Tuesday, November 23, 2010


...Sanctuary, a cheaply meretricious book, which [Faulkner] confessedly wrote as a shocker[.] There is nothing in Sanctuary to repay an intelligent reader, thought there is plenty to titillate adolescent minds, whereas in Faulkner's other books there are pages of genuine power or beauty which are like the rational moments of a demented man.

J. Donald Adams on William Faulkner's Sanctuary.

Guess what I'm reading just now. Meretricious? That's a good word for it. Or trashy.

Pestilences and victims

"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can't judge if it's simple, but I know it's true. You see, I'd heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people's heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I'd come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak - and to act - quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That's why I say there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that. If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don't do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. You see, I've no great ambitions.

"I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it's a fact one doesn't come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That's why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims's side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace."

Dr Rieux, The Plague by Albert Camus.

Novelists and philosophers

William H. Gass, critiquing Blood Meridian fifteen years before it was written:

Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds.... They are divine games. Both play at gods as others play at bowls....
Games – yet different games. Fiction and philosophy often make most acrimonious companions. To be so close in blood, so brotherly and like in body, can inspire a subtle hate; for their rivalry is sometimes less than open in its damage. They wound with advice. They smother with love. And they impersonate one another. Then, while in the other’s guise and gait and oratory, while their brother’s smiling ape and double, they do his suicide. Each expires in a welter of its own surprise.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The perfect TV programme

So, imagine you had to construct a TV programme especially for yourself. Just your favourite things or people. What would you have? For me, I might have a programme devoted to a favourite poet, let's say Norman MacCaig, who I've quoted on a number of occasions on this blog. And I might throw in one of my favourite musicians, Aly Bain, the greatest fiddler in the world. And perhaps one of my favourite comedians, Billy Connolly (at least before he became Americanised and decided that being funny consisted of swearing loudly and often). And let's throw in a favourite novelist, Andrew Greig, who wrote the eerie and fascinating Where They Lay Bare, and the wonderful John Buchanesque romp, The Return of John MacNab, and the beautiful WW2 romance, That Summer, and others. And some scenery from back home, up in the mountains of Scotland, up in Assynt. Wouldn't that be a fascinating programme? ConoboyVision.

So imagine my delight last night to watch the story of Andrew Greig, Aly Bain and Billy Connolly climbing up to the loch of the Green Corrie, on a mission to fulfil a request from the late Norman MacCaig that they go there and try to catch a trout for him. He would, he told them, be smiling down 'from a place he didn't believe in'.

There was some wonderful footage of Norman reciting his poems and telling of his philosophy and beliefs. He wasn't religious, he said, he was what you might call a Zen Calvinist. And if ever there was a better description of my mixed-up mind than Zen Calvinist, I'm not sure what it might be. His poetry is beautiful, deceptively simple, nothing flashy but gently probing depths.

Those of you in the UK can watch the programme for the next week here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Albert Guerard, who acted as his Svengali, called John Hawkes a prime proponent of ‘the rhetoric of anti-realist fiction’. This rhetoric poses considerable challenges for the reader: in everything he writes, Hawkes assiduously tries to remove the conventional literary techniques with which we are familiar and which we can use to create sense of the text. Characterisation is virtually non-existent; narrative is fragmented, surreal, unbounded by traditional senses of time or space. Guerard likens it to ‘the effect of a solitary flashlight playing back and forth over a dark and cluttered room’: what we see is therefore fragmented, unconnected. We are left with something sensual, immediate, forceful and brutal, instant, something deeply confrontational. It defies simple explanation. At times, it defies understanding. Hawkes’s own description of it is as ‘a hallucinatory vision’. Mark Hamstra describes it thus:

Hawkes' books attempt to portray the dark cisterns beneath everyday reality. His work challenges readers to wade into the black waters of the violent, the comic, and the sexual; to sift through elements embedded in the past, with the ghosts of regret [and] death existing side by side with hope for the future.

