Thursday 22 October 2009

Ionesco - The Hermit

Ionesco’s anonymous narrator is a young man, an everyman, a human being. We meet him, the Hermit, at the age of thirty-five (like Dante "nel mezzo del cammin…") in the city of Paris. There he would have died of boredom and depression, if not for an unexpected inheritance that allows him the luxury of an immediate retirement from his job – a job he saw as “...lists, lists, lists.” He abandons fifteen years of living by the clock; a tedious, pre-determined existence punctuated only by drunken oblivion and failed love affairs. He is a lonely man and he is more than a trifle bored.

As he embarks on a new life – in a new apartment, with new possessions and new neighbours – he feels an initial relief at being his own man; but this period of mental calm is short-lived. Unable to overcome his need for routine and the sense of comfort it brings, he falls into a confined, unimaginative pattern of life. His loss of purpose is substituted by the bottle, and his life revolves around his meals at the local caf√©. His isolation is given up to repetitive, intense introspection, metaphysical anxieties and obsessive fears. With the resignation that only an idealist can experience, he succumbs to a profound and debilitating pessimism about the world, believing that “If I had been less of a philosopher, I would have had a happier life”. We follow his existence over years, with time being scattered about, slowing down and speeding up, in congruence with his state of mind.

The Hermit is Ionesco’s only novel, and it embodies many of the themes that recur throughout his extensive body of work. He was greatly interested in the solitude and insignificance of human existence, and modern feelings of alienation. He also felt a sense of wonderment and anguish at the strangeness of reality, and this is splendidly expressed in the mouth of the Hermit.

This novel, with its elements of magical realism, is a fascinating insight into a tortured mind, and compels reflection on mortality, free will, alienation, idealism and the ignorance of man.


Tuesday 20 October 2009

What People Do When No One Is Watching

I have an interview with Rachel Sherman up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about LIVING ROOM, the third person, a beautiful sentence, loneliness, and touching.

There's also an amazing interview with Gary Lutz there. And there's a thing where Blake Butler and I talk about acoustics. In the next few weeks, there will be interviews with Brian Evenson, Laura van den Berg, Ben Tanzer, Joanna Howard, and Robert Lopez.

Thursday 15 October 2009


Caius Petronius was a notorious dandy-figure in Nero’s court. Pronounced “arbiter of elegance” by the emperor himself, he acted as the yardstick for all matters of courtly taste. However in his writing Petronius took a double-edged attitude to upper class revelry, indulging in razor-sharp satire and farce. His satirical-erotic fragmentary work the Satyricon – soon to be published in a new translation by Andrew Brown for Oneworld Classics – gives the reader a rare chance to confront Roman life face to face, in all its fragrant, flatulent reality. The Satyricon depicts all strata of society, from the hustle-bustle of seedy small town life to the sumptuous (equally seedy) excesses of the Roman court. The protagonist Encolpius and his beautiful boy-lover Giton enjoy rambunctious adventures of mock-heroic derring-do, punctuated by sexual liaisons that would make John Wilmot blush; along the way they are assaulted by drag queens, get lost in brothels, and attend sumptuous feasts. The work is never silent, its soundtrack brimful with cacophonic eruptions of flatulence, boisterous lewd banter, street noise and squeals of delight or pain.

Unprecedented in its fidelity to the tone and texture of Petronius’s original, Andrew Brown’s translation conveys the energized colloquial chatter, and untiring bawdiness of the original. Brown uses a blend of modern colloquialism and dirty slang, patchworked with turns of phrase from French, Spanish and Italian to mimic Petronius’s own freestylings. He manages to retain the rough-and-ready nature of the original, whilst preserving its fluid free flow between prose and poetry, replicating its myriad of tones, voices, dialects, languages and accents.

