Saturday, 31 August 2013

World's longest book

Robert Sheffield (1918-2007), a former Minister and high school English teacher, lived and died in Dayton, Washington, USA. His unpublished diary runs to 37.5 million words, recording in minute detail every five minutes of his life, from 1972 until 1997 when he was disabled by a stroke and stopped writing. It's a heroically pointless achievement and the result, needless to say, of a psychological compulsion - he had a rare condition known as hypergraphia.

I'm not at all interested in merely prolific authors such as Georges Simenon (136 novels) or the American pulp writer Arthur J Burks, who regularly wrote 1.5 million words a year. It's the writers who write but have nothing to say that fascinate me - the obsessive diarists, the ones who have no choice. I'm particularly interested in non-literary figures who develop a compulsion to write. They might be called 'Outside Writers', as in 'Outsider Artists', like the extraordinary Henry Darger, a visionary self-taught artist who was also hypergraphic.

Darger (1892-1973) is the most wonderful and bizarre talent, perhaps the subject of a future blog. He was a friendless recluse who worked as a janitor in a Catholic institution. On his death his landlords discovered a 15,145-page, single-spaced manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred illustrative drawings and paintings. The epic met a need in Darger, and finds a response, if a troubled one, in the viewer. 

Friday, 30 August 2013

On Empire

Writing online earlier this week about proposed British military intervention in Syria, the journalist and political commentator Stephen Glover says:

Why do we feel we must behave as a world power? Whenever a crisis blows up — Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria — politicians of whichever party act as though it is our national destiny to intervene. 

Much of the media, particularly the BBC, colludes in the fiction that what this country does during these crises is decisive. Britain is mentioned in the same breath as the U.S. Maps are produced signifying British fire-power on which there are almost as many Union Flags as Stars & Stripes.

Why do some Britons feel this way? It's a legacy of Empire, of course, and an assumption that we are still playing 'The Great Game'. Until very recently we were all of us in Britain educated to believe in our nation's centrality in world affairs. We were at the hub of any narrative, our centrality to world events was a given, despite all the post-Suez evidence to the contrary.

Stamp of authority

Politicians of Cameron's generation are among the last to be raised with this unquestioning belief in Britain as a visible and legitimate arbiter in the affairs of other states. He no doubt sees this as part of the 'orderly management of decline' predicted by Macmillan, although one might add that 'orderly' shouldn't involve firing Trident missiles.

The BBC is, as Glover suggests, complicit in this myth of British centrality, and of course has a stake in it, endorsing the Foreign Secretary William Hague in his airy ex cathedra statements about Syria and the need to intervene in what is, to be sure, a horrible humanitarian crisis.  Are we also invited to suppose that the other Foreign Secretaries of Europe have remained sulkily mute on the subject?

What's happening in Syria is ghastly beyond belief, and there's a likelihood that a bloody civil war will spill across the border into Israel and then - who knows? Something, to coin a phrase, must be done, but what Orwell called 'the atmosphere of war' is now being generated in parliament and in the media, not a move towards peaceful resolution. Michael Howard has just said, in a live parliamentary debate: "We are in danger of letting the United States and France to act as a conscience of the world"as if that amounted to a call to arms. What nonsense. Let France punch above its weight for once. Let America have one more outing as a global legislator, as we enter the Asian century.  Let Britain, a declining power, have the courage not to weigh in and add to the barbarity. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Favourite snatches (12)

This is quite brilliant - you'll certainly want to say it aloud. The author is the American humourist Guy Wetmore Carryl, who died aged 31 in 1904. He was a talented writer of bouncy light verse and the subject of this, his best poem, is the murderous nobleman Bluebeard. The style anticipates the more accomplished rappers of today - why is Carryl so little known?

Guy Wetmore Carryl


A maiden from the Bosphorus,
With eyes as bright as phosphorus,
Once wed the wealthy bailiff
Of the caliph
Of Kelat.
Though diligent and zealous, he
Became a slave to jealousy.
(Considering her beauty,
'T was his duty
To be that!)

When business would necessitate
A journey, he would hesitate,
But, fearing to disgust her,
He would trust her
With his keys,
Remarking to her prayerfully:
"I beg you'll use them carefully.
Don't look what I deposit
In that closet,
If you please."

It may be mentioned, casually,
That blue as lapis lazuli
He dyed his hair, his lashes,
His mustaches,
And his beard.
And, just because he did it, he
Aroused his wife 's timidity:
Her terror she dissembled,
But she trembled
When he neared.

This feeling insalubrious
Soon made her most lugubrious,
And bitterly she missed her
Elder sister
Marie Anne:
She asked if she might write her to
Come down and spend a night or two,
Her husband answered rightly
And politely:
"Yes, you can!"

Blue-Beard, the Monday following,
His jealous feeling swallowing,
Packed all his clothes together
In a leather-
Bound valise,
And, feigning reprehensibly,
He started out, ostensibly
By traveling to learn a
Bit of Smyrna
And of Greece.

His wife made but a cursory
Inspection of the nursery;
The kitchen and the airy
Little dairy
Were a bore,
As well as big or scanty rooms,
And billiard, bath, and ante-rooms,
But not that interdicted
And restricted
Little door!

For, all her curiosity
Awakened by the closet he
So carefully had hidden,
And forbidden
Her to see,
This damsel disobedient
Did something inexpedient,
And in the keyhole tiny
Turned the shiny
Little key:

Then started back impulsively,
And shrieked aloud convulsively --
Three heads of girls he'd wedded
And beheaded
Met her eye!
And turning round, much terrified,
Her darkest fears were verified,
For Blue stood behind her,
Come to find her
On the sly!

Perceiving she was fated to
Be soon decapitated, too,
She telegraphed her brothers
And some others
What she feared.
And Sister Anne looked out for them,
In readiness to shout for them
Whenever in the distance
With assistance
They appeared.

But only from her battlement
She saw some dust that cattle meant.
The ordinary story
Isn't gory,
But a jest.
But here 's the truth unqualified.
The husband wasn't mollified
Her head is in his bloody
Little study
With the rest!

The Moral: Wives, we must allow,
Who to their husbands will not bow,
A stern and dreadful lesson learn
When, as you've read, they're cut in turn.

© The Estate of Guy Wetmore Caryll

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Julian and Sandy - Bona Books

With apologies to my many valued readers overseas who may find this utterly baffling - a magnificent sketch from Round the Horne featuring the immortal Julian and Sandy (the sadly mortal Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick).

Written by Marty Feldman and Barry Took, the encounter with Kenneth Horne is rendered in  mesmerising Polari - 1950s gay slang mixed with Romany, Cockney and God Knows What. This recording is accompanied by travelling shots of the King's Road in Chelsea, where Jules and Sand used to camp out.

