Monday 31 March 2008

Brain surgery

Did you see The English Surgeon last night on TV? Sorry about this, but we don’t have a water cooler here to have these chats around; and apart from sport I watch about one TV programme per year, which is plenty (I tried some Poliakoff drama last year, and its turgid ponderousness put me off for another six months), so I tend to get excited when I chance on something (I missed the beginning) good.

Anyway: an old-style English neurosurgeon called Henry goes off to the Ukraine to do some brain surgery; his host is a buttoned-up medic whose favourite painting shows Cossacks rampaging; he uses a battery-powered drill and some none-too-sharp looking bits bought off a market stall; and he’s been doing this for fifteen years – going off to the Ukraine with a suitcase full of used NHS hi-tec stuff that would otherwise be binned. He has to tell a grandmother that her grandson is going to die within months and there’s nothing he can do about it; there’s a gorgeous 23-year-old woman who is going to go blind first, and then die; and sometimes he wins, he enables someone to start living again, he makes a difference.

At the end of it Henry stalks across a muddy field in his big black hat in front of some stark and spindly trees and a piercingly blue sky and mumbles something so obvious and true it shouldn’t need saying but it does, again and again, and you cry.

Meanwhile, while we’re into foreign fields, I’m still waiting for words from Oliver, who is living what I hope he can make a CBe book out of: Portrait of the Artist as a Night-Watchman in a Factory in a Provincial City in China. This isn’t brain surgery, but good things however small are welcome.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Book rage

Books are dangerous. Each year 10,683 people in America and 2,707 people in Britain are seriously injured by books (I read this on the net so it must be true). A year or so back I wasn’t allowed to take a book with me as hand luggage on a flight from Italy (and had to be dragged away before I physically assaulted the check-in lady).

Sometimes it’s the other way round, with books as the victims. Book rage. There’s a scene in an early Alan Sillitoe novel where the main character feels a sudden urge to chuck all the books on his shelves out of the window; reading this in my late teens, I identified – the wish to strip away all the swaddling layers of culture, to confront the world naked. (Of course it can’t be done: the books you’ve read are as much inside you as on the shelves: you’re infected, simply by reading, and possibly contagious too.)

The woman in the photos is Susana Medina. She writes stories, poems, essays, filmscripts . . . ‘To be coherent art must fire in every direction.’ No conventional beginning-middle-and-ending novels there. Her books don’t sit quietly on the shelves.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Best European Dramatic Feature

It’s a mouthful – let’s call it BEDF for short – and it’s also the top award at the European Independent Film Festival, which was held in Paris over last weekend, and it’s just been won by SAXON: ‘an offbeat thriller/ urban western/ social surrealism drama that combines elements of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, David Lynch and Ken Loach to winning effect’ (

It stars Sean Harris, who played Ian Curtis in 24-Hour Party People. Short synopsis from the film’s website (hell, I still can’t do the links – – go there): ‘London, the present. Soon after leaving prison, Eddie has his eye cut out by a loan shark chasing an old debt. Eddie’s other eye will only be spared upon repayment. Desperate for cash, Eddie phones Linda, a childhood sweetheart. She lives in Saxon – a ghost town of grim flats run by a corrupt council. Linda is very wealthy. Her husband Kevin won a million pounds on a TV quiz show. But Kevin has gone missing, feared dead. Eddie offers his services as an amateur sleuth, and so embarks on a comically gruesome journey . . .’

Why am I telling you this? Because a couple of people who’ve never made a feature film before – Greg Loftin, Elise Valmorbida – somehow putting it all together (the money, the cast, the crew, the backers, the locations, the post-production, the other stuff – I’m going dizzy: publishing books is EASY) and getting it shown at the Edinburgh Festival, and another festival in Israel, and then winning BEDF in Paris, is a story worth the telling in itself.

And because the screenplay – along with the story of how this came about, against all the odds – will be published by CBe in the summer, to coincide with the film’s first London screening. Be there. Join in.

Monday 17 March 2008

‘The pump was red’

Looking through old letters, old diaries, it’s the sentences that simply state facts baldly that are the most poignant. ‘It rained today. I didn’t go out.’ ‘We watched a film. It was about a dog.’ ‘My dad bought a new hat.’

