Monday, 29 August 2011

‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’

See here for a new blog review of Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. But don’t go there for just that. In January the blog-writer announced that ‘Over the next year I’m going to explore the world of experimental fiction. Some of the writers will be well known, and others more obscure. Hopefully some new names will surface. While I intend to read many of the “classic” experimental novels, I have no intention of attempting to be exhaustive . . . At times it will be difficult, but – who knows? – I might enjoy it.’

He/she (I have no idea who 1streader is) has been busy, and the enjoyment level has been pretty high. In the past two months alone there are reviews of books by Enrique Vita-Matas, Robert Coover, Quim Monzo, Jean Echenzo, G-O Chateaureynard and others. Many of these reviews are Lezardish, in the sense that they make me want to read those books myself, and soon.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Mrs Dalloway

Earlier this summer I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for the first time. It is – well, during the days I was reading it the world was a slightly different place, experienced more acutely; it’s right up there. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is structured around three women – VW during the early stages of writing Mrs D, a modern-day (1998) Mrs D, a woman in the late 1940s who is reading Mrs D. Early in the novel there’s a glimpse of a film star who may or may not be Meryl Streep. Yesterday, passing a rental store, I took out the film of The Hours (with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore).

Layer upon layer. The Hours (the novel; also the original working title of Mrs D) is good, without reaching the heights of Mrs D, but that would be expecting too much. The Hours (the film) is also good, in a number of ways better than the novel. The extras on the DVD included something called ‘commentary’; usually I don’t bother with the extras, but this one was more than worthwhile: the director Stephen Daldry and the novelist Michael Cunningham talk over what feels to be almost a complete re-screening of the film, much of it with the volume off but with the sound brought up when they want to point to a particular scene. There was some engaging talk about the incidentals: about the visual leitmotifs (the blue cloth of a dressing gown, the breaking of eggs in a bowl); about the reaction shots of a very young child actor (some of them captured by Daldry telling him the story of Jack and the Beanstalk); about the 1920s steam train which appears briefly in a scene with Virginia and Leonard Woolf on the platform of Richmond station (the train was brought over from the Isle of Man; the scene was filmed at Loughborough). More interestingly, there was discussion of the changes the screenwriter (David Hare) had made in bringing the novel into a different medium: a scene added, a scene dropped, dialogue cut when it was found that action or expression could convey the point better, a scene between A and B in which in the novel A breaks down but in which in the film it’s B who breaks down.

Mrs Dalloway is a desert island book. Neither the novel The Hours nor the film The Hours for me make that rank, possibly because of their deference to the original Mrs D, neither being wholly its own thing; and because, for all the intelligence with which they are made, the structural seams show through, you can see how they’ve been put together. But the whole sequence – from Mrs D to contemporary novel to film – is enthralling. And the several versions of Mrs D are of course entirely appropriate to Virginia Woolf’s conception of character as a fluid, unstable thing. (Two sentences from a Yehuda Amichai short story on the stream-of-consciousness thing: ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’)

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

On blurbs

Blurb – it’s not a nice word. Neither are they nice things to write: you’re trying to give both a summary and the flavour of the book and you’re trying to sell it (blurbs are essentially advertising, a sub-genre with its own rather tedious conventions), and this is a lot to do in a very few words.

Who needs ’em anyway? I mean, blurbs considered as the para or two on the back cover or the inside flap. Readers buying online see just an image of the front of the book, not the back, so don’t see the blurb at all; they get blurby things when they scroll down, but these can be configured quite separately from the book itself. And if I’m browsing in a bookshop, all I really want to know is whether the author can write, can turn a good sentence, can make me want more. I’m interested in the thing itself, not the advertising. Almost every unpremeditated purchase I’ve made in a bookshop has been made because I’ve flicked through the pages and found a paragraph, a passage of dialogue, a few lines of a peom (that’s how I constantly type it, and then have to go back and correct; ‘avaialble’ is another one, I stumble over my fingers, but this is for another riff, another post) I want more of.

Puffs from other writers, yes. And quotes from reviews, fine. There may be a name, a place, that I trust and am drawn in by. I’m nattering here just about blurbs. And given that the CBe covers already have a puritan bent, dispensing with (eschewing: there’s a word) images (there’s the occasional exception), I’m thinking of dispensing with blurbs too. Just, on the back of the cover, some lines quoted from what you’re going to get more of, if you like them and buy.

Some years ago, when I was chained to a Faber desk, among other daft things I was doing was processing the editor’s blurb on a book through to proofs (‘baselines’, did we call them?), and I half-seriously thought of instituting an annual in-house prize for the most ludicrous blurb. ‘Tour de force’ was vastly overused. One of my favourites included: ‘Her characters are short but sturdy.’ And now I’m footloose, the idea still holds. An annual Crap Blurb prize. Along the lines of the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex prize, and the Bookseller/Diagram prize for the most ridiculous title. I think this will run. I hereby and herewith copyright and trademark the whole thing.

