Friday, 21 September 2018

Night thoughts



This book was a charity-shop buy last week. I’d heard of the author but had read nothing by him before. The train on the jacket looks Polish, said a friend. Toby Judt, the back flap informs me, ‘was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, in addition to being the Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995’.

First, the form of the book. Judt was visited by a ‘motor neuron disorder’ (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The body shuts down, bit by bit. Not the mind. Wedged into bed each night – utterly passive, unable even to scratch – and insomniac, he let his mind scroll through his life until ‘I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased’. In the morning, with the help of an assistant, the night’s work is transcribed into the matter – essays? feuilletons? – this book consists of. ‘I don’t know what sort of a genre this is.’

Content. Food, cars, Green Line buses. Class, work, migration, education, sex, ‘identity’. ‘I am struck by the man I never became.’

Declaration of interest: Judt was born (east London, working class) in 1948, I was born (Leeds, middle class) in 1951. I know uncomfortably well many of the foods and cars and confusions he talks about. He was a volunteer worker on a certain small kibbutz in Israel in 1967, I was a volunteer worker on the same kibbutz in 1969.

The Memory Chalet is a short book. The nights were finite: Judt died in 2010, aged 62. There are many good, loving memories, and Judt praises Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister 1945–51 ‘who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history’: ‘Attlee was an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers: morally serious and a trifle austere. Who among our present leaders could make such a claim – or even understand it?’ Judt went to a state school that got him into Cambridge, where the teaching was good. ‘As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall – for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.’

That last bit is the killer. How has our generation – or at least the white male slice of it, the luckiest and most privileged cohort in Western history – managed to so fuck things up that here we are now with Trump and Brexit?

Writing – more accurately, thinking, and dying – in 2009, Judt saw it coming: ‘We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself – the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies – will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.’ And yet for all his intelligence and compassion and curiosity (already fluent in several European languages, he learned Czech in his forties) . . . As a historian, Judt almost certainly understood better than most of us how good can so quickly turn bad.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Robinson: appendix 3 – Gerald Brenan



[Robinson was published in 2017. Written in the months following the EU referendum, it argued that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has had a crippling influence on British education and politics; latter-day Robinsons in Kafka, CĂ©line, Patrick Keiller, Muriel Spark, Sherwood Anderson, Ian Crichton Smith and others were also discussed. This is the third appendix, catching up with Robinsons discovered since the book was written; previous ones look at Robinsons in Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene.]

Jack Robinson: A Picaresque Novel (1933) by George Beaton is a rum book. For starters, more play with pen-names: Beaton is Gerald Brenan, who had Bloomsbury Group connections and is best known as author of The Spanish Labyrinth (1943) and South from Granada (1957). Growing up, he enjoyed neither school nor his home life, and disliked his father, an ex-infantry officer in the Boer War who ‘had a mania for giving orders in a sharp, rude voice, for the consciousness of exercising power was his greatest pleasure’, with a vengeance: ‘He belonged to an utterly different species of humanity from myself.’ Aged 18, Brenan set off in secret with a friend to walk to China; they got as far as Bosnia, a tramp of more than 1,500 miles.

Before the end of the first page of the novel Jack Robinson’s father has died and the family house has burned down. To escape from his mother – ‘the state of my clothes and my general respectability and decorum were the chief pegs of her existence’ – Robinson decides to run away to sea, but before the sea even comes into sight he falls in with a shifting population of tramps, beggars, pimps and prostitutes, and he remains with them until the final page of the book, when he returns home, where his mother is ‘ironing some white shirts and chatting to a neighbour’. The most lively conversation in the book is between the teenage Robinson and a woman – not exactly a prostitute, but she lives off her rich lover – who, before she takes him to bed, tells him ‘it never rains but I wish the rain would go on coming down until it covered the whole world and everyone on it was drowned or turned into fishes . . . I love destruction.’

