Sunday 29 March 2009

How to read a novel

When I was about, oh I don’t know, maybe six or seven, and was living in a commuter village in Yorkshire, a mobile library parked for an hour in the road once a week. A two-tone van: brown and a kind of yellowy beige. I’d choose a novel, take it home, look at the contents page and start reading at the chapter that looked most exciting: The Pirates Attack, or The Bloody Massacre. No one had explained that I was meant to start at page 1, even if the first chapter was boring, and work through to the end.

I guess I worked out the officially approved method fairly soon. One does. (As one learns about sex, and many other things in life: for years the grown-ups tell you nothing, and then comes a time when they assume you know all about it anyway, and meanwhile you just get on with working it out for yourself.) But the approved way isn’t the only way.

A fellow-poet I know reads fiction in bursts: 15 pages one night from maybe somewhere near the middle, then the next week another 40 pages from somewhere nearer the beginning or end. He enters in mid-conversation, leaves when a character exits a room, or a real person happens to enter the room he’s reading in, and may in the end never read the whole book. To me, this seems a fine way of reading: what he takes – on the wing – from the novel is flavour, atmosphere, style (the cast of the author’s mind: intelligence, sensibility, their ways with words), which themselves add up to a universe.

What he misses out on, of course, is story, the shape of the novel. (And doubtless character development and other things too that they tell you about in books called How to Write a Novel.) But story happens not to be what he reads novels for. (Just there are some writers too for whom story, at least in a beginning-middle-ending kind of way, is not that important. B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates was published as loose pages in a box, unbound. Bill Manhire – and he’s not the only one to do this – wrote a novel offering readers alternative directions at the end of each page or section. Ben Marcus. David Markson.)

Browsing, I often dip in and out and read last pages. Writer and reader are consenting partners, both of them free to work out what works best for them.

Thursday 26 March 2009

The next books

I took two more books to Chris the printer this week: Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch, Jack Robinson’s Recessional. About the former, absolutely no qualms: told from a male perspective, it’s an episode in the lives of a he and a she, a form of postscript to their relationship that includes both nostalgia and belated, uncomfortable revelation; among other things, it’s poetry occupying territory that might seem more appropriate to fiction or even drama, and showing what more can be done; and it’s delivered with clear-eyed affection.

About Recessional I’m less sure. Politics, stories, literary perspectives, slivers of autobiography, all in 64 pages, and whether it hangs together I don’t know. But worth doing for two reasons. The first is that putting it together has allowed some immediate expression of the anger that this recession mess has brought to the surface, anger not just with the bankers and politicians but with myself, that I haven’t paid sufficient attention, that I’ve been happy to be curled up with my nice books while the ship of state has been steered on a lunatic course. (Timing may have something to do with my feelings here; my children leave school this summer, go out into the world that my generation has shaped for them.) Actually the book isn’t angry enough; but anger is a difficult emotion to use well.

Second reason. Having found myself in the unexpected and most likely temporary position of being able to publish stuff, I’d like to play. On the whole I’d prefer to steer clear of the recipe books on the shelf (new poetry presented in poem-per-page slices, novels cooked in 9-inch cake tins); I’d like to come back from the market with a bag of miscellaneous ingredients and try out new combinations. This is not mass catering; I don’t need to worry about scaring off thousands of readers; I just need to find a few hundred willing to chance it.

Saturday 21 March 2009


‘These long-eyed beauties, hairy as beasts, beautiful and stubborn – bellezebubbish – when they baa, what are they complaining about? What troubles, what cares?
Like ageing bachelors, they love newsprint and tobacco . . .
They obsess the rocks.’

The ‘rough chunks of stone’, below, were a rather forced link to get from Highgate cemetery to Ponge. Much more apposite are these goats, sent to me this morning by W. The final poem in Unfinished Ode to Mud is ‘La Chèvre’, The Goat, which I can’t quite call a summing-up or manifesto because Ponge would never be so solemn as to attempt such a thing, but still.

‘So the goat, like all creatures, is both a mistake and the perfection of that mistake; and hence pitiful and admirable, alarming and exciting all at once.
And us? We can, to be sure, be content with the task of (imperfectly) expressing this.

‘Hence each day I shall have thrown the goat onto my pad; sketch, rough draft, scrap of study – as the goat herself is by her owner thrown onto the mountains; against those bushes, those rocks – those dangerous thickets, those inert words – from which at first she can hardly be distinguished.

