April 28, 2011
In the first 18 months of this blog, I wrote about Brian Moore’s first eight novels. Somewhere along the way this process became the Mooreathon, where I determined to read all of my fellow Belfast man’s novels and write about them here. You can read the earlier posts by clicking this link. Since the last, The Revolution Script, I’ve allowed two and a half years to pass, perhaps because that one was the weakest of his novels, or perhaps because I knew the next book in publication order was one I’ve already read twice and I was in no hurry to get to it. Anyway, here we are at last, back on track.
Catholics (1972) is Moore’s shortest novel – at 95 pages, barely a novella – and as much a departure for him as The Revolution Script was. In that book, he moved from studies of an individual at a time of crisis to a documentary ‘non-fiction novel’; here, he dabbles in a parallel universe. OK, that may be going too far: but technically Catholics should count as speculative fiction in the same way as, say, Never Let Me Go. Like Ishiguro, Moore has created a version of our own world as a springboard for exploration of human drama.
This is a world where the Catholic church has enacted not just Vatican II but also Vaticans III and IV. The latter has brought in significant changes to the worship and practice of the religion, including the banning of private confession (it was this that made me, a religious ignoramus, recognise that it was a parallel world) and the ending of the traditional Latin mass. There is a holdout, however: Muck Abbey, on an island off the coast of county Kerry in southwestern Ireland, continues to celebrate its mass as it used to be. As a result, the abbey has featured on a BBC TV programme and now attracts so many tourists that it has to perform special masses outdoors on the mainland to accommodate the “pilgrims”.
Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altarboys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.
Needless to say, this heresy attracts the attention of Rome. A young American priest, Father Kinsella, is sent to Muck (“The fog lifted. The island was there”) to ensure that the liturgical changes are adhered to. This is initially an opportunity for Moore – a northern Irish Catholic who was not so much lapsed as crashed – to explore the potential conflicts in making modernising alterations to the worship of God’s unchanging word. I found it hard not sympathise with the monk, Father Manus, who first confronts the ecumenical priest with the abbey’s way of thinking.
Look, we did nothing to start all this, we went on saying the Mass the way it was always said, the way we had been brought up to say it. The Mass! The Mass in Latin, the priest with his back turned to the congregation because both he and the congregation faced the altar where God was. Offering up the daily sacrifice of the Mass to God. [...] And the Mass was said in Latin because Latin was the language of the Church and the Church was one and universal and a Catholic could go into any church in the world, here or in Timbuktu, or in China, and hear the same Mass, the only Mass there was, the Latin Mass. And if the Mass was in Latin and people did not speak Latin, that was part of the mystery of it, for the Mass was not talking to your neighbour, it was talking to God.
The monks deplore the “playacting and nonsense” the Church has introduced in order to make it more appealing to today’s congregations. Moore deals with the issues as efficiently as we might expect (or rather more efficiently, given the skimpy page count), but his forte, as always, is the exploration of personalities. If the abbot of Muck is a problem for the young American priest sent by the Vatican, then the abbot has problems of his own. “It takes a special vocation to live in a place like this. Not many have it. I do not have it myself, I sometimes think.” “But you have lived on this island for most of your adult life?” “That does not mean I like it.” Here, spiritual aims clash with selfish – with human – interests, and the abbot measures himself against his ability to withstand the latter. Father Kinsella, on the other hand, is torn between the clearly devout and sincere practices of the monks at the abbey, and desire to curry favour with his Father General: are his aims godly, or ambitious and ingratiating?
The questions raised by Moore on a liturgical level are no more searching or revealing than those which will have occurred to any observer in the modern age – such as the recent ‘clarification’ by the Church on the theory of Limbo for Infants. “How can something be a miracle one day and not a miracle the next day?” one monk asks Father Kinsella, when advised that the Mass is to be regarded no longer as a miracle, but as a “pious ritual”. The whole book seems, on my third reading, to be somewhat thin fare by the standard of Moore’s other works – perhaps inevitably, given the page count. Nonetheless it has a purity and single-minded vision which makes it more memorable than the likes of Fergus. And his flirtation with speculative fiction, if we can call it that, would give him the confidence for more otherworldly experiments in later novels such as The Great Victorian Collection (which is next in the Mooreathon) and Cold Heaven. Catholics feels like a trying-out and a working-out, but it remains worth reading on its own merits too.