Masterfully rendered by Andrew Brown, the most striking scene in the Satyricon is the description of a lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a wealthy patron of the arts. Here, Petronius displays his ability to move effortlessly between biting satire on courtly pursuits and reverence for displays of lavish aestheticism. Course after course of fantastic culinary excess is interspersed with anecdotes told by the diners – tales of sexual seduction and werewolves – and recitals of hilariously appalling verse. The scene is fascinating for its surreal comedy and beauty. Cooked animals are dressed as soldiers, cakes and fruit spurt saffron at the guests, tarts are drowned in honey, a chef appears who apparently can make fish from sow and chicken from pork, a hare is decorated with wings to look like a Pegasus, a flock of thrushes fly from the belly of a roasted boar…

These moments of courtly entertainment rise above mere satire, and the dazzling descriptions are truly captivating.


Wednesday 14 October 2009

Dear Everybody (Or: When a Poet Writes a Novel)

There's a really thoughtful review of DEAR EVERYBODY up at The Lesser of Two Equals. It says, in part: "Kimball’s background as a poet is apparent in his ability to isolate and frame small moments of a particular character’s experience. Fine attention to detail is exercised both as an art and as a special effect ... It has a surprisingly strong dark humor for being about such a serious topic, his observations are keen and quirky, and he knows how to let imagery make a scene swell." And I liked this bit about Jonathon's suicide letters: "This writing spree has all the highs and lows of a drug binge."

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Book No. 100

Today we signed off our 100th book of the season, a special book because it's our first e-book. Strangely enough, unlike normal printed books, the e-book printers have asked for the InDesign files and the fonts, as they wanted "to make itk look as close as possible to the printed version".

Despite what you think, I haven't "printed" this e-book reluctantly – actually there was a very good vibe about it – which demonstrates that a) I am not a Luddist or a reactionary; b) that there is some pleasure even in torture.

On a slightly different matter, have you seen Madonna's latest video? It's obscene! I know I shouldn't be surprised, but it's so bad, so cringing, so uncool. You've got this fifty-odd-year-old trying to look desperately sexy and Beyoncesque, or Kyliesque . . .

I think I'll send Madonna a copy of Pirandello's book on Humour. . .


Monday 12 October 2009

Free Books!!!

Sorry I've been out of touch recently. I haven't been on a blog strike, and no, it's not because I'm still reading Martin Amis's Money, as someone has suggested (it's true that I am a slow reader, but not that slow). I have been incredibly busy with a series of exciting books, from a Catalan novel, The Invisible City, to an eighteenth-century rediscovery (Swift's The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders) to the wonderful Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy and a few other great books that will appear in the next couple of weeks. I would have liked to comment on many of the recent news – Super Thursday, Waterstone's Hub, the new Kindle, the closure of Books Etc., etc. etc. etc. – but life has gone faster than my fingers, or even my brain. I hope to catch up soon.

Today I walked back home from the office and I was almost raped by a newspaper maniac who was dispensing free copies of The Evening Standard. Piles and piles of copies were lining the walls behind him. I manage to dodge him, but there were a couple of his colleagues round the corner, and I stumbled at the last hurdle and got a free copy myself. I don't usually read The Evening Standard – maybe because I don't commute, or maybe because I think it has the information value of a medicine's information leaflet. Anyway, I did get this copy – I arrived home five minutes later and threw it in our recycle bin. Why did I do that? Because for me it had no value – I had not paid for it, so I didn't care much about it. By making something free, you devalue it – and although this populistic move has been endorsed by great celebrity quotes, I think the Russian tycoon who took over the ailing paper will live to regret this.

Have you seen all those free DVDs, CDs and even books that are given away by Sunday newspapers these days? No doubt they'll generate some more sales for the struggling papers, but who watches or listens to them? Who reads those book? Will they make any money to the record labels or book publishers? I very much doubt. Penguin has been giving away some horribly printed green classics of late – a disservice to publishing and to Penguin – and surely a waste of paper and resources.

The time is coming when the majority of people will stop going into bookshops simply because so much content – information, comment, fiction, even research – is available for free.

And when that happens, we'll all be consigned to the recycle bin of history.


Monday 5 October 2009

This Blog Will Change Your Life

Ben Tanzer has a super nice write-up, at This Blog Will Çhange Your Life, in which he calls me "the dark overlord of all things writing, film and interview" and in which he calls DEAR EVERYBODY "moving, even paralyzing"--and notes that "pain can be captured on the page both sparsely and lyrically, an achievement that is magical."

Thank you, Ben Tanzer.