‘But yet – look – she lives, she moves a little . . .’

These particular goats, above, were photographed by W I think on the island of Rhodes, where some time ago he stayed at a centre for writers and translators. The best time to go, he says, is autumn. Few tourists, many goats. It’s tempting.

Friday 20 March 2009

Rough chunks of stone

‘Scattered about the undergrowth by time, rough chunks of stone crumb kneaded by the grubby fingers of the god . . .’ – Ponge, ‘The Pebble’

To Highgate Cemetery today with W to see Karl Marx, not to mention the menagerie exhibitor George Wombwell with his favourite lion Nero asleep on top of him, and the bare-knuckle fighter Thomas Sayers with his dog, confusingly named Lion, beside him (above).

On the way back I bought a copy of the new Poetry London, which has a two-page review by Luke Kennard of the CBe Ponge book, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic. ‘Unfinished Ode to Mud is the first parallel text edition of Ponge’s work that I have come across . . . This is an act of generosity as well as bravery . . . The directness and sensitivity of Brahic’s translation is refreshing, and to finally see such previously untranslated works as the titular ode (along with over half of the prose poems in the book) is a great thing indeed.’ I could stop there but won’t: ‘CB editions’ books are already starting to look iconic with their attractive, understated covers, satisfyingly compact size and weight. This excellent English edition of an underrated master of the prose poem makes them a press to celebrate.’

Thursday 19 March 2009

Spring again

Yesterday to Basingstoke (not as far as it sounds) to see a production of The Things She Sees, a stage adaptation by Ben Power of a short novel I wrote several years ago (and never found a publisher for). This is part of the National Theatre New Connections programme I posted about sometime late last year: twelve new plays commissioned by the NT for performance by some 200 youth groups (schools, FE colleges, amateur groups). Two or three performances of each production at their home places are followed by a performance at a regional professional theatre (the Lyceum in Edinburgh, the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the Hampstead Theatre in London, etc); one production of each play will then show at the NT in London in July.

Assuming around 20 people involved in each production, that’s 4,000 people now acting, directing and getting butterflies in their tummies before the writers and the overseeing folk from the NT come along to see the performances. There are similar schemes running in Italy, Portugal, Norway, Brazil. Last week I watched 13-year-olds in a school hall in Essex; last night I watched 16-year-olds in a studio theatre in Basingstoke. The NT director I was with told me of another production he saw last week – organised by a 16-year-old whose school refused support so he borrowed money, got his own group together and hired a theatre at the end of a pier.

Afterwards, when chairs are dragged into a rough circle, all the energy that’s been packed tight into the 45 minutes of performance spills out in chat, laughter, relief, excitement, amazement at what they’ve they just done. So, says the man from the NT, what can we do to make it even better next time? Suggestions tumble out. The whole thing is a process in which people are coming together and learning and doing and growing and having what looks like a whole lot of fun at the same time, and I’m awestruck.

Monday 16 March 2009


Just a thought. I get sent – not a lot, but some – writing, and most of it is not very good and that seems to be the resigned assumption among publishing folk, that one’s exposed to the earnest and untalented and what a thankless chore this is; but really, to be sent poems and stories by complete strangers – there are worse things to be here for.

Thursday 12 March 2009


See here for another take on the Guardian’s ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series, which (as I’ve mentioned somewhere here before) seems pointless to me: they’re just rooms, no different from those in which most people fill in tax forms or check the football scores. Or not so much pointless as beside the point, which is what a writer writes, and which these photos of soft furnishings tell me zero about. Likewise those author biogs which tell me the writer has worked as a window cleaner and has two pet armadillos. They give out two messages – these writers are just like the rest of us, they have legs and arms and like comfy chairs; this comfy chair is special because the writer sits in it, so keep off – which cancel each other out, yielding the perfect hollow page-filler with a soupcon of literary interest.

I don’t think I’m being high-minded here. About writers whose work interests me I do like gossip and anecdotes, apocryphal or not, and I like memoirs (not biographies, but that’s another story). I like rooms too. Last night I really should not have ordered that final bottle and this morning the room above, photographed by Roni Horn, who happens have an exhibition on at present at Tate Modern, fits my mood perfectly.