April 21, 2011
When I was in my teens, a schoolfriend lent me a copy of The Henry Root Letters, which made me laugh so much that I went out and bought (or ordered, in those old offline days) a copy of my own. Since then, hardly a year goes by without another set of hoax letters cluttering the 3-for-2 tables; and Henry Root himself was “a straight rip-off” of Don Novello’s Lazlo Toth letters. However Root’s wit, language and phrasing gave his letters a Wodehousian poetry, as well as a longevity that makes them still seem fresh while their addressees (Mary Kenny, Shirley Conran, Margaret Thatcher – who they?) are all but forgotten. “Avarice is patriotic! Here’s a pound. Your man on the doorstep, Henry Root.”
When they were first published in 1979 and 1980, the Henry Root letters (“A disgrace to publishing” – London Review of Books) were big news, but by the time I read them, a handful of years later, I had no idea who the author was (I’m pretty sure they weren’t credited on the copyright page). When I found out, I made sure to keep an eye on the other works of William Donaldson. More than twenty years later, I’ve never quite given up on him, and to this day his magnum opus – 2002′s encyclopaedia of Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics – remains a regular dipper on my bedside table. But only now have I bothered to read Terence Blacker’s biography of the man.
The inevitable observation about Donaldson’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (initially published as Brewer’s, later Willie Donaldson’s; I prefer the mock-formality of the former) is that he might have appeared in it if he hadn’t written it himself. He was born into money and educated privately, but drawn to the seedy and the disreputable, and was a user of crack cocaine for most of the last twenty years of his life. His autobiography was called From Winchester to This. His money – though he was bankrupted three times in his life – enabled him to spend just one day of his seventy years as an employee. Otherwise he lived by his writing or, in the early days, as a theatrical producer, most famously with Beyond the Fringe, and he gave Michael Palin and Terry Jones their first paid writing jobs. (He also published Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in his short-lived university literary review, Gemini.)
Donaldson got to know many people, but he was an unreliable friend. Blacker himself, as a sometime writing partner, experienced this, or as Donaldson put it: “it would be a most interesting challenge to betray a very close friend for a joke.” Blacker’s take is fairly generous, all things considered, diagnosing simply “a profound allergy to responsibility.” That is one way of putting it of a father who left his wife and two-year-old son and said: “I could do without children, I must admit – particularly my own. I don’t find it sad, which is odd.” Others are less forgiving than Blacker. “He could be quite savage and a bully,” says a schoolfriend. He had “a profound instinct to corrupt and destroy,” says the screenwriter to the stars, Peter Morgan. Or Jonathan Miller, who felt ripped off by Donaldson over Beyond the Fringe: “He was a sort of idiotic, fly-by-night flâneur who had some sort of pleasure at his own bad behaviour and thought it was all rather charming and forgiveable.”
Donaldson was not much more forgiving of himself. His appetite for sex, drugs and other distractions was forged early. “I made this disastrous discovery at the age of twenty-one: we can’t organise happiness but we can organise unboredom. It was downhill all the way since then.” His sister, astutely, observed that it was less the things he wanted than the circumstances in which he wanted them that were important to him: “You cannot value anything unless you are within a hair’s breadth of losing it.” Blacker speaks of Donaldson’s “perennial agonising over the right sort of life to lead” but there isn’t much evidence of agonising here. He did what he wanted and fled when he stopped wanting it. He became obsessively devoted to a string of women, often prostitutes, and was depressed and vindictive when they left him. Perhaps what Blacker is referring to is that Donaldson, a student of FR Leavis at Cambridge, “respected and longed for seriousness but never quite had the confidence to be serious.” This may have led to his lifelong antipathy for Richard Ingrams and Private Eye (who hated him in turn): Donaldson “disliked the pseud joke, sensing that the mocking of those deemed to have ideas above their station was a bullying and peculiarly English form of anti-intellectualism.”