Robinson is distinguished by a paralysing inertia. While begging on the streets of London, he is offered work as a cabin boy on a steamer bound for South America, but ‘My feet were chained to these flat grey pavements, my eyes were riveted to these smoke-plumed houses – for among them rather than within me seemed to lie the conflicts that were just now engaging me and which did not leave me sufficient energy to part from them. Unsatisfactory as I felt my life to be at this time, I had neither the desire to evade it nor the force to alter it.’ Grandfather Crusoe’s assumption of agency is drained entirely; this is a Robinson alienated both from society and from himself. Jack Robinson carries the bleak suggestion that there is no sea to run away to, that the only places you get to when you run are doss-houses and begging on the streets, and the only escape from those is back to a mother who is ironing shirts and chatting to a neighbour. (She takes in washing and ironing for cash, I assume, given that to the reader’s knowledge there is no man in her life except her runaway son.)


*

The second book Brenan published under the pen-name George Beaton is even rummer. Doctor Partridge’s Almanack for 1935 (1934) purports to be a series of fragmentary prophecies by Dr Partridge, astrologer and author of almanacs, with a preface by ‘G. Robinson, Practising Astrologer’. (Dr John Partridge, 1644–1715, was a historical person. In 1708 Jonathan Swift, writing as Isaac Bickerstaff and with the intention of exposing Partridge’s quackery, predicted that Partridge would die on 29 March of that year; when Partridge wrote on 2 April that he was still alive, and advertised in newspapers that he was ‘not only now alive, but was also alive upon the 29th of March in question’, Swift replied that his statement was demonstrably untrue, as ‘no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this’.) According to G. Robinson’s introductory account, Partridge died in 1727 and was buried in a cellar under a house in Fitzroy Street; 190 years later, Partridge is stirred back into life by a rat nibbling his finger; learning from nearby talkative bones of the current state of the world (‘Is there never to be an end? Must the world grow more bloodthirsty and more feeble-minded with every century?’), he determines to offer ‘to mankind a complete calendar and recital of their fate’ – ‘less with the view, I doubt not, of converting them to the hard creed of Cessation than of relieving them now at this present of some of the fever of life by cutting off their expectancy’.

As outlined in a second preface, this one by ‘Professor Blish’, the worldview of ‘our great Partridge’ holds that ‘discord, folly, strife and confusion [are] the permanent condition of the world and of each separate human being’, and humankind must therefore ‘learn to look forward with a perpetual increase in longing to the great reconciler and deliverer – that is, to death’. Dr Partridge is a doomy fanatic, but unlike others of that ilk he has a light touch. Some sample entries … January 9: ‘If you wish to obtain a reputation for stinginess, give a large dance or evening party.’ January 31: ‘This is a good day for poets and novelists to burn their manuscripts, for painters to tear to pieces their canvases and for lovers to put their heads into gas-ovens.’ February 1: ‘On this day a man called Timothy Pippin will found a New Religion of universal love, in which all those who do not believe are to be anathematised, imprisoned, tortured, flayed, and roasted.’ February 19: ‘This is an unlucky day for barmaids and for all people who live under railway bridges.’ March 22: ‘This is an unlucky day for those who collect tram tickets and while away their lives gazing at rivers and seas.’ May 28: ‘On this day the world will not come to an end, however many reasons there may be for desiring it.’ June 13: ‘If you have not lost anything lately, pray to St Anthony of Padua and he will lose it for you.’ June 15: ‘St Modestus was so modest that in 63 years he never once removed his pants.’ November 8: ‘Any reviewer disparaging this almanack will drop dead on the spot.’ November 11: ‘On this day the European nations will give up their offensive weapons, such as hockey sticks and motor horns and insect powder, and take to strictly defensive ones, such as tanks and aeroplanes and poison gas, which are much more likely, as everyone knows, to keep off war.’ December 26: ‘O world, world, world, world, if you do not come to an end before next year is out, I, Dr Partridge, have done with you.’

Brenan later distanced himself from Jack Robinson (‘there is no book of mine that I dislike more’) but he remained fond of Doctor Partridge’s Almanack, for ‘a certain command of language as well as a pessimism that seems to forecast the days of Stalin, Hitler and the atom bomb’. He wrote the book ‘without any previous plan or intention and almost as though the words were dictated to me’. In the prefaces his memories of the First World War and of a doomed love affair (along with ‘some rather inappropriate Old Testament imagery’) ‘combined to set up an atmosphere of horror, disgust for life and melancholy that is so far-fetched that it is always on the point of toppling over into absurdity’.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

One new, one old



I’d almost forgotten this blog exists. The output this year has been pathetic. But now that fewer people (I think) follow these creaky old things, I’ll put more effort into it. The excuse to get going again is publication of CBe’s second book of the year, City Works Dept. by Philip Hancock. Ken Loach: ‘Phil Hancock’s insights are precise and authentic – he is part of the great tradition of writers who capture the true spirit of working-class life.’ More information – and a ‘buy now’ button – here.

