Monday 28 September 2009

A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler and Michael Kimball Talk About Acoustics

Blake Butler and I talk about acoustics--how we think about acoustics, how we use acoustics, and where we feel acoustics. We called the talk A Ribbon of Language. It originally appeared in Unsaid #4. Now it's posted in my interview column at The Faster Times, along with a Gary Lutz interview.

Thursday 17 September 2009

William S. Burroughs – The Ticket That Exploded

Alongside Ginsberg and Kerouac, William S. Burroughs was the opiate-lubricated voice of The Beat Generation. His novels depict drug addiction, wild sexual fantasies and sensational nihilistic tales of gangsters and zombies. In The Ticket That Exploded – first published in UK by John Calder in 1968 – Burroughs splices together the clichéd genres of science fiction and spy thriller with descriptions of graphic violence and explicit pornography to create a provoking, acerbic and witty comment upon the modern media age.

And yet, despite its attention to intergalactic subterfuge, neon-lit sex palaces and alien copulation, the poetic prose and fragmentary form of Burroughs’s novel, and its concern with disseminating generic cliché, seem to bear similarity to the stylistics of Joycean modernism. The Ticket That Exploded showcases Burroughs’s cut-up and fold-in technique of literary composition, which involved creating a new text by fragmenting and then splicing together multiple narratives. This was a method Burroughs also applied to audio and visual media, and indeed he hoped that his writing would have the “same effect on the reader as a lurid action photo”.

This splicing process is not limited to the structural elements of the book, but manifests in its content, which explores the limits of physicality and individuality. Burroughs uses images of violent bodily decay and sexual union to explore the
extremities of being and questions the singularity of the self in an age in which sound recordings and images can be endlessly replicated or played back, doctored and spliced. Selfhood becomes virtually non-existent in the text, where the body is itself an object to be continually disjointed, consumed and reused. The landscape of The Ticket That Exploded is also poignantly fragmented, a whirlwind of “sound and image flakes”, always on the brink of decomposing or straining apart at the seams.

In an era dominated by mass media advertising, political broadcasts and pre-recorded television and radio, Burroughs believed that the process of replaying and splicing sequences of audio or written narratives would reveal a more substantial truth, liberated from the formulas of linear progression and cliché. Applying this technique to his writing was in many respects a profoundly Joycean enterprise and, as an artistic enterprise, the method creates strikingly poetic results. Despite the dislocated nature of the text, the accumulation of repeated clusters of images across the novel allow an aesthetic unity to surface amidst the chaos.


Tuesday 15 September 2009

"Who are but weasels fighting in a hole" - WB Yeats

So the long-awaited follow-up to the Da Vinci Code is about to be "released". Embargoes have been broken already by reviewers, half-price advance orders have been taken before publication – and now there's a new Brownesque twist in the story: not the usual price competition but an all-out war between retailers. The big W – and even the mighty Amazon – have been caught by surprise by the supermarkets' slashing from £18.99 to as little as £5.00. The Book Depository entered this loss-making competition and announced today that they'd be selling The Lost Symbol for just under a fiver. Obviously it didn't take Amazon long to follow suit and match that price – even retrospectively for the books already preordered… Insane. It is evident that online retailers are exposed to exactly the same dangers as high-street retailers when they try to compete with the supermarkets on discounts.

The Lost Symbol is yet another lost opportunity (for publishers and booksellers). I am pretty sure that many people would have happily paid the full price for it. But intellectual property is being degraded and devalued so much these days, in this brave new Internet world of free music, free news and – soon – free books that it will be even more of a struggle for anybody concerned (authors, publishers, journalists, bookshops, distributors etc.) to survive.

"Bring the Net Book Agreement back!" cries a voice in the desert. You think it won't work? Can it get worse than this? The fixed price is still in place in many European countries, and it could make the difference in UK, too, where publishers and retailers seem to have lost any sense of reality and are prepared to sacrifice profits and margins for that magical words – "sales" and "market share".

When we all go bust, and the majority of readers download books illegally from the Internet rather than buy them from shops, they'll realize that 100% of zero is zero.

Read here my post about Barbers' Wars.