The Cannibal is set ostensibly in Germany during and immediately after the Second World War, with diversions back in time to 1914 to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, but this is not any recognisable representation of a real Germany. The locus is an imagined town called Spitzen-on-the-Dein, which ‘gorged itself on straggling beggars and remained gaunt beneath an evil cloaked moon’. It is a strange, nightmare world in which a lunatic asylum stands as the most direct symbol of the madness which infested Germany from 1933 to 1945. The narrator, Zizendorf, is a neo-Nazi who sets out to free his country from its American occupiers. To that end, he lays a trap for Leevey, an American soldier who patrols the countryside on his motorbike and appears to be in charge of much of Germany. In the ensuing ambush Leevey is killed and the novel ends with Zizendorf becoming the new Fuhrer.

There is no moral framework within which any recognisable sense of society can be formed. Everything has been reduced to a state of savagery: communication is rudimentary, emotions stunted. The people live a brute existence, madness and sanity appear indistinguishible. The Duke’s cannibalistic murder of Jutta’s young son is portrayed, in much the same way that Cormac McCarthy would later depict the actions of the necrophiliac Lester Ballard, in wholly neutral tones. This 1945 narrative, portraying the descent of modernity into madness, is counterpointed by the middle section of the novel in which the principal characters (in as much as they are ‘characters’) are transported back in time to 1914, the pre-First World War era of bombast and vainglory. The message is clear: the savagery and evil to which Germany succumbed is a natural concomitant of the mythically-based idealism on which its nationalistic fervour was built. Evil, but inevitable. A hell foretold in its own making.

Along with Zizendorf, the novel is peopled by a surreal array of character-types, none of whom are quite well enough defined to be considered characters in any traditional sense, but each possessing, nonetheless, a fierce sense of their essence, what it is that makes them as they are. There is the cannibalistic Duke, a drunken census taker, Madame Snow the boarding house owner, the tuba-playing Herr Stintz and Jutta, Zizendorf’s mistress, constantly craving a love which Zizendorf cannot offer, too passive to be considered a heroine, but the closest the novel comes to a sympathetic character.

There is an exotic, almost incantatory feel to the language and it is easy to immerse yourself in its beauty. Long passages feel luscious to the tongue, insisting to be read aloud. There are moments which could come straight from The Waste Land. And yet, throughout, there is a wilful refusal to allow any straightforward narrative to intervene. While one can admire Hawkes’s determination to pursue his modernist course, the result is a sense of distancing which makes it very difficult to access the novel on any level other than purely intellectual. There is little room for emotion, none for empathy. The Cannibal is certainly not a novel you can skim or allow your attention to wander from because, if you do, within a few paragraphs you will be hopelessly lost, with neither narrative nor compassion to reconnect you.

In the end, it is difficult to see anything redemptive here. The characters seem fated to recycle history, displaying the same weaknesses, expressing the same evil, falling into the same brutal traps. Perhaps that is accurate; perhaps that is the fate of us all. Or perhaps not. I cling to the beauty of that ‘or’. That beauty is missing in The Cannibal. Its hallucinations, while they are intended to liberate the novel from its form, liberate it, too, from hope.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The saving beauty of language

In the same interview in which he comments on Flannery O’Connor (see post below) John Hawkes makes the following observation on a constant which he sees running through the ‘avant-garde’ from Quevedo and Thomas Nash through to himself, Flannery, James Purdy et al:

This constant is a quality of coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and in the world around us, and to bring to this exposure a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language.

It is, in some ways, a persuasive argument. The ‘saving beauty of language’ could certainly be said to mitigate the excesses of O’Connor’s themes, for example, while coldness and detachment are undoubtedly traits discernible in, say, Blood Meridian. The lineage could also be traced back to Dostoevsky – you don’t get a colder analysis of personal and societal failure than the Underground Man, for example.

But, again, the issue for me is one of balance. James Purdy, whom Hawkes mentions in this context, was a writer who clearly saw the excesses and failures of modernity, and yet he also displayed a sense of hope which is much, much more difficult to discern in Hawkes or O’Connor or Dostoevsky. The Nephew or Malcolm, as written by Flannery, say, would be radically different from the novels as written by Purdy. His comic spirit is bright as well as brutal, and his language savingly beautiful, but he also offers a vision of humanity that is not hopelessly skewed towards failure.

John Hawkes on Flannery O'Connor

Here’s a couple of perceptive comments from John Hawkes on Flannery O’Connor:

For pure, devastating, comic brilliance and originality she stands quite alone in America - except perhaps for Nathanael West. Both of these writers maintain incredible distance in their work, both explode the reality around us into meaningful new patterns, both treat disability and inadequacy and hypocrisy with brutal humor, both of them deal fiercely with paradox and use deceptively simple language in such a way as to achieve fantastic verbal surprise and remarkable poetic expression.


