Monday 26 August 2013


Inpress wanted some signed copies of War Reporter, so Dan O’Brien is sending over some signed labels (not quite book plates, a bit fancier than address labels, I imagine) from the US. I have never really understood why people want signed copies of books – if the author is a friend, perhaps, but if the reader has never met the author what does a scribbled signature add? Some remote form of authenticity?

But oh, look. ‘Confab. between the Poet and Harriet, the House-maid, who had brought up a Message that “A Lady, below, Sir! would be much obliged to You for a Nautigraft.”’ And the start of a brief poem: ‘A naughty Graff? Graff? – That’s what Germans call / A Count and one whose morals go a wry gate! / What can a Lady want one for I wonder?’ By and in the handwriting of Coleridge, 19 April 1832:

And here’s an autograph manuscript of a poem by John Clare, 23 July 1827 (‘My autograph were nought to prize / In less conspicuous places …’):

And Muriel Spark, a draft of her poem ‘Going up to Sotheby’s’: ‘This was the wine. It stained the top quarter of the page / when she knocked over the glass accidentally. They were / sorry to lose that drop of wine for the wine was a treat … And now the grandchildren have decided / to sell the manuscript. / Bound and proud, documented / by scholars of the land, bound / up and glossed these papers / are going up to Sotheby’s):

These are all in the catalogues (two volumes, each of around 280 pages) of the sale of ‘Poetical Manuscripts & Portraits of Poets’ from the Roy Davids Collection at Bonhams earlier this year. I found them in an Oxfam shop this afternoon. There is a thrill is seeing a Keats poem in his own handwriting (and Hopkins and Lawrence and Pound, etc), and Sylvia Plath’s working drafts with all their crossings-out and second and third and fourteenth thoughts, and a photo of Larkin grinning from ear to ear, and … And everything, the whole lot, is available online: and

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Nee-naw, baaa, gwdihw

In Stephen Knight’s poem ‘Happly Ever After’ (in his collection of The Prince of Wails) there are neenors and a tooker tooker. He glosses these – fire engines, helicopter – but he really he doesn’t need to: most English readers will know what these things are from the sounds the words make and their context. Not that the sound of a fire engine is actually anything like neenor, or nee-naw, however you want to spell it. But it may have been in the past, and somehow that’s the word we use for it.

We have words too for the sounds animals make. Cats miaow (‘also meow’, according to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), dogs woof, cows moo, sheep baa, pigs oink, owls towhit-towhoo. At least, English ones do. I asked some translator colleagues about these words and it turns out, as I’d suspected, that they’re far from universal. In Poland, I’m told, dogs hau, sheep mee and pigs hrum. For a Welsh owl, the word is gwdihw. The American poet Jonathan Williams (1929–2008) has a poem entitled ‘A Chorale of Cherokee Night Music as Heard through an Open Window in Summer Long Ago’ that is made up entirely of animal, bird and insect sounds. The first four of its fourteen lines (a sonnet, of sorts) consist of the words wahuhu, uguku, huhu and lalu, each word repeated to the end of the line and cut off according to the measure of the justified setting. These lines represent screech owl, hoot owl, yellow-breasted chat and jar-fly; subsequent lines offer a cricket, Carolina chickadee, katydid, crow, wolf, beetle, turkey, goose, bullfrog and spring frog.

The chorale I hear as I sit at my desk includes the noise of a wasp beating against the window and the several different sounds of aeroplanes flying over, heading into to Heathrow; against these, intermittently, the click of my computer mouse, the ping of an email arriving in the inbox, footsteps on the stairs, the satisfied chirp of my mobile phone when it’s finished charging, the noise of my crumpling paper and the other noise as that crumpled paper lands on others in the waste bin. Most of these sounds are so familiar I barely hear them, let alone feel a need to spell or say them, but some time ago a noise so unfamiliar added itself into the mix that I became convinced there was a deathwatch beetle in the party wall. I knocked on my neighbour’s door to ask if she, too, had heard this sound. It’s like thu, thu, thu, I said, and there’s a pause and then the thu’s again. No, she hadn’t heard it, but we went upstairs and saw that on the party wall her son had hung a darts board.

Sometimes only the sound itself will do, not a description of the sound, but onomatopoeia can only reach so far – not least, of course, because, cats and pigs (and police-car sirens too, and paper being crumpled) have different vocal cords. It’s possible that if you put an infant – a human with all its options still open, before its vocal cords have shut down to no more than the range required by the culture in which it is raised – in a room with a cat for several weeks, it would learn to imitate the cat’s sound exactly; but don’t try this at home, and anyway it doesn’t solve the problem of writing that sound down on the page. In a poem in which I dearly wanted a particular sound I ended up with ‘the continuous wavering shhhhh / of traffic on the motorway / across two fields’ – far from the thing itself, just a nod towards it.

