would call a lazy editorial job, in short – especially for a book which is only around 100 pages long.

My final verdict?
A great read, a classic. Lucky Penguin for having it in their list. I want to read more Camus soon. But the next book on my desk is Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, so I’ll report on that one as and when.


Friday 27 March 2009

“Fair Play is Foul and Foul Play is Fair”

This is, in a nutshell, what is happening in British publishing today.

Yesterday I went to one of the loveliest parties in years, to celebrate Capuchin Classics’ first birthday. Capuchin Classics, for the few of you who don’t know, is a great independent run by Hugh Grant’s younger and posher brother, who is known to the publishing community by the name of Max Scott. Their motto is “Books to keep alive”.

The venue was the company’s headquarters in Notting Hill, next door to Lucian Freud, I am told. As I have reported in a previous blog, all the antiques and works of art scattered casually in every nook and cranny of the house are properly insured.

This party was great because I didn’t see many of the obnoxious faces you bump into at other parties, and because I met a few interesting people, including two of Capuchin’s crusading editors – Emma and Christopher. The latter surprised the audience at one point with what must go down in history as one of the most politely controversial speeches in publishing history. I have been allowed to report it verbatim, as it’s a kind of press release:

“Interestingly, it was John Milton who, way back when the book was still, literally, fairly novel, observed that 'Books are not absolutely dead things, but contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.'

That sense of a legacy, then, is ever-present in today’s publishing industry. Or at least it should be. Those houses publishing in this tradition are relatively few in number – a couple are here tonight. Their books are published in the same spirit – that, literally, of making public. The view is on the long-term sales, and reaching every possible outlet.

Last year a new imprint launched, protégé of Faber and Faber, no less, which seeks not so much to put books before a browsing, buying public as to snuffle up authors’ estates from across the cannon.

We see this as a force against that tradition of a legacy. Sure, it keeps the book in print, but in the narrow sense of the term. The majority on that particular list are simply put out 'print on demand'. (The POD formula being, of course: chap walks into shop, orders a copy of Lucky Jim, book gets printed). While there are concessions for living authors (in the form of a release clause should a rival publisher put in an offer), this model is in our view lazy publishing, and short-sighted at best.

Our book-buyer had to know that Lucky Jim existed in the first place. After all, the fundamental truth remains that you cannot ask for what you do not already know exists – a law that applies as much to bookshops as it does in the land of Google. It is not, then, truly making public.

‘Foul play’, I hear you cry – and you’d be right. For this surely marks a step away from what it is to publish, and what it means to keep books alive. To the agents among you I would urge caution before conceding an author’s works to what is admittedly a prestigious name, but one that arguably undermines what it means, properly, to publish.”

I will only add Amen to that.

And to conclude this blog, I will say that there were only a couple of crazy women at this party, and that for some reason David Birkett, Capuchin’s sales director, the only working-class person – apart from me – in the house, I believe, seems to be developing a dangerous aristocratic lilt to his Londoner’s accent. I am really starting to worry about him.


Thursday 26 March 2009

Controlling the stage...

Prospect magazine has just published an interesting article about Samuel Beckett, and the various wranglings that have ensued since Calder first published Beckett's prose in the 1950s. That Mr Calder has been one of the most important British publishers of avant-garde literature over the last 60 years is well-known: he has published works by Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and - almost - Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - see the article in The Bookseller, I Am Legend for a little background.

The article takes issue with the apparently vice-like grip of the Beckett estate on the ways in which Beckett's plays may be performed. I find it hard to argue with the Colin Murphy that it's perhaps a bad thing that theatre rights should extend to the point of being able to stop a play being shown if it deviates too much from the text; apart from putting off first-timers to Beckett (which a poor but faithful production will do anyway), what other disadvantages are there to allowing a director full reign over his plays? Such conservatism simply seems ill-fitting to radical works like Beckett's. Now if it was Nabokov, it would be a different matter... and even he relaxed considerably to allow Kubrick the freedom he needed to make a successful film of Lolita.

All works are open to various degrees of interpretation, and if a director decides on something ludicrous (such as setting Endgame on the moon) then his or her production will be judged accordingly by the theatre-goers. We've all seen or heard of tepid productions of Shakespeare variously done in drag or decked out in conveniently affordable military gear; rattled off in thirty seconds or stretched out for three or four hours; done 'topically' to deal with animal rights, hermaphroditism and/or globilization... but these don't seem to be a reflection on the Bard's work, rather on the directors'. The essence of a great work lies in its being so open to interpretation, otherwise the critics would lay down their pens after the last word has been said and simply go to bed.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

The Absurd in Prose Fiction - Part II: Absurdism in the West

The term “the absurd” is applied to literature in several ways. It describes a “school” of dramatic writing (though not all care to accept it as such), in the case of “Theatre of the Absurd”. It is also considered a prominent period style – observable, approximately, over the two middle quarters of the twentieth century (stretching roughly from the end of the First World War up until, say, the 1970s). Or it may be a category with philosophical (usually Existentialist) implications – in other words, a timeless quality, which may be seen pertaining here and there throughout literary history.

A major figure of the first half of the twentieth century was Franz Kafka. Most of his work was published only after his early death in 1924 and his reputation has burgeoned ever since, to the point that adaptations and imitations of his works abound (by, among others, Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff and Alan Bennett), and “Kafkaesque” has become an everyday adjective. His novels The Trial and The Castle, along with shorter stories (notably Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony) have established Kafka as the unsurpassed master-purveyor of endless streams of sinister bureaucracy and the creeping encroachments of indeterminate and hostile powers. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (Metamorphosis) stands as one of the most startling opening sentences in world literature. Kafka may be classed as an absurdist par excellence – one whose creative career ended a quarter of a century before the Theatre of the Absurd, as it is now recognised, had begun.

