Wednesday 26 December 2012

Ten Parties

Update, 2 January 2013: competition over. Answers now added at the foot of this post. Five female authors and five male: this wasn't deliberate, it's just how it happened, but it works nicely and ideally I'd like to invite them all to an eleventh party. Congratulations to the winner, Averill Buchanan, who got every one correct. It's reassuring to know that there is someone in the world who has read everything.

First correct naming of author & novel/story from which all the following extracts are taken wins £50 of CBe books. Email to

Actually I think I’m pretty safe here. One or two are obvious but several are well off the beaten track. So a couple of free CBe books to the highest score over five received by 2 January.

The Prime Minister was coming, Agnes said: so she had heard them say in the dining-room, she said, coming in with a tray of glasses. Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less? It made no difference at this hour of the night to Mrs Walker among the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins which, however hard they washed up in the scullery, seemed to be all on top of her, on the kitchen table, on chairs, while the fire blared and roared, the electric lights glared, and still supper to be laid. All she felt was, one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference to Mrs Walker.

Mary smoothed the skirt of her party frock and taking short steps crossed swiftly to the table on which rested sandwiches, glasses, soft drinks and a bottle of Gloag’s Old Grouse Malt Whisky. She said, very quickly:
‘It’s rather smelly, but never mind. They seem to have organised the eats.’
Vaguely, Pink looked round at the pine panelling, the scrubbed floorboards, the glassy blackboard and the narrow gothic windows set safely above boys’ eye-level. He tried to define the missing ingredient.
‘Sex?’ he suggested, sniffing once or twice and looking up at the dark space between the overhead lights and the high vaulted roof. Mary, grabbing a sandwich, shook her head, then spoke with her mouth full.
‘We’re jolly lucky to have it.’
Pink put his thumbs in his pockets. He was still sniffing the air. He made a further suggestion.
‘Sex cruelly denied?’

On this blue night, this starry night, the best of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated far and wide, plied its seductive, destructive craft. Wine from afar heated stomachs, sweetly numbed legs, dulled brains, and summoned belches as resonant as the call of battle horns. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had pulled in three days before from Port Said, had smuggled in big-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantation of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the groves of Jerusalem. This is what the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw onto the shore, and this is what Odessan beggars sometimes get at Jewish weddings. They got Jamaican rum at Dvoira Krik’s wedding, and that’s why the Jewish beggars got as drunk as unkosher pigs and began loudly banging their crutches. Eichbaum unbuttoned his vest, mustered the raging crowd with a squinting eye, and hiccuped affectionately.

What – ?!’ I gasped. Naomi’s bottom reared above me, seeming to watch me with a suspicious one-eyed stare, pink mouth agape below as though in astonished disbelief.
‘A bidet. It’s what they’re for, you know, washing bottoms.’
‘Yes, sure, but oddly I was just thinking about –’
‘Can you beat that,’ said Dickie, tossing the towel over Naomi’s bent back. ‘I always thought they were for cooling beer in.’ He leaned close to the mirror, scraped at a fleck of blood in front of his golden sideburns. ‘Oh, by the way, Ger, I don’t know if you saw what’s left of the poor bastard on the way up, but Roger’s no longer with us, you know.’
Roger – ?!’ It was like a series of heavy gates crashing shut, locks closing like meshing gears. I stumbled to my feet.
‘I knew it!’ gasped Tania, clutching her arms with wet hands.
Dickie unzipped his trousers and tucked his shirttails in, frowning at the bloodstains on his vest. I braced myself on the cupboard shelves. ‘But … but who – ?’
He raised his eyebrows at me in the mirror as though to say I already knew. And I did. ‘They used croquet mallets,’ he said with a grimace, zipping up.

General Lowenhielm, who was to dominate the conversation of the dinner table, related how the Dean’s collection of sermons was a favourite book of the Queen’s. But as a new dish was served he was silenced. ‘Incredible,' he told himself. ‘It is Blinis Demidoff.’ He looked around at his fellow diners. They were all quietly eating their Blinis Demidoff, without any sign of either surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years.

