Saturday, 28 February 2009

Robert Menasse

If you are not too plastered and fancy a bit of international literature, please come along tomorrow to Robert Menasse's talk at the Jewish Book Week events tomorrow at 12:30. He is the author of a saucy book called Don Juan de la Mancha, whose first sentence is:

"I first came to understand the beauty and wisdom of celibacy when Christa, after rubbing chilli pods between her hands, masturbated me and then expressed the wish that I – to put it in her own words – should f*** her up her a***."

It gets dirtier later on, and it's a lot of fun.

At 2:00pm Paul Verhaeghen, the acclaimed author of Omega Minor and the recipient of the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, will be in conversation with Boyd Tonkin.

These are just the very partial highlights of an incredibly interesting programme.

I hope to see you there.


Thursday, 26 February 2009

What Is Prescribed: A Rant

Short Shrift

Sarah Stonich

When I told Alessandro I'd write a blog piece about the state of short fiction his reaction was, "Great, literary rants are welcome." My reaction to his reaction? Damn, didn't he just say it all? essentially suggesting that anything written on the subject would be a rant, since the state of short fiction, the publishing of short fiction and the buying and reading of short fiction is nothing if not rant-worthy.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when I was attending Frankfurt and other international book fairs, short fiction was still promoted, the chasm between novel and short story was not so deep, and the genre was at the very least a topic for discussion. Now it seems short fiction barely merits debate.

Agents won't represent short fiction because they are convinced publishers won't buy short fiction. Publishers won't buy it because even if there is good stuff out there, agents will rarely bother reading it and typically won’t represent it unless it comes packaged with a companion novel up front for a two-book deal. So much for agents, and good luck peddling short fiction without one – at most publishing houses, a collection of short fiction has the same chance getting over the transom as the proverbial rich wanker squeezing his fat backside through the eye of a needle and into heaven.

And the readers? No one, and I mean no one has polled them or is listening to them or smartly anticipating their future in the marketplace. Publishing is so up its own arse it’s not considering the reading demographic except in the most simplistic of ways. What is backing the claim that no one reads short fiction when there isn’t any to read? Numbers are only generated for what sells, not what could sell, or should sell. For now, everyone seems to be staying the wobbly course, bent on marketing first novels by new writers. Here’s a query response that, when I opened it, made me eject chai out my nose. This is from a known NY agent recently profiled In Poets and Writers:

Dear Sarah,

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we are not taking on any previously published or agented fiction writers. Nor do we consider short fiction.

Such a discounting of experienced writers and marginalizing of readers reveals all of what’s gone wrong in publishing. Do readers want first novels and first novels only? Really? If that’s the future, where will it leave writers, agents and publishers? The writer will publish one book, the agent will hunt down a new writer for each and every sale, and publishing houses will devolve into something akin to puppy mills.

I refuse to believe short fiction is dead for the singular reason of time, and the preciousness of time. A typical Wally Lamb novel is the weight of a doorstop and requires a month-long commitment. Time for reading is not expanding, but shrinking. The evolving – some might say devolving – (see A.G.’s blog entry below) brain is adapting to accommodate shorter and shorter messages. Diminishing attention spans react well to flash and color and novels short enough to be written on a mobile phone. So, for an industry that at its core is built upon imagination, the vast majority publishers seem to show very little themselves, and rather tend to repeat themes and copy other publishing successes with whatever gimmickry is selling at the moment, i.e. “If you liked The Ladies Tea Cake Bingeing Auxiliary, you’ll love The Anorexic Tartan Lingerie Drum Corp! if only because the covers look alike.

I implore those in publishing to look to the future and consider that in a few years, the most successful among you may well be those who buck the hollow, go-nowhere trends that are beginning to fail before our eyes. Consider this as a scenario: Rising star agents gaining reputations by finding the best and brightest authors of fiction, particularly short stories. Imagine a younger consumer reading from whatever device or screen their literature of choice is glowing from. Imagine publishers and editors who not only succeed, but build strong houses by publishing authors they nurture into real and enduring careers rather than those they splatter on a single flash-in-the-pan title.

Imagine growing numbers of fans of short fiction demanding more.

Everyone in the industry claims to love short fiction but bemoan the “fact” that it is not viable in the marketplace. Please. Stop being such pussies and make it so.

A definition of Short Shrift

*To be given short shrift is not the blessing it once was. The source of our verb shrive (shrove, shriven) and noun shrift, which have technical meanings from ecclesiastical Latin, is Classical Latin scribere, “to write.” Shrive comes from the Old English verb scrfan, “to decree, decree after judgement, impose a penance upon (a penitent), hear the confession of.” The past participle of scrfan is scrifen, our shriven. The noun shrift, “penance; absolution,” comes from Old English scrift with the same meaning, which comes from scriptus, the perfect passive participle of scribere, and means “what is written,” or, to use the Latin word, “what is prescribed.”

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Benjamin Robert Haydon

It would have been quite natural for an ordinary mind to think blindness a sufficient obstacle to the practice of an art, the essence of which seems to consist in perfect sight…

Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), known throughout his life as a historical painter of some merit, has had little enduring success in the art world. It is rather through his autobiography, letters and memoirs that Haydon lives on today, and it is through these that his character lives on: a man with all the traits of genius with little of the requisite artistic talent.

Haydon’s life was marked by a combination of chronic eye disease, burgeoning debt and a feverish desire to assert himself as the greatest painter of his day. His determination was relentless, his passion untiring, and his character so infectious (or ‘contagious’ as Aldous Huxley puts it in his introduction to the out-of-print 1926 edition) that he seems to have genuinely convinced some of the great poets and critics of his time – including Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth – that he really was a genius of the first order. Keats’s On Seeing the Elgin Marbles was addressed to Haydon, who played a foremost role in persuading the British government to buy the frieze from Lord Elgin. Haydon responded to Keats characteristically:

I know not a finer image than the comparison of a Poet unable to express his high feelings to a sick eagle looking at the Sky!—when he must have remembered his former towerings amid the blaze of dazzling Sun beams, in the pure expanse of glittering clouds!—now & then passing Angels on heavenly errands, lying at the will of the wind, with moveless wings; or pitching downward with a fiery rush, eager & intent on the objects of their seeking—You filled me with fury for an hour, and with admiration for ever.”

Clearly this of Keats’s resonated with Haydon – what else was the partially-sighted historical painter but a sick eagle, forced to correct the errors of perspective in his colossal canvases by peering at one part of a painting close-to, inspecting it in a mirror, and viewing it through several pairs of strong convex spectacles stacked in front of one another from a distance? Yet Haydon’s belief in his own powers was unshakable: “My Picture today struck me […] as the most enchanting of all sights. […] It came over [me] like a lovely dream. I sat & dwelt on it like a young girl on a lover (when she is unobserved). I adored the Art that could give such sensation”.