A principal representative of both absurdist prose and Theatre of the Absurd (of which he is seen as one of the founding figures) is Samuel Beckett. A writer spanning Anglo-Irish and French literature in unique fashion, Beckett was resident in Paris from the 1930s, writing in English, then in French, and subsequently in both, translating his own works both ways. His early English prose writings, notably Murphy (1938) and Watt (begun 1941; published 1953), are, in part at least, examples of what might be called “Irish grotesque”. But Watt (written in wartime France) marks a turning point in Beckett’s prose – one indeed firmly towards the absurd. The emphasis here is placed greatly on Watt’s inner world, along with the introduction of a mysterious third world – that of the house and system of Mr Knott (in and under which the protagonist spends much of the novel’s “action”). After Watt, Beckett soon began writing his prose in French (“from a desire”, he said, “to impoverish myself still further”), as well as making another switch – into first-person narrative. First Love and the three other novellas of 1946 were written almost in anticipation of the so-called “trilogy” of novels – Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. These were the works that established Beckett as an exponent of absurdist prose, retreating ever further into what have been called “skullscapes” (or “frescoes of the skull”, the term used by James Knowlson and John Pilling), alongside his rising theatrical prowess. Beckett’s next fiction, Texts for Nothing, confirms the progression towards constriction and the minimal – a self-styled “farrago of silence and words”, engaged in “panting towards the grand apnoea” of negativity. Of his subsequent prose, let’s mention just The Lost Ones, in which Beckett creates a horrific and entropic mini-universe, the enclosed space of a flattened cylinder, inhabited by 200 people engaged in a hopeless “quest” for an exit. The observation that “in this old abode all is not yet quite for the best” stands as one of absurdist literature’s great understatements.

Another Irishman making a significant contribution to absurd prose was Flann O’Brien (the novelistic pen name of Brian O’Nolan: 1911-1966). A famed Irish Times columnist, O'Brien wrote the novel The Poor Mouth (1941) in Irish, his first language, but is now mainly remembered for two remarkable experimental and absurdist novels: At Swim-Two Birds and The Third Policeman. The main feature of the former – its stylistic and generic variations apart – is the presence of a novel within the novel, and the takeover of the inner novel’s writing by its characters, who exact revenge upon their author. The Third Policeman, suppressed by its author during his lifetime (or, rather, just left lying about), is O’Brien’s masterpiece. Here complexity of form is equalled, or even excelled, by that of a content having a strongly disturbing effect on many readers (including reportedly O’Brien himself). The plot involves murder and a hellish and apparently circular afterlife, in which the narrator is tormented by absurd policemen in a supernatural zone called “The Parish”.

In America, two notable novels of the absurd are J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Donleavy uses a mainly (all but infernal) Dublin setting of chaos and absurdity, largely created by the protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield – the anglicized-hibernicized American antihero and mock-Christ figure. Catch-22 is dominated by a bureaucratic-military absurd, represented emblematically by the title, which is, of course, itself now more than a catch phrase. Set in the World War Two “theatre” of Italy, this novel was influential during the Vietnam War period, and takes on a renewed significance with the Gulf wars and the “War on Terrorism”.

As well as translating selections from the writings of Daniil Kharms (see above) and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America (Hesperus, 2005), Neil Cornwell is author of The Absurd in Literature (Manchester UP, 2006) and editor of Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd (Macmillan, 1991). He is also Russian editor for the online Literary Encyclopedia. This article is the second of a three-part series.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Fox and the foxes

As I was walked up the stairs tonight, I noticed a big cat licking its paws on the top of our garden shed. "God, that cat should go on a diet," I thought, as I peered through the window. Then I realized it was a fox. "Oh well, I've got to tell my kids immediately." But when I walked through the door and made my big announcement, I got a cold reply: "Yeah, we know. There're actually two foxes in our garden. They've been there all day."

If you walk down the street where I live, in central Richmond, at say two o'clock in the morning, you can bump into one or two of these gorgeous furry fellows. I will always remember a day in January this year, when I looked out of the window and saw a fox dashing over the untrodden snow in the yellow light of the street lamps. It was an image of beauty.

But to see two foxes in broad daylight in our garden deserves some sort of celebration. So, since we have just received advance copies of our beautiful edition of D.H. Lawrence's The Fox, which William blogged about some time ago, I have decided I want to give away a few free copies to the first five lucky readers of this blog. Just send an email to "info" followed by @ and then by "oneworldclassics.com" to claim your copy. It's a great book, so hurry up!


Monday 23 March 2009

The Absurd in Prose Fiction - Part I: the Roots of Absurdism

The “absurd” (see Chris Baldick’s Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms) is “a term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”. The “Theatre of the Absurd”, particularly Waiting for Godot, and the works of Kafka have been especially singled out. Indeed, it is largely through the Theatre of the Absurd, and Martin Esslin’s study bearing that title, that “the absurd”, as a label, achieved widespread currency through the second half of the 20th century. However, citing Kafka and Camus suggests a strong absurdist presence in prose writing as well.

Absurd theatre has its roots back in Greek drama. Approaches to the absurd can be made through philosophical texts (particularly the tenets of Existentialism, but also much earlier instances, going back as far as the Stoics, and on through “negative theology”). Later, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are seen as significant thinkers, as, in the 20th century, are Heidegger and Wittgenstein (in particular, the latter’s “language games”). Other approaches come through theory of humour (Bergson, Freud etc.) and “nonsense”, socio-linguistic theory of pragmatics and relevance, and linguistic theory of verbal communication (particularly Roman Jakobson’s model). Lack of communication and the inadequacy of language – resulting in the unsaid, the “unsayable”, or the “unnamable” – are constant constituents, as are incongruity and incoherence. Elegiac monologue may accompany, or vie with, conspicuous pointlessness. “Mirth cannot move a soul in agony” (Biron: Love’s Labour’s Lost). Absurdist literature, however, would see that it did.

Regarding literary prose, one can indicate the proto-novels of the late classical period and, subsequently, the inventive and fantastical compositions of Rabelais as absurdist antecedents. Then, with the rise of the novel, works by Swift and Sterne come into play: satire, parody and the “English nonsense” tradition, from the 17th century to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll – all feed into a developing absurdism. A number of prominent 19th-century writers, as proto-absurdists in their own right or as incorporators of absurd elements within more mainstream novels, also contributed to what can now be seen as a growing tradition. One thinks particularly of Gogol and Dostoevsky in Russia (the latter becoming especially important to Camus) and Dickens in England; other European influences on 20th-century absurdism include the (anonymous) The Night Watches of Bonaventura (1804) and Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868).