Listen here. And if you ever need a Polari lexicon try here.

© British Broadcasting Corporation

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On Stanley Green

Surely all Londoners will remember the late Stanley Green, the human billboard?

I once fell into step behind him while he murmured to himself in an ecclesiastical register the glum litany "Wooomen are yew pyoor? Brides are yew pyoooor?" "Pyoor", I finally realised, meant "pure". He had a thing, it's clear, about virginity. Whatever the time of year, whatever the weather, he wore an odd terylene cap (see above) and a sort of plastic overall, protection against his critics' spittle.

His 14-page pamphlet, Eight Passion Proteins with Care reportedly sold 87,000 copies over  the years. I have one here before me as I write (see below) with the matchless disclaimer: 

                           This booklet would benefit more, if it were read occasionally.

That comma is worthy of Dr Johnson. It's a wonderful piece of home-printed folk art - handset type with random capitalisations and a driving sense of urgent unreason. You never see printing like this any more.

His gratifyingly lengthy Wikipedia entry tells us that the pamphlet went through 52 editions between 1973 and 1993, the price raised very slowly over the years, from 10p in 1980 to 12p 13 years later.

He wrote one unpublished novel - Behind the Veil: More than Just a Tale - which he described as a 'colourful account of the danger of passion and the possibility of redemption' which I'd rather read than anything by Margaret Atwood. Two other manuscripts remain unpublished, a 67-page text called Passion and Protein and a 392-page version of Eight Passion Proteins, rejected (inexplicably) by Oxford University Press in 1971.

The placard, as well as sample pamphlets, are now on display in the Museum of London. And here it is, although differing in some ways from the one in the photograph above. I expect the changes reflect an evolution in his hypotheses:

Stanley Green. I like to think he found fulfilment in his lifelong crusade.

Images © The Museum of London

Monday, 26 August 2013

Ralph Richardson

Just look at this - Sir Ralph Richardson turning the tables Russell Harty on a 1978 television programme. Within a few minutes Richardson has taken over the show, got the audience on his side, reduced his interrogator to a stammering wreck and settled down contentedly to stonewall any questions. All done with steely charm and intelligence.

Kenneth Tynan, in Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (1980), said that this appearance on a prime-time chat show was among Richardson's finest performances. Tynan was right - it's an extraordinary smoke and mirrors act in which he gives nothing away. He was at the time of this recording appearing on stage in Pinter's No Man's Land - the subject of a yesterday's blog  - and has some fascinating and eloquent thoughts on acting.

Here's Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4

© London Weekend Television

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On Margaret Atwood

Here's something written by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood:

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless steel case, burnished aluminium band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

The Economist once described the author as 'a scintillating wordsmith' and the paragraph above is quoted admiringly in the current TLS by Ruth Scurr, reviewing Atwood's latest novel Maddaddam. 

It's terrible, isn't it? Let's take a closer look.

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless steel case, burnished aluminium band, still shiny although it no longer works. Does Atwood mean that the band no longer works? Or does she mean  the watch? The grammar needs attention, and so does the sense. Is shininess, be it of the watch or the band, really a precondition of functionality? And why the dash?

He wears it now as his only talisman. Does she mean 'merely as a talisman, or are we invited to infer that until now he had many talismans, or talismen, now whittled down to a broken wristwatch? Can a wristwatch really be said to have talismanic qualities?

A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. Why the inverted syntax? Why not 'It shows him a blank face'? And how can a blank face show 'zero hour', whatever that is? Yoda syntax is what she's offering. Annoyed is how it makes me. 

It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. 'Jolt of terror' is a dim cliché. And to what, anaphorically, does 'it' refer? And what's 'official time', and how can a wristwatch be said to embody it? Would official time not exist without wristwatches to corroborate it? If she means Newtonian Absolute Time (the relationship between inanimate objects) she really has nothing to worry about. If she means cultural time, once wittily defined as 'the random sub-division of eternity' she has little to work with here. Are we, finally, to understand that a 'jolt of terror' runs through this man because his wristwatch is broken? In which case it's a not much cop as a talisman.

Nobody nowhere knows what time it is. That should be 'Nobody anywhere', surely? Otherwise it must mean somebody somewhere does know what time it is, perhaps because their watch isn't broken. Is this an example of' contemporary counter-literacy'? Meanwhile jolts of terror are running through everbody, everywhere, and all the time. I don't buy that, and the writer has forfeited my attention.

The paragraph manages to be simultaneously trite and portentous. 

Trite because the situation is quite astonishingly banal (the poor chap doesn't know what time it is because his watch is broken) and portentous (the writer imagines this could have as much significance for the indifferent reader as it does for her implausible protagonist). It also, needless to say, makes no sense at all because if something is done out of habit (and, by implication, regularly) how can it cause a 'jolt of terror' to run through the habitué. Wouldn't he have got used to it by now? 

My objection isn't simply that the writing is sloppy and slapdash (which it certainly is) but that Atwood, in common with almost every other contemporary writer, has decided for some reason to employ the historic present tense throughout. And I do mean every other writer - Will Self, Hilary Mantel, E. L. James (the Fifty Shades woman), NoViolet Bulawayo, Tom McCarthy - they all do it, and they can't all be right. They can't all want to be Tony Parsons.

It's a dull trope (no doubt promoted eagerly by Creative Writing Programme tutors) that its users imagine gives their prose a sense of immediacy - stand-up comedians use the same tense when they say 'this bloke walks into a pub' rather than 'walked'. But such immediacy is the stuff of comedy, not literature. It also modishly serves to destabilise the role of an omniscient author (because as we all know, post-Derrida, the author is at best a presumptuous spectre) and to suggest that events are unfolding right now in real time, mediated (but not controlled) by a writer who is humbly subordinate to the text, which is of course itself unreliable. It has in recent years become a near-universal style and I just can't stand it.

It's not as though it's anything innovative. Dickens used the form sparingly (and very effectively) in the Deadlock chapters of Bleak House, to reflect the moral and emotional inertia of a cold-blooded aristocratic protagonist. Only once has something worthwhile been fully achieved using this inflexible and monotonous form at length - Wyndham Lewis's great trilogy 'The Human Age' (The Childermass, Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta), three modernist novels set in a hellish afterlife where time (and therefore tense) has no meaning. Lewis published the first volume in 1928 - why do today's writers imagine that it's anything new? And Stan Barstow employed the same approach in A Kind of Loving (1960), but this was appropriate as it served to represent a button-holing anecdotal Yorkshire vernacular and (more importantly) it was still uncommon at the time.