Although Haydon’s writing is peppered with vanity and often downright vulgar, his memoirs and autobiography are nonetheless a touching and well-written insight into a man who was a forceful and inspirational member of the Keats circle. The impression we get from Haydon’s memoirs of his life – and death – is tragicomic in the extreme: in 1846, at the age of sixty, he paid a large sum to hire a portion of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly to exhibit two new paintings, The Banishment of Aristides and The Burning of Rome. Just next door, the American dwarf Tom Thumb was performing in a circus show to which thousands flocked, ignoring Haydon’s exhibition entirely. His diary reads: “Tom Thumb had 12,000 people last week; B. R. Haydon, 133½ (the ½ a little girl). Exquisite taste of the English people!” After months of desperate prayers, humiliation and an accumulation of debts that amounted to around £3,000, Haydon locked himself in his studio, his wife and daughter next door, and shot himself in front of the enormous painting he was working on. Not killed by the shot, he then cut his throat twice with a razor, his strength of character unfailing to the end. His adoration of Shakespeare marked the last words in his journal, “Stretch me no longer on this rough world”.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Twittering ourselves away

“Social-network sites risk infantilising the mid-21st-century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist.”

This is from today’s The Guardian, and you can read the whole article here.

The only thing I don’t get is why Lady Greenfield is presenting this as a prediction, rather than a fact. Just walk into any train carriage in London, have a look around – if you have any space, that is, and no Metro or other newspaper is being shoved into your face – and you will see half the passengers fiddling with one or two of their mobiles, Blackberries and laptops as they listen to some podcast or other musical download.

Judging from the many vitriolic comments to the Guardian article, anybody attacking Facebook, Bebo and the likes will be called a staunch obscurantist by the twittering mob. Not even being a leading neuroscientist will save you. So I’ll better stop here myself, before getting a virtual lynching.


Monday, 23 February 2009

News from Minervinopolis

Just back from a trip to Italy’s deep south. On Friday, I joined Elisabetta and children for a weekend in Molfetta, a lovely seaside town in Apulia, about fifteen miles from Bari. I call this town Minervinopolis, because the baker is a Minervini, the butcher’s a Minervini, the priest’s a Minervini, the Mayor’s a Minervini, most of Elisabetta’s friends are Minervinis, Elisabetta herself is a Minervini – there are many Minervini-named streets, and half the phone book’s entries for Molfetta are Minervinis too.

I had not been there for a while but, like the rest of southern Italy, if there is any change, it’s not much more noticeable than rock erosion. The same shops line the high street, the same people walk up and down the Corso, and football-mania is as rife as ever, with women talking about football as freely as men in the bars.

The Sanremo singing competition – a national institution – reached its climax on Saturday, after almost a week of X-Factor- and Big-Brother-like knockout stages. The winner was a ten-year-old-faced boy called Marco Carta. When they made the final announcement I was slightly confused, as I thought they had said “manco canta” – he doesn’t even sing. The winner’s song and the rest of the songs were all terribly alike, and as unmemorable as any other sung at the Sanremo Festival during his fifty-nine-year history. I only watched about an hour of it, on and off, but I spotted Annie Lennox and Kevin Spacey among the guests – now, what the hell was he doing there?

It was also Carnival weekend, with big papier-mâché carts’ processions in Viareggio, Putignano and many other Italian cities. Unfortunately, it was rotten weather in Molfetta, and the much anticipated procession didn’t show up.

On the other hand, we ate and drank in three days what we’d eat and drink in three weeks over here, and spent five times more on food and clothes than we’d normally spend in Britain. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am to be back.


Saturday, 21 February 2009

"La poésie est semblable à l'amandier: ses fleurs sont parfumées et ses fruits sont amers." Aloysius Bertrand

"Poetry is similar to the almond tree: its flowers are fragrant and its fruits are bitter."

Having just read Jean Echenoz’s enjoyable documentary novel Ravel, I was looking up Maurice Ravel on the Internet out of curiosity, when I was reminded that he had composed a piano piece inspired by Gaspard de la nuit, a volume of prose poetry by the nineteenth-century French writer Aloysius Bertrand (1807–41).

Neglected in France nowadays and virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, Bertrand is a figure that I’ve been meaning to write a few lines about, just in case it might encourage readers to look into his work.

Interestingly, the major literary work of this provincial lieutenant’s son – originally from the Piedmont but whose home town from the age of nine was Dijon, the capital of Burgundy – remained unpublished during his life, which was tragically cut short by tuberculosis. Although he drew early praise from the likes of Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand for his efforts in Le Provincial, the journal he edited and contributed to in Dijon, and later moved to Paris, where he frequented the top literary salons, he was a relative outsider to the capital’s cultural establishment – due in part to his poverty, his attachment to his beloved Burgundy and his somewhat avant-garde aesthetic views.

In 1836, Bertrand signed a contract with the publishers Renduel for Gaspard de la nuit, but publication kept being delayed, to the dismay of the author, who in his final years had to endure constant disappointment on the literary front as well as the torments of illness. This work, a collection of fifty-one evocative prose poems, mostly focusing on the medieval city of Dijon – the landmarks, myths and people of which Bertrand knew intimately – was championed by the influential critic and friend of Bertrand’s, Sainte-Beuve, who in his note to the first edition of 1842 hailed it as a revolutionary milestone in the history of French poetry.

The critical consensus ever since has been that Gaspard de la nuit is the first work of French prose poetry, with significant consequences for the subsequent development of nineteenth-century literature. Charles Baudelaire was greatly impressed by its artistic approach, which consciously borrowed from the techniques of visual artists (its subtitle is “Fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Collet”), and admitted that it was his main inspiration for Le Spleen de Paris (also consisting of fifty-one pieces). Therefore, if the perseverance of Sainte-Beuve and Bertrand’s friends had not paid off, and Gaspard had not finally seen the light of day, we arguably would not have today the prose poetry of the likes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé and beyond.

Sadly, Gaspard de la nuit is currently out of print in English, although translations such as the University Press of America edition may be available second-hand and in libraries.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Canterbury Tales

Next Thursday’s reading at the Calder Bookshop will be from a new, modern-English adaptation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by the translator Chris Lauer, which is soon to be published by Oneworld Classics. As well as helping to organize and publicize the event, I did a great deal of the editorial work on this book myself, and as a result I am particularly excited about hearing the wonderful work it contains performed at the shop for the first time.