Early in the 20th century, what we might consider proto-absurdist moments occur in works by novelists who – at first sight – seem unlikely candidates for absurdism; these include Conrad, Henry James (especially in The Sacred Fount, 1901) and Ford Madox Ford. However, it was the emergence of the modernistic avant-garde artistic movements of Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism, along with the (at the time unknown and unpublished) Russian OBERIU grouping, that gave absurd writing such a significant boost in the period from the early 1900s to World War Two. Poetry and manifestos apart, the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti produced an extraordinary purported parable-novel (or “free-word book”), The Untamables in 1922; the Russian Futurists are mainly known for their poetry (though Mayakovsky also wrote plays and Khlebnikov wrote prose). Of the Dadaists, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters left notable prose works. Among the Surrealists, André Breton and Louis Aragon were prose writers; not least, Breton produced an Anthology of Black Humour (1940) – a genre allegedly initiated by Swift, and a term Breton is said to have coined. Black humour surfaced too in the unlikely environment of Stalinist Leningrad, in the activities of OBERIU (the “Association of Real Art”), whose principal figure was Daniil Kharms (1905-42), active from 1927 until his suppression during the siege of Leningrad. His Kafkaesque drama Yelizaveta Bam apart, Kharms is noted for his black miniatures (sluchai or “incidents”) and for his haunting novella The Old Woman [Starukha, 1939]. A selection of his works (translated by the present writer) is collected under the overall title Incidences (Serpent’s Tail, 2006).

European prose of the inter-war years, with the general rise of modernistic experimentalism, saw abundant examples of absurdist prose. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a number of fantastical prose works, as did his Flemish admirer, Paul van Ostaijen, who styled his satirical stories “grotesques” (see his Patriotism Inc. and Other Tales), while Joseph Roth included the absurdist novel Rebellion (1924) in a body of work chronicling the Hapsburg imperial collapse. From Central and Eastern Europe, mention should be made of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23), an unfinished saga of unremitting military farce in an endless march towards the front. Poland produced two slim volumes of surreal stories from Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), before he was (tragically and farcically) murdered by the Nazis. Gombrowicz’s bizarre novel Ferdydurke (1937) also deserves mention, along with certain Russian writings by Vladimir Nabokov (a Berlin resident for most of the 1920s and 30s) – especially Invitation to a Beheading.

As well as translating selections from the writings of Daniil Kharms (see above) and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America (Hesperus, 2005), Neil Cornwell is author of The Absurd in Literature (Manchester UP, 2006) and editor of Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd (Macmillan, 1991). He is also Russian editor for the online Literary Encyclopedia. This article is the first of a three-part series.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Yasutaka Tsutsui

My last day in Japan was also the most memorable one. It was the day I met Yasutaka Tsutsui, author of three of our books – most recently Paprika, which has just been released in the UK.

Tsutsui is an author of rare quality: his works are literary, yet accessible – traditional, yet adventurous – zany, yet intelligent – humorous, yet deep. I remember when I received a submission from his translator Andrew Driver around three years ago. It was a collection of thirteen short stories – Tales from the Edge, or something like that. I was bowled over – who the heck is this guy? And I thought – just like Nick Lezard, who recently reviewed Tsutsui’s Hell in the Guardian – that he must be some thirty-something poking fun at current Japanese mores and at our celebrity-obsessed and politically hyper-correct society. I was shocked when I found out the writer was a man in his seventies, possibly more revered than Murakami in his home country. The stories, written mostly in the Seventies, turned out to be a prophetic lurch into the future – not surprising considering that a great part of Tsutsui’s long and prolific career had been devoted to the science-fiction genre.

Tales from the Edge was not a terribly sexy title to launch a new writer in this country, so I persuaded the translator to add a long novella to the collection, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno – arguably not the most powerful story in this excellent volume, but one that could attract attention and give a better idea of what Tsutsui’s fiction was about.

There are authors that you know you will like when you meet them: you have a peculiar foreboding that you would like to spend time with them and have a tea or a beer or meal together. I knew that Tsutsui would be one of those, and when he opened his beautiful house to me (and my kind interpreter Yurika) and I sat close to him, I had a feeling we had known each other for years. Conversation was easy, and we spent over one hour an a half talking about literature, his work, his new novel, the current global economical crisis and the Japanese literary scene. Surprisingly, there was no language or cultural barrier between us, and we joked and laughed as freely as if we were speaking in a common tongue.

I hope to see him again soon.


Friday 20 March 2009


The event I visited at the Calder Bookshop yesterday, To its Beginning To its End, was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival twenty-seven years ago to critical acclaim. It was the first performance of Beckett’s work I’ve ever seen, though I read Waiting for Godot a long while ago.

It’s hard to know what to say to John Calder, who hosted the event; any of the questions I thought of suddenly seemed exceptionally banal (did you know Beckett a long time? – Yes, for nearly half a century. To which I should reply…? Was he a nice chap? What should I read apart from the famous bits? What did he like on his toast?). Actually I’d just have liked to sit down and listen to him reel off interesting and (ideally) salacious anecdotes. Bribery and corruption had already been covered earlier the same day and I was hoping for more.

But that hope was my downfall. Apart from in a few instances, I’m not sure I share Mr Calder’s taste for Beckett’s work. I read Waiting for Godot when I was sixteen and it made a strong impression on me then, but after hearing these excerpts again I realised that Beckett is really not for me.

One piece which seemed at first a culinary diatribe, Dante and the Lobster, I did like tremendously, partially because of its excellent rendering by Sean Barratt, partly because the second paragraph resonated with the day I’d just had, and because it was very funny and beautifully written. On the toasting of bread:
It was now that real skill began to be required, it was at this point that the average person began to make a hash of the entire proceedings. He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face. He lowered the gas a suspicion and plaqued one flabby slab plump down on the glowing fabric, but very pat and precise, so that the whole resembled the Japanese flag.
Other readings, including poetry and the unwholesome First Love (a homeless man is befriended by a woman he is repelled by, uses and ignores her, gets her pregnant then walks out in disgust as the baby is born) I found uninspiring, and by the end of the performance Beckett’s consistent hatred of life was beginning to get to me… There ensued an animated conversation among the audience as to whether all this showed the absurdity of existence and reflected the world “as it is”: the falsity of progress and idealism (and hope, and optimism)… And there followed gleeful allusions to the present economic situation as though to illustrate that Beckett was more relevant than ever: just the ticket if you’ve lost your job and you're living on the street.

Of course the world has its revolting and grimy side, but Beckett seems to deliver a message of unremitting hopelessness and despair, and I can’t be doing with that on a nice spring day, free wine or no. It’s the lack of variety in that stunted outlook that gets to me, not the outlook itself.