Sunday 13 September 2009

Death of a Publisher

I think I should say a few words about the sad news of Marion Boyar’s demise, which its publisher Catheryn Kilgarriff blames on excessive discounts and the increasing polarization and conglomeration of the book trade. I hope that, in the same way as Calder Publications was rescued by Oneworld Classics in 2007, some white nights will come to the rescue of this prestigious publisher.

Penguin will republish thirty-eight of Marion Boyars’ backlist titles in their classics series, and I hope there is some young entrepreneur out there who’s prepared to take on the challenge and drive forwards the programme initiated by Marion Boyars in 1975 and valiantly continued by her daughter Catheryn since 1999.


Wednesday 9 September 2009

Dear Everybody, One of the Incredibles

Nik Perring has a category for books that he loves beyond other books, The Incredibles. I love that he has that category and I love that he added Dear Everybody to that list with books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Frankenstein. Nik says Dear Everybody "is right up there with the best I've read. Ever. It's clever, sensitive, heartbreaking, moving, funny and many, many other wonderful things." And then we did an interview where we talk about what is essential to great fiction and sympathy for those suffering from mental illness.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Claude Simon - Triptych

Triptych is, ostensibly, three short stories. In one, a young girl drowns; in another we witness an unhappy marriage; the third deals with a woman who is somehow involved in an incident at a summer seaside resort. However, although the work is divided into three, divisions do not mark separate stories or sequences, but instead divide the piece as if it were the triptych of the title – panels focusing on different parts of three stories interwoven into the same, ongoing narrative.

Simon is especially concerned with life and death, and in Triptych he explicitly links sex with death and young life with decay in a highly eroticised narrative, filled with sexual imagery and metaphors. Children play by a river, spying on furtive sex acts in a barn; an old woman kills a rabbit in an almost ritualistic manner, leaving the body on a kitchen table; a little girl strays too close to a river bank and we later see the servant girl who was meant to look after her distraught. A marriage begins to fail not long after it has begun; an older woman, no longer as influential as she once was, persuades a former acquaintance to help her through seduction.

Simon’s overall metaphor does not just employ painting, but cinema and other performance mediums. Different strands of the stories are woven together, shifting from one tableau to the next in a non-linear fashion. The story with the little girl follows several characters at different points in the same rural setting, like a detailed landscape painting or engraving; the resort story focuses almost entirely on a woman lying naked on a bed, akin to a detailed, intimate portrait, photograph or film still; the bridegroom’s stag night and what appears to be a disastrous wedding night is viewed like a series of out of sequence filmed scenes. Simon takes the metaphor further by presenting scenes as if they were unnaturally frozen celluloid images and deliberately blurs the line between the constructed cinematic image and reality, participants and spectators – for example, the circus scenes – full of heightened theatricality and ridiculousness, watched by a laughing audience in the dark, and the audience leaving from a cinema at the end. In Triptych, the novel form becomes like film, thus taking Simon’s sensibilities and style as a Nouveau Romancier further – events are seen by the mind like film inside a projector, focused on in detail, moved out of sequence like separate stills.


Thursday 3 September 2009

The Faster Times: Writers on Writing

The Faster Times has been laying down a ton of nice coverage of books and everything and I've just started an interview column there called Writers on Writing. The first interview is with Gary Lutz and it's called I Am Not a Camera. It's pretty incredible.

Dante's Rime is shortlisted for the Prize for European Poetry in Translation

Apparently good news comes in bunches!

Dante's Rime has been shortlisted for the Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation 2009. This prize, organized by the Poetry Society, is open to collections of texts translated from another European language into English.

Fingers crossed!

Elective Affinities and Life of Monsieur de Moliere

We are delighted to share with you a review of Elective Affinities by Goethe and The Life of Monsieur de Moliere by Bulgakov, both published in the Guardian.