They are especially poignant if the words are those of someone who is dead, or someone you loved, or both. And if they are handwritten rather than typed. They can have the haunting impact of an old black-and-white or sepia photograph: this person was once alive on this day, in this weather, in these clothes. The eyes have an innocence; what they are innocent of is everything that comes after, everything that comes between them then and us now, looking at them.

‘The pump was red.’

– a sentence, in fact a paragraph, from a story by Hanna Krall. Born 1937, lives in Warsaw. The cool plain style is exactly appropriate to the intense heat of much of her material – Jewish-Polish-German relations during World War Two and afterwards. She worked as a journalist and takes the (true) facts of her stories from research, interviews; she then, as far as I can work out, recomposes the material as stories, which results in a kind of fictionalised reportage. There are lists, gaps in the record, occasional self-reflective notes (‘If this was a story by Singer …’). The result is not a bastard form (those TV docu-dramas) but one which really does convincingly marry historical truth to the truth of storytelling.

W showed me his versions of some of her stories last week. Some years ago he and the author made a selection of her work with which they attempted to interest UK and US publishers; the Other Press in New York took the selection but substituted another translator. The Woman from Hamburg is a wonderful book (I’m still reading it, slowly), and it would be good to conjure another one.

Monday 10 March 2008

Size doesn’t matter

What is it about the novel? How come it’s the default size and shape for people writing fiction? I’ve ranted about this before (8 January), but this time it’s urgent.

Because people send me novels, 300 pages, and some of them are very good (and if I like the first few pages, like them enough to TRUST this writer, then, if they’ve been sent as email attachments, I forward them to Lee or Barry at the local printshop to print out, because my own printer is slow and noisy, and this costs; but that’s another story), and CBe will be doing at least one of these things called novels in the next set of books, but NO ONE has sent me a novella, and only one person – OK, two – has sent me short stories. And though I don’t want to get prescriptive about this, novellas and stories and any other odd thing that automatically disqualifies itself from the mainstream publishers is one of the things that CBe is supposed to be about.

So if you’re out there and have something that’s betwixt and between, that maybe doesn’t even know what to call itself, send. You have a head start on my attention. And among the several ideas I have no need to agree with is the one that holds that a book of stories has to be, roughly, the length of a novel. Two or three fantastic stories can make, for me, a book.

I won’t rehearse the names again, the names of those writers who do what good writing can do for you without ever writing a novel, because I did that before (8 Jan, again). Just one: Grace Paley. Her publisher wanted her to write a novel and she tried, she tried, but she never did, and her stories are more than enough. She didn’t flinch from the bad stuff but, reading her, life is richer. I’ve just been sent her last book, published posthumously: poems, a kind of reckoning. (There are spaces in some of the lines below that the blogspot machinery isn't showing; if no one else does, I may have to publish this book in the UK myself.) She’s sly:

believe me I am
an unreliable
narrator no story
I’ve ever told
was true many people
have said this before
but they were lying

And she’s glorious:

then the sunshine implores
and up all of us go

we are like any
greengrowing machinery

riding the daylight route
to darkness

Thursday 6 March 2008

24 for 3: the intermission

Grisham, Schlink, Carey, Meek, Walker. Walker? Jennie, that is. On Monday her 24 for 3 was in the Evening Standard’s list of the five fiction bestsellers in London during the previous week. These newspaper lists are hardly scientific evidence, but she’s liking being in there with the boys, the big boys.

She’s also picked up a 5-star reader review on Amazon, even though you can’t buy the book directly from them, and the company she keeps there is very different: if you search by title, Jennie’s book is followed by something called National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Report 1386 Investigation of the Drag of Various Axially Symmetric Nose Shapes of Fineness Ratio 3 for Mach Numbers from 1.24 to 7.4; and next comes Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America.

However . . .

Very soon there’s going to be an interval, during which you’ll be able to buy ice creams but not 24 for 3 – because Bloomsbury have bought the book and will be publishing a new, revised and slightly longer edition, and the CBe edition is winding down and won’t have any more printings. Has Jennie sold her soul for glamour? Will she spend all her money on taxis and drugs? What will she be wearing for the launch party? We’ll keep in touch and let you know. Meanwhile, first come, first served for the last few copies of the CBe edition.