As for absurdity, for me the climax of the evening was when one elderly fellow with a lilting accent admitted that although his attention – and even his wakefulness – had strayed quite considerably during the performance, nonetheless he had felt the pertinence of those partially incomprehensible words so acutely that – look! (an index finger here indicated a misty orb) – he had shed not a few tears over the course of the night.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Luigi Pulci's Morgante

Since I mentioned this work in my splenetic blog entry yesterday, I might just add that Pulci's Morgante is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most entertaining works in Italian literature. Written in the 1460s and '70s, it precedes Ariosto's Orlando furioso and even its prequel, Boiardo's Orlando innamorato (which was written after 1476). It is a swashbuckling epic of gory battles, never-ending duels, near escapes and romance – populated by preposterous knights, beautiful damsels, giants and evil spirits. Unlike many of the other chivalric poems of the time, it is incredibly funny. But what marks it as a true masterpiece is its linguistic inventiveness and the vividness of its dialogue, which doesn't follow the high-falutin example of Petrarch, but is more akin to the humble idiom used by Dante and Boccaccio. It is full of memorable lines, such as:

"E cominciava a ragionar col dente" ("And then he started thinking with his teeth")

Morgante is the name of a heathen giant who, after being converted by Orlando to Christianism, embarks with him in a series of phantasmagorical adventures. This pantagruelic character became so popular that the author was forced to use the giant's name as the title of his work. The highest point of the poem is Morgante's death when he is pinched by a puny crab. Reading Morgante in the original is a joy for any lover of the Italian language, but if you are not up to it, you can have a taste through one of the ancient or modern translations of the poem.

As you may know, Lord Byron translated the first canto of Morgante, and I consider this the best introduction to Pulci's work. After completing this translation, Byron famously informed his publisher John Murray that his greatest aspiration was to write in Italian – and he was convinced that if he was ever to write a masterpiece, that could only be written in the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Pulci and Ariosto.


Tuesday 17 March 2009

Stinker Millionaire

I know I shouldn’t even be thinking about this stuff at this time of night, let alone write about it. I know I am running the risk of transforming our anti-blog into a real blog. And I know I will probably be crucified by many film lovers and cognoscenti for this – but speak I must, or I will burst.

The thing is that flying back from Japan takes a good twelve hours. Now, you can read a book or two during that time: in fact I had taken with me volume one of Pulci’s Morgante – 680 pages of poetry and dense annotation, good enough for the round trip. But when everybody around you is watching one film after another, even if you are possessed with a will of steel you will be tempted, sooner or later, to browse the latest releases available on the small screen in front of you.

So it was that I watched one movie on my way to Tokyo, and three more movies on my way back – more movies than I would normally watch in a month. The first one, What Just Happened, was an honest Hollywood comedy with Robert De Niro, and I more or less enjoyed it, although it wasn’t one of the best in its genre. The second one, the Cohen Brothers’ Burn after Reading, was much funnier – the dialogue was a lot sharper, and although the plot gradually becomes silly and grotesque, it sort of makes sense in the end within the madcap context of the film. The third one was Doubt, with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a decent movie until its abrupt end, which leaves everything unresolved – perhaps because the director has no clue how to finish it.

Finally – and I knew full well when I pushed the OK button that I shouldn’t have chosen it – I watched Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, which the Guardian Guide describes as an “unlikely but irresistibly energetic feelgood tale with elements of Dickens, City of God and Salaam Bombay!

Now, I have watched a few hundred films in my life, possibly even a few thousands, but I honestly do not remember having watched a worst film before. This must be worst than the worst Steven Seagal film ever shown on Channel 5 after 11:30pm. I thought it was a travesty of a movie, taking cringing to completely new heights. I felt it was false from start to finish, pretentious, pathetically acted – bad dialogue, bad story line, dodgy underlying message – a cross between a second-rate TV drama and a bad Bollywood movie. In short, everything was so awful that it made me shake with laughter.

Personally, I would have given it a Razzie, not an Oscar. If you have not watched this movie, please do try to avoid it – even if you are tempted to watch it for the decadent pleasure of seeing how bad a movie can be.

I am telling you, this film is seriously bad – not a feelgood movie, but a depressing one. Don't watch it.


Monday 16 March 2009

A Modest Proposal

I would have liked to write about the many unsung beauties of Slumdog Millionaire tonight, but something grabbed my attention on the Bookseller's website and the world will have to wait for that. This is the article in question:

Drop the rep, says Dutch


I have posted a short comment, which I reproduce below. I think this world is really going bonkers, and will add no more for tonight, but go straight to bed.

"I can only applaud this inspired recommendation by Jesse Kroger, who I am sure must have just finished reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal. But I would take her suggestion a few steps further: abolishing the reps is all very well, but why don’t we do away with bookselling altogether, and customers, and writers, and books? I can imagine a world where infinite blog writers (or maybe novel-generating computers) distribute their work free of charge on the internet or via mobile phones directly to themselves – liberated once and for all from this annoying thing, the supply chain, and that most annoying thing, people. And perhaps Google or Amazon will find a way to make money out of writers downloading or pinging their own work?

The world of books does need real people."


Saturday 14 March 2009

Last Day in Japan – a tourist’s platitudes

After my meeting with Junichi Watanabe on Thursday, I am very much looking forward to meeting Yasutaka Tsutsui in an hour or so.

This trip to Japan has been an eye-opener in many ways. Here’s a short collection of impressions about Japan and Japanese people, or things I didn’t know before my trip. Apologies if they sound a bit trivial or clichéd.

Fat people are rare in Japan. Having said that, Japanese people like their sweets

Japanese people are, on average, better looking than Europeans and Americans

Streets have no names in Tokyo

Smoking is allowed in public places and restaurants

Food is generally excellent – and healthy

Streets, trains and buildings are super-clean. Even road works are tidy

Geishas are not prostitutes, and apparently they are not very good value for money: they entertain the rich and powerful with old-fashioned music and dances. How uncool is that?