She was working for the caterer of this affair, helping in the kitchen and bringing around the food. She wore a gray-and-white uniform and had her hair bunched under a black net and she looked very plain. But that only accentuated the aura of her mischief. She moved among us with a tray like the secret queen of some criminal enclave, casing the joint. As I reached for one of her hors d'oeuvres, she smiled and said, ‘Hello, Michael Reed.’
It had been a month or so since we’d met at Ted MacKey’s, and then only briefly. Tonight I’d noticed her right away, but I hadn’t expected to be remembered. I was astonished. I probably looked it. She smiled and passed by.
Before we all sat down to eat, I made sure to find out her name. This was a nerve-racking endeavor, not entirely to my surprise. Less than two weeks earlier, I’d been staring at her naked privates. I tried to intersect her path as if by accident.

Houda was simultaneously aware that she was in a room full of creaking chairs and hot bodies. Toby, pawing at a dish of cold leavings, looked ugly; his lips were greasy. Those people who sat nearest the guitar had already begun rocking their heads and bouncing their knees like marionettes; while others suffered a certain milky washing of the eyeball, undeniable symptom of that condition when being bored to death is synonymous with being moved to tears, since the second is the natural outcome of the first. ‘And I had been turning over in my mind the benefit to be gained from knowing these people, and whether it might be possible for me to lead a “normal” (Good God, “normal”!) life!’
It was necessary to leave at once, if she was to show Eugene the full extent of her contempt.

She could accept his going away. These things happened to women. It was something else that bothered her. At first glance he seemed all of a piece and in complete control. But then, if you were a woman and looked a little closer, you saw that he was little vague, a little careless, a little scattered. Why was one of his silver cufflinks missing? Why hadn’t he brushed the dandruff from his shoulders? Why was it that the colour of his socks didn’t quite match? There was something odd too about his behaviour. While chatting away with Imelda, Boniface was simultaneously smiling at the Cardinal and being stern with the American Ambassador. It was as if different bits of him were going off in different directions. This was what perturbed Zuna as they stood in the Nuncio’s garden ablaze with orchids, smiling, sweet-faced Monsignori and beautiful bra-less women.

Gerda’s line as a hostess was of adorable inefficiency; with the air of a lost child she tottered among her guests, in one hand a glass dripping sherry, in the other a semi-opaque yellow drink in which the skewered cherry appeared as a threatening shadow. Wherever a glass was put down a small sticky ring stamped itself: she pounced on these rings with her handkerchief with little reproachful cries (no one advised her to wipe the underneaths of the glasses). She bewailed the quality of the cigerettes, the heat of the room, the (so far) absence of Gilbert; she upset a saucer of olives. She was followed around by a young man she had known in the Navy, who each time she succeeded in placing a drink with a guest smiled proudly, as though she had sold a raffle ticket.

Finally, she vomited. It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. She wasn’t pretty at all. It was a nuisance, and ugly. Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.
But at least she could breathe now; or rather, wheeze.
They wrapped her in blankets and took her into the house and gave her a cup of hot coffee. Nobody seemed too intensely upset. I got the impression they more or less expected climaxes like these at the parties they gave.
‘Who brought her?’
‘Benson, wasn’t it? She’s going to taste salty for a week.’
‘Somebody ought to put a picket fence around that ocean. It’s a public menace.’

Answers (added 2 January 2013):

1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
2. James Kennaway, Household Ghosts
3. Isaac Babel, 'The King'
4. Robert Coover, Gerald's Party
5. Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast
6. Denis Johnson, The Name of the World
7. Rosemary Tonks, Emir
8. Nina Fitzpatrick, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia
9. Elizabeth Bowen, To the North
10. Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to See

Friday 21 December 2012

Some prose in 2012

(or, ‘Couldn’t something temporary be done with a teapot?’)