Elsewhere in an otherwise positive review, Scurr describes Atwood's prose as 'leaden' and gives plenty of amusing examples of the author's cloth ear for contemporary English (let alone a future dystopian version of the language) so if a fan can't work up much enthusiasm for the book I shan't be queuing for my copy. But (and here's the real point of this blog) - have you noticed the truly uncanny resemblance between Margaret Atwood and the actress Alex Kingston? Are they related?

Extract © Margaret Atwood Maddaddam published by Random House 2013

Friday, 23 August 2013

Colyn Davies sings

Here's a real treat - the music hall performer Colyn Davies sings two very funny songs about the dangers of drink. Click here. You'll love this, trust me.

One evening in 1943 the Welsh writer Rhys Davies - no relation, and the subject of yesterday's blog - walked into the Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, a popular wartime hang-out for writers, artists, poets and other riff-raff. There he met Colyn Davies at the bar. The young Colyn had been raised in an orphanage and called up in 1939. He had trained as an army trumpeter but been invalided out following a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. He fetched up in Soho with vague hopes of becoming an actor, and when Rhys met him he was homeless, penniless and on the ropes.

Colyn - robustly heterosexual - became the great unrequited love of Rhys Davies's life, according to his biographer Meic Stephens. Rhys had a tendency to develop crushes on young, good-looking heterosexual men and offered Colyn a bed for the night in his dank basement flat near Maida Vale underground station. A one-sided relationship developed.

Davies later met the then-unknown Fay Weldon. In her 2002 autobiography Auto da Fay, quoted by Stephens in the biography, she recalled:

He told terrible jokes and wrote terrible, wonderful, rude, crude poems. He was a troubadour, and I ran off with him, pitter-pat bare feet by night through the long hot summer streets to his place up at Belsize Park (where else?) and pretty soon I was pregnant. 

Their son Nick (now a novelist) was born in 1954. Davies later married another woman and had two more children. He died in 1991. This marvellous recording shows real talent.

I'm indebted to Meic Stephens' Rhys Davies - a Writer's Life (published this Autumn by Parthian) for prompting this blog. I'll be writing about this fine biography in the November 2013 Literary Review.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

On Rhys Davies

The Welsh writer Rhys Davies died thirty-five years ago yesterday, on 21st August 1978.

I'm currently reading a very fine biography - Rhys Davies: A Writer's Life by Meic Stephens, to be published this Autumn by Parthian. It's the best kind of biography in that it makes the reader (or this reader, at least) keen to seek out the subject's books, of which there are many.

Davies was a remarkably gifted writer. He was a grocer's son born into a working class mining community in South Wales who left school at 14, moved to London aged 21 and worked for seven years as a draper's assistant in the unglamorous suburb of Ilford before publishing his first novel. For much of the rest of his life all he did was write.

He was an intensely private man - a virtual recluse in fact, living a few months at a time in rented rooms, or borrowed flats. He never learned to drive, couldn't type, owned no furniture and kept all his worldly possessions in a small trunk. He had no serious relationships, few close friends or confidantes, belonged to no circle, and earned money only from his writing. He was discreetly and promiscuously homosexual, with a taste for hard-up Guardsmen from the Knightsbridge barracks, but he also maintained an improbably durable friendship with one woman - the writer Anna Kavan, a lifelong heroin addict. 

Until reading the biography I'd only heard of Davies as the editor of three posthumous Kavan novels, for which he wrote the introductions. He also cropped up in the Kavan biography by my near-namesake David Callard. Davies is worth discovering.

One startling revelation in the biography - which is strongly recommended -  is that, at different times and for practical, non-sexual reasons, Davies shared a bed with D. H. Lawrence (in a Paris hotel in 1928) and Dylan Thomas (in a Maida Vale basement during the Blitz). Thomas had nowhere to stay one night and Davies offered to put him up. Dylan wet the bed, after which the friendship cooled.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

On Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard died yesterday, aged 87.

He was a damn fine writer. Here are his ten rules for writing culminating in his famous summing-up: "If it sounds like writing, I re-write it."

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Favourite snatches (11)

Here's a tetchy response by - guess who? -  to Arthur Guitermann's poem To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which the writer accused the creator of Sherlock Holmes of stealing his ideas from Edgar Allen Poe. Poe's ratiocinative Monsieur Dupin (the first private detective in fiction) first appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), forty-six years before Holmes made his debut, and it's true that Holmes's line of reasoning has something in common with Dupin's.

 The final couplet should be memorised by all literary biographers.

To an Undiscerning Critic

Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
'Where are the limits of human stupidity?'
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because 'in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe's Dupin as very "inferior".'
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I've praised to satiety
Poe's Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But it is not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation's crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
The doll and its maker are never identical.

It was of course written by Conan Doyle himself. Scroll down for another snatch . . .

Still here? Then while we're at it here's a favourite snatch from the Holmes stories. It's from A Study in Scarlet - the list made by Dr. Watson who is aghast to discover that his new flat-mate doesn't know that the earth revolves around the sun, as is quite unconcerned about such ignorance. The mind, he says, has a finite capacity for information storage, and so learning useless things would merely reduce his ability to learn useful things. 

Watson, unaware of his friend's profession, rather peevishly lists Holmes' abilities in an attempt to guess what he does for a living:

Knowledge of Literature – nil.

Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.

Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.

Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.

Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.

Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.

Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.

Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.

Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.

Plays the violin well.

Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.

Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

On Dorothy Edwards

Today marks ten years since the centenary of the birth of Dorothy Edwards (18th August 1903 - 6th January 1934), a Welsh writer who was surely an ancestor of Kristin Scott-Thomas (see image above).  

The excellent biography by Claire Flay was published in 2011 and I'm reading it now in tandem with Edwards' Rhapsody, a collection of ten short stories, all of them bleak and strange and very fine. She also wrote one novel - Winter Sonata (1928) and I'll read that if I can track down a copy. 

She was born in Ogmore Vale in South Wales and attended Cardiff University, where she studied Greek and philosophy and was politically active, working for socialist and Welsh nationalist causes. She spent a short period in London on the fringes of Bloomsbury. 

On 6th January 1934 she threw herself in front of a train near Caerphilly railway station. Her suicide note read: "I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship and even love without gratitude, and given nothing in return."

She should be better known, so let's start a revival. More on her here.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

On Fifty Shades of Grey

Let's begin with two extracts from two very different novels by two very different authors:

Slowly, she unbuttons the dress jacket, one button at a time. The red silk slips down. Nothing underneath. She holds her young breasts in her palms. She offers them to him! Smooth, bare shoulders, proud throat. She puts her long hands around her neck, like a coil. Velvety palms, thin fingers. She remains like that, exposed, looking at the narrow, dirty window. She pulls down the zipper of her jeans. She comes out of those blue pipes, naked. 