Donaldson’s lack of self-confidence as a ‘serious’ writer was one of the reasons why he was “more at ease among thieves and prostitutes than among literary people – one doesn’t have to try so hard.” But it also gave us great comic riches. After making me want to read the books again (or buy the ones I didn’t have), the greatest effect of this biography was to render me amazed that such a louche, unreliable and frequently addled character could have produced such tight, witty writing. Nonetheless, Donaldson’s desire to maximise his returns (money was “a means to amusement rather than profit”) did make him tap the same vein rather often. Toward the end of his life, he said of the ‘toilet books’ he produced with such care, seriousness and attention to detail, “when I’m invited to write a book these days, I always go to my shelves to check that I haven’t already written it.”
The material here is impossible to make dull, though Blacker occasionally slips. A sentence like “although he never talked in any detail about his years as a producer in the early sixties, they must have been an exciting time” is unworthy of him or his subject. Similarly, when Blacker moves into the foreground, he does not always come across well, as in his dismissal of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff as a toilet book to be ranked alongside forgotten fillers like How to be a Wally, when Liff (whose title he gets wrong) is still in print almost thirty years later.
The idea of much of Donaldson’s work, whether the Root letters, the posthumous Dictionary of National Celebrity or his World of Knowledge (inspired by Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas), was that of “inauthenticity – people being unable to distinguish between themselves and a socially imposed reality.” Donaldson himself was all too self-aware. Blacker quotes a note he made to himself near the end of his life (he was found dead in his flat, his computer still logged on to a lesbian porn site): “The present. Never could abide it. The future yes. The past, carefully edited. Not the good bits, not the loss of everything.” This biography, with its perfectly iambic title, shows Donaldson as a man full of doubt and gifted enough to know his limitations; which I suppose is what finally confirms him as a real writer.
April 14, 2011
When I became a dad two years ago, in my usual way of interpreting existence through literature, I had the urge to read books about fatherhood. I had already done Philip Roth’s superb Patrimony, and stocked up on titles such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and this, John Burnside’s first memoir (he has since published a sequel, Waking Up in Toytown). Burnside has been a busy literary practitioner anyway, with eleven collections of poetry and half a dozen novels in just over 20 years. Although I enjoyed his debut novel The Dumb House (“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins,” it brashly begins), I found his next The Mercy Boys to be grim and depressing without providing much balancing literary thrill, and his third The Locust Room to be mostly dull (an achievement for a book about the Cambridge Rapist). For that reason I stopped reading him, until the clamour of praise for his more recent stuff became too insistent to ignore.
A Lie About My Father (2006) has the cover appearance almost of a misery memoir (an impression not aided by the additional blurb between title and author on my copy: A moving, unforgettable memoir of two lost men: a father and his child). What saves it is that title: odd, rhythmic – a marker of the author as a poet – perhaps like a hardened version of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. Misery memoirs, by contrast, have a sometimes comical aspect to them. Their lurid titles, like those of TV shows in the age of on-screen guides, must grab and describe immediately. Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes. God’s Lapdancer. Daddy’s Tomato Ketchup. Burnside’s title, by contrast, has multiple meanings. The book begins with him travelling in America and picking up garrulous hitchhiker, Mike, who talks about his father, Martin, and then asks about Burnside’s. Burnside reflects on all he could have said, and for three pages gives us what turns out to be the most sustained depiction in the book of his father’s conduct. “I could have added that, before my father died, I hadn’t seen him in years, but I hadn’t been able to relax, quite, as long as he was still alive.”
Finally, however, and with some misgivings, I abandoned that idea and, as Mike wanted me to do, not just because his head was full of beautiful, simple scripts, but also because he was a certain kind of son, and because Martin was a certain kind of man, I told him a lie about my father.