She's an extraordinary woman with what I like to think of as a demonic sensibility. I've been trying to persuade Flannery O'Connor that as a writer she's on the devil's side. Her answer is that my idea of the devil corresponds to her idea of God. I must admit that I resist this equation. Certainly in her two great short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," as well as in her brilliant first novel, Wise Blood, it's the unwavering accuracy and diabolism of her satiric impulse that impresses me most.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a love/hate relationship with Flannery O’Connor. She is an astoundingly good writer, and the way she uses humour to describe brutality is nothing short of amazing. Cormac McCarthy’s use of humour is similar, but even he cannot combine the comic and the horrific in quite the way O’Connor achieves.

But to what end? This has always been my difficulty with Flannery O’Connor. The violence she wreaks on her characters in the name of her God is so extreme I have tremendous difficulty identifying anything remotely Christian in it. This is perhaps explained by her observation, as reported by Hawkes here, that his conception of the devil corresponds to her God. There is an awesome darkness to this vision of Christianity, as evidenced by the gruesome self-abuse of Haze Motes and his eventual, miserable death, or by the buggery of Tarwater by the Devil, an act which leads directly to his redemption. Redemption through rape? A Christian ideal? Really?

I fully accept that what I am doing is surveying O’Connor’s profoundly held and theologically reasoned position from a shallow perspective. In terms of both literary criticism – in which I am being too literal – and theological debate – in which I could not hope to match O’Connor’s erudition – I am projecting too much of my own beliefs onto an analysis of her work. But it is hard not to. O’Connor’s vision of humanity is of a broken, flawed, failed community helpless before God and hopeless in its earthly dealings. She deals such a rigged hand there is no prospect of success. And her vision of God appears to owe much to the Old Testament. There is a brutality to it that I can’t and wouldn’t want to accept. For sure, there is evil in the world. But there is also goodness.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Tassie Keltjin is a midwestern girl, a student, a daughter, a sister, working part-time as a nanny for a middle-aged couple with an adopted, mixed-race child of two. She is warm, friendly, smart, fun in a not-quite sexy sort of way, the kind of girl you’d like to have as a friend. She’s struggling to escape the past – family, country, farming – and trying to embrace the future – study, town, love, hopes – but isn’t quite as adept at the transition as she might believe. So, what we have then is a coming-of-age novel? Well, yes it is, I suppose, but also it isn’t. It’s much more than that. Lorrie Moore is a superb writer, famed for her short stories and now, with A Gate at the Stairs, we know that she is also a superb novelist. A Gate at the Stairs is a post 9/11 study of racism, war, peace, love, ambition, hubris, weakness, hope, deceit. So, another stab at the Great America Novel? Again, yes, and a pretty decent stab it is too.

It is deception that is at the heart of this novel. The way we deceive others, the way we deceive ourselves. The way we are deceived by government, authority, the state. The repercussions such deception can cause, justified and not, fair and not, anticipated and not. And, most of all, the fate of the innocents swept along in this narrative of deceit. If at times, as we shall see, Moore stretches our credibility just a touch too far in this regard, for the most part her touch is flawless and she presents an aching story that is all but heartbreaking. That it is narrated by Tassie, in a mixture of sweetness, incomprehension, great good humour and deep regret makes the emotional pull all the more powerful.

Tassie is a twenty-year-old country girl transplanted to the town, growing up, trying to cope. She has college lessons – Introduction to Sufism, Wine Tasting (until the computer realises she is under-age and kicks her off the course), War movie soundtracks and so on. She meets and falls for an enigmatic Brazilian called Reynaldo whose knowledge of Portuguese seems oddly suspect and who may not be all he seems. She is employed by an intellectual but increasingly flaky couple to act as nanny to an as-yet unadopted child, and indeed is involved in the preliminary meetings which result in their adoption of Emma-Mary, a delightful, precocious two-year-old mixed-race girl. Her younger brother, meanwhile, to his great relief is finishing school and is simultaneously learning yoga and toying with the idea of joining the military: another mixed-up kid, in other words. And it’s no wonder these particualr kids are mixed up, given their parents: father is a Lutheran organic potato farmer and mother a Jewish incipient hypochondriac from the East coast transplanted inharmoniously into the midwest.