Better words for the noise made by police-car or ambulance sirens?

Friday 16 August 2013

The white linen jacket of Gilbert Adair

Because I’d been told Adair admired Agota Kristof, I went looking – and quoted from what I found in the previous post – and I’ve been reading more of the essays.

One of them is on Baudrillard’s book on the Gulf War, La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu (he read the French, why would he not). He approves ‘some brilliant aperçus’ – ‘The notion, for example, of the Gulf War constantly, neurotically, scrutinising its image in the mirror of the TV screen (without which incentive, Baudrillard implies, it would not have been waged at all): “Am I beautiful enough, am I operational enough, sophisticated enough, to take my place in the history of warfare?”’ And the photo of the oil-soaked cormorant ‘as the symbol of our own impotence when confronted with such a gummily unintelligible event’. And then, reading the book ‘on the sunlit terrace of a Parisian café’, Adair becomes sensitive to ‘the glee, the faintly chilling gusto’ of Baudrillard – ‘almost as though he needed such a war to vindicate his theories of postmodernism, just as the Pentagon needed it to vindicate all its glossy weaponry’. And then a switch: ‘Distractedly, turning a page, I spilt some red wine on my white linen jacket and, aghast at the stain it had made, I confess that for a moment or two I didn’t give a damn about the war or the cormorant or the tens (or even hundreds) of thousands dead.’ For the final three paragraphs he continues with ‘stain’, linking it back to Baudrillard and the Gulf War, and ending: ‘I would not dream of wearing a jacket as stained as the world is, yet I do manage to live in that world, day after day, contentedly enough.’

The white linen jacket – with silk scarf, summer and winter – was Adair’s attire of choice. I knew them: as a freelance, I copy-edited and typeset his last books, which involved meetings in cafés, and when it came to taking in corrections, or revisions (on most pages) for the paperback editions, he’d need to watch me take them in on-screen, and adjust further if the line breaks or how the paragraphs sat on the page required – a major reveal, for example, such as the exposure of a murderer’s identity, had to be on a verso, so that the reader had to turn a page to get to it – and he’d come down from Notting Hill as far as the Holland Park roundabout and I’d pick him up in my car and drive him the last stretch down the Uxbridge Road, which he perceived as not environmentally friendly to white linen jackets. He didn’t need more stains.

He was fastidious. He was clever: the title of the 1992 book of his journalism that I’ve been reading, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, suggests clever-clever, but no, just a small joke that offered itself, and if you have a fondness for wordplay (Adair was the man who translated Perec’s La Disparition into A Void, 300 pages without a single e), why not make that joke your book title.

The essays are occasional, following up whims, connections, correspondences, and they are written, of course, in unstained white-linen-jacket prose. But that immaculate style is no bar to the frequent expression of his biting contempt. Adair on Reagan, ‘the idiot of the global village’: ‘Why, instead of making joshingly coded allusions to his deficiencies, did no American journalist, not even those to whom his policies were anathema, ever call him a moron and be done with it? Why always the language of moderation with such an immoderately awful person?’ Reagan’s wife Nancy is ‘a woman with a brain the size and colour of a small cancerous pea’. He cites a tabloid article and sees no cause to check from which: ‘Trying to distinguish between the Sun, the Star and the Mirror would be like poking into a blocked-up toilet and trying to figure out which turd came from which backside.’

He didn’t like Thatcher either. Suffering from back pain, he reluctantly turns on daytime TV (‘a pleasure to be taken exclusively in the evening, as in some households sex used to be’) and catches The Flintstones: ‘A startlingly precise metaphor for the current, calamitous state of this country’s infrastructure after a decade of Thatcherite capitulation to market forces on a specifically, mythically American model. One has only to look around one in London to realise that, beyond all contemporary capitalism’s surface sheen, beyond the computers and cellular telephones, the aerials and squarials, the bar codes and junk mail the credit cards and fax machines, the fast-food outlets and hundred percent mortgages, beyond, in short, everything that was supposed to have put the “great” back into “Great Britain”, there continues to fester a dark, grubby, Stone Age metropolis.’

He slides the anger in, deliciously. There’s a cutting piece on Bertolucci’s film of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky: ‘For expatriates, at least as represented in fiction and film, travel tends to broaden not the mind but the ego.’ Comparing two Hollywood big guns in 1990, he concludes that ‘the difference, essentially, is that Stallone sweats and Schwarzenegger doesn’t’, and goes off on a riff, before bringing himself back to book with: ‘Aesthetically speaking, there isn’t one of these films ... that is not repellent to the last degree and does not not bear witness to the insidious Nazification of a minor but often amusing genre of the American cinema’. And then puts the knife into a another journalist: ‘the fact that the heroes can be distinguished from the villains by being slightly less Fascistic in their methods can scarcely be regarded as a cause for admiring their “radicalism”, as Judith Williamson did in a recent, extraordinarily foolish and irresponsible Guardian article.’