What Burnside does next is unexpected. Rather than wade through more details of his father’s shortcomings, he softens the reader toward him by explaining his father’s early life. “He really was a nobody: a foundling, a throwaway,” abandoned by his biological mother as a young baby and taken in by – well, that was the problem. Not only did Burnside’s father not know who his ‘real’ parents were, he didn’t even know who had taken care of him at first. He “wasn’t chosen so much as passed on.” He had “no history he could talk about with others. Nobody reminisced with him about the old days.” No wonder then that he turned out as he did, and no wonder that his account of his origins, told in later life, varied depending on the occasion: “all that mattered was that he was somebody’s son.” The reader might think that the least he could do when he had children of his own was not to pass on his own dread, uncertainty and sense of loss. To do so would have required a strength of character that was, perhaps inevitably, beyond him.
Nonetheless, Burnside is kind to his father at this stage. “Nobody I have ever known was there to witness his abandonment, so I can imagine it as I like.” A cold day, “wet and windy, the blanket sodden”? No: “my father wouldn’t have liked that image.” Instead, “what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning.” In this smallest act of kindness, creating an infinitesimally better start in life, Burnside might also be wondering how his father might have changed, and how his family’s life been improved, with such seemingly unimportant alterations to its beginning. And if we needed any reminder that man hands on misery to man, it is in Burnside’s reflections when he looks at his parents’ wedding photographs (“Did they really not have the least inkling of what was to come?”).
Every time I see a wedding, I wonder what the bride and groom expect from it all, and why none of the others there, the old ones, the long-married, do not step up and warn them about the enterprise.
The reader expecting vivid tales of violence and sexual abuse will (thankfully) be disappointed. Burnside’s father’s speciality was psychological abuse, “persistently eating away at my confidence, questioning my right even to occupy space in his world.” But the nagging had a perverse good intention to it. “What he wanted was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father’s circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself.”
Burnside’s father was a drinker (not to him and his ilk, felt Burnside, a pleasure or a vice, but “an act of self-abnegation”) and a gambler. He was “irrational,” and kept his family under a passive-aggressive control. His petty acts of vindictiveness continue to haunt Burnside’s dreams, forty years on. He was a product too of his time and place, “99 per cent act,” veiling his emotions so thoroughly that he himself no longer knew they were there, and “like most of the other men I encountered, seemed to like nothing at all.” Burnside’s mother was frustrated, thinking of a better life, but loyal and with a Scottish Catholic’s mid-20th century aversion to divorce. Ultimately, Burnside in his teens turned to LSD and other drugs, deciding not to fit in to a society that offered him nothing.
A Lie About My Father is like a closely argued essay, where the narrative moves unnoticeably from one subject to the next. It could be mistaken for one of those books which consists of one long sentence; or one long exhalation. When Burnside is at his most self-critical, we see a second meaning for the book’s title. He spends pages analysing and explaining his father. “I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. I cannot talk about him without talking about myself, just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face.” Of course, Burnside does talk directly about himself too, at greater and greater length as the book goes on (“What a great pleasure it is to be lost“), and some of the scenes, had he known then that he would write a sequel, might have been better off there.
Near the beginning of the book, one of the things Burnside contemplates saying to hitcher Mike is “that I’d come to believe that, when a man becomes a father, he is – or he ought to be – transformed into something other than the man he had been until that moment. Every life is a more or less secret narrative, but when a man becomes a father, the story is lived, not for, but in the constant awareness of another, or others.” The problem for Burnside’s father was a failure to be transformed. “He was only really happy when he was alone.” The raw material with which he had to work was not well suited to happiness, or its propagation in others (“Happiness is hard work”), but he tried anyway, doomed as the effort was. What he created, apart from good raw material for his son’s literary work (and now I know where the depressing milieu of The Mercy Boys came from) was a murky whirlpool of hope, boredom, and fear – you know, all that traditional family stuff.
April 7, 2011
Greg Baxter’s book A Preparation for Death was one of my reading highlights of last year. It’s just been released in what it pleases me to call ‘properback’ format with a dramatic new cover, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Greg Baxter some questions about the book. Thanks to Lee Monks for suggesting some of the questions.