However, having read Chaucer’s entire oeuvre in the original Middle English at university, I have to confess to having been until recently a bit of a snob where modern-language translations of these works are concerned. I suppose there were three reasons for this. The first reason was that I felt that the purely aesthetic experience of reading – and especially hearing – a text like The Canterbury Tales would be compromised by encountering it in anything other than its own crunchy, alien-sounding language. It might be difficult to understand, but at least when listening to Middle English we are aurally sensitized to the actual material of the words, in a way we often are not when listening to the transparent, weightless tokens of our everyday usage. The second reason was that I am a subscriber to the view that the meaning of any text is determined by its historical context: updating a work like The Canterbury Tales could be interpreted as implying that inside every medieval text is a modern text struggling to get out, as thought the “true” text resided somewhere other than in the actual words committed to the page by the “maker” himself. This is certainly not true of Chaucer’s work: if the past of the narrator's childhood in Hartley’s The Go-Between is a foreign country, then the England of the late fourteenth century is another planet entirely.

The third – and real – reason, of course, was simply that I’d had to work bloody hard at university to get my head round Middle English, and I couldn't see why anyone else should be allowed to have such an easy ride. Indeed, as anyone of a similar academic experience will tell you, Chaucer’s language is the tip of the iceberg: something like ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ is a doddle compared to an early Middle-English text like La3amon's Brut, or even to the work of Chaucer's near-contemporary the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At least Chaucer restricts himself to the Latin alphabet: in his day some English poets were still peppering their verses with runes.

However, working on Chris Lauer’s witty and imaginative rendering has completely changed my mind. The translator himself has made the case for a modern-English retelling of these Tales in the following terms:

“Why ‘translate’ Chaucer at all? It is perfectly clear to me that anyone capable of enjoying Chaucer’s stories and his clever insights in a modern version would also be able to learn to read the Middle English original, but the fact is that many such readers simply will not do so. I hope some readers may read this attempt at modernization and be prompted to make that effort. Perhaps the greatest reward in modernizing the text is not so much for the reader as for the translator; it’s surely the best way to oblige oneself to read this poetry closely, word by word, and line by line, while trying to keep a perspective on the larger patterns as well. In any case, I do apologize, especially to those wise readers who will be offended by any presumptuous attempt, even those much more successful than mine, to retune Chaucer’s instrument.”

When it came to making a selection from the Tales for the reading at the bookshop, I was very keen to choose a range of material that, as I have said in the publicity material that any subscribers to the Calder Bookshop mailing list will have seen, would “showcase the staggering generic and thematic breadth of Chaucer’s work”. After all, I reasoned, the genius of The Canterbury Tales is in its juxtaposition of generically contrasting material. That’s why this work has been so popular with Marxist literary critics over the years, the argument being that the tales present us with what the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia”: a babble of competing voices, in this case drawn from every stratum of medieval society, which subversively undermines the claim of any one voice to authority. Thus, the churlish Miller’s bawdy fabliau is deliberately chosen by the Host to follow, and thereby “quite” (or match), the grandiloquent romance presented by the perfect, gentle Knight. Therefore, I thought, if I’m going to represent the true spirit of Chaucer’s masterpiece, I have to be sure to get the balance right. In ‘The General Prologue’ the Host asks the twenty-nine pilgrims for “Tales of best sentence and most solaas”, and therefore for tales that are instructive as well as entertaining, and that’s what I would give the audience at the bookshop.

However, I was, as ever, pressed for time, and so what I ended up with instead was a hastily cobbled-together medley of the dirty bits. I don’t suppose anyone will mind.


Thursday, 19 February 2009

A Poet's Decalogue

Longinus o'er a Bottle, or "Every Poet his own Aristotle"

Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
And Campbell's Hippocrene is somewhat drougthy:
Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
Commit flirtation with the muse of Moore.

Thou shalt not covet Mr. Sotheby's Muse,
His Pegasus, nor anything that's his;
Thou shalt not bear false witness like "the Blues"
(There's one, at least, is very fond of this);
Thou shalt not write, in short, but what I choose

Lord Byron

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Publisher’s Decalogue

1) Publish only what you really love.

2) Publish only what you have read yourself – don’t publish by hearsay or on the basis of a reader's report.

3) Don’t be influenced by fashion or by what other houses are publishing.

4) If any of your authors want to leave, give them a first-class ticket.

5) Be patient: publishing is a very long game.

6) Don’t be obsessed with sales or with reviews.

7) Never give up on a book: its time may come when you least expect it.

8) Authors are human beings, just like you.

9) Don’t be too friendly or too businesslike with your authors.

10) Be honest and pay your royalties on time.

11) Resist to hype, and always bear in mind that there are at least one hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

Now, to the smart alec who says “Hang on a sec, why eleven and not ten?” I answer: “Well, I got your attention, right?”


Monday, 16 February 2009

Chianti Classique

Yesterday night I treated myself to a dinner with Simon May, or Mr Atomic Sushi as I like to call him. I published Simon’s book in 2006: it’s one of the first titles we did at Alma, and it’s now in its third reprint. It’s a haiku-like, anecdotal account of his one-year stay in Japan as the first British Professor of Philosophy at Tokyo University for more than a century. His book tells you of $500-a-head restaurants where rats scurry between the chef’s legs, and of goldfish-shooting vaginas. I’ll say no more.

Simon is a brilliant philosopher, musician and aphorist, and I enjoy his company and razor-sharp wit very much. The only problem is that he is also a food and wine buff, and his palate is very difficult to please. Over the last ten years, he has amassed a formidable collection of fine wines – my guess is that it must now extend into the thousands – all adequately insured and stored in an Armageddon-resistant cellar. When he wine-tastes, he doesn’t only stick his old nose right into the glass but swills the liquid in his mouth with various expressions of ecstasy and delight.

As I will be leaving soon for Japan, I was hoping he could give me some tips, and I haven’t been disappointed. So we headed for Confucius, my favourite Chinese restaurant in town. It’s on Wimbledon’s Broadway, and if you haven’t tried it, I warmly recommend it.

We decided we wouldn’t have any wine with our meal. But then Simon got very excited when he saw that they had a Chianti "Calssico" 2004/05 on the menu at a very reasonable price. “2004 is the dogs’ b***s of Chianti,” he enthused. When the Chinese waitress came up to our table to take the order, Simon asked her where this Chianti was from – meaning from which particular winegrower in Tuscany, on the off-chance he might know him. The girl didn’t blink, and replied: “France”.

In the end, it turned out that they had run out of 2004 or 2005 bottles – they’d given them away as they were getting a bit old – but hey, they had some 2006 bottles. “Can you bring a bottle that is slightly less warm than this?” asked Simon. The girl looked flummoxed and said: “They’re all from the same case near the counter.”