The constant relevance of the masterpiece by the most popular German author is highlighted: "Controversial in its day, as it lent itself to the interpretation that love could be reduced to a chemical attraction, the novella continues to be relevant. Despite a shift in mores, contemporary readers will recognise the emotional pressures and the problems that Goethe explores through his characters and the Romantic landscape." (Please click here to read the complete review)

John Dugdale also says about The Life of Monsieur de Molière that "in its playfulness and hybridity, this book looks forward to contemporary 'faction' that fuses fiction and biography." (Please click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Raymond Roussel - Impressions of Africa

A poet, novelist, playwright and musician – and the man who famously said, "My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon" – Raymond Roussel was never a part of the official surrealist movement, but is nevertheless among the most important surrealist writers. A highly eccentric wealthy man with odd habits and a unique writing method (a formal style made unpredictable by its construction being based on homonymic puns), he was almost unanimously unpopular during his lifetime, save for the admiration of the surrealists and avant-garde. It was only in the 1950's that he began to be acknowledged as one of the originators of the nouveau roman and the ‘theatre of the absurd’, with both Eugène Ionesco and Alain Robbe-Grillet citing his influence. With the recent republication of Nouveau Roman authors such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet and Simon, as well as Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, by Oneworld Classics, the reprint of one of his best-known works, Impressions of Africa, is something to look forward to.

Impressions of Africa opens with the coronation of Talu VII, emperor of the African land of Ejur, who has just vanquished the ruler of the neighbouring land and claimed it as his own. The ceremony is witnessed by Talu’s wives, many children (including his blind daughter Sirdah) and French guests – with one of their number acting as narrator. An extraordinary and surreal gala performance ensues, in which science, theatre and African ritual are combined in a series of unbelievable events that last over the course of the night.

The narrator then reveals how this all came to be. He, bound for South America, boarded a ship in Marseilles leaving for Buenos Aires, joined by a quirky multi-talented group of fellow passengers – including the genius chemist Bex, the female-impersonating Carmichael, former ballerina Olga (accompanied by her tame elk and she-ass), a vain fireworks manufacturer, an Italian tragic actress and a travelling circus company of assorted acrobats, animals and freaks. When their ship is wrecked by a storm on the coast of Ejur, Talu demands that they remain his prisoners until he has gained ransoms for them. Whilst waiting for the ransom sums that will free them, the passengers pass the time by setting up a theatre company – the Incomparables – and prepare to present a fantastical display of their marvellous individual skills. The preparation for this is interwoven with the events that lead to Talu defeating his royal rival and arranging his coronation. Thus the circumstances that led to the miraculous and strange events in the novel’s first half – from ancestral deeds committed by Talu’s forefathers and the recent political and romantic liaisons that have recently occurred, to descriptions of how the performers prepared their acts – are explained precisely, grounded them in reality, albeit it a reality which is still strange and fantastical.

The title recalls nineteenth-century travel writing, but with a sly twist. Roussel rarely left his Paris hotel, let alone France, thus his ‘impressions’ are not based around his own exploits, or indeed on reality. They are instead ideas lifted from his imagination, resulting in an inventive, often absurd and highly surreal portrait of ‘Africa’, the unique product of Roussel’s mind.

The imagery he conjures is very detailed, which only serves to heighten their oddity. However, Roussel’s writing is precise and structured, describing objects and situations with a mathematical precision – in fact, scientific and musical terminology and concepts are frequently used, grounding the fanciful and making the logical appear magical. His keen fascination with theatre and music (he adapted his own works into plays and was himself a pianist) is also reproduced in tableaux, film stills, plays and ritualized ceremonies. Science, technology, music and theatre elaborately blended together, as seen when an advanced mechanical loom weaves a tableau onto a cloth in what is in essence a technological ‘performance’. The overall effect is of a dazzling surrealist theatrical performance, followed by the curtain being lifted to reveal the truth behind the magic tricks – but in a way that does not lessen the reader’s original reaction.

Many of his descriptions, which are deliberately surreal, provide an amusing contrast with historical narratives on Africa – from Herodotus’s giant dung beetles to more recent accounts. A scene proceeds as we would expect it for a moment, but is then followed by an amusing detail: the image of the African king being led to the place of his coronation, which would ordinarily be solemn and ceremonial, is made ridiculous and theatrical by his costume – a low-cut evening dress and flaxen wig. Once these details are finally explained (Talu, unaware that he is in ladies’ dress, is merely imitating Carmichael’s act, which he admires), we are presented with an unusual situation: the fantastic events that we saw were not entirely the work of the natives, but the westerners. The typical stance of a narrative on foreign culture, emphasizing distance and peculiarity, has been reversed. Impressions of Africa is therefore not only a reflection of the theatrical and musical arts that Roussel loved, but a work that can be subversive. It is a highly imaginative and ultimately bizarre novel that effectively conveys the author’s unique writing style and eccentric personality.