In A Preparation for Death, you say “Traditional autobiography is composed after the experience has passed. I wrote this book in the very panic of the experiences that inspired it.” At the same time the prose is careful and heavily worked. Can you tell us something about the process of writing A Preparation for Death?
The book began without definition or scope. I had no specific plans to write a book, only a furious and happy desire to fix my thoughts into the form of propositions. I sat down whenever I had the time – mostly predawn, sometimes during lunches, or weekends I wasn’t working – and wrote one sentence after the other, which became the particles of essays: studies, as Montaigne said, of my natural, rather than acquired, faculties.
The struggle to find time to write the book is so pervasive that it becomes one subject of the book – and it informs the whole panicked structure. On top of my daytime and nighttime work obligations (journalist by day, teacher by night), I spent a lot of time pursuing a life of epiphanic and violent self-renewal – a kind of renewal that is most certainly not for everybody, and involved behavior that some have dismissed as nihilistic self-destruction fueled by addiction and revenge.
My method involved the embodiment, or acting out, of the natural violence that self-creation necessitates, because nothing less would do. I had no life to bargain with, that is, no life worthy of delineation; I would have to build a world to write about; I would have to create a whole new consciousness out of activity and reflection. And I would send this new consciousness back in time to retrieve and transform the past.
When it became clear to me that these essays were part of something bigger, my immediate assumption was not that they would become a book, but that I would go on writing them forever, in an unending and private phenomenology of self. ‘Satanism’ was the last chapter written under this presumption, for reasons that become obvious in the chapter that follows. After that I knew an end was coming, whether I wanted one or not.
Cioran, one of the central heroes of my book, talks about the lure of disillusion: “There exists, I grant you, a clinical depression, upon which certain remedies occasionally have an effect; but there exists another kind, a melancholy underlying our very outbursts of gaiety and accompanying us everywhere… And there is nothing that can rid of us this lethal omnipresence: the self forever confronting itself.” Who knows himself but the person who forever confronts himself? Who knows what he scorns and despises but the person who first scorns and despises himself? What if this gloominess – the omnipresent gloom of the essayist – were not a sign of decay, depression, or weakness but a sign of intelligence, spirit, and strength?
One thing you find very quickly, simply by observing your surroundings, is that most people consider disillusion a vice and illusion a virtue. Except the community states it thus: vice is disillusion, virtue is hope (where hope equals virtue, i.e., virtue is virtue). Disillusion, or the hunt for and declamation of, is the primordial compulsion for me as a writer.
This compulsion, for me, is built upon learning and influence, not simply a maniacal desire to be free (though that desire is there). I am completely transparent, in the book, about the way learning and reading influence my writing and life. I did not wake up one morning and decide to discard a transparently fictional approach to writing and take up a transparently autobiographical approach (I use the word transparently here to assure everyone that I consider all fiction autobiographical and all autobiography fictional). I spent hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages in order to create for myself a new artistic destiny. I gave up almost everything contemporary. I went as far back in time as I could, in order to reacquaint myself with writing and thinking as a history of method and discourse and truth, rather than limp, entertaining storytelling. I wrestled myself out of the traditions I knew. This was easy, when, after my re-education, I found that the traditions I knew were empty shells being mass-produced by populists, imposters, and idiots: the American short story, the English novel. I suppose I had always suspected it was so; I simply couldn’t prove it to myself.
Lastly there is the process of writing sentences and choosing words, or, as you say, the careful nature of the prose in relation to the panic of compulsion. I came across an interesting quote recently: “One of the chief difficulties of writing consisted in thinking, with the tip of the pen, solely of the word to be written, whilst banishing from one’s mind the reality of what one intends to describe.” When one writes, one learns very early on, if one gives a damn, that the principle agitator in composition is language, that in the most crucial communicative leaps, language steeps the author in metaphor, i.e., we introduce a word the moment our ignorance begins. This agitation is a problem only for the obsolete system-building philosopher, however, since literature – autobiography, essay, theory, fiction, and poetry – is not concerned with reality. A thing that can neither be perceived nor depicted is not worth losing sleep over. I place no realistic demands on the words I choose; I place artistic demands on them. All the great writers I admire have one stylistic attribute in common: for all their voices, and all their truths, there are no superfluous words. Every word is endowed with life and complexity.