The meal itself was a taste-bud delight. I am a regular there, and knew I would be able to impress even the most determined Epicurean. During the nine-course dinner, we talked about Goethe and Schopenhauer, Beethoven and sexual desire. I reminded Simon of a chapter in his book where he resisted the advances of an ear-biting, overweight woman with halitosis, and he gossiped about an acquaintance “who seemed to have made two or three hundred million but was not materialistic at all”. I also told him all about my two German ex-girlfriends.

What began as a quintessentially rude boys’ night continued at my place in Richmond in the most civilized fashion. We uncorked a sixty-pound bottle of Burgundy – courtesy of Simon’s collection – and recited poems by Dante and Cavalcanti until I looked at my clock and found out that it was one-thirty a.m.

When I woke up this morning at six with an ever so delicate headache, I came to realize that the ancients were right. “La sera leoni, la mattina coglioni.”


Sunday, 15 February 2009

DH Lawrence - The Fox

I’ve just finished copy-editing D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox. I’ve never actually read any Lawrence before, so it was an interesting introduction.

The scene is an isolated farmstead in the Midlands in 1919. The farm is looked after by two women, March and Banford. They struggle to make a living from working on the farm. One of their problems is a fox who steals their chickens. One day, March sees the fox, and becomes entranced from staring directly into its eyes. There’s almost something supernatural at work and, after this point, March becomes obsessed with the fox. Then a young Cornish soldier turns up, whose grandfather lived at the farm before the girls. He gets them to allow him to stay at the farm. For March, he bears a strange similarity to the fox, and she almost identifies him with the animal. He, like the fox, has a mysterious charm for her. I won’t give away any more of the plot – suffice to say there’s conflict between the characters.

First of all, I loved the opening. Wonderful scene-setting and description, sense of time and place, characterization. This was the strongest part of the book. The subsequent conflict between the characters is OK, but not as interesting, and the language doesn’t have the same resonance or evoke the same kind of recognition in the reader (or this one at least). I think that, as the story progresses, Lawrence’s own ideas and preconceptions start to interfere with the narrative to its detriment – most notably, there’s a diatribe of several paragraphs, just before the end, on the impossibility of attaining happiness in this world, which should really have been cut or reworked. The way in which Lawrence’s personal opinions intrude upon the narrative reminds me a bit of Tolstoy, whose fiction has the same problem, though I have a suspicion that the intrusion is on the whole more jarring in Lawrence.

So, overall, it was interesting. I can’t say I’m say straining at the bit to read everything Lawrence ever wrote, but I would be interested to read at least one of his masterpieces.


Saturday, 14 February 2009

A day off

My day off started at four-fifteen in the morning (4:15 am GMT), when Emiliano, our younger son, took it upon himself to declare, as a pre-emptive measure, a very early dawn. Fair enough: infants’ biorhythms are not to be messed about – so I got up, shaved myself and zombied into my suit, knotting a dubious silver tie onto my black shirt.

Three hours later, the whole family set out for Stansted, and at around eight thirty I found myself driving back to Richmond on my own, and listening to a Shostakovich quartet as I overtook a Polish truck from Poznan.

At around ten o’ clock, I popped by the office and checked my email. I also gave John Calder a surprise call on his Irish mobile and sent out a couple of hundred emails, just to keep people on their toes over the weekend. After that, I felt I could really relax and set off for Chelsea, where I had a long meeting with the indomitable Melissa Ulfane of Pushkin Press.

Two hours later, at around two-thirty, we both felt a bit peckish and, after some deliberation, decided to get a sandwich. But then Melissa remembered she had just joined the Ivy Club and wanted to try its restaurant. The Victoria line was suspended, the Jubilee line partly closed, so we ventured all sorts of disruptions and cabbed our way across to the West End.

Once we arrived in West Street, a mind-operated plexiglass lift took us to second floor, where we left our coats, and a more prosaic flight of stairs took us to the restaurant on the third floor. The club was almost empty at that time, but they were still serving food. I must report here that we survived the scare of a three-course meal, four glasses of Beaujolais and a full tumbler of Armagnac.

After that, all I remember is a psichedelic London, a very helpful librarian at the London Library and a long-bearded, bereted Osama-bin-Laden-like figure on the Tube, who seemed to be growing iPod buds from his ears.

If you ever wonder how and when small independent publishers come up with their barmy publishing ideas, now you know it’s when they relax on an odd day off.


Michael Kimball Asks Blake Butler Some Questions and Then Blake Butler Answers Them

I interviewed Blake Butler @ elimae about his first book, Ever, which is just out. I ask him about the brackets, about nesting bits of story, and about whether it might have been a different book if he hadn’t put his underwear on. The interview is @ elimae: Michael Kimball Asks Blake Butler Some Questions and Then Blake Butler Answers Them.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Twenty-Five Random Writerly Thoughts

by Sarah Stonich

I was told Facebook was “A great place for writers to Network!” So I bit it and created my page and started scratching around for friends. Soon I had a few dozen – writers, teachers of writing, small press editors. I became member of groups like The Irish Writers Centre, fans of a number of journals and writers too important to have a personal page. Then I waited to see what would roll in…Invitations to be in anthologies? Requests to appear at book clubs, conferences, writer-in-residence-residencies? The cable book channel? Grant offers? Agents eager to represent my short fiction?

Of course not. On the hour I get pitches to buy books and invitations to attend fundraisers. Every day come multiple invitations to readings, which on Facebook are called (gag) Listening Parties, which on average take place 1,500 -6,000 miles away. I also get several daily updates as to what other writers are doing to avoid writing: Louis is steaming the wallpaper, or Nathaniel is filing Bouvier’s dew-claws.

You get sucked in – it’s a bit of a soap opera, kind of addictive. Honestly, if time spent writing Facebook drivel was directed to real writing, we’d be crapping out books at the rate Joyce Carol Oates does. Aside from the satisfying voyeurism that reveals others writers’ lives are just as banal as mine, each week there’s usually some popular diversion - last week it was an invitation to write “25 Random Truths About Yourself” then “tag” 25 friends to send it to - the quintessential narcissistic chain letter.

I didn’t have any other writing that couldn’t wait, unless you count the memoir due to my publisher in just months – of which I’ve written only 70 confused pages (the advance is already spent, so, where’s the fire?) And I could put off finishing the WordStalkers website that will showcase my free-lance writer prowess and which will finally break the cycle of my awkward financial situation.

I started with:

1. I harbor an irrational certainty that one day massive good fortune will fall in my lap with the sort of force that dropped the house on the witch.

2. I have a love-hate relationship with humanity. Especially in parking lots or at the grocery store, or whenever watching clips of Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter…

By now I could see this was only going to turn into a whinge-fest, so I nipped it in the bud because it might be too revealing, or too confessional, ie.,

3. My guilty pleasure foods are bacon, Lucky Charms, and grilled cheese sandwiches made with cheap yellow American faux-cheese.