Here's the second:

He speeds up. I moan, and he pounds on, picking up speed, merciless, a relentless rhythm, and I keep up, meeting his thrusts. […] I detonate around him, again and again, round and round. 

The first passage comes from Norman Manea's The Lair, published last year by Yale University Press. Manea is a very distinguished Romanian novelist and recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; the second comes from E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, the fastest-selling novel of all time.

There's not much to choose between them, is there? They're both absolutely rotten pieces of writing and neither has a trace of what Eliot called felt thought. The blue pipes, the detonations - where's the feeling? Where's the thought? They are both laboured and ridiculous and share the blasted present historic tense which is the tarnished hallmark of too much contemporary fiction. 

The first extract is translated from Romanian while the second only appears to be. The first (we may need reminding) is serious literature while the second is culled from what its author calls 'adult romance' but which has elsewhere been accurately described as 'Mummy Porn'. Shades (let's agree to call it that) is coarse, unoriginal, tedious, banal and, with its clunky redundancies and repetitions and erratic grammar, an insult to the intelligence. But so is The Lair. What's going wrong here? Is this a two-pronged attempt to scoop the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award?

Shades is a failure in every respect apart from commercially and has been ignored or derided or condemned by anyone with good taste and a brain. The astonishing sales - 70,000,000 and rising -  are said in part to be down to a shift in technology - Kindle users can now read such embarrassing trash in public, with no cover art giving the game away. If my reaction seems snobbish then I can only argue that some things are still worth being snobbish about and if not we may as well pack up and light out for the territory - but my point here is that if a meretricious piece of ill-concieved and illiterate smut can sell in its millions to a huge general audience then something must be said in defence of legitimate pornographic writing. We'll come back to the silly infantilism of Shades later on, but first let's look at proper grown-up literary pornography (or erotica, if you want to sound connoisseurial).

In the 1960s Philip Roth set the ball rolling with Portnoy's Complaint, initiating a new kind of sexual candour which was  outrageous, controversial and trailblazing. While the novel was bracingly frank about the consolations of masturbation, it didn't prompt its readers to follow suit, holding the book in one hand and a piece of liver (wasn't it?) in the other. At least I assume that. Roth enjoyed immediate fame and notoriety and good sales - though nothing like Erika Leonard's - because his book was very funny indeed - although there's something about literary erotica that sidelines the humorous and is all but incompatible with any kind of good writing.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nicholson Baker has written three explicitly erotic books - Vox ( a witty phone-sex dialogue which climaxed in, well ... a climax: “Oh! Nnnnnnnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn!”); The Fermata (a fantasia in which the narrator could arrest time and get up to all manner of hankie-pankie, an idea with its origins in H G Wells's The New Accelerator), and last year's collection of short stories, House of Holes. This featured a depraved theme park and was a relentlessly smutty and hilarious catalogue of perversity. Harry Matthews' Singular Pleasures (1990) consisted of sixty-one very brief descriptions of Onanism in different settings, reflecting his Oulipian commitment to self-imposed structural restrictions and permutations. Alasdair Gray, in his magnificent second novel 1982, Janine explored with grace and urgency the erotic dementia of an alcoholic salesman. These are all good writers with many non-erotic publications to their name, and they all know how to handle language, how to get an effect. In the interests of gender balance we might include The Story of O by Anne Desclos, a Gallic tale of epic awfulness with lashings of lashings.

Baker, Matthews, Gray and Desclos are all diving into waters where lesser writers are drowning - an image employed by Jung when he compared James Joyce's writing with that of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia. It was Joyce who recognised what he called the 'morbid pedantry' of pornographic writing, and who so brilliantly adapted and enlivened the form in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses. It was this episode in particular that attracted the censors. In 1933 the American Judge John M. Woolsey's landmark judgement ruled that Joyce's great novel was not pornographic, and his deadpan summing-up always bears repeating:

[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

Remove the 'somewhat' and you're close to Shades. Erika Leonard (aka E. L. James) originally published her work online under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon (sic, and in itself enough to induce a bilious attack in the discriminating), as part of the new cultural phenomenon known as 'fan fiction'. She was prompted by her enthusiasm for Stephanie Meyers' Twilight, a series of vampire romances aimed at adolescent readers (and unsophisticated adults), with sales of 100 million copies worldwide. Not being a cutting-edge kinda guy I first heard of fan fiction last year, at a Cambridge conference dedicated to the literary collaborators of Benjamin Britten. A distinguished Britten scholar told me she had posted some (innocuous) imaginary accounts of Britten's life on line and, intrigued, I looked them up. They were bright, well-written and amusing scenarios that revealed the author's deep knowledge and understanding of Britten's life, work and personality. Seemed harmless, if pointless - a donnish exercise to pass a wet Sunday afternoon. But other fan fictions were, I soon discovered, both alarming and depressing - atrociously inept Sherlock Holmes pastiches, creepy Star Trek rip-offs featuring Kirk, Spock and colleagues in breathlessly transgressive situations (i.e. alien sex), earnest reformulations of cult favourites with an emphasis on the gothic. All of this was negligible at best, but what there was in great abundance were energy, enthusiasm and a free-spirited appropriation. So it's perhaps not entirely a bad thing.

I was reminded of 'Tijuana Bibles', cheap small-format American comic books hugely popular in the Depression era, featuring public figures and (in a gesture of post-modern self-reference) established newspaper comic strip characters like Popeye and L'il Abner, all engaged in spirited coitus and other illicit shenanigans. Aimed at adolescent males, they were eight pages long with bracingly filthy dialogue and explicit images of copulation, essentially aids to masturbation. These are now highly sought-after collectors' items and have a certain artless charm. 

Which brings us back again to Shades, which has no charm at all and is certainly artless. It's a gormlessly rebooted Jane Eyre (with added rumpy-pumpy) and depicts (too strong a word) the relationship between college graduate Anastasia Steele ('unworldly, innocent') and damaged billionaire Christian Grey ('beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating'). They meet for an interview in Seattle and Steele, who is still a virgin, accepts Grey's invitation to sign a contract allowing him complete control over her life. Like you do.

We are invited to share her surprise and dismay when it turns out that 'Chris' is keen on BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism), all of it 'straight' and, as it turns out, disappointingly tame. Chris was abused as a child - imagine! - and the upshot is that he now gets his kicks in a 'red room of pain'. It's not especially well-equipped, but perhaps billionaires stay rich by not splashing out on plush manacled furnishings. The author, like most of us, doesn't know too much about billionaire lifestyles so Grey, thinly-sketched, is a resistible cross between Mr Rochester and Richard Branson. He's predictably classy - French-speaking, piano-playing, opera-going and fastidious. Given the Seattle setting he could pass for Frazier Crane's milquetoast brother Niles.