Every word, therefore, is evidence of thinking, and if it is not it is just a sound. No, worse – every word is an act of original thought or it is a cliché. You may argue that one will never write a page if he watches words like this. I agree. You have to be like this.
You’ve said that you hope the book “represents the secularisation of the premise that honesty is the highest virtue.” Why does it matter that the book is honest? And why do you think some readers balk at the contents because they cannot get past their distaste for the author/narrator?
Honesty is the highest virtue because it creates the greatest art. It also often creates the least superficially likeable art. In my book I go on at length about my abandonment of art. But what I say about honesty now, in this Q&A, is not a contradiction: my indictment of art begins with an indictment of my own life. From time immemorial, says Nietzsche, we are accustomed to lying, or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.
My indictment of art is also an indictment of those who have an instinctual faith in the purpose of art, and who, by producing art, recreate and maintain our wider faith in a type of virtue that is comfortable and stupid and poisonous to the imagination. When a reader encounters a book that upsets his understanding of his world and of himself, he has two choices. The first is to consider the possibility that his faith has been shaken. The second is to find a way to insert that book, by any means necessary, even by completely misreading every sentence, into the superstructure of that faith, in order to neutralize it – to cripple passion and imagination before passion and imagination can cripple the community.
The standards by which readers judge the literature of human suffering or easy redemption or heroes and anti-heroes or straightforward narratives do not apply to me, or to my book. I find myself totally bewildered in the presence of readers who luxuriate in this kind of debasement – likeable literature. It makes absolutely no demands on them, and obliterates their judgement like a disease that eats the brain. Is this happiness?
I, in my twenties, abandoned my own nature as a writer, or tried to, because it seemed reasonable and praiseworthy to be successful. But I have learned that it is neither reasonable nor praiseworthy to abandon one’s nature, even if it leads you into illiberalism and decreases your popularity.
Thomas Bernhard, in an interview, talks about the quest for perfection, or what inspires an artist to produce art. “If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he’s sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing. And with writing it’s the same thing.” For me, this defines artistic honesty as a personal urge to improve one’s art. The concern that someone might not like what you create, or might not like you, never occurs to you.
Why is the memoir (of the non-famous) such a nascent form at the moment? Is it an interesting way to deal with issues of authorial solipsism or is it simply a good way of throwing off the shackles of literary baggage that you wrestle with in the book?
I consider the straight memoir – the diaristic and largely fabricated narratives of famous or unfamous lives – to be below the grocery list, so far as literature is concerned. You will say, perhaps, ‘But you wrote a memoir’. Not true. To write a memoir, I feel certain, one would have to read a memoir. And before writing A Preparation for Death, I never read a memoir. I read essays. I read one ‘autobiography’: St Augustine’s. I also read – though I have always been drawn to the stuff – philosophy and theory, deranged manifestoes (on more than just writing), etc. I’m interested in writing as thinking, and the essay, and its thinking nature, was the most suited to this process. I also owe a great deal, more than I could ever measure, to my editor, Brendan Barrington, for taking twelve essays and finding a way to create an eleven-chapter book from them.
It was, I think, an unnegotiated decision to refer to A Preparation for Death as a memoir on the jacket of the book, and I was fine with it at the time, or I might have even suggested it because it seemed like the least pretentious thing to call it, though increasingly I’d be just as happy to call it a book, and let the reader decide, or better yet, not decide. Autobiography is a method, not a form, so it does not matter what my book is called; I wrote it the way it had to be written. Since publication, I have learned of a several inaccuracies and factual errors in the book – my mother never shot a bunch of dogs, for instance (the story is much worse). But error is the language of memory, and it makes the book no less true.