Like I want anyone to know that.

4. If I was told I had a terminal disease I would eat the food in #3 every day, topping off each course with an American Spirit cigarette. Cuz I’m already dying, right?

See what I mean?

But. What if I were to twist the list of 25 to better suit me (typical) in a “networking” sort of way, among writers, say, 25 random thoughts on writing!

Rules: Write twenty-five random truths about your writing or about yourself as a writer. At the end, send it twenty-five writers on Facebook, or MySpace, or MyFace, whatever your social network is.

1.I personally am great at starting things like this list. Or that screenplay, or that parody of a romance novel, Love’s Tender Loins. Or those Six Easy Pieces - the writing samples I’m hoping to pitch to editors at womens' rags like O, or More – topical burning-issue-pieces for women who can afford to throw money and spend time – pieces with titles like, Lube? (the perimenopausal among you know) or Ready For Your Close-up? (about my annual pelvic, when my doc blithely invited a gaggle of medical students along for a lark) Or, Are you Throwing That Away? Cuz I’ll Eat It If You Are, on the practice of gleaning and other ways to cut your food budget in challenging financial times.

2. Growing up a reader, there were many words I understood but had never heard spoken. This caused later embarrassment when I would inject them into actual conversation, putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable, Thinking I was clever to use words like superfluous, or conundrum.

3. Most writers' pasts seemingly brim with loving memories of some library and how they were inspired there by a kind, grey-bunned librarian, sitting for hours soaking up literature in the atmosphere of old leather and green lamps. Our library was one room in a cement building, so tiny there was no space for a chair or a vagrant to occupy it. The librarian was a righteous bitch and wouldn’t loan me the titles I claimed were for my older sister even when I handed over my phony list, forcing me to steal books I only sometimes returned.

4. I think it doesn’t matter what you write as long as you are writing. For years before he was known and respected, Larry Brown wrote terrible stories about men mauled by bears, or lost while fishing. Writers become writers by writing, just as readers become readers by reading – it doesn’t matter if it’s harlequin romance, or grisly crime. The main thing is to jump-start the imagination, whether it’s with phrases like turgid protuberance or terms such as vivisection or flense. Words, people. Words!

5. I don't understand why writing is regarded as such noble endeavor since it seems such a self-indulgent one. As if the act of putting thoughts to paper makes them weigh more? As if what a writer has to say is so great?

6. Why does literary criticism exist and who came up with the concept? I seriously want to know, because I think it’s the dumbest ever endeavor. To those of you who write literary criticism I say, The Writer in Question is just a writer, and their Work is just writing for fuck's sake, so who are we to second guess motives or intent? Is the answer similar to the adage about teaching? You know, the old "Those who can’t, teach" – is lit-crit really just a way for "Those who can’t write books to write books about writing books they can’t write?"

7. Writing feels like a tiny clubhouse for one with a big sign outside that says Keep Out. It’s lonely, but when writers say the writing itself is hard, or talk about writers block, then I don’t understand why they bother, because wouldn't it be so much easier to get a real job and suffer in a different way, with health benefits?

8. “It” takes more perseverance than talent. When I sit at my keyboard and watch the vermin squirrels outside my office literally climbing up the GLASS to get at my squirrel-proof bird feeder, I'm impressed, incensed, and motivated. Yes I can!

9. I've written four books but still have no idea how they got written. It seems I just juggle and juggle and juggle words and ideas until at some point it all falls to land as a pile of book. It amazes me I can finish writing one, never entirely sure how it happens.

10. Things and people and life suck up way too much writing time. I don’t really wish anyone harm, but does Armageddon sound so terrible? Sure, everyone I know will be dead, my house will be a box of ash, but my Google calendar will be completely clear and viola, I'll have all the time in the world to write!

11. I think it would be a good practice to pause when I get news of a fellow writer receiving the grant or residency I applied for and so much more richly deserved than they did. I would strive to feel brotherly, writerly love for them. I would offer warm congratulations when I next saw them. Would I go to or B& and write nasty reader reviews of their undeserving work? Probably.

12. Up to now, writing life has been very kind to me, but if I die without one of my stories making it to film, even a shitty, made-for-TV movie - I'll have been totally gypped.

13. This is true: Frank McCourt told me to my face that the title of my novel These Granite Islands was terrible. “It’s a dirge of a title. Awful,” said he, who came up with that festival, Angela’s Ashes.

14. Writers, rise up and demand your rights to have input regarding the jacket designs of your books. It wasn't always like this, but we (pussies!) have slowly caved on this issue, when we should actually eating the young of publishers who bar us from this critical piece. Do I sound bitter? Go to Amazon and check out the hardcover version of The Ice Chorus (Little, Brown & Co) it only looks like the biography of a circus performer, but it is actually a novel.

15. What writers endure: Inevitable dreaded questions from audiences during q&a after readings: "Do you write with a computer?" "Where do you get your ideas?" which only makes me want to shout back, "Where did you get the idea to wear those slacks with that blouse?" Some aren’t questions at all. "Yaw, hey I have a really great story that would make a great book" Jesus wept.

16. It’s a stretch to think of 25 writers to send this to, frankly this is where Facebook comes in handy, when you can weasel your way onto the lists of writers who wouldn’t know you if you left your ass-print on their keyboards. Like Rick Moody. Rick, are you reading this?

17. I tolerate nearly everyone, but I love my readers. I didn’t consider their existence until they started writing to me. Detractors tend to not bother, so the mail is usually filled with compliments, and reminders that there are people out there actually reading this stuff. Such responses have prompted me to start writing to writers, knowing how encouraging it is to hear any scrap of praise.

18. I'm too self-conscious to dress the way I would if I was alone - all capes and drapes and eccentric writer garb à la Edna O’Brien. But of course haven't achieved her stature yet – maybe after writing more books, or by my 70th Birthday, whichever comes first. By my calculation, I'm about twenty titles away from a turban.

19. God, am I only to 19? I’ll degenerate to listing favorite books soon. Is now good? The Book Of The Eskimo by Peter Fruelich is the best, most honest and insightful account of a white man injecting himself into a culture that was just fine without him thank you very much. This is a brutal and fascinating story. Take a hiatus from political correctness, grab a bucket for the nauseating bits and just read it.

20. Being a writer is neither glamorous nor lucrative, only interesting. In 2001 I spent several days in Milan on a bonafide press junket – the kind where you have a dozen interviews each day with an interpreter, and sit for professionally lit photo shoots, all in a lovely hotel. A week later I was back home, sweating and buns-up kneeling into my open refrigerator, scraping liquid silage out of the crisper because while I was gone my electricity had been turned off for non payment.