Through the twists and turns of incipient adulthood, Tassie tries to make sense of it all. She tries hard to narrate events for us but often struggles because so much of their meaning eludes her. As the main plotline about the adopted child unfolds – in a wholly unexpected way – Tassie is left trying to reconcile the needs of authority, aspiring adoptive parents, the innocent children caught up in everyone’s machinations and, of course, herself. Her work in nannying Emma-Mary reveals to her latent racism everywhere, a casual but corrosive inability to see beyond binary black and white. In this, at least, Tassie is aided by the frequent gatherings at Sarah’s house of a support group comprising other mixed-race families whose travails and beliefs and battles against prejudice and – more importantly – prejudices of their own she faithfully transcribes for us. These people act as a Greek chorus, offering an alternative view of the narrative in the same way that Ron Rash employed his gathering of workers in Serena. It is a funny and illuminating device.

Alas, for Tassie, no such Greek chorus is available to interpret her relationship with Reynaldo and its doom is obvious to the reader long before it is to Tassie herself. This is the one point in the novel where Moore stretches the reader’s credibility a touch too far. The sadness is that it isn’t even necessary: Reynaldo is the weakest character in the novel and Tassie’s setpieces with him the least effective. In narrative terms, there had to be some romantic love interest to counteract the familial and platonic loves which burgeon and founder elsewhere, but Reynaldo – and, especially, his fate – seem unworthily cheap and plastic constructs.

The final third of the novel sees a sudden shift, and it is Tassie’s relations with her brother which take centre stage. Again, incomprehension plays a large part, but in this instance it is horrifyingly – and tragically – self-induced. This section, although in some ways predictable, is nonetheless harrowing, beautifully written, restrained yet bursting with emotion. The backdrop of this – and the whole novel – is the aftermath of 9/11 and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: that is, one more arena of deceit and misdeed and incomprehension.

And so, Moore is telling us, such flawed asseveration exists throughout the gamut of human situations, from the wholly personal to the universal. In her determination to confront a range of themes there are parallels with the master-satirist Percival Everett and, although his satire is very different from Moore’s comedy, both writers benefit from approaching their weighty themes with the armament of humour. Mankind is beset by mistrust, misadventure. Deceit is an inescapable consequence of humanity. So far, so Dostoevskian, but there’s no caricatured Underground Man here. Moore’s touch is remarkable, simultaneously dark and light, tragic and funny. There is great sadness in this novel, but it is told with sparkle and humour and humanity. Such attempts to leaven serious themes could easily become trite or bathetic, but here they work beautifully. They bring the characters to life, throwing a penetrating light on their circumstances. This is a sad novel, to be sure, but it is never bleak. It is far too human for that.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Gap Creek by Robert Morgan

Set in the Appalachian hill country of North Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century, Gap Creek is subtitled “a story of a marriage” and relates the early travails of Julie Harmon and her new husband, the earnest but highly-strung Hank Richards. The author, Robert Morgan, is a poet, and it shows: the language is beautiful – descriptive, evocative and free-flowing. Character, too, is well drawn, the reader’s impression of the protagonists deriving particularly from strong and credible dialogue. The novel is narrated by the ill-educated Julie and told in simple language which is nonetheless compelling. Plot, on the other hand, is more of an issue. In an interview, Morgan said:

"I told myself I was not going to write stories like a poet. I wanted to write stories with dynamic tension and conflict, with a lean style that kept the reader focused on the story itself, not the language," he said.

This points to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Gap Creek. That Morgan is a poet is never in question, yet he does, indeed, achieve his aim of maintaining a lean style. This is not as contradictory as it sounds: it takes considerable skill to make writing appear effortless, and while the strong narrative drive of Gap Creek does indeed engage the reader’s focus, it is not at the expense of language. Morgan is no Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum, who use high drama to mask lumpen language.

But there is a relentlessness to the plot, and in particular to the miseries heaped upon the protagonists, which in the end becomes faintly ludicrous. A famous British author of the last century, Catherine Cookson, was noted for novel after novel in which the (invariably female and feisty) protagonist was laid low by disaster after disaster, misery upon misery. Cookson’s plots were wretched enough to make even Tess Durbeyfield think herself blessed not to have been in one. Morgan’s writing is several classes above Cookson’s (and a few below Hardy’s) but his insistence on misery-plotting does show an uncanny resemblance to Our Kate.