Meanwhile, since downscaling CBe a couple of years ago I’ve had more time to read, and most of the books I’ve been reading have not been the ones you can buy in bookshops, either because they are out of print or because bookshops don’t have the space to stock them (even the new ones tend to vanish after a few months, to be replaced by the even newer). So I’ve been using online shops. This is what they are for: getting hold of books that even the very lovely local independent bookshop doesn’t have in stock, the shop which itself is often going to have difficulty ordering in if the book is not in stock with either of the two major wholesalers (which most CBe books are not: another story). Online booksellers are, for my purposes, necessary and wonderful.

I’ve also been re-reading from my shelves. This one, for example, by Natalia Ginzburg:



A man leaves Italy to go to live with his older brother in the US. He’s a man with bony legs and cold hands and the reasons why he goes to the US are unclear even to himself: ‘I’m someone who doesn’t know what to be and who stares at everything indecisively.’ The City and the House consists of letters written to the man by members of the close group of friends he was a part of before he left, and his own letters to them, and letters between the friends. Over the course of two and a half years people fall in and out of love, marry and separate, worry about money and old age, work and cook meals and make mistakes and die (of illness but also guns and knives). A soap opera? Yes, in a way, but all the events happen off-stage and any melodrama is filtered through the medium – letters – in which the events are recounted by one character to another, retrospectively. A step back. Taking another step back, an unnecessary step, I could say it’s a novel about how people explain (or fail to) their lives to themselves, which sounds like a private activity but can’t be because we are social beings. It’s very subtle, very moving. It was written, I think, in the early 1980s (it was first published in Italy in 1985, and by Carcanet in Dick Davis’s English translation in 1986) – probably the last years in which a contemporary epistolary novel was possible, before letters largely gave way to email, so it’s a book you read historically but it hasn’t dated.

Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues has recently been re-issued by Daunt Books; her Family Lexicon will follow in September. Good. And good, too that Penguin have recently re-issued novels by Alfred Hayes, who I’ve written about before. (Who decides which books get published and which not? God, obviously. And who decides which books get translated from one language into another, and which out-of-print books get re-issued? Same person. He/she works in mysterious ways.)

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Surprise prize (murmur it)



For reasons barely known even to myself, I’m re-reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and noting every instance at which a character blushes.

For different reasons but still obscure ones, CBe won a prize at the Republic of Consciousness event last night. The main prize, the one advertised and for which there were many entries, was won by Eley Williams and Influx Press for Attrib. and other stories: all praise, and congratulations. The prize won by CBe featured in the warm-up half of the evening; it doesn’t have a name (that I’m aware of); it appears to have been invented for the occasion by Neil Griffiths, founding father of the Republic of Consciousness; there were references in his speech to William Gass (whose On Being Blue I happen also to have been re-reading in the past week or so), and to metafiction, and to the two books I published last year under the pen-name Jack Robinson, An Overcoat and Robinson. An Overcoat was on the RoC longlist; it is about (if any novel can be said to be ‘about’ any one thing) Stendhal.

The prize is – has to be – in recognition (and I’m deeply grateful for this) of the quality of the books published by CBe in the past decade, and for that the authors of the books are responsible. See the website. At some point during the summer the prize money will be spent on a party for those authors (plus friends, colleagues, supporters). At another point CBe will be in proud receipt of an RoC conch (above, the working drawings by Laura Hopkins received last night, alongside the book being mined for blushes).

This Friday, 23rd March – anniversary of the death-day of Stendhal: this is an obsession, I know – is the official publication date of Murmur, the third book by Will Eaves to be published by CBe. Murmur is available now – in some (but not enough) bookshops, or from the website. On Saturday at 7.30 pm Will Eaves will be talking about Murmur – and Alan Turing and consciousness and poetry – at the London Buddhist Centre: full details here. Please come.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Lionel Shriver: well-bred panic

I wasn’t going to do this on any public platform, because I’d be getting in over my depth and because of the regular awfulness of the below-the-line comments, but that Lionel Shriver piece in Prospect last month continues to irritate, so.