Japanese people serve their tea very strong – at least three times stronger than the one served in UK

Coffee sucks – don’t try it. Beer is good – but expensive

Very few people speak English, and it’s tricky to find restaurants with an English menu or cab drivers understanding directions in English

A dinner in a good Japanese restaurant is around £170 per person, and it’s usually reserved for the established clientele

Every third or fourth shop front is a restaurant, and there appears to be a MacDonalds or other burger place every other block

If you walk down the street at four o’clock in the afternoon, you’ll have the impression that eighty per cent of Japan’s population is female

Italian and French restaurants are very popular in Japan. I haven’t spotted any misspellings in their names, as I sometimes do in other countries, including Britain

Cabs’ rear doors open and close automatically – easy does it

It is advisable to give cab drivers a map of where you intend to go

You can buy a pocket-sized personal computer complete with the latest Microsoft Office package for less than £150

Most books are printed on high-quality paper, including thrillers and other mass-market titles

Haruki Murakami alternates translation to writing fiction. His translations of Salinger, Carver and Raymond Chandler have become bestsellers in Japan

Female authors and male authors are at times shelved in separate sections in bookshops

My hotel TV has only one English-speaking channel: CNN. Films can be ordered on demand – including adult movies – but no pay-per-view sport channel is available

American Basketball and Baseball games are shown live on Japanese TV

Phoning from a public phone is at least ten times cheaper than in UK

Travelling on the underground is five to ten times cheaper than in London

Toilets flush hot water when you sit on them. When you flush the toilet, make sure you hit the right button or you could have your bottom wiped, washed, combed, conditioned and shaved

OK, off to meet Mr Tsutsui – will report another time, hopefully with photos too.


Friday 13 March 2009

Go Big

While there are plenty of things to hate about America (grab a stone tablet and start chiseling) there is one that sticks deeply in my craw: the notion that everything here has to be so damn much bigger than anywhere else. Obviously we suffer short-man complex that must be compensated by owning the biggest car, house, bra, or refrigerator. Now, we give the biggest bailouts to the biggest bastards in big banking. Never has our excess been more visible and more despicable. Never has bigger been uglier. Typical American, I’m guilty myself. Several years ago I had the choice of signing with a mega publisher with a conglomerate parent company, or, a respected mid-sized press whose books I’d admired for years. Admittedly my decision to go big was only partially driven by greed and the promise of a big advance. I reasoned that the bigger house would have better, more professional resources with which to edit, design, publish, market, distribute and publicize, giving my books the best chance possible. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In the course of a five-year relationship with Big Publisher I stopped counting the number of cock-ups and failures in each vital phase of getting a book to market – in every department.

My second book with them was a disaster. The Ice Chorus got great reviews, but a battle over the jacket design effectively ended our relationship after I polled sales reps and booksellers who backed my argument that the cover was a kill factor. Who did I think I was, anyway? I thought I was an author with my books’ best interest at heart, but Big Publisher thought I was a slack-jawed yokel from the hills, arrogant enough to have opinions.

The marketing budget for The Ice Chorus was cut, then cut again, and finally I was told there would be no money for a book tour despite the reviews. Next, the print run was reduced.

As it happened, my niece Mickey was planning a tour of cities to visit gallery owners and museum curators with her portfolio of large-format photographs. We planned a ten-city tour, coordinated our schedules and loaded up the station wagon. We spent two weeks on the road promoting my books and her art. The road-trip aspect was interesting, and had its moments – my niece is a great traveler and organizer and our days were neatly planned out down to the mile and minute. Unfortunately, the pubescent publicist at Big Publisher hadn’t procured any press or exposure for my events (she had, in fact, confused St. Paul, Minnesota with St. Louis Missouri.) Midway through the tour, after a fifth or sixth dreadfully under-attended reading, I looked at Mickey squarely and said, “Do not pity me.”

I realized then that no amount of my own flogging was going to bring my dying horse of a novel to life – I couldn’t do it all on my own. Ten minutes later I broke down, “Pity me!” I insisted.

Toward the end of our trip, morale and appetites had degenerated to the point we stopped to eat at a McDonalds. In the huge window of McDonalds was an equally huge poster, an ad for something called a Big Burger. I was rapt. This was it! In letters the size of our heads was the motto for our entire trip! GO BIG or go home

I went home. Mickey actually did GO BIG, and is now in New York, where her big photographs of the spines of books and volumes of collections (see mickeysmith.com) are being bought up by collectors and blown up even bigger for public art projects.

You can see us in the photo, a bit shell-shocked, reflected against a motto you would only find in America. I keep meaning to get this framed as a reminder to sally forth employing moderation in all things save burgers.

All has turned a better corner since that book tour – America has tanked, small is the new big, and modest is the new bling. For now. At least until we recover and become horrible again.

In the meantime I’m thrilled to report that The Ice Chorus now has a second life with Alma Books, a publisher of literature and only literature, a small-ish house peopled by humans, where the editor knows my name, and where the book designer actually welcomed my suggestions. Alma has a catalog of books exactly of the sort that cram my own shelves, written by interesting authors I wouldn’t mind getting drunk with.

For the first time in my publishing experience, I’m looking forward to actually working with a publisher. It’s all good.

Go, little booke. Go, Alma

Sarah Stonich

Thursday 12 March 2009

Borges - Fictions

One of the perks of working at the Calder Bookshop occasionally is that it gives me the opportunity to plunder the shelves on my lunch break. Many are the books I have enjoyed over my midday sandwich, and Sarah Stonich’s recent post lamenting the decline of short fiction reminded me of one of the best: Fictions, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

I am apparently a rarity among my peers in entirely lacking an appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. On revealing this secret shame I have frequently received looks of mingled horror and pity – so many that by the beginning of this year I had begun to harbour an irrational resentment towards South American authors in general. It was with some trepidation then that I took the Calder edition of Fictions down one afternoon and began to read – my doubts were soon dispelled.

Many authors seem to work on the principle that the more complicated the ideas discussed in their work, the more cryptic their style should be. Borges does not fall into this category – he chooses lofty concepts to tackle, but thankfully his writing is somewhat more down to earth. Not that any of the stories in this collection could be called ordinary – they are among the most imaginative and fascinating that I have ever read – but at the most basic level Borges’ style is realist, even conservative, and a necessary and satisfying complement to the unfailingly fantastical subject matter of his work.

My favourite of the stories is probably the first, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which the narrator describes a conspiracy by intellectuals throughout the ages to disseminate pseudo-historical information concerning an imagined land, and thereby bring that land, Tlön, into existence. In describing Tlön, Borges does a good job of making the inconceivable comprehensible – a world in which the complete determination of reality by thought is seen as common sense, and in which the notion that a man might drop a coin from his pocket, only to find the same coin at a later date, is seen as paradoxical; a world in which there is a language with no nouns. I’m not sure if 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is an exploration of metaphysics, or a mocking of the entire discipline. Either way it is a tale about abstract ideas which manages to be utterly gripping – no mean feat for an author to achieve.