21. I find readings, er - Listening Parties - often hard to sit through because rarely does the quality of the work and the performance line up. I’ve heard steaming piles of poem sound magnificent because the elocutionator was trained in theatre, and I’ve heard wonderful prose degenerated to garp by writers who sound as if they are harboring goldfishes in their mouths (Sorry, Michael Ondaatje). I have wanted to kill even good poets because:

22. They. READ. Like. Thisssss.

23. Not everybody can give good read. The very best writers I know are social retards who can barely pair up socks and can't locate their own gas tanks. Some of the worst writers I know are so witty, engaging, kind and silky I just want to buy them tags and keep them.

24. Laying in bed tonight I'll come up with what I think are profound revelations and ideas, but will not write them down because I never do, and in this way half of my best writing is lost, and that’s just the way the it is for a writer as lazy as me.

25. I (still) harbor an irrational certainty that one day massive good fortune will fall in my lap with the sort of force that dropped the house on the witch.

Sarah Stonich is the author of These Granite Islands, Her short fiction appears in journals and magazines all over the place. Her novel The Ice Chorus will be released in paperback by Alma in March. To read from her new collection, Vacationland visit

Thursday, 12 February 2009

“Politicians are mortal, political ideas are mortal, poetry is mortal – good manners are immortal.” (Stefan Themerson)

I am shattered. I feel like Cambronne after the battle of Waterloo.

I actually was in the Waterloo area this morning, and a fine morning it was: the sun was shining, no clouds in the sky. Then I went to see a couple of publishers in central London, then I met an editor, a copyright lawyer, an author, an agent, a film producer, a bookseller and finally a rep. I think I have encompassed in one day the known universe of publishing. My field day was punctuated by an interminable series of coffees and glasses of wine – with the result that I am now a tipsy nervous wreck.

“You look a bit blue today,” said the author.

“Aren’t we a little perky today!” quoth the agent.

It wasn’t a day of hard business deals, but one of relentless gossip. I think the hot air puffed out by the publishing world is only second to that generated by Westminster, and a serious contribution, together with cows’ flatulence, to global warming. But I have learnt more during this one day of gossip than in one year of reading newspaper and magazine reports. Keeping your ear to the ground can be a life-saver in publishing.

But what is happening in England? OK, there is “the biggest slump since the War”, as the Telegraph proudly announced this morning. Still, how come the British are losing their traditional sang-froid? I see people shouting to each other in the streets, and witness Neapolitan-style road-rage accidents in the heart of Richmond. Every other day, a well-respected publisher lands his vocal resignation, and the comments in the Bookseller online are getting testier and testier. Is the civilized world as we knew it falling apart?

'Tis never too late to be wholly wrecked – as Byron said – and people should learn to come down the chute with the same aplomb with which they climbed up the ladder during the years of Plenty.

The next few months are going to be very interesting. I will be peeling my eyes open in anticipation.


Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Life Story Project

My friend Adam Robinson was curating an art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do at an art festival and we made some jokes about that. But then I told Adam that I could write people’s life stories for them and he got this look on his face like he does when there's a good idea near him. Then I remembered this bunch of postcards that I had just gotten in the mail. That's how the project started: Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

I thought it would be fun and funny and that I would write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first postcard I wrote was for Bart O’Reilly, a painter, who quit art school in Dublin to work as an ice cream man in Ocean City, which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people and wrote each person’s life story on the back of the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in. I was completely exhausted by the end. My mind was racing with the details of people’s lives and the hope that I had done their various stories justice in the space of a postcard. I was astounded by what people told me, the secrets and the difficulties, the pain and wonder and hope that they revealed. People told me about being in jail, about not being able to have children (and only wanting children because of the infertility), about having too many boyfriends, about computer hacking, about keeping it a secret that they like doing homework, about meeting their future wife while working abroad selling ice cream at a seaside boardwalk, about moving to a city because they liked a particular diner, about leaving their birth country when they were 5 years old and continuing to try to escape wherever they lived, about saying their favorite color is green even though it isn’t, and about feeling responsible for their adopted brother being institutionalized.

Since then, I spent two days writing life stories at the Honfest in Baltimore and have continued to interview people over the telephone and through email. The one thing that I have learned so far: Everybody is amazing.

Here's one of my favorites:

#59 We're Lucky There's Blake Butler
Blake Butler’s two older brothers were miscarriages. Blake was almost a miscarriage too. He was blue and not breathing. He scored 1 out of 10 on the Apgar scale, which is almost not alive, and lived under the lights in the ICU for days. When he went home, he was his mother’s miracle. Understandably, she was overprotective with Blake when he was an infant, but that turned into permissiveness as he grew older, which gave him a sense of freedom that continues to inform his writing today. By 4 years old, Blake was performing considered monologues, crazy dances, music videos, and both sides of talk shows. It’s all on video (his mother will show you, if you want). Despite these performances, Blake was a fat child by the 4th grade. He liked comic books and video games. By 10th grade, he weighed 250 pounds and felt disregarded. His bedroom walls were covered with pictures of women that he tore out of magazines at the grocery store. He started playing bass in a band and started to feel better. By 11th grade, he weighed 170 pounds and people were nicer to him. He lost all the weight for a girl named Jen. He thought his weight was the only thing keeping her from him. It wasn’t, but Blake stopped being shy and started talking to girls. He played in lots of different rock bands—15, eventually. The first time Blake was on stage, under the lights, it reminded him of when he was in the ICU. Eventually, writing replaced music, though Blake brought the rhythm of the bass with him to the page. Blake still thinks of himself as the fat kid and he writes to find out what is inside him. This is one explanation for his tremendous written output. Another explanation is his insomnia, which allows him more conscious hours than most people are allowed. Blake is never fully awake or fully asleep, though, and the normal often becomes strange. But Blake keeps giving us everything that is inside him. It’s not pounds, but it’s a different kind of weight.

There are dozens more at Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Gaza: The Old Man and the Key

It was in the spring of 1978, some friends had bought me a plane ticket from Paris to Tel Aviv. Israel was at that time at the summit of its powers, was still in full control over the Sinai peninsula. Crushed, the PLO was silent: there was no more "Palestinian question".

I did not want to leave this country without having made, on foot, the same journey as Jesus did in his days: from Jericho to Jerusalem.

I leave the greenery of Jericho behind, and enter the desert. A sinuous path, under the fiery sun. Then steep, stark slopes, I make my way along the hillsides.

No one. Sometimes a strange noise, echoing off the steep walls.

Suddenly, I arrive at the large road coming from Jerusalem. In the middle of nowhere, a bus stop. I approach: I’ve arrived at a hamlet called “the Good Samaritan”, a bus will stop by. To get on, it would mean to escape from the heat, the fatigue. A moment of hesitation, the remembrance of Jesus who did not have a bus at his disposal: I cross the road and sink into the sand once more. Jerusalem is over there, behind the waves of heat.