The thing is, and please alert anyone you know who is planning to waste ten quid on this worthless perpetration that, in an exemplary case of 'all gong and no dinner, nothing much happens. They eventually fall in love and have a child together, putting all their low-voltage transgressive cavortings, such as they were, behind them. It was all just a phase, you see? An overture to parenthood. There's a  clumsy redemptive pay-off and the annoying cop-out message is that all the spanking and clamping was simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. This is the most pernicious nonsense of all.

We are eventually told that Anastasia, no longer the coy virgin, is far from being the exploited sex-slave of Steele's dreams. In the psychodynamics of this set-up the submissive chattel actually calls the shots. She is quite, y'know, empowered? Critics with a knowledge of such matters have complained that Leonard appears to know little about BDSM (or, come to that, basic English) and there have been some eloquent denunciations from feminist writers - but the arguments all seem rather moth-eaten. Much debate has surrounded the phenomenal success (or at least sales) of a publication that has not been commissioned and nurtured by editors or proof-readers and which bypasses all the usual publishing hurdles. It suggests an emerging anti-literate world in which publishing is not for everybody but certainly for anybody, so prepare for a deluge of increasingly desperate spin-off cash-ins. My real concern is that readers are apparently willing to settle for so little - are they really so needy, so undiscriminating, so gullible? Is this what reading Rowling's Harry Potter books ten years ago has led a generation to? Is this their idea of fun?

Shades was clearly easy to write but is by no means so easy to read. The agreement drawn up between the protagonists of  is expressed thus:

‘The Submissive will obey any instructions given by the Dominant immediately without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner [. . .] The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry or complaint’

'Paddling' is (I looked it up so you don't have to) spanking somebody on the backside with a table tennis bat, or similar article. The language of the contract, with its ponderous shall/will variation, is not titillating and when it comes to delivery Fifty Shades of Grey turns out to be all gong and no dinner. Leonard's work lacks not only lustre but also lust and what this lousy book avoids entirely (apart from basic literacy) is pornographic inventiveness. This strikes me as a bit of a swindle. There is nothing at all of interest between the increasingly uninspired and unlubricious sex scenes to keep the reader engaged. There's no plot, of course, just a situation which is explored (again too strong a word) in deadly prose, and at interninable length throughout this and two more volumes. The tone is (perhaps aptly) strangulated and, at the same time, so preposterously solemn that one can only hoot with derisive laughter before throwing the wretched thing across the room (and before you ask I read a borrowed paperback - my Kindle is intact).

Leonard's lovers address one another in a weirdly pedantic and chortling register:

‘What a tempting morsel you are, Miss Steele,’ he tells her. ‘You intoxicate me, Miss Steele, and you calm me. Such a heady combination.’ To which she replies: ‘We aim to please, Mr Grey.’ 

It really is that bad, all the way through. They never quite get to say 'Forsooth' and 'Egad' but they come pretty damn close. Is this how members of the BDSM community chatter among themselves? Is this costive jocularity part of the edgy lifestyle?

Erika Leonard is set to become the Ayn Rand of soft porn - the original online episodes later reformulated as Shades were perpetrated under the Randian title Master of the Universe. No longer confident in their judgements for fear of appearing highbrow, elitist, snobbish or even discriminating, many reviewers have been nervously equivocal about the book's style and content, treating it as 'a guilty pleasure', 'a poorly-written but addictive page-turner', 'eminently readable' and 'a talking-point for years to come.' One critic deadpanned that the book 'was in a class by itself'. Shades  is soon to become not merely a film but 'a major motion picture event' directed by the humdrum conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood. She should remind herself of the perils of mainstream erotic film-making and arrange a screening of Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. Scripted by Frederic Raphael from stories by Arthur Schnitzler, and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, it was heralded as serious attempt to render the erotic with courage and candour. This was indeed a major motion picture event, and was an absolute stinker.

Back once last time to Shades. The heroine (a literature graduate) and her creator both seem unaware of any heritage erotica that might add a little oomph to the endeavour. A good place to start would be with James Joyce's letters to his wife Nora Barnacle, 'my darling brown-arsed fuckbird' - there's more erotic fizz and crackle in that salutation than in a dozen dungeons full of humdrum kinkiness. But perhaps Joyce as a mentor is raising the bar to giddy heights. There's also a lengthy tradition of flagellation writing to draw on, although it's all pretty feeble. Algernon Swinburne had a keen appetite for this kind of thing, possibly acquired as a schoolboy at Eton College (his pseudonym 'Etonensis' certainly suggests this). He is one of the pre-eminent algolagniacs in English literature (and I had to look that up - 'one who derives sexual pleasure from pain'). Swinburne's The Whippingham Papers (1887) includes a relentlessly tedious 94-stanza poem 'Reginald's Flogging' which has to be read to be disbelieved. It's that morbid pedantry again - the (self-imposed) requirement to use something as cumbersome as words to describe elaborate physical activities, and to do so in a forward-moving narrative that speaks to the sensual imagination. Larkin's schoolgirl spanking fantasies are also doggedly unexciting as prose (although for him they clearly met a need), There's never really much of a temporal sense to pornographic writing - there's a how and a where (often scrupulously evoked) but never a when. The encounters are subject to duration (of course) but not of chronology.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

Am I wrong to expect, when presented with Shades something more stimulating, more sexy, more fetishistic even? As it is I feel gypped, like I've been hustled into a pricy night club to find the place is deserted, the bar is shut, the chairs on the tables and the cleaners mopping the floor.

Leonard's characters, needless to say, entirely lack sensuality - there is no erotic charge derived from fabrics, food or fragrance, from body heat, the smell of hair and taste of skin. Lips are repeatedly nibbled and blood is on one occasion drawn, but Leonard is as adept at evoking passion as she is at writing an elegant or memorable sentence. I'm not against pornographic writing at all - but I can't stand bad writing. It's not precious or elitist to condemn trash - whether it's by good writers (Auden's 'The Platonic Blow' comes to mind) or the sub-literate - because trash is trash and no amount of post-modern irony will alter the fact. The odd ignoble frisson is always welcome, and is the sort of thing one finds in all the serious writers I've mentioned above, as well as others including John Wilmot, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. Fifty Shades of Grey is so atrociously written that what the Victorians called an act of self-pollution would be a more rewarding way to spend the evening than reading the blasted thing.

Leonard's writing doesn't just put you off sex. It shares with Norman Manea's The Lair an even more malign accomplishment -  it puts you off reading. 