In a keynote speech on ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’ delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 (concerning cultural appropriation; reprinted in full in the Guardian) Shriver identified herself as “a renowned iconoclast”. In the article published in Prospect entitled “Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction” she again takes up the role of maverick speaker-of-truth, defending her right to be “mischievous, subversive and perverse” against “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob”. The whole article reads like one long cry of “political correctness gone mad” from someone on the foot behind the back foot. Her complaint is argued with a sort of plain-speaking reasonableness but no interest – or even curiosity – is evident in how the processes of writing (and who writes), publishing and reception have never been purely literary. And the maverick role, favoured by magazine eds who see some increase in circulation here, is just tedious.

According to Shriver, “the right not to be offended” is taking over all rational, critical discussion, with the result that “we authors now contend with a torrent of dos and don’ts that bind our imaginations and make the process of writing and publishing fearful.” Fearfulness is cousin to paranoia: “popular conflation of art and artist potentially makes the publishability of authors’ work dependent on how we comport ourselves at parties”. A rejection by an editor – “Maybe the editor just thought it was crummy. We’ll never know” – is assumed to be for reasons of “thought crime”. She worries that “The whole apparatus of delivering literature to its audience is signalling an intention to subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests, unrelated to artistry, excellence and even entertainment, that miss the point of what our books are for.” She worries that “If all modern literature comes to toe the same goody-goody line, fiction is bound to grow timid, homogeneous, and dreary.” She worries a lot.

She worries because, I believe, she’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick. At base, “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob” is not about virtue-signalling and ideological purity, it is about challenge to power and to privilege. (Shriver knows this, how can she not, but chooses to go into aggressive-defensive mode. She's entitled to this mode, of course, but it's silly. And needless, because the novel is, as Shriver herself says, “magnificently elastic”.)

The list that I wrote in 1963 of books that I’d read that year (when I was aged 12) stretched to around 40 titles; two were by women, one was a translation, none was by a not-white author. Some of those books were, and still are, terrific. But what gets published – and who writes for publication and what gets reviewed and who gets a job in publishing and what gets read and which books get the prizes – has never been determined by purely literary criteria. Publishing is a business and an institution, with built-in privileges. It’s political; it was never, and still isn’t, pure, whatever that is. Between 1963 and now publishing has adjusted, a little, but it has all been so slow, which probably does have to be the case with institutions, which by definition are concerned above all with self-preservation and so by nature are conservative. Shriver’s shock-horror about what gets published and what not being determined by non-literary criteria is not a little naive.

Shriver is not keen on the word privilege: “I can’t be the only one who’s sick up to the eyeballs with that word.” When she mentions marginalised communities, her phrase, she puts them in quote marks, as if she can’t quite believe they really exist. I’m as privileged as Shriver; more so, because I’m not just white but male, and live in the West, and of a certain age (which by pure luck entitled me to be paid to go university and to be able to live cheap in London and a whole lot of other things, and I’ve never had to go to war: I’m part of the most privileged male generation in human history); and if there’s any reason for me writing this, it’s embarrassment – that white people of my peer group should continue to be given space for such nonsense. I know they can seem reasonable. I can seem reasonable myself, sometimes. I’m as full of prejudice as the rest of us.

“Mob” – what a word. Barbarians at the gates. Hi, mob. Let me check your papers: oh, sorry, that clause doesn’t seem to be grammatically correct. “We live in denunciatory times,” says Shriver, licensing for herself a whole lot of denunciation and what comes across as well-bred panic. No, let’s not check the papers, their page after page of tedious questions configured by those with the power to choose what and what not to ask and how to grade the answers. Shriver is worried about the policing of what she writes by non-literary criteria; some acknowledgement that the whole history of writing and publishing has been policed for centuries by power structures that have nothing to do with pure (it’s never pure) literature wouldn’t come amiss. Let’s talk. We can make time for this. There are people in the waiting room who have been waiting for generations. If their sentences, the whole way they use language, can seem beyond what I’m used to, that could be my problem not theirs. If they are running out of patience, don’t blame them.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Alternative alternatives



There’s the way things are usually done (books published, say, or art shows put on) and there are, somewhere down the line and certainly with less money, ‘alternative’ ways. Of course the norm itself is just one possible way of going about things, itself an alternative to many other ways that got biffed to the side, an alternative which survives for reasons more to do with power and habit than reason or common sense or any other kind of sense.