I don’t know anything about contemporary memoirs. I suspect – without any evidence to stand behind – that mostly they are like interviews on daytime television, where ‘good’ people who have done ‘bad’ things or ‘wounded’ people who have survived ‘horrors’ offer up their dignity, in the form of a scripted confession, as a sacrifice to the community – a community that requires narratives of passion as sin and dullness as salvation in order to starve its members of hope – in order to become briefly famous while receiving pity or acceptance.
The essayist, born an outsider, never looks for pity or acceptance. He has no need for empty plot convulsions like climax or redemption. Rather than redeem himself, he reiterates his hatred for redemption by declaring, as he strolls off the last page: the war of who I am is not over.
You wrote A Preparation for Death in part because you had to learn to write “without ambition”. Yet the whole process of publication, promotion and sales challenges this ‘purity’. How do you balance the need “not to compromise” with the usual authorial desires for sales, praise, a new contract?
Well, I wonder, is this Q&A a form of publicity? One could say, Of course it is. But if this is supposed to be an act of self-promotion, I suspect I am doing a bad job of it. To me these are fun questions to answer. When the book was first published, I saw the opportunity to talk about it less as a compromise and more an opportunity to continue the process of provocation I imagined it might start. I went out into the world of interviews in the hopes that the things I would say, such as the above, would generate some discussion about the state of literature (this is not why I wrote the book; this is how I would honour the book), and that I might also defend it from those who, by virtue of their inability to see what makes it unique – or unrecognizable according to the rules of standard forms – place it into the category of narrative that most reflected their mood on a certain day.
Nobody who interviewed me, however, seemed to care about literary provocation – perhaps the idea is outdated. (Has Freud’s influence really been so profound? Was it ever going to be less profound?) The journalists wanted to get to know the real me (and by that time the circumstances of my life had changed considerably, so what they actually wanted was the fake me), or ask if I regretted publishing stuff about my unmentionables, or the unmentionables of others.
At a literary festival I was invited to, I read the chapter ‘Satanism’ to a crowd of pleasant book enthusiasts. One asked me afterwards, ‘Is there anything you would not write about?’ ‘Satanism’ is an essay about Milton’s Paradise Lost. Is it scandalous to write about epic poetry? I can’t remember what I said. About an hour later I thought of the answer: I wouldn’t write about anything that didn’t matter. One journalist asked me what self-help book I’d recommend. About six months later the answer came to me: The Antichrist, by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Wittgenstein looms large over A Preparation for Death. But if “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death”, what can you say about the act of writing yourself out, and finally leaving your former self in Vienna? What next? Are you no longer “sick of your own fiction”?
I wanted to get a glimpse of that dead self, a self wandering around Vienna as a ghost, pleased to have committed one act of integrity before dying, happy only for the book’s completion, a completion unassociated with any further accolades, so I imagined it onto the page. The process of self-creation had reached, momentarily, a stopping point, before a new and more drastic one would begin, and to fix that recreated self in a condition of permanence, to abandon his perfection – I mean his perfect failure – seemed right.
I keep writing, and I hope I’m not betraying that ghost in Vienna. My experience in autobiography has changed my writing forever, and terms like fiction and autobiography and criticism and theory and philosophy and essay and story have started to blend, I think, in interesting ways, or perhaps ways that are inevitable. But I am still committed to hatred of the formulaic, because I think the formulaic is inhumane, and adds nothing but cruelty and dishonour to the world. And the scary thing is not that the four-hundred page novel about the most absolutely mundane people in the most predictable situations feeling the most obvious emotions is on the verge of death; the scary thing is that it seems unstoppable, indestructible as a commodity.
Perhaps this is a superfluous question when your book contains so many unregarded literary stars, but can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I finished recently and loved A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš – a novel composed of seven true stories, rendered as art, of neglected historical figures who either damned their own legacies or had their legacies damned for them. I’m also reading, at the moment, Alban Berg, by Theodor Adorno, a critical study and personal reminisence of the great composer. It’s apocryphal Adorno, and that’s probably why I like it so much. Of Berg, Adorno writes: “No music of our time was as humane as his; that distances it from humankind.”