Surveying ‘the pallid, near-chromatic spectrum of contemporary British fiction’, Adair suggests this rule: ‘Everything one reads tastes more or less like Anita Brookner.’ The piece from which I quoted in the previous post, mentioning Kristof, ends: ‘A little factionalism, a little ferocity, if you please, reviewers.’

The book begins with an introduction that’s interested in the term ‘culture’: ‘Prizes, festivals, magazine profiles, newspaper reviews, biographies, bestseller lists, questionnaires, publicised feuds, gala premieres, suits for plagiarism, scandals, personal appearances, interviews, obituaries, anthologies, manifestos, readings, signing sessions, Kaleidoscope and the Late Show, the Groucho and the Garrick ... that is the stuff of which of which contemporary culture is made.’ Since he wrote, Facebook, Twitter, etc, have kicked in: Like me, like my book/dog/cat. How, in such a stained world, did he keep his own linen jacket so clean? By discrimination. He argues in the introduction that culture and art ‘ought to be regarded as entities wholly distinct and discrete from one another; that culture, in effect, begins where art ends and ends where art begins.’

I miss him. We need him.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Agota Kristof

I wasn’t going to write here about Kristof (1935–2011) for a while, because there aren’t any CBe Kristof books to sell until early next year, but I’m prompted by this Slavoj Zizek piece in the online Guardian earlier this week in the series on ‘A book that changed me’.

Books can do that. I love that this series takes this as a given.

Kristof’s The Notebook – first published in French in 1986 – has been out of print in the UK for more than two decades; CBe will re-issue it early next year. Search and you’ll find a US omnibus edition that also includes its two sequels, an edition which officially is not for sale in the UK but of course you can get hold of it; you can also download it, probably for free, as you can download most everything, but I happen to publish books. And The Notebook, for me, is one of those books: the ones that come out of the blue and knock you sideways, and when you get to your feet again you’re in a slightly different place.

Two children, sent to a remote village for the duration of the war, devise physical and mental exercises to render themselves invulnerable to pain and sentiment. Their story is told by themselves, in the first-person plural, in brief chapters of no more than two or three pages. They steal, kill, blackmail and survive; others – the cobbler, the harelipped girl who craves love, the children’s parents – do not survive. Though no places or historical events are named, the novel grew out of the experience of Nazi occupation and Soviet ‘liberation’ during World War II; at the time of the book’s first publication in the UK, one reviewer wrote that ‘Closing this chillingly unsentimental novel, I felt that it had contrived to say absolutely everything about the Second World War and its aftermath in Central Europe’. But the book is also about writing itself, and it stands apart from any specific historical occasion. Another reviewer: ‘Kristof seems to be writing on the edge of anxiety, surrounded by pleasure and terror. The reader swings by his heels until the book rushes to his head. It’s that good.’

The Notebook came to CBe indirectly. First, Nina Bogin, an Anvil poet based in France, sent me her translation of Kristof’s brief memoir that recounts how, after being smuggled out of Hungary in 1956, she wrote The Notebook: slowly, while working in factories in French-speaking Switzerland and learning an alien language, jotting things down and not expansively because she didn’t have that command, that luxury (the memoir is titled The Illiterate). I said yes, because Nina Bogin writes well and because Kristof is important. Then, belatedly realising that there’s not much point in doing the memoir if The Notebook isn’t readily available, scouted around; and found the translator and went to tea with him, and did some deal with the rights holders in France; and the result is the memoir and a re-issue of The Notebook coming out together.

Meanwhile, Zizek isn’t the only one. Gabriel Josipovici, at the start of his introduction to the The Illiterate: ‘Every now and again you read a book by an unknown author and you know immediately that you are in the company of greatness.’ George Szirtes, on whom I inflicted advance proofs: ‘What a stunning, brutal and beautifully written (and translated) book.’ Gilbert Adair, from a reprinted late-1980s newspaper piece: ‘… Agota Kristof, whose twinned novels The Notebook and The Proof impress me as near-masterpieces’.

That ‘near’ is good enough for me. Why is Kristof not better known? (Why is she not among the Penguin Modern Classics?) One reason is pointed to in the Adair piece: ‘In the book pages of any self-respecting newspaper or magazine a new work of fiction by William Boyd or Penelope Lively is passed under review at a length and with a gravity that will, I’m convinced, bemuse posterity. Kristof, if reviewed at all, has almost invariably found herself tucked away under Other New Novels or else, quel horreur!, Translated Fiction.’ But The Notebook deserves better than to be tucked away.