Extracts from Norman Manea and E. L. James © Yale University Press and Random House

Friday, 16 August 2013

Kate Hopkins - recent paintings

Here are three lovely recent paintings by the artist Kate Hopkins:

What we call 'still life' (with such appealing ambiguity in that 'still') is what the French call nature mort. This is not the place to explore the complex cultural relations between art and mutability and death, but let's agree that they exist and that these beautiful images are part of that discourse.

French film critics have long employed the term temps mort (literally 'dead time', although also meaning 'injury time' in sport) and this is something I'd like to mull over with you. An example of temps mort would be the wonderfully ripe moment when Laurel and Hardy settle down together 'outside' the narrative, as it were, to deliver some ruminations unrelated to the plot, if there is a plot. The story is temporarily abandoned, or put on hold, while the protagonists reflect, bicker, mooch around, smoulder (and Ollie in particular is a wonderful smoulderer), or do nothing at all. It's lovely.

Hollywood cinema isn't much given to rumination these days - hyperkinetic helter-skelter blockbusters have no room for thought, for reflection, for stillness and for what the silent film pioneer D. W. Griffith called 'the wind in the trees'. There's no place in such films - as in much contemporary art - for nature or the human.

In a rowdy market-place Kate Hopkins' paintings create their own space. Here are two more pictures - of grapes (below) and cherries (below the grapes). She must have looked very closely and for a long time at these two modest clusters of fruit, and has captured perfectly, and permanently, the mustiness of the grapes and the enamelled glamour of the cherries. They are small images but have monumental presence. These and the pictures above all have something of temps mort about them - something essential salvaged from the wreck of time. They are not loud or pushy or overbearing or sentimental or gauchely confessional - they're the sound of the wind in the trees. 

But this prompts an afterthought. Victor Enrice's 1992 film The Quince Tree Sun (El Sol del Membrillo) is that rarest of things - a film that captures the process of the making of a painting in the smallest detail. It's a quasi-documentary about the painter Antonio López García (playing himself) and his attempt, in the course of a long summer, to paint a quince tree. López works conscientiously as the tree changes day by day, and the light changes constantly, and old friends drop by and interrupt him. Just as he chronicles the dying tree, the film chronicles his effort. It becomes, improbably, a nail-biting race against time. Beautiful.

Still from The Quince Tree Sun

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Laughton and Lanchester

This is charming - Elsa Lanchester and her husband Charles Laughton sing - or rather murder - 'Baby It's Cold Outside' on a 1950 American radio show here. They've both had a few, by the sound of it.

Elsa Lanchester will always be best known for her role (or, to be pedantic, roles) in the Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale's 1935 masterpiece and a rare thing - a sequel that completely overshadows the original. She had a long career and did many good things but my favourite movie performance of hers is in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), a very stylish comedy directed by Richard Quine. 

I could bang on about this marvellous film all day. It should certainly be much better known, not least for its stars, James Stewart and Kim Novak - it would make the perfect double bill with Vertigo, released the same year. The support actors are all quite wonderful - Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon (in his screen debut) and especially the great Ernie Kovacs as a spellbound alcoholic author. 

Based on the stage play by John Van Druten it's about witches in modern day Manhattan, one of  whom is Gillian (with a hard 'G') Holroyd (played beautifully by Novak), who runs a chic Greenwich Village store selling primitive art. Her new upstairs neighbour is a bachelor publisher called Shep Henderson (Stewart). She decides on a whim to fall in love with him, or rather to put him under a spell, with the aid of her siamese cat familiar, Pyewacket.

New York's witches hang out in a subterranean nightspot called The Zodiac Club (a fabulous dive with a hot jazz combo, French cabaret singers and a pervasive sense of third-martini loucheness). Shep brings his prim fiance there one Christmas Eve and it turns out that she and Gillian were at school together, and old enemies. So Gillian sabotages the marriage, seduces Shep (a lovely scene on top of the flatiron building overlooking empty streets on Christmas Day) and the two settle into a happy if unnatural relationship.

Suddenly an anthropologist called Sidney Reditch (Kovacs) appears at Shep's office, also in thrall to Gillian's magic - "You don't know me but I think I want to see you". He agrees with Shep to write a book about modern witchcraft and enlists Gillian's brother (Lemmon, a pothead bongo drummer) to help him write what he thinks will be a best-selling exposé. Then things get complicated. . .

Performances aside it's a wonderfully droll (if stage-bound) movie with much to admire - great mid-century modernist sets, Novak's very sexy outfits (mostly red and black), Stewart's engaging schtick and Elsa Lanchester (to return to one of the subjects of this blog) as Gillian's dotty aunt Queenie.

Her name gives the game away for those who haven't already twigged: for witches and warlocks living quietly undercover in mid-century Greenwich Village read homosexuals. The real meaning of the movie - and the play - is not so much thinly-disguised as concealed in plain sight.  There are whole scenes in which this ambiguity is mined exhaustively, and they're very funny. You'll see what I mean from the lovely trailer. Do see the film.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Kersh cocktail

From Gerald Kersh's 1966 novel The Angel and the Cuckoo comes the following cocktail recipe: "a double dry gin, a double curaçao, a glass of brandy, a glass of calvados and the juice of two oranges stirred with half a pint of champagne."

One to try before we die?

Monday, 12 August 2013

On Alfred Hitchcock and cake

A link to a very short clip of Alfred Hitchcock on the Dick Cavett show in 1972, making an atrocious pun, in his studiedly lugubrious way.

This prompts an observation. In an extended and illuminating series of interviews with François Truffaut, published in French as Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock (1967, English translation with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott), Hitchcock is reported as saying "Some films are a slice of life. Mine are a slice of cake."

This has always struck me as wrong - a slip that occurred when the book was translated from the French back into English without reference to the original tapes. It should surely be: "Some films are a slice of life. Mine are a piece of cake." That makes sense. It's witty and memorable and positions Hitchcock against the realist documentary tradition.

You saw it here first. But I've just found out that you can download twelve hours of the original conversation between the two directors here. So you can find out for yourself. Let me know if I'm wrong.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Jesus Christ, remaindered

In the 16th century John Calvin, affronted by the number of fragments of the True Cross in circulation, wrote: "There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."

JC (the other one)

He had a point. Like Charlie Chaplin's cane, or Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud toboggan, which can be seen in almost every film museum on the planet, pieces of the True Cross can be found scattered throughout Christendom. You probably have one within a day's drive of where you are. But it's not only sacred splinters that have become objects of worship.

Christian teaching states that Christ was assumed into heaven corporeally, and therefore the only parts of His body left behind and (theoretically) available for veneration are those parts He had lost (or perhaps 'shed' is the better word) before the crucifixion, namely hair, blood, fingernails, milk teeth, prepuce and the umbilical cord remaining from his birth. (I'm uncertain, by the way, whether all these things should be respectfully capitalised. Is it only the pronoun? Butcher's Copy Editing, to hand as I write, is unhelpful for once.)

