Archive for the ‘Literary chat’ Category
I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.
Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.
So of course you can teach people to write.
It’s just sentences. One after another.
We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:
The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.
He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.
The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.
But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.
She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”
But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!
There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.
The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.
La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.
These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.
I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”
I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.
Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.
What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?
I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.
“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”
So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.
I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.
Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.
I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.
Wait! Take a step back!
Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.
Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.
“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”
He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.
“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”
he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.
“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”
I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.
“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”
Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.
I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.
Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.
“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”
That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:
“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”
Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.
So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.
That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who is looking for an erotic thrill at bedtime. It’s more of a literary curiosity. Here is a typical sex scene:
“The next morning, after a savage night of love, we put to sea again en route to China.”
It’s not that Mirbeau can’t write erotic descriptions. He can. Look at this:
“Divinely calm and pretty, naked in a transparent tunic of yellow silk, she was languidly stretched out on a tiger skin. Her head lay among the cushions, and with her hands, loaded with rings, she played with a long wisp of her flowing hair. A Laos dog with red hair slept beside her, its muzzle resting on her thigh and a paw upon her breast.”
But just when he’s getting you worked up into a lather of erotic anticipation, he sickens you with an image of horrific ugliness. He draws from a vast and various store of deformity, pain, violence, mutilation and disease. It’s grist to the mill for people who want to write like Tarantino or design a Vivenne Westwood fashion shoot; but for those of us who just want to nod off to a sexy story, it’s far too unpleasant.
Of course, the significance of setting the Torture Garden in China wasn’t lost on me. It’s a political book and the commentary on China is as politically charged as the commentary on France. Mirbeau is an iconoclast. His ideas deserve serious consideration, which they are not going to get from me here in this review. But he is also a sensationalist. China served his purpose chiefly because it was largely unknown to the West except as a source of opium, exotic flowers, intense perfumes, exquisite tortures and pretty girls with skin like porcelain.
The images are lush and striking but the plot is ultimately a frustrating one. In spite of the overt philosophising, literal meanings prove elusive. So it’s neither a good erotic novel nor an effective treatise on morbid beauty. But it is, nevertheless, extraordinary, bold and memorable. And if you enjoyed Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, you simply have to read The Torture Garden.
This book offers an excellent lesson in how to escape censorship but is otherwise rather dull.
For those of you who don’t know, Paypal is currently trying to clean up the internet by refusing to do business with any site that offers for sale works of a lewd and depraved nature (as defined by Paypal.) Justine is one of the dirtiest, most depraved, most wicked books you will ever come across but has nevertheless managed to elude Paypal’s obsessive team of censors by adopting the following ingenious ploys.
1. The author has chosen for a pen-name something that sounds vaguely aristocratic. Americans revere titles. For the Marquis de Sade, they are a matter of contempt (“forged by the impertinence that seeks, and sustained by the credulity that bestows them.”)
2. The novel is disguised as a work of philosophical literature. You can depict any act, no matter how bestial or disgusting, so long as your tale has a scholarly imprint. On the back of my paperback copy of this book the label “Literature” is stamped in the top-left and in the bottom-right corners, where even the most stupid of censors can’t miss it.
3. It is written in French. Most Americans can’t understand French and those who can know that French, being the language of love and having been kept implicitly pure down the centuries by the French Academy appointed for that purpose, permits everything. That said, my scholarly translation was produced in America by American scholars. It is always a good idea to enlist the aid of scholars in editing your work if you can because most of them are sexually repressed and therefore see nearly any kinky fantasy as normal.
4. The author employs circumlocution. Okay, this ruse can backfire but it keeps all but the most intelligent of readers off your back. (And censors, by definition are not intelligent readers.) So, for example, when Justine is stripped naked and softened up prior to being gang-raped by four hardened criminals, the author finds ingenious ways to stimulate the imagination by using language that is deliberately imprecise:
“… as soon as I was as he [one of the gang members] desired me to be, [i.e. naked] having made me crouch down on all fours so that I resembled a beast, Dubois [the female gang leader] took in hand a very monstrous object and led it to the peristyles of first one and then the other of Nature’s altars, and under her guidance the blows it delivered to me here and there were like those of a battering ram thundering at the gates of a besieged town in the olden days.”
This pretty simile, by the way, reminds me of one of my favourite Chinese books, Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. The title is based on a French proverb:
Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.
There is much more to be said about this extraordinary novel but as it is nearly all of an intellectual and moralistic nature I suspect it will have little interest for my friends, acquaintances and readers, so, with a heavy heart, I will give this book two stars for effort and move on.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
There has been a lot of fuss about the Booker prize in the UK recently, which is meant to recognise the best literary books being written today. Some commentators were astonished that some of the best literary novelists were not even on the shortlist. I decided to buy the books of some of these unfortunate but brilliant authors who were overlooked by this year’s judges. Philip Hensher is one of them, though this is an older book of his, from 1998.
I chose this novel, Pleasured, after reading many reviews on Amazon. In the end I chose it because it was set in Berlin just before the fall of the Wall. I have a number of books set in Berlin. It is a city that interests me a lot. So I decided that even if the novel is no good, I will at least get something of interest from it.
The novel is no good.
But I am getting something of interest from it because of the Berlin setting.
Rather than say any more about the book, which I’m only half-way through, I’d like to say something about the endorsements plastered all over it.
“Hensher’s finest novel to date, at once literary and cinematic, intimate and epic.”
Translation: His other books are even worse than this. The characters are living in a city where something momentous happens but they are too dull and self-obsessed for it to have much of an impact on them.
“A sublimely structured and sophisticated novel…”
Translation: Not much happens but the few things that do happen are strangely jumbled up.
“A novel whose ambitious scale is matched only by the steely elegance of its author’s control…”
Translation: The author is hoping that by setting his novel at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it will somehow acquire the importance of that event. He doesn’t seem to have anything important to say about it, though.
“Pleasured will be seen as a stepping stone in the development of an important new voice in British fiction.”
Translation: Surely he could do better than this.
“Hensher’s most ambitious novel to date, it is also his most satisfying.”
Translation: He’s trying hard but he’s not much competition for me, I’m glad to say.
“Hensher has clearly set out to write the defining novel of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He may well have succeeded.”
Translation: This is a really lame book that doesn’t live up to expectations.
“Hensher is acute in his perception of how history is compounded of rumour, truth and lies.”
Translation: I can’t find anything good to say about the writing so I’ll say something about the publishing industry instead.
“An engrossing read … Perhaps the greatest achievement of this highly original and accomplished novel is the skill with which the themes of evasion and loss – and the prospect of recovery – are related to the looming presence of the Wall.”
Translation: My own novel has just been published and I’m hoping for a good review in The Spectator where Philip Hensher is the chief reviewer.