Saturday, 25 April 2009

‘Creative afflatus’

There are reviews of Hofmann, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl and Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud in the new issue of the Warwick Review.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Writer’s room

Here is a tendril of ivy above my desk, growing in through the tiny gap where the sash window won’t close properly at the top. Nature gets its way. Before long the whole room will be an ivy-gripped ruin. Life’s short, and so in the long run is art.

I volunteered (huh) to be the ‘buddy’ of one of the many Indian writers flown over by the British Council for the London book fair. So many things about India (the book fair too) come wrapped in mind-boggling statistics: twenty-odd official languages, countless others. My buddy runs a languages institute, training teachers and translators and enabling translation between the many languages of India, and has interesting decisions to make. What to do, for example, about the perhaps 5,000 manuscripts in the villages of a remote area whose language is endangered, will before long become extinct? Manuscripts among which it is possible there hides some sublime masterpiece. I suggest that if someone knocks on the door who is keen and who cares and who wants to translate and preserve, you help; but you don’t just throw money at the problem. People die, and so eventually do their works, and even ivy too. Clearly I’m feeling tired and old.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

‘Whoever has two pairs of pants . . .’

Ever since the Hofmann (père et fils) Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl I’ve been looking out for L’s aphorisms, without going quite so far as to order a copy; and then the other day there they were, in the second-hand bookstore in Gloucester Road – not the Penguin Classics translation but the 1969 Cape Editions one, a single copy, with my name figuratively already on it.

The aphorisms are sceptical, funny, beguiling; some appear unfinished, half-formed, so that one sees the mind in the process of thinking; after reading them it becomes even harder to tell where the real Lichtenberg ends and his reincarnation in Gert Hofmann’s novel begins. ‘To become wiser means to become acquainted with the errors to which this instrument with which we perceive and judge can be subject.’ ‘Everyone should study at least enough philosophy and belles lettres to make his sexual experience more delectable.’ ‘Health is infectious.’ Among them are simple observations, jotted down as the phrase occurred to him: ‘It rained so hard that all the pigs got clean and all the people dirty.’ ‘The room was quite empty except for a bit of second-hand sunshine which lay on the floor.’ ‘He loved pepper and zig-zag lines.’

The Cape edition comes with an introduction made up of L’s writings on himself, most of them in the third person. ‘His body is so constituted that even a bad draughtsman working in the dark would be able to draw it better . . . He will for ever revere gaiety and lightheartedness as those qualities of his soul which procured for him the most joyful hours of his life . . . He had names for his two slippers.’

And it has letters too – about a trip to London, about pumpernickel and girls, a sea voyage, a thunderstorm, a house on fire, the good life. This from a letter to a godchild: ‘When you begin to walk, I, of course, allow you to fall down, for a regular boy falls at least three times a day. But just don’t fall on your so-called pate, for that God gave you to write compendia; and not on your nose, for that serves to set spectacles on. Rather you will soon find that Nature equipped you in the middle of your body (NB, towards the rear) with two cushions, which are called buttocks’ – and there follows a mock-instructive analysis of the four principle uses of the buttocks.

The selection includes two letters written to friends in the days following the death of the Stechardess, ‘after living seventeen years and thirty-nine days’, the Little Flower Girl of the Hofmann book, which CBe published in October last year. In L’s words: ‘Whoever has two pairs of pants, sell one and buy this book.’

Saturday, 18 April 2009

On the menu: instant classic

David Wheatley offers here a speedy response to Christopher Reid’s book: ‘I hereby proclaim The Song of Lunch an instant classic.’ The phrase is something of an oxymoron, but I know what he means. You decide.

And in today’s Guardian – I almost spilt my coffee – a double-page spread on August Kleinzahler, a New Jersey/San Francisco poet whose readership here may be small (me, C, H, R, a few others) but is passionate. Is that what a cult is? Any gruffness – look at the photo: hat, cat, and an expression that isn’t a scowl but isn’t far off it either – comes with an undertow of sensitivity to light, angles, distances, and thrilling ways of getting language of different registers (street, literary, technical) to cohabit on the page.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Abroad thoughts from home

The photographs in the previous post do no justice: the point was the space, the wind, the outside-ness (most of cities is indoors) that refuses to be framed. And stepping out to the end of the road at night and seeing one lit window on the opposite side of the valley, beneath the folds of the hills. On a hilltop, overlooking the low ruined walls of an abandoned village, Rocky casually remarked that if I were lost up here in a storm, I’d die. He’d survive. It’s true. The opposite doesn’t hold: in the city, where survival skills are less about self-reliance and more about social interaction, he might not be a happy man but he’d survive here too, because he can read people as well as trees.

The above is much more framable: an old filling station by the side of the road, just south of the border. There’s no diner, but it’s still not a bad location for a re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Next week, the London Book Fair, a depressing business: so many books I’ll never want to read, and everyone dressed to sell. Every so often I’ll remember the hills, and gasp for fresh air.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

‘There’s never snow not on the hills’

I’ve been north, 1,300 miles on the clock, to Edinburgh and then up to see Rocky, whose childhood is recounted in Natural Mechanical. The above were taken in the Corrieyairach Pass, hard by Rocky’s place, between Laggan and Fort Augustus. It’ll take me some days to get my urban bearings back.

Friday, 3 April 2009


The two books I mumbled about below, Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch and Jack Robinson’s Recessional, are back from the printer and are now on sale from the website. Here they are, along with February’s Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan (‘this arrestingly lovely memoir’ – The Scotsman). And along with – oh yes, the boats. There was a time, a good few years ago, when, finding writing just too damn hard, I started putting boats into bottles instead. Distraction activity: just the right level of difficulty to keep me busy, concentrated on the task in hand. Some people bake cakes, do crosswords, start up kitchen-table publishing ventures. The writing doesn’t get any easier; but at some point it needs to be done.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

More reading: so many ways

I was walking with others on an island in the Hebrides, aged sixteen or so, the rain came down, we sheltered in a croft with an open door, empty except for some green Penguins on a shelf – I read the whole of The Postman Always Rings Twice, emerged to a sky washed and clear. That was a great read. C. K. Williams has a lovely sequence of reading poems. In the first a man is changing a car wheel on an icy road – ‘Cars slip and skid a yard away from him, the flimsy jack is desperately, precariously balanced, / and meanwhile, when he goes to the trunk to get the spare, a page of old newspaper catches his attention / and he pauses, rubbing his hands together, shoulders hunched, for a full half minute, reading.’ In the last a father gives his year-old son Le Monde ‘to play with in his stroller and the baby does / just what you’d expect: grabs it, holds it out in front of him, stares importantly at it, / makes dramatic sounds of declamation, great pronouncements of analytic probity . . . then tears it, pulls a page in half, pulls the half in quarters, shoves a hearty shred in his mouth – / a delicious editorial on unemployment and recession, a tasty jeu de mots on government ineptitude . . .’

The above book (Penguin, 1971) comprises 66 black-and-white uncaptioned photographs by Kertesz of people reading: on trains and roofs, in streets and gardens and beds and libraries, every one of them lost to the world. Ideal subjects for a photographer: the subjects are still, and without a jot of self-consciousness.