Publishing good books and showing good art do not require an office or gallery in a plush part of town and a very high sum in the overheads column. But to have the work reach lots of people – that’s the tricky bit, because the ways in which new work gets known about and made available are tied into the current norm and are resistant to change.

For books, the distribution system is simply mad; and despite the increasing public profile of small presses (their inclusion on prize shortlists, etc), the system is weighted against them. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement handed all the aces to the big players, who deal in high volume. Amazon’s discounting has forced the cover price of books up (as publishers seek to protect their own margins) and led to the closure of many independent bookshops. Most of the remaining independent bookshops order from one or both of the main wholesalers, and if a title is not in stock with Gardners or Bertrams a customer will usually be told that it’s not available. When I last checked, a bare handful of CBe titles were in stock at the wholesalers (and Gardners list many titles as ‘POS – Publisher out of stock’, which is simply untrue: the titles are in stock with the distributor, Central Books, which supplies the wholesalers). And even if booksellers do have titles on their shelves, they can choose to return them and get their money back.

Any norm is, by definition, not only conservative in itself but relies for its survival on the conservatism of those who accept it as the default way of doing things. Real change won’t happen except through politics. That’s what politics is for. In the meantime, consider not buying from Amazon (there are enough reasons, god knows). Consider, even, buying direct from a publisher’s website (the CBe one is here, but the others have them too). Books are written by single people at their desks, and are read individually too, in chairs or beds or on trains or buses or boats, and though between the writing and the reading there does have to be an arrangement, and involvement with money, it really needn’t stray far from the one-to-one.

Consider also going to an art show that is not ‘sponsored’ by a bank or oil company or auction house, and that may not even be in a public gallery. Year by year, there is an increasing number of exhibitions taking place in pop-up spaces or private homes or studios, most of them free to visit. One of them – open this coming weekend, and by appointment; and, yes, there is some small CBe involvement – is here.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow



A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post on this blog – here – to announce that CBe was going into semi-retirement. That’s an ambiguous phrase, and I have some sympathy with those who ask, with a touch of impatience, Make up your mind – are you stopping or aren’t you?

Some things – Trump, say, or the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald – I can say a definite no or yes to. Other things are not so binary. I like being able to bring new books into the world (it’s an extraordinary privilege) but not everything involved in the process: I don’t enjoy, for example, anything associated with the word marketing or applying for funding. CBe continues but at a low level, with a different rhythm: plotted as an electrocardiogram, it will look like I’m falling asleep for long periods, but with sudden peaks of excitement – the latter representing books that I simply cannot not publish.

For example: there will be, in March, Murmur, Will Eaves’s new novel. Or if not exactly ‘novel’, a book that at least will cause booksellers less headache than Will’s last book when they think about where to shelve it. There’s a page on the website for pre-orders. Go there, even click on the 'Add to cart' button if you feel inclined. All pre-ordered books will be sent out – probably in February – with a couple of free flappers. There will be events for the book at the London Buddhist Centre, Bookseller Crow Bookshop and elsewhere. Will Eaves’s previous CBe titles are The Absent Therapist (shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize) and The Inevitable Giftshop (shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award).

Many thanks for support during 2017, during which Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize, Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Giftshop was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award, and Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was shortlisted for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. Jack Robinson’s An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. is currently longlisted for the next Republic of Consciousness Prize.

On Friday, 19 January Tony White will be introducing a screening of the film Wetherby at the London Review Bookshop, and then will be chatting with me about the film. Click here for more details and to book tickets. I wrote a blog post about Wetherby here; Tony's blog post about the film, dating back to 2010, is here.

This time last year I was reading Robinson Crusoe and thinking I was setting up a sort of ‘project’ that would keep me ticking over for the whole year. But it was hard to clear a space in my head from the day-by-day awfulness of what is happening in this country and, impatiently, I published the book in June, to coincide with the General Election. Robinson is still, unfortunately, topical.