The novel begins with the horrifying death of Julie’s younger brother from a surfeit of worms. (I’m sure I read a very similar death quite recently, but I can’t recall where.) Almost immediately, her father, too, snuffs it, succumbing noisily to consumption. Some respite is offered by a whirlwind romance with rugged Hank Richards from the next valley, but it is a brief idyll before the realities of married life begin to overwhelm them. Each set piece drama is beautifully written. Throughout, the novel is told through Julie’s uneducated eyes and yet Morgan manages to prevent this from limiting the emotional range. It is an impressive feat, to be sure.

But, taken together, it all feels a bit laboured, even veering towards melodrama. Why, for example, after having one vividly told death-by-fire, would you have a later scene in which a minor character is also threatened by fire but escapes with nothing more than scorch marks to her frock? Perhaps it is part of a narrative arc to demonstrate that the worst has passed, but it feels like a clumsy anti-climax – repetitive but offering diminishing returns. Similarly, the young couple are tricked out of their meagre savings by conmen not once but twice. In characterisation terms, there is a rationale to this, but stylistically what is to be gained by such repetition? The characterisational change could have been effected by something different.

And repetitiveness is also regularly demonstrated in Julie’s narration, where she makes a point, usually about her husband’s character, only to re-make it two or three paragraphs later. Again, this may be deliberate on the part of the author, to demonstrate her gaucheness, but it grates, nonetheless.

My feeling is that the book is fifty pages too long. Something stark and sparse and beautiful, like Charles Portis’s True Grit, could be made from this novel if it was focused on fewer traumatic moments. Julie is certainly a fine creation, a spirited, courageous and resilient young woman and it has been a privilege to ‘know’ her. And Morgan is impressive in the way he refuses – at least until the very end, when the novel turns a trifle soggy – to sentimentalise either the situation or his characters. But, all in all, the misery in Gap Creek seems to be layered on just too thickly to be credible. The melodrama becomes the message, instead of the characters.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Reflections on the US

I've just returned from a week in the US, and a very good time I had too. I was down in Texas, and I found the people wonderfully friendly - not in the automaton "have a nice day" sort of way, but genuinely interested and solicitous.

Being a foreign country there are, of course, things that are very different from what you're used to. Firstly, the food. I barely used a knife and fork the whole time I was there. It seems remarkably difficult to find anything other than fast food in the States. And what is it with the sweetness kick? Breakfast was impossible, because it only ever seemed to consist of Danish pastries and other sugar-laden products. My body isn't capable of digesting sweet things that early in the morning. And this endless choice you have to negotiate gets wearying, too. You select the sandwich you want from the board, but then you have to endure death by a thousand questions. What type of bread do you want? What type of cheese do you want? What type of salad do you want? Onions? Peppers? Chilli flakes? What type of sauce do you want? Please just give me my sandwich and let me go before I faint from hunger.

And getting about is fraught with difficulty, too. America doesn't appear to have been designed with pedestrians in mind. It was only about a twenty minutes walk from my hotel to the university, but it was damn near impossible to actually walk it. At one point there was a bridge, and here the pavement (sidewalk) simply ended, leaving the pedestrian with nowhere to go and a dual carriageway full of traffic racing towards you. The only road signs are in the middle of the road above the traffic. If you ask for directions people have no idea - because they don't walk - or theye look at you in amazement. "You want to go where?" they say, and you immediately assume it must be miles away, but it's actually not more than a few minutes distant. "Where are you parked?" they say. "I'm walking." "Walking?" they repeat, incredulously. "Well, lemme see... It would be easier if you had a car."

And finally shops. Where are they? I spent six hours in Austin and I never found one. Seriously. Lots of bars (Sixth Street is great), a few tourist tat places, but no real shops. I know where they are, of course - they're in the shopping malls. Which are out of town. And only accessible by car. "You're walking? Really?"

But nonetheless it was a very rewarding experience. And those fantastic blue skies and huge horizons. Back in England, where I'll be smothered by low, grey cloud from now until March, I'll remember those skies with great affection.