There were as many as eighteen different holy foreskins in various European towns during the Middle Ages, including the Holy Foreskin of Rome and others in the Cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay, Santiago de Compostela, Antwerp, Coulombs in the diocese of Chartres, France as well as Chartres itself and churches in Besançon, Metz, Hildesheim, Charroux, Conques, Langres, Fécamp, and two in Auvergne. (Some Wikipedian wag has added Stoke-on-Trent. And why not?)

Other claimed relics include two examples of the Holy Coat, the seamless garment worn by Christ and for which the Roman soldiers cast lots. There's one in Trier, Germany (pictured below) and another in the parish church of Argenteuil, France, reputedly brought there by Charlemagne.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy (below) and the Bridle of Constantine are both said to be made from nails used during the crucifixion. Here's the Crown:

I couldn't find an image of the Bridle.

In Spain there's the Sudarium of Oviedo, a bloodstained cloth, measuring 84 x 53 cm, kept in the Cámara Santa of the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, said to have been wrapped around Christ's head at the time of the Crucifixion. Here it is:

Has anybody ever thought of reuniting the Sudarium of Oviedo with the Holy Shroud of Turin? Sounds like a case for Indiana Jones. And while we're on the subject - has anyone looked into the possibility of using one of the eighteen holy foreskins for cloning purposes? 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?

A private detective called Marguerite - presumably a compound of Simenon's pipe-smoking sleuth Maigret and the Belgian surrealist painter Magritte - is the protagonist of Simon Okotie's wonderfully funny and original first novel, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? (Salt Publishing, 2012). Marguerite is on the trail of the wife of Harold Absalon, who is missing. Absalon is the Mayor's transport advisor in a  city never explicitly identified as London. Most of the action - although 'action' is hardly the word - unfolds on a Routemaster bus, complete with open rear platform and clippie.
Room for one more on top
I can think of only one other novel set (almost) entirely on a bus - Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (published in French in 1947 and republished this month by Oneworld Classics). This, you'll recall, consisted of 99 versions of the same inconsequential story, each in a different rhetorical style. The setting for the first part of each 'Exercise' was the Parisian "S" bus (now no. 84), on board which the nameless narrator witnesses an argument between two passengers. Two hours later he sees one of the men at the Gare St-Lazare, seeking advice about adding a button to his overcoat. That's it. What counts of course is not the tale but the telling, and the brilliant English translation (by Barbara Wright) gives a good idea of the fun Queneau had with the available tropes.

A contemporary equivalent might be to invite 99 writers to depict an identical scene in their own style - an alternative to the collective novel approach of London Consequences. A problem is that so few contemporary writers have a style, so identifying each author would be a challenge. Perhaps a brilliant pasticheur like Craig Brown could do 99 versions in the style of (say) Will Self, Martin Amis and  . . . well . . . you see what I mean? There simply aren't enough distinctive writers to pastiche. Sebastian Faulks? 

Okotie's engaging debut has nothing much in common with Queneau, but he has certainly read and absorbed his Beckett - Marguerite is a remote cousin to Murphy, Molloy and Malone, and especially to Watt, eponymous hero of Watt, with its hypnotic repetitions and exhaustively pedantic permutations. Some passages in Harold Absalon are uncannily similar in pace and register to those of Beckett in Watt, although this is not so much plagiarism as an homage. Okotie fruitfully combines Beckett's pared-down approach with the deadpan literalism of Nicholson Baker.

The book is by turns very amusing and agreeably frustrating, because it consists almost entirely of digressions with virtually no action or character or description. (It takes Okotie more than twenty chapters to describe Marguerite leaving his seat on the upper deck and squeezing past the conductress to the top of the staircase.) As in Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759) it is the author's struggle with the intractable and unstable medium of language that constitutes the real story. Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, written 250 years later, has something of Sterne's wit and invention and, as with Queneau's Exercises in Style it's the telling, not the tale. The three books bear comparison.

You can read the first chapters of Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? here.

You can order a copy from the publisher  here.

Friday, 9 August 2013

On rhotacism

'Rhotacism' refers to several phenomena related to the usage of the consonant sound /r/ (whether as an alveolar tap, alveolar trill, or the much rarer uvular trill), and it takes three forms:

1. the excessive or idiosyncratic use of the r (think of ham actors in pantomime)

2. the inability to pronounce (or difficulty in pronouncing) r (exemplified by the brash telly man Jonathan Ross (nicknamed 'Wossie' by his fans.)

3. the conversion of another consonant into r.

In his case I can only think of parody Orientals like Team America's puppet Kim Jong Il singing I'm So Ronery.

Rhotacism crops up in today's blog because I recently stumbled across this clip featuring the fondly-remembered actor Joe Gladwin (1906-1987). It's a 30-second television advertisement for Hovis digestive biscuits and you can find it on YouTube by entering the name Joe Gladwin. Have a look and note the quite extraordinary gurgling way he pronounces the word 'brainwave'. Is this type 1, 2 or 3 rhotacism? Or a giddy combination of all three? I's sure a phonologist out there could tell me exactly what's going on when he says this word.

Gladwin was born in the Ordsall district of Salford, near Manchester. I lived not far away in the late 1970s and noticed a high incidence of such rhotacism among older residents. I wonder if it's still going strong - or "stvwrong".

He was a low-key actor, although well known as the voice of Hovis the bakers for many years. He was imitated lovingly by the reliably wonderful Paul Whitehouse as an accident-prone pensioner called Unlucky Alf.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Alissa Nutting's Tampa

Here's an extended blog on Tampa, the debut novel by Alissa Nutting. Contains language.

Time was when Faber and Faber published volumes with bold modernist dust jackets designed by Berthold Wolpe and featuring his elegant Albertus typeface - think of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, of Eliot's Complete Poems and Plays, Ezra Pound's Cantos and Golding's Pincher Martin. They were serious books written by, and read by, serious people. That was then and times have changed. 

The striking front cover of Tampa, published by Faber in Britain this month, depicts the empty buttonhole of a shirt resembling a shaved - or possibly pre-pubescent - vagina, slightly dilated, apparently in a state of arousal. This entirely misleads the punter because the protagonist is a 26-year-old female teacher and her victim a fourteen-year-old boy. Perhaps Faber's directors balked at the prospect of a hairless scrotum looming over their colophon.

Chick-lit chick slit © Faber and Faber

Tampa's blurb promises "body-slamming encounters in Celeste's empty classroom between periods" (presumably not menstrual cycles, so stop sniggering), and there's a back-cover encomium from none other than Viv Albertine, front woman of the feminist post-punk band The Slits, which is worth setting out in full: 

Tampa charms and seduces you into the mind of its remorseless female protagonist then twists the knife by skating uncomfortably close to your own inner darkness. Lock up your sons.