* * *

The desert.

Thirsty, very thirsty.

The sun: it must be three or four p.m., how can it be so scorching?

Blinding light. Suddenly, a voice calling me: yes, it is definitely me they’re after. In the quivering air, a concrete cube sitting in the desert, a sort of veranda, a man sporting a keffiyeh who is gesturing towards me with great movements of his arm.

I approach: he is very old, speaks to me in Arabic, points towards the smouldering sky, the sand, the direction of Jerusalem. What does he want from me?

A younger man appears behind him, and shouts to me in English: “Come, sir, come here!”

I have arrived at the foot of the concrete cube. The young man smiles, he is dressed European style.

“Sir,” he tells me with his bad English, “my father see you walking in desert. You come from Jericho, yes, going to Jerusalem? You cannot continue without drink, there is still ten kilometres. My father wants you come have tea. Necessary for you, you understand?”

The old man nods, takes my hand, seats me in the shade. With a trembling arm, he squirts a stream of foaming tea into a chipped glass. Hands it to me with a smile that uncovers his solitary teeth:

Bismillah, schouf, bech'er!

Yes, it’s good, deliciously sweet, fragrant. I come back to life: without this dose of water and sugar, I do not know in what state I would have arrived at the end of this long hike.

The old man turns his head, talks to his son, who struggles to translate:

“Our family live Palestine always, as long as memory of my father goes back, maybe back to Crusades. My father know: in this desert, without water, you in danger.”

I do not say anything. I absorb the tea, and also the eyes, the wrinkled face of the old man. A great sense of humanity, made up of sadness and compassion. He watches me drink, then turns towards his son and tells him a few words. The son shakes his head – no, no! – then ends up giving in, walks into the cube, comes back out instantly, his fist clenching an object.

“My father say that your eyes know how to listen. He wants to show you something, if you please: you must go up there.”

We climb a hill covered with sand and rocks. Having reached the summit, a vast panorama: way over there, Jerusalem and the dome of the mosque which glints under the sun.

In these days, the north-eastern suburbs of Jerusalem were not built-up. The young man extends his free hand, shows me some low buildings in the middle of the olive trees, on the edge of the city:

“You see? In this village, our house. Where my father was born, and his grandfather before him. And this, our olive trees. Planted by grandfather of my grandfather. We lived well, there was an oil press… and then, Tsahal came in 1948. They expelled us. Took our house, our plantation. Now the Jews make oil flow from our press, with the fruits of our trees. And us, we have nothing left. Just this, here…”

I turn around: down below the hill, the concrete cube, stuck right in the middle of the desert, is the epitome of desolation and solitary destitution. Not a single tree, nothing.


The young man opens his clenched fist. In the hollow of his palm, a rusty key:

“And that, that is key of our house. Every day since thirty years, every day, my father goes up here. He sees his house from distance, and he kisses his key, the key of his house, house of his ancestors. And then he goes down, sits on the veranda, stares at desert. Tears flow down his old cheeks. And me…”

He has clenched his fist over the key again:

“I am called 'Amin. In Arab as in Hebrew, this mean ‘loyalty’. Me… I think of our house, of the sound of the wind in olive trees in evening. My first son will also be called ‘Amin. And every day, like me, every day he will come here to watch our house. When my father is dead, I will give him the key. And he will give it to his son. For this day, when we come home. Home…”

I did not say anything. In 'Amin’s eyes, there is a peculiar glint, fiery and dramatic.

* * *

The next day was the eve of my departure for France. In Jerusalem, I took a bus from Rehovot. Going to Gaza.

Back then, it was possible to enter the territory just by showing a passport. Of course no tourist, ever, went there. But since my encounter with 'Amin and his old father, since the tea, since the eyes of 'Amin, I was no longer a tourist.

In Gaza I travelled towards a camp on the seaside, where the expelled Palestinians were concentrated. Immediately I was surrounded by a crowd of keffiyehs. No one was talking. But the dozens of pairs of eyes which were staring at me in silence bore the same reflection as 'Amin’s.

And then a Tsahal jeep drove by, braked in a cloud of dust. I was grabbed, thrown onto the hood of the jeep:

“What are you doing here? It’s forbidden, very dangerous for you!”

The Israeli soldiers drove me back to the bus. They only left when it drove off to Jerusalem, with me in it.

* * *

Ever since, I think of the old man’s key, of the house he has not seen again before he dies. Of loyal 'Amin, of his son who must be fully grown by now. And who must, in his turn, climb up the arid hill every day to observe, from afar, his house and his olive trees.

A rusty key in a clenched fist.

I see the glint in the eyes of all the 'Amins of Gaza.

And I know it will never be extinguished.

Michel Benoît, January 2009

Michel Benoît is the author of The Thirteenth Apostle and Prisoner of God. His blog can be found at:

Monday, 9 February 2009

My favourite classic - Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a perfect fusion of symbolist aesthetics, first-person confessional narrative, political critique, high Greek tragedy and, most devastating of all, twentieth-century irony. On a yawl moored outside London, the old sea-hand Marlow tells his story of a journey to the African interior in search of wayward ivory station-master and general European visionary Kurtz. As civilization’s trappings peel away, signs, language and meaning itself start drifting and crumbling just like the tin-pot steamer on which Marlow chugs towards his assignation.

Mangroves writhe in impotent despair; warships fire cannons at imaginary enemies; the earth seems unearthly; giant trees loom above the river like primordial kings. Kurtz himself, it turns out, has let the jungle whisper to him things about himself – about us – that we’re not meant to know. They echo loudly within him, because he’s “hollow at the core”. He dies, uttering the immortal lines “The horror! The horror!” – and Marlow, having glimpsed the darkness to which Kurtz has succumbed, is faced with a choice: reveal to Kurtz’s fiancée and, by extension, Europe, the truth about its heart, or smooth the darkness over with a lie…

Tom McCarthy

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Marcel Aymé

Marcel Aymé, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world these days, is also to some extent not appreciated at his just value in France, where – although some of his short stories and children’s writing are considered undisputed classics – the rest of his considerable body of fiction and drama is now essentially ignored. He was born in rural Burgundy in 1902, spending his childhood there before moving to Paris to become a journalist. His first novel Brûlebois was published in 1927 to critical acclaim, and his follow-up, La Table aux crevés, won the prestigious Prix Renaudot two years later, but it was with 1933’s La Jument verte that his fame became widespread.