Another favourite piece of mine is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’. It takes the form of a work of literary criticism on the (non-existent) 19th-century French author, Pierre Menard. Menard is apparently most famous for his word-for-word reproduction of Don Quixote in 17th-century Spanish. The author contends that Menard’s version is far more complex and richer in allusion than Cervantes’s original – a proposition that, by the end of the story, I was inclined to agree with. Once again, with measured prose and limitless imagination, Borges achieves a sort of literary alchemy, this time transmuting the wholly absurd into the eminently reasonable.

Working in publishing has given me a new appreciation of the art of translation. I’ve seen plenty of good and bad examples, and I know how rare it is for a book to read entirely naturally in a language other than its original. It is the highest compliment I can pay Anthony Kerrigan, the translator of this edition, to say that I forgot I was reading a translation at all until halfway though Fictions. When I did eventually realize, I thought it must have been translated by Borges himself, bilingual as he was. Not understanding Spanish, I can’t comment on the faithfulness of this translation to the original, but it has a wonderful flow to it and never sounds forced.

Borges is my kind of writer, and I’ll be reading a lot more of his work. Doubtless most of you will be familiar with him already, but if you aren’t, and if you’d rather have your mind bent by outlandish ideas than by the effort of trying to decipher cryptic prose, I advise you to give Fictions a read. A thumbs up from me, then.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Big in Japan

Good Lord, do you remember that song? How old was I when it came out? Fourteen? Fifteen? I think it rewrote the OED definition of “cheesy” and “camp” in one go. It was also responsible for growing a few pimples on my face. If you are too young to remember, you can still listen to that masterpiece and watch the video here (hurry up as they are taking down all music videos from YouTube apparently). Don’t worry about the Japanese script – it will not harm your computer. And if you feel Abba-nostalgic and look up the Alphaville Wikipedia entry – yes, that’s right, they have almost as long an entry as Dante Alighieri on dear old Wiki – you’ll also find out that they have been releasing and re-releasing albums uninterruptedly since their debut in 1984. Now run to your nearest HMV shop.

Well, here I am – three-thirty in the morning: my body in one time zone, my brain in another. I was hoping they’d be showing the Champions’ League matches on state TV here in Japan – instead, all you can find is night-time karaoke and baseball replays. So I’ll sit down and write a short blog before breakfast.

Tokyo – what a strange city. It looks like a giant-size Manhattan. On the way from the airport, it took us fifteen minutes on a traffic-free motorway to drive through the industrial parks alone. The streets have no names, and the district signs are all in Japanese. It’s all a chaotic maze of tenement blocks and skyscrapers, as far as I can see. And no one speaks English. You really feel you are arriving from a different planet when you get here.

Yesterday I entered this place, and after ten minutes of cringing gesticulation I managed to get a giant noodle soup with slices of pork and a beer, at the end of which I paid through a talking machine, as if I was buying a ticket for the tube. Total cost, around £7.00. Two days ago I got a tiny American Club Sandwich from a bar for around £25.00. A strange place indeed.

But I love the people. They are extraordinarily kind and helpful. I bought a couple of books from a bookshop yesterday, and when I paid the counter boy curtseyed, put his hand on his heart and seemed to recite a prayer for me after giving me the receipt.

Everything – at least the part of town I am in – is unbelievably clean and new. I haven’t seen a single cigarette stub in the street so far. You have the feeling you are in an enormous barracks at times, and I have seen security guards giving the military salute to our coach driver as we were heading into town.

I have had two long but fruitful days of conferences and meetings, and I am now looking forward to meeting Watanabe and Tsutsui in the next few days. But it was also great to be here with some other interesting publishers, such as John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive (whom I knew already), Jennifer Crew of Columbia University Press, Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Classics (I haven’t poisoned his coffee, he’s a very nice man), Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint Press and Racha Abazied of Éditions du Rocher.

The highlight of my stay so far was on the first day. At the end of a very long day of talks and meetings, we were offered a large buffet dinner with tempura, sushi, sandwiches and other delicious stuff. But before we could touch the food, there was speech number seventy-three of the day, by the head of the Japanese Publishing Association. You are made to work very hard for your food in this country. Someone whispered in my ear that it was a very long speech even by Japanese standards. Still, as I saw the poor guy pour his soul into the salient statistics of the Japanese book industry – unit sales were apparently down only 0.6% last year, but because of the Harry Potter phenomenon and high discounting gross sales were down from four hundred and twenty-two trillion, two hundred and seventy-eight billion, nine hundred and sixty million, three hundred and forty-five thousand yen in 2007 to around four hundred and seven trillion, four hundred and ninety-nine billion, one hundred and ninety-six million and four hundred thousand yen last year – as I saw him talk and talk and wipe sweat off his brow among the repressed giggles of the audience, who were wondering why he didn’t elaborate on the colour of his socks, I couldn’t help but thinking that Japan is a great country, and that I want to come back soon and see more of it.


Towering and Tragic, An Unconventional Masterpiece

There is a really nice review of DEAR EVERYBODY @ Citizen Dick, which mostly reviews music but will soon be reviewing everything. They call the book "stunning," "towering and tragic," and "an unconventional masterpiece." You can read the whole thing here. Thank you, CD.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov

While reading through some proofs of Bunin’s The Village, I was rather struck by his peculiar, exceptionally precise style, which reminds me of that of the more celebrated writer Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov – 30 years Bunin’s junior and one coveted Nobel Prize less – deeply admired Bunin’s work and sympathized with his rejection of ideological art and his careful recreation of the old, lost Russia to which the émigrés would never return, a “hypertrophied memory” much explored by both writers. Like Nabokov, Bunin’s eye for detail and the comic in The Village is marvellous – he describes a peasant as follows:
…the forehead concave, the face like a lopsided egg, the eyes fishlike, goggling, and the eyelids with the white lashes of a calf seemingly stretched out onto them: it was as if there had been a shortage of skin, and if the fellow closed his eyes, he would have to let his mouth gape, and if he shut his mouth, he would need to open his eyelids wide.
Nabokov respected Bunin tremendously as a poet – he sent the manuscript of his first novel, Mary, to Bunin with some trepidation and later referred to him as one of the best Russian poets since Tyutchev. Bunin in turn thought highly of Nabokov, and after reading The Defense wrote: “This kid has snatched a gun and done away with the whole older generation, myself included”. But the relationship between the two writers was beginning to sour by the mid 1930s, as Nabokov became aware of his own status as a significant writer. Bunin, despite his Nobel Prize, clearly felt some resentment towards Nabokov too – before the Second World War, he wrote: “I think that probably had I not existed, there would have been no Sirin [Nabokov’s nom de plume]”.