The seductive knife-wielding skater Nutting is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University, a private, co-educational Jesuit institution in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It is (according to their website) "a place of intellectual honesty, pluralism and mutual respect". That the Catholic church in general and the Society of Jesus in particular does not feature in this lurid account of systematic physical and sexual child abuse suggests that the author has kept one eye on her day job. (The Wikipedia entry on child abuse by Jesuits is here and makes for grim reading.) If this nasty and disgraceful novel has any particular significance it is because it overturns one long-established credo - that you can't tell a book by its cover.

Dust jacket aside (and I suppose we really shouldn't blame the author for that) it's difficult to know how best to review what the publishers insist is "a grand, satirical, serio-comic examination of desire and a scorching literary debut" when it really is nothing of the kind. The unique selling-point - a female perpetrator - is a threadbare attraction. You can take your pick: The End of Alice (1996) by A. M. Homes described a 19-year-old woman's attempt to seduce a 12-year-old-boy; ten years ago we had Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal (teacher seduces her pupil); two years later came Emily Maguire's Taming the Beast (male teacher 38, girl 14). Kia Abdullah's grotesque Child's Play (2009) was a further if negligible contribution to a genre that has, since Nabokov's peerless Lolita, been downwardly-mobile. (Abdullah is today remembered, if at all, for quite another reason.)

Add all these and similar novels to a stream of miserabilist childhood abuse memoirs and journalistic exposures of 1970s pop stars and telly presenters and you've got some stiff competition when it comes to writing and publishing books about sex with children. How can new authors make themselves heard above the hubbub? How can they make their mark? How can they make a buck?

Nutting's novel was prompted (though hardly 'inspired') by the case of a woman called Debra Lafave, a Florida teacher who pleaded guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old boy. The author had been at  school with Lafave and was apparently alarmed at the way media coverage focussed on the fact she was an "attractive blonde', implying that her child victim had been lucky rather than criminally abused. Nutting is quite right to say that if the tables were turned those comments would be extremely shocking, and that there's an undertow of chortling envy - not least in the media  - attending any pubertal lad fortunate enough to shag - or be shagged by - his nubile schoolmarm. There may be a novel in this - but this isn't that novel. Nubility, not sexual pathology, is what counts in Nutting's treatment - if the perpetrator had been a raddled old brunette a whole different aesthetic would have come into play and quite possibly not have made a blip on the author's radar. 

When it comes to writing about the sexual allure of minors there's always a place for accomplishment - Nabokov and Thomas Mann come immediately to mind. There is a lengthy tradition, not only in literature, of what was once tolerantly termed hebephilia - an admiration, not always translated into action, for youthful male beauty. We are less tolerant today, and Germaine Greer's blameless The Beautiful Boy (2003), which aimed 'to advance women's reclamation of their capacity for and right to visual pleasure' was heavily criticised for all the usual reasons.  

Tampa comes much further down the ladder than Lolita and Death in Venice and even The Beautiful Boy. It's one shaky rung above self-published erotic fiction,  although Nutting's writing would barely pass muster even in that debased context. The author and her publishers optimistically imagine that the book raises important questions surrounding the whole subject of sex with children (of course, or else why publish?) but there's no room for that sort of reflection because what happens, all that happens, is sex.  When Celeste isn't molesting Jack she thinks constantly about intercourse, or masturbates, or has unenjoyable shags with nasty adult men. Nutting may aim to satirise such a self-absorbed pathology, but does no more than report it and - unwittingly one hopes - endorse it. The problem is not that she's equivocal about the issue - although she mostly is - but that whatever point she is trying to make, her skills as a writer are not up to the task. There is little in the book apart from endless bouts of illegal sex, ineptly described.

I shan't bother to argue that there is something dodgy about the depiction of sexual acts that, if circulated in other media and especially online, would be subject to prosecution. Agatha Christie offers her readers no end of murderous tips but we wouldn't think of banning Death on the Nile; so why even consider for a moment banning Tampa, packed though it is with practical accounts of grooming and seduction? This is, don't forget, a 'serio-comic' novel, and a 'scorching literary debut'. Banning isn't an option and I wouldn't want to see anything banned anyway - so the best way to send a clear message to the author and her publishers is not to buy this wretchedly nasty, sloppily-executed and exploitative trash.

We are less tolerant these days about sexist and racist and other discriminatory language than we are about the goings-on depicted routinely in transgressive fiction and, especially and dismayingly, about the sexual exploitation of women and children as literary grist. Nabokov's nymphet was twelve years old, Celeste's victim is an elderly fourteen. Unlike Dolores Haze however, Jack is not the focus of a heartbreaking eulogy or eloquent meditation on desire and yearning and the loss of innocence, nor is he the subject of one of the greatest novels of the past century. Jack exists as no more than a device for Nutting's two-dimensional heroine to shag repeatedly, and as such is wholly dehumanised, wholly objectified, wholly exploited. What's particularly ghastly to contemplate is the thought that Lolita would not find a publisher in today's moral climate but that dreck like Tampa does.

Subject matter aside, what is there to say about the author's talent as a writer? 'Crackling, stampeding, rampantly sexualised prose' is the publisher's promise. A promise that turns out to be all gong and no dinner. Here's an example of the author at full tilt:

                  I rinsed and patted him dry before I started giving him his very first rim job. 

Nutting is to Nabokov what Viv Albertine is to F. R. Leavis. And on the evidence here presented Nutting's no match for E. L. James either. Her style is crude, often laughably incoherent. always overwrought and rarely rises to the adequate. It's frustrating to plough doggedly through such shockingly unaccomplished prose - although I suspect the kind of reader scouring Tampa for tips will not be too picky, and will not be put off by a book that lacks style, wit, grace or focus, that offers no moral perspective, no censure, no reward.

Fortunately perhaps, Nutting is such an incompetent and clumsy writer that the sex scenes - garish, inept, crude and insulting to the intelligence - are unlikely to prompt a response even in readers who share or endorse her main character's taste. Tampa is not in any worthwhile way transgressive, subversive, or a timely challenge to our current attitudes towards the sexualisation of minors. It is not comic, not satirical and emphatically not 'a scorching literary debut'. It tells us nothing new about the subject but says a lot about the priorities of contemporary publishing. It is a wretchedly meretricious excuse for a novel, the appearance of which under any imprint would be reprehensible but, coming as it does from T. S. Eliot's old firm, is quite unforgivable. 

Cover images and extracts from Tampa © Faber and Faber Ltd