Monday, 22 August 2011

White chair pink chair

& cat with matching tongue.

Googling CBe throws up a mix of items. Here is someone happy that a book ordered from the CBe website at 13:51 on one day arrived the following morning. We aim to please. Here is the Telegraph round-up of the Forward Prize shortlistees reproduced on The Lyre blog; between the item as it appears in the Telegraph and this version the words ‘the admirably wayward small press’ have crept in to describe CBe.

Here is a Slovenian item on the occasion of Urska Zupanec, the translator of Miha Mazzini’s The German Lottery (to be published by CBe next February) being appointed, as far as I can make out, Slovenian cultural representative to the European Union in Brussels. Working the other way – i.e., into Slovenian – Zupanec has also translated Simon Armitage, Craig Raine, Margaret Atwood. If she has time to spare, the Google ‘translate this page’ facility could do with her services: ‘The balance between different roles in life and help her hunt mainly yoga.’

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Amazon marketplace mysteries

Athough I don’t, as mentioned before, subscribe to Amazon’s laughably entitled Advantage scheme for small publishers (because they wouldn’t pay me more than 40 per cent of the cover price, because I’d have to pay them an annual fee for the privilege of letting them do this, etc), I do sell the CBe books on the marketplace pages (click used & new and you’ll find them). But so do others. Where do these places get their copies from? Where, for example, does the ‘collectible’ copy of Days in Nights in W12 come from, ‘signed and inscribed by the author’? I’ve spoken to Jack; he has no memory of doing any signing and inscribing. It’s possible he was drunk at the time.

There are strange items on those marketplace pages. For example: a single new copy (or is it? The seller doesn’t seem too sure: ‘Almost like new’) of Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett, ed. James Knowlson and John Pilling, for sale at £500,000.00. Plus £2.80 delivery.

Monday, 15 August 2011

‘Les chapeaux dansants de Napoleon’

Three Good Things a-coming up:

1) The book fair – 24 September in Exmouth Market, London – is coming together. Twenty-two presses, readings through the day . . . See here. The event of the season. You wouldn’t miss Ladies’ Day at Ascot, would you, or Saturday at Lord’s for the first Test of the summer? This neither.

2) D. Nurkse, author of Voices over Water, shortlisted for the Forward Prize, will be in town in early October. At least one reading is being planned.

3) The revised CBe website – nothing outrageously different but a separate page for each book and special offers and the like – should be up and running in early September.

More details of all the above in the next newsletter. If you’re not on the mailing list and would like to receive that, sign up at the foot of the website home page or email me.

‘Les chapeaux dansants’, by the way, is something odd I made back in my ship-bottling days. There's a wee electric motor inside, and when you press the switch on the front the hats jig up and down.

Monday, 8 August 2011

That feeling again

‘After David Cameron spoke to Theresa May, the home secretary, and Tim Godwin, acting commissioner of the Metropolitan police, about the riot from his holiday villa in Italy, Downing Street issued a statement saying: “There is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property.” May echoed the words from No 10, saying: “Such disregard for public safety and property will not be tolerated.”’
The above from one of the continuous Guardian reports yesterday on the riots in London.

Nor, of course, is there any justification for the spit-in-your-face contempt for the public good shown by the bankers and the politicians who colluded with them, and the damage to the economy they caused. Nor should disregard for the humdrum daily hardship of most people in this country be tolerated.

Despite the UK being one of the top ten richest countries in the world (from Wiki, whichever list you choose), there is more debt than there is money, anywhere, to repay that debt; the money to repay has to come from ‘growth’, because that's the system we’ve subscribed to, and which has worked, on and off, for a few decades; but the current level of debt, even if there is the necessary ‘growth’ – which there won’t be, because no one is putting in any money to create it – will not be paid off either in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime.

A few decades ago, during one of those periods when the US and Russia were ramping up the rhetoric, I remember walking down the street and looking at the normality of daily life and thinking this is all an illusion, the only reality is the Bomb. Not, really, ‘thinking’ that, but feeling it, a horrible kind of numbness. These days I’m having a similar feeling.

Friday, 5 August 2011

40 years on

This week's TLS reviews Andrew Barrow’s ‘beautifully organised, thoughtful and resonant’ memoir Animal Magic along with Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue, the latter published by CBe this year four decades after its writing and the author’s death. (The former book includes excerpts from the latter; the two were also mentioned together in a recent TLS Freelance column by Hugo Williams.) The reviewer, Paul Binding, acknowledges that Jonathan’s The Queue ‘is difficult to define. Picaresque encounters, recounted at speed, include bizarre scatological episodes and much random violence. Unsurprisingly, Andrew was unable to find a publisher for it, attributing his failure to the work’s daring and originality . . . Yet [the] novel’s final sentences prove that he possessed and could express compassion.’