For starters, a sentence, a question, from the early pages of The Uprising by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, a book a friend sent me I think because of the subtitle, ‘Poetry and Finance’, which suggests something useful to my predicament (or one of them): ‘How can we think of a process of subjectivation when precarity is jeopardizing social solidarity and when the social body is wired by techno-linguistic automatisms which reduce its activity to a repetition of embedded patterns of behaviour?’

I haven’t got much further. I like the deep orangey-yellow cover. I keep thinking I should go further – I suspect there’s an intelligence operating here on a range of topical matters that interest me – but it’s an effort. I may just give up, because the end does not justify the means, ever.

I hadn’t fully realised what a sensitive and sheltered soul I am, how allergic to bad prose, until my past few months as a novice RLF Fellow – that is, as a writer embedded in an academic institution whose role is to advise students on their written work. There are exceptions – the Swedish History MA student whose prose lightens my mood for the whole day – but most of what’s offered across the desk makes me flinch. We find a level, the student and I, at which we can talk, and this can be fun and enlightening, but when we look again at the prose we’re back to hard labour and soon reach a point at which I suggest that I don’t think I offer any more help. Sometimes I ask: What writers do you read for pleasure? They look at me as if I’m mad.

Here’s the rub, of course. I’m of the last generation in Western history which, as children, when there wasn’t much going on and it was raining outside, picked up a book. What else was there to do? Television barely existed; some card games; no internet, no games consoles. No one cooks well until they’ve eaten good food; no one writes good sentences until they’ve read those of others. The reading lists given to the students I encounter don’t make up for that. The research for many of their essays is focused on papers in academic journals whose main message is that reading neither is nor can be a pleasure.

(In the given conditions, I doubt that the written essay, a thing culturally specific to the UK and US education systems and wholly alien to students arriving out of many other systems, even within Europe, is in most subjects an appropriate main means of assessing a student’s intelligence and potential. But that’s an aside.)

Obvious statement: if reading isn’t central to the culture – I mean reading freestyle, reading beyond anything one is required to read for specific purposes – then there’s no hope that good writing will be. And even before, well before, the library closures, it was clear that reading isn’t central. So-called literary fiction gets column inches, but Philip Roth’s 2009 prediction that its reading will soon become ‘cultic’ – ‘Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range’ – may already have come about. Poetry, poetry written for the page, hasn’t been even near central for decades, and never will be again. (So why – obvious question – am I a book publisher? You might as well ask how can we think of subjectivation when precarity is jeopardizing social solidarity. I did mention pleasure, I think.)

To set against the above, three writers read this year, and none of their books exactly new. Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, first published in the UK in 2012 but first read by me in a 2005 Paris Review anthology; it’s been reviewed, but no one seems to have noticed that it’s a kind of companion piece to Johnson’s equally concise and wonderful The Name of the World (2000), whose main character also has to deal with – but in this book in a contemporary academic setting – the violent deaths of his wife and daughter. A re-read of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1977) and a first read of her Pitch Dark (1984): bliss. A late-arrival read – courtesy of the gift of the book by Helena Nelson: deep bows and salutations – of The End of Me (1968) by Alfred Hayes, who to me is a god.

Others too; the above are just those coming to mind this evening. Petrol by Martina Evans. Essays by Eliot Weinberger. I do tend to read off the side and behind the back of the prize shortlists, but not deliberately. The difference between what I can like and what I wholly surrender to seems to be this, whatever the genre: with former I have the feeling I’m being asked to admire – look at me, I’m writing a writing a novel/poem, see what I’m doing here – and with the latter that feeling evaporates.

Here is a link to this year’s TLS Christmas Quiz, set (as in past years) by Tony Lurcock. One review of Lurcock’s compilation of writing by British travellers in Finland, 1760–1830, published by CBe in 2010, mentioned that his own commentary is ‘at least as worth reading as the texts themselves’. A second book, covering the years 1830 to 1917, will be published by CBe in April.

The photo above is by Abelardo Morell. While the bird cooks, hours of pleasure may be spent exploring his photographs.