One of their last meetings was drily described by Nabokov in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. The two met for dinner, and “The first thing he said to me was to remark with satisfaction that his posture was better than mine, despite his being some thirty years older than me”. The meeting apparently ended with the two “utterly bored with each other”, and concluded nicely with Bunin’s last ironic comment to Nabokov (ironic because Nabokov managed to get nicely plump in Switzerland to a ripe old age, unlike his unfortunate companion), which was simply: “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation”.

Monday 9 March 2009

Amelia Gray's Postcard Life Story

I posted here about the Postcard Life Story project last month. Here is the text from one of the postcard life stories:

#140 The Happy Life of Amelia Gray
Amelia Gray was born in Tucson, AZ, and had a safe and happy childhood. What Amelia mostly remembers is laughing a lot and the funny things her sister and parents did. For a childhood, it was just about as good as anybody could hope for. Around 10, Amelia started playing the violin. In 4th grade, Amelia wrote a science fiction story where everyone wore clothes that changed colors according to their moods, which was the beginning of the inventive fiction writer she has turned into today. Amelia went to Arizona State University for her BA in literature, and, when she was 20, she rode Greyhound buses everywhere. She’s afraid of flying, partly because of the way things rattle around inside an airplane. She thinks she might feel better if she could sit on the wing and hear how strongly everything is constructed. Amelia went to Texas State University for her MFA, and now she holds four jobs (transcribing a WWII veteran's journal, freelance writing, and teaching at two universities), which allows her to work all day while also avoiding work all day, depending on which project she focuses on. It's weirdly motivating. Amelia has night terrors that make her do funny things in her sleep like stand on the bed and run down the stairs. Once, she kicked out a window. Also, Amelia has two cats (Republic, who got his name because she found him in the dumpster behind the Banana Republic where she used to work, and Turkish, who got her name from the fact that she is big like an ottoman), but no boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or dog. She wants a boyfriend like she wants 180 pounds of cotton candy. She has been the cotton candy in many relationships and she has been the person with the cotton candy on her hands in other relationships. It might make her sick, but she could fit either thing (a boyfriend or 180 pounds of cotton candy) into her lovely two-bedroom apartment in Austin (of which, by some small-world logic, MK’s brother-in-law is the landlord, and, she says, the best landlord ever). Besides that, Amelia has written a screenplay and a flash fiction collection in the past year. Right now, she’s working on a novel. She’s trying to figure out what type of writing is the most fun, which, right now, is flash fiction, which she’s trying to figure out how to accumulate into a novel, which she will.

[Note #1: This postcard life story is part of a series of postcard life stories that will appear in Keyhole #6 (guest edited by William Walsh), where all the contributor bios will be postcard life stories--the idea being to make every possible aspect of the magazine literature.]

[Note #2: I just finished reading Amelia Gray's wonderful AM/PM, which is just out from Featherproof Books.]

[Note #3: More Amelia Gray]

Sunday 8 March 2009

Journey to the country of the rising sun

Off to Japan today. My son Emiliano helped me get used to the new time zone by keeping me awake last night. Good boy. I probably won't have any jet lag when I get there, as I have one already. Or the two will cancel each other out. The good thing is that I will be eight hours ahead of the game all the time.

I'll speak to you when I get there tomorrow.


Saturday 7 March 2009

Scorned authors

Inevitably, predictably, one of my latest posts attracted tetchy comments from a couple of scorned authors who accused me of not reading their manuscript before landing them with a rejection.

One of them said: "You must have read a couple of chapters and sent a standard rejection letter. Hand on heart: have you read my whole manuscript?"

Of course not. My point was that I at least try to have a look at every submission that is sent to us. I do not rely on readers' reports. Naturally I don't see children's books, poetry, fantasy and horror submissions, because we don't publish in that genre and the prospective authors have not even bothered to read our submission policy. But I do look at every submission, however briefly – I cheese-taste, if you like. It doesn't take me more than a few pages to know if a manuscript could fit in our list, and not more than fifty to know if it's a title for us.

So, scorned authors of the world, please do not take it personally and accept that our rejection is only a personal reaction to your work, and there may still be thousands of publishers out there who could publish your work. And I promise I won't cry if you strike us off your list.


Dante's Rime - Guardian's Paperback Choice

I woke up this morning to find this glorious review of what I consider to be a milestone in my publishing career. I am so chuffed.


I just hope that a few people will be persuaded to go into a bookshop and look out for the book. This chap Dante needs to be better known in the English-speaking world.


Friday 6 March 2009

The Reader

I was having a chat with an agent yesterday, who was surprised when we got back to her with a detailed response to one of her submissions. “Did you actually read the book?” she asked. “Yeah? Why?” She claimed that ninety-five per cent of the book submissions she sends out are not actually read by publishers, editorial directors or editors, but by freelance readers “who are paid around £30-£40 per book”, and consequently have to read or skim-read two or three books a day, churning out hasty one-page reports which are then looked at by the publishers, digested in a split second and – if the title in question grabs their attention – discussed at publishing meetings with the Finance Directors, the number-crunchers.

Is this true? Can this be true? I refuse to believe it. It must be an agent’s distorted and frustrated view of the publishing world! I still want to think that there are actual people in publishing house who read books, and that the selection process is not left to some editor-at-large or random intern. The agent told me that she recently got another rejection to the same novel and, with it, the publishers had inadvertently left the reader’s report inside the manuscript they returned. The report was extremely positive, yet the book was not taken on because the publishers didn’t feel they could make it into a commercial success. Funnily enough – and revealingly – the synopsis was totally inaccurate, as if the professional reader had been reading another book altogether.

So what does it take to get published these days? I thought it took a good book and an enthusiastic publisher. But maybe I’m plain wrong, and possibly in the wrong line of business.


