Max Porter: ‘I love slang, I love hip-hop. I love the proper use of language’   Leave a comment

Max Porter, back with Lanny, an inventive take on the ‘missing child’ narrative and a meditation on Englishness.

A culture of lying, the outrageous failures of our political system, Westminster being so corrupt, so chaotic … ” Max Porter is talking about public life in the UK today, about which he finds almost everything “revolting”. Porter’s debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, a novella-cum-prose poem about a bereaved dad bringing up two boys, based on the death of his father when he was six, was one of the stand-out books of 2015. He was hailed as “a writer bursting with originality”, but he was reluctant to write a second novel without feeling the same sense of urgency. Now, four years later, this despair at the state of the nation, combined with his “obsessive” fears for the environment, has sent him back to his desk for Lanny, an inventive take on the “missing child” narrative and a meditation on Englishness, made strange by the otherworldliness that distinguished his earlier novel.

Porter didn’t want “just to write angry stuff about tabloid poisoning”, a straightforward anti-Brexit or eco-crisis novel. “This isn’t stuff I want to write about explicitly.” Instead, he hoped “to have a kind of philosophical reckoning” with all these issues. “The question was ‘How do I write about England?’”

His first attempts were “rather unhealthy, because various political feelings collapsed into the effort. It was not a nice place I was writing about”; and, despite all these anxieties, he longed “to write about how strange life is, and beautiful”. Indeed, such gloominess seems at odds with the ebullient novelist (not yet 40), who shrugs off his parka and begins talking with infectious passion about everything from poetry (“I’m never not thinking about Emily Dickinson”) to his worship of trees. He insists that he is not the whimsical, nature-loving Lanny at the heart of his new novel – “I’m a bit more worldly than that” – but his boyish enthusiasm does bring a blast of energy into the hush of Faber’s Bloomsbury offices. Starting out in a bookshop (he won the Bookseller of the Year award in 2009), he was, until recently, editorial director at Granta, where he looked after writers including Han Kang, Eleanor Catton and Rebecca Solnit. “Editing is wonderful, but you are soulmate, analyst, bloody torturer, exploiter all rolled into one,” he says. He wrote Lanny on his Fridays at home, by which time he was desperate not to have “other people’s words in [my] head”.

Read the full interview in The Guardian

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Posted February 23, 2019 by Peter Mathews in Uncategorized

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici   Leave a comment

This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator’s imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn’t sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain why.

The translator entertains friends with food, drink, music and stories and thoughts about his life and work, but he is often heckled by his wife, which leads to repartee especially enjoyed by the guests, fascinated by their relationship. Each monologue is framed by ‘he would say’ or ‘he used to say’, creating a subtle rhythm to and distance from his often uncanny and occasionally self-contradictory stories.

Read the full review on This Space

Posted February 22, 2019 by Peter Mathews in Uncategorized

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley review – marriage under the microscope   Leave a comment

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley’s great success as a novelist lies in the way she conforms to received ideas of good writing. Rather than trying to “make it new” by blurring the distinctions between fiction and autobiography, for instance, or following other recent trends of a broadly Sebaldian nature, she delivers clear narrative lines, creates strongly visualised characters who speak in coherent sentences, and concentrates on the familiarly recurring patterns of human experience. Love; time and its passing. Does this mean there’s too much conservatism in her work? Maybe, but generally she offsets this danger by examining her characters with an unusual degree of psychological subtlety. Her particular strength is to combine a deep excavation of human frailty with compassion for its effects.

Late in the Day, her seventh novel, is no exception. On its small and tightly worked canvas we encounter two couples living in London in their late middle age, as well as a small number of their children and hangers-on. They have known each other, in various configurations, most of their adult lives. And it’s the end of one of these lives that precipitates the drama. Zachary, a wealthy gallery owner, suddenly drops down dead, leaving his wife Lydia to be cared for by Alex, a primary school head, and his wife Christine, a moderately successful painter.