April 4, 2011
Georges Perec is perhaps best known for his novel A Void (La Disparition); under EU regulations, all reviews of that book must be, and include the word, lipogrammatic. However before now, my only experiences of him were Life: A User’s Manual, and The Winter’s Journey, two stories at extremes of length but equally satisfying. Now, Vintage Classics gives us his other fictions; this volume published alongside Things / A Man Asleep, of which one Amazon reader says, “Everyone I know who has read this book has been stricken with near-clinical depression!” (Five stars.)
W or The Memory of Childhood (1975; tr. 1988 by David Bellos) has an immediate problem in its translation: the French rendition of the letter is not ‘double-u’ but ‘double-v’, which carries much more weight, both allegorical and punning (double-vie or double life for example). This necessitates a foreword by the translator, and makes the reader feel less bad about missing other subtleties. Even so, it is clear that Perec is one of those writers with whom the book you have just read seems to be his masterpiece; which drives you off to read the others; and so on.
The double life in W is stated in the title: it is not an alternative title, but one which brings together the two stories that are riffled together like hands of cards. W describes one story: a voyage to the fictional island of W, where the rules of sport hold sway. The Memory of Childhood is the other: a seemingly straightforward memoir by Perec where artefacts and documents help him recreate the past he cannot reach (“I have no childhood memories”). Why, then, is it W or The Memory of Childhood and not W and The Memory of Childhood? Because each story feeds into the other, helps form it but is also formed by it. The merging is complete when in the memoir sections, Perec tells us that “when I was thirteen I made up a story … [It] was called W and it was, in a way, if not the story of my childhood, then at least a story of my childhood.”
It is impossible to write about memory without acknowledging that the gaps are as important as the details. The memoir sections are not just given verisimilitude by the objects and papers Perec refers to, but are wholly created by reliance on them. The results are peppered with self-aware footnotes (“I do not know the source of this memory, which nothing has ever confirmed”). A similar act of establishing foundations can be seen in the W chapters, which open with an outlandish framing device, of a man named Gaspard Winckler going on a quest to find a missing boy whose name he was given. He becomes distracted, however, when he discovers the island of W, and the remaining W chapters describe its sporting life, with the level of detail adding realism just as the bizarre conceit takes it away.
On W, “sport rules”, and emblazoned on the gates of each village is ‘Fortius Altius Citius’, a slight rearrangement of the Olympic motto. Here, “the notion of sin is … fully integrated into a sports morality.” However, far from being an idyll of fairness and meritocracy, W is a place of the greatest horror. The clues begin early on (“quite inexplicably, perhaps for reasons of physique, pole-vaulting is not, or is no longer, contested”) and build. There is no attempt to keep the truth of W a secret from the reader – it is too entwined with Perec’s memory of childhood for that – and yet as the details accumulate, the reader is continually surprised. The fantastic telling is interrupted by blunt bullets of information, as though merged from elsewhere, until eventually the penultimate page of the W narrative makes the skin prickle. On one level, what this describes is simply the tyranny of sport – “the survival of the fittest is the law of this land” – where equality is not just absent but abhorrent. It does not take much of a sympathetic leap to see how this extends not just to one phase of time in one continent, but to all humanity throughout history. Meanwhile, the memoir is particular and specific, but as well as being a family story it is “a history … for me and for all my people.”
W or The Memory of Childhood is not two books in one, but three. There is the diversion of the surface story. There is the weaving of history into it. And there are the deepest truths which are “bound up with the matter of writing and the written matter, with the task of writing as well as the task of remembering.” Remembering is a task because it is painful, not just for the child of European Jews in the 1930s, but for any child of its parents. There are things that we, or others, would prefer to forget. If, per Salter, “the only things that are important in life are the things you remember,” what does that imply for Perec? With W or The Memory of Childhood, he has created extravagant, mundane, inseparable fictions which are bursting with truth.
I write: I write because we lived together, because I was one amongst them, a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.