Thursday 5 March 2009

Dubliners by James Joyce – the jury is in

I would have liked to pass judgement on one of John Updike’s novels, but I haven’t been able to get hold of any of his best-rated books. The two WH Smiths I tried didn’t have them, and our local library has all of them on loan: whenever someone dies, his books seem to get read a lot more – the same happened to Robbe-Grillet last year, and all his books became suddenly unavailable at the London Library. I’ll bid my time and report on Updike some other time.

I thought I’d go back and reread one of my favourite books of my school days: Joyce’s Dubliners. I think I read it in Italian originally, but then I studied it at university and slouched my way through the English text for an exam. So this was the first time I read it for pleasure in English.

Did I like the book?
Yes, I liked it more than I thought I’d do, and more than I liked it when I read it for the first time.

What did I like most?
Sense of place, characterization and dialogue.

What didn’t work for me?
The under-punctuation, which the editor of the volume is so proud about. I think it would read better, without affecting the rhythm of Joyce’s prose, if commas were restored in the right places. Some of Joyce’s repetitions don’t seem all that clever or even intentional.

Would I publish it?
I hope I will, when Joyce is out of copyright in two or three years’ time. But perhaps Joyce’s grandson or some American lawyer will find a way to prevent us from doing it.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d publish it, of course . . . although if it came as a collection of short stories from a young unknown Irish author . . .

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes, even if I knew the stories already.

The best bit in the book?
By far the last story, ‘The Dead’.

The best scene in the book?
Not a scene – but the last paragraph of ‘The Dead’.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
I’ve got this silly old Grafton job from Elisabetta’s student days. It’s falling apart – pages are slipping away. Many lines are underlined in black or blue ink and in pencil. It’s all scribbled over. The paper is so bad and yellowish that I felt I wanted to sneeze every time I turned a page. The illustrations are not that great – they could have saved the money and the bother. The typesetting is awful – the text is bursting out of the page (but there are no widows, surprisingly). The editing may well be up to the highest academic standards, but on such a cheap edition (1988 retail price £2.99) the editor’s 'Note on the Text' and the textual variants come across as ludicrous. This book may well have seen better days, but it looks if it was always as bad as it is now. The cover shows a big yellow JAMES JOYCE on a cream background, with the tiny title underneath, and a diagonal white band near the bottom right corner announcing in black letters “FEATURING THE DEAD - NOW A MAJOR JOHN HUSTON FILM”. Incidentally, I remember watching that movie when it came out. I watched it a couple of times in fact – brilliant movie. But going back to what I was saying, this book’s production sucks. I think even Penguin can do better than that, on a good day.

My final verdict?
It remains one of the best collections of short stories I have read so far. I much prefer this book to Ulysses – and certainly to Finnegans Wake. After all these English books, my next book has got to be Italian or Russian. Stay tuned.


A Video Conversation about DEAR EVERYBODY @ WETA's Author Author

There is a really nice video of a conversation I had with WETA's great Bethanne Patrick @ Author Author! about DEAR EVERYBODY. Bethanne asks thoughtful questions and I try to give thoughtful answers. Plus, the whole time, there is a panorama of DC behind my head.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Sales, a very British obsession

I will always remember the ecstatic face of a young British publisher who was trying to enthuse me with the story of one of her books which had sold – so she said – more than 50,000 copies. I am also amused when I read, in the trade press, publishers bragging about their sales, trying to hype each other out and perhaps infect the market with obviously false claims.

All right, Harry Potter has sold millions of copies worldwide, making the fortune of some Scottish ex teacher and transforming her into a lady and a celebrity. Fine. Has it got any literature value? Is the world a better place with it? What is the impact, at any time, of the UK Top 50 bestselling titles on our culture?

Atalantis has been forgotten, but not the Rape of the Lock. I am sure there are books that are now read by very few people which may change the world as we know it – or even people’s lives.

(Still, when I confessed, during a talk, that Keats’s Letters was one of my favourite works of all time, and a book that you couldn’t find in Waterstone’s or Borders – and certainly not in Smith’s – I was called a snob by a member of the audience.

I must here point out – to pre-empt the inevitable censure of the anti-intellectual brigade – that I am proud to come from a working-class background and to have paid for my own education to the last penny.)

Jane Austen’s books sold poorly during her lifetime, and she had to finance the printing of most of her books. Joyce had Ulysses printed by a French bookseller, and – well – didn’t become rich with the proceedings, unlike his grandson. Leopardi sold a handful of copies of his Canti. Dante sold no copies at all of his Divine Comedy. I could give a hundred more examples.

So why is every publisher so obsessed with finding the next Richard & Judy or Oprah pick – the next Bestseller? And why do readers buy what most other readers buy?

But I am rambling and ranting. Let’s all go to sleep.


DEAR EVERYBODY @ Author Author

There is a DEAR EVERYBODY give away at Author Author!.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

In Memoriam Barbara Wright

John Calder called me this afternoon to give me the sad news of Barbara Wright's death last night, after complications from a hip operation. Barbara was one of the greatest and most influential translators from the French, and was almost as instrumental as John in making available the works of some of the greatest authors of twentieth-century French literature, such as Queneau and Sarraute.

I had several drinks and dinners with her in the past couple of years, and worked with her on a number of projects, including a revised edition of Queneau's Exercises in Style, which we are going to send to the printers tomorrow. It's a great pity she cannot see our new edition, more than fifty years after her original translation for Stefan Themerson's Gaberbocchus.

I spoke to her only a few days ago about the final proofs of Exercises in Style, and met her at the Calder Bookshop on 22nd January, when she unexpectedly turned up for the Kafka event.

We'll miss her a lot. My condolences to her family and friends. Bill Webb and John Calder will write obituaries for the national press, and John has promised to write something for our blog too.


Monday 2 March 2009

My master's sickness

Poor mite, I think he must be really ill
– what else would make his eyeballs go skew-whiff? –
but all the Doctor does is wonder if
it's psychological, or some such swill.

He's weeping, agitated, always sighing,
he flips his lid all hours – it's the disease –
and when his fits come on him, all he sees
is coffins, priests, the devil and the dying.

Well as for me, I tell my mistress straight:
"Beg pardon ma'am, but surely there must be
some medicine that can improve his state?"

But no, she shrugs her shoulders silently,
and carries on – not heeding me at all –
embroidering the flowers on her shawl.

Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli
Translation by Mike Stocks