Aymé wrote and published regularly until his death in 1967, focusing mostly on his novels and short stories at first – his farmyard tales Les Contes du chat perché (1934–46) have now become a staple in French curricula – but shifting more towards plays from the late 1940s onwards. All of his writings are characterized by their irony, humour and realism, and are concerned with unearthing and examining – both in the context of rural France and bustling Paris – the workings of society and ordinary people’s darker motives. His fiction became increasingly satirical and political – such as the 1948 novel Uranus, which criticizes the Left’s abuse of its post-Liberation power and was superbly adapted to the screen by Claude Berri, featuring a memorable performance by Gérard Depardieu as an alcoholic barkeeper who develops a passion for Racine.

Although Aymé’s reputation was stained by his decision to continue publishing his works during the Occupation and his friendship with politically dubious writers such as Brasillach, he staunchly refused to join any party and poured scorn on the Left and Right alike. Another recurring feature in his works is the Kafkaesque incursion of the supernatural into a realist setting. A famous example of this is his short story Le Passe-muraille, in which a modest and downtrodden civil servant suddenly discovers that he has the ability to walk through walls, and uses this new-found power to avenge the humiliations inflicted on him throughout his life.

Aymé’s 1941 novel La Belle Image (which has recently been published for the first time in English, as Beautiful Image, by Pushkin Press) uses a similar technique: its protagonist, a successful married businessman, suddenly finds out that his appearance has been transformed into that of darkly handsome stranger. This leads him to observe his friends and family as an outsider and, among other things, to seduce his own wife – revelatory experiences which lead him to question his former life of comfort and elevated social standing.


Saturday, 7 February 2009

Saturday musings

Am I the only person who enjoys reading the Dear Ceefax letters on p. 145? In it you will find, time and again, the most priceless gems. Here’s one from today:

“I regularly find myself in large halls full of elderly people. Apart from a few receding pates, virtually all the men over 60 have full heads of hair.

So why is it that so many (mainly British) chaps between the ages of 20 and 50 are now either completely or almost bald?

A crowd of young men now resembles a tray of eggs. Is it something in the water?”

I am going to miss these pages very much when there’s the big switch to digital. It’s a shame, as this is one of the few reasons I am still paying my TV licence.

* * *

Thanks to Roger Clarke for his unexpected present. After the Dante event at the Calder Bookshop, he came up to me and gave me some wonderful Latin texts. I used to be well versed in that language, but I am now a bit rusty through lack of practice. The addition of Tibullus’s and Catullus’s poems (many of which I used to know by heart in my student’s days) to my library is especially welcome. And a comprehensive Latin grammar will help me bring my Latin up to scratch again.

* * *

From my Ars Poetastrica, or Art of Bad Poetry (ll. 639-642) – a long poem I wrote between 1997 and 1999:

E ora c’è anche l’Internet, che dona
un pulpito virtuale a ogni persona,
offrendo a cani e porci l’occasione
di inquinarci con altra informazione.

And now there is the Internet: this is
a pulpit for what anybody says
which gives pig ignorants their best occasion
to foul our wells with extra information.

Quite ironic I should reproduce these four lines, ten years later, on a blog diary.


Friday, 6 February 2009

Homo technologicus

Have you ever tried digging into old folders on your computer? I don’t keep much paper around me, but I find that I discard very little of my electronic productions. The result is that, when I am in the mood, I can spend hours reading old letters, projects, short stories, interviews, translations, poems, fragments, blurbs, proposals, reports, ideas and other intellectual residua – not just mine, but also from other people. It’s fascinating, but also scary.

Tonight, I came across a letter I wrote to Warwick Collins in late 2004, after reading the second draft of a novel he had just written, The Sonnets. Four people had read the book: three liked it (including me) and one didn’t. I might have published the book, but then the following year I left Hesperus and lost touch with Warwick. I was glad when I heard that Scott Pack at the Friday Project had picked up his work. And I am delighted to see that The Sonnets has finally been published, and that a paperback is coming out in May this year. Good luck to both author and publisher.

I also stumbled into a translation of a comic-strip version of Dante’s Inferno I did with my colleague Mark Balfour when I worked at Grant and Cutler, the foreign-language bookseller. That was over ten years ago. Wooosh. I remember we even gave a paper up in York about this translation – and I duly found copy of it. I am still in touch with the Italian illustrator, Marcello Toninelli (who also scripted many stories of Zagor, one of the superhero comics I collected as a child). Who knows, I might even publish this comics version of the Inferno one day.

Now back to my cyber-crawl.


Thursday, 5 February 2009

Ernst Weiss

A close friend of Kafka, Ernst Weiss, who was born in the Czech town of Brno (then in the Austro-Hungarian empire), produced a considerable wealth of novels and stories in German which are generally considered to be milestones in the genres of Expressionism and New Objectivity. However, his œuvre is nowadays not given the recognition it undoubtedly deserves, especially in the English-speaking world.

He came from a prosperous Jewish family which was also very open to all things artistic, and studied medicine in Prague and Vienna, becoming a surgeon in 1908. His profession would have a significant impact on his fiction, which not only featured many doctors among its characters and questions of science and ethics among its recurring themes, but was also keenly analytical in its narrative approach, displaying a marked interest in the basic drives that motivate human endeavour (he was strongly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis). In some respects one could draw parallels with other early twentieth-century writers who came from the medical profession, such as Chekhov, Schnitzler, Bulgakov and Céline. His first novel, Die Galeere, published in 1913, centres around a morphine-abusing Austrian scientist whose research into x-rays results in a repulsive tumour on his hand (which was very scientifically prescient for its time), an affliction which mirrors his moral shortcomings in his relationships towards his family and his mistress.

During the First World War, Weiss worked as a doctor on the front, receiving a golden cross for bravery. He would later combine medicine, journalism and fiction-writing, and lived mostly in Prague and Berlin, although his job as a doctor took him as far as Japan and India. He published over twenty books, garnering widespread acclaim which culminated in the Adalbert Stifter Prize and the Silver Medal for Prose Fiction at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. Due to the rise of Nazism, Weiss went into exile in Paris in 1934, and tragically took his own life when German troops marched into the city in 1940. According to legend, a suitcase of unpublished manuscripts vanished after his death. Nazism haunted his later works, a logical extension of his continued literary interest in crime and the corruption of society in general. His final and arguably most famous novel, Ich: Der Augenzeuge [The Eyewitness], written in 1938 but first published posthumously in 1968, deals with a doctor who, racked with guilt because he has cured Adolf Hitler of temporary blindness, flees Nazi Germany for Paris.

There are unfortunately very few English translations of Ernst Weiss’s writings still in print, but Pushkin Press has begun to restore his legacy, publishing a translation of Jarmila, a rediscovered manuscript which Kafka described as Weiss's finest work. Franziska, a tale of music, venereal disease and a love triangle, set in an evocatively rendered Prague, was published by Pushkin last year to great critical acclaim.