Read the full article at The Guardian

Posted February 22, 2019 by Peter Mathews in Uncategorized

Victory by James Lasdun review – two powerful novellas   Leave a comment

James Lasdun.

In the afterword to his four-story collection Different Seasons, Stephen King describes the heart-sinking moment when you realise that what you’ve written is a novella. He compares the form to “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic” where no one in their right mind would want to end up. Fiction between 20,000 and 40,000 words long does seem to be the least appetising prospect of all for publishers. That’s a pity, of course. Give me great bantamweight work any day – think of Heart of Darkness, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Animal Farm – with its extraordinary power-to-size ratio, rather than the grandiose bloat of an interminable saga.

James Lasdun’s new book is actually two novellas, Feathered Glory and Afternoon of a Faun, and the headline act is clearly the second tale. Both explore uncomfortable corners of the male psyche with eerie clarity, but Afternoon of a Faun goes darker and further, with a timely and irresistibly unpleasant story that is sure to provoke passionate discussion…

Read the full article in The Guardian

Posted February 21, 2019 by Peter Mathews in Uncategorized

Review: Sea of Trees (2012) by Robert James Russell   Leave a comment

Sea-of-TreesThere is a short documentary on YouTube, about twenty minutes long, about the Aokigahara Forest (also known as Jaiku) in Japan. The documentary follows Azusa Hayano, a geologist who frequents the forest, as he explores the undergrowth, looking for signs of people who might have committed suicide there. The forest, after all, is famous as one of the most popular sites in the world for people to commit suicide, a tradition that stretches back even before modern times – in times of famine, the locals used to leave the elderly, unwanted babies, the sick, and other people that society sought to exclude for the sake of survival, leading to a longstanding association of the place with death and, not surprisingly, the ghosts of those who died there.

The forest, with its rugged density and lack of wildlife, enveloping the place in an eerie blanket of silence, seems particularly conducive to this kind of mythologizing. In 1960, Seichi Matsumoto captured the Japanese imagination with the publication of his (as yet untranslated) novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees), a romantic story of two doomed lovers. Robert James Russell’s novella seems to have been inspired by a conjunction of these sources.

The narrative is simple enough. Divided into chapters with headings like “Sacrifice” and “Enlightenment,” the main story follows two characters, Junko, a beautiful young Japanese woman, and Bill, an American, the two having met and fallen in love while they were students. The purpose of their journey is to discover some sign of Izumi, Junko’s older sister, who had disappeared in the forest, presumably having committed suicide. Each chapter concludes with a self-contained, italicized story about an unrelated character (or characters) who died in the forest due to various motives: shame, guilt, murder, and even a simple fascination with death.

I had a number of problems with Sea of Trees. For a start, so many of the elements from the aforementioned documentary seemed to have been incorporated into the basic details of the story: the abandoned car in the parking lot, the deserted campsite, the forlorn body of a deceased person, the doll nailed to a tree with a suicide note nailed next to it. Often it felt as though the novella I was reading was a transposition of the documentary into written form, with only minor modifications.

As we get into the second half of the book, the personalities of the two main characters start to emerge, revealing a major weakness of Russell’s abilities as a writer. Both Bill and Junko are disappointingly flat characters – Bill simply switches back and forth between lusting after Junko and meekly allowing her to walk all over him, while Junko is so unrealistically obsessed with finding her sister that she abandons all logic and, particularly in the final pages, believability. She reveals secrets about Izumi that make sense of her sister’s suicide, but her own behavior is so over the top that she made no inherent sense to me at all – her actions seemed a rather artificial device on Russell’s part to push the plot to its culmination rather than any explicable, organic development in her character.

The element of Sea of Trees that I was least able to stomach, though, was its uncritical romanticism. Let’s not forget that the world’s first romantic novel – Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – also deals with the issue of suicide. While I can sympathize with the seductive power that Aokigahara, with its legends of demons and death, wields over the human imagination (it was what sparked my interest in Russell’s novella in the first place) what I found both lazy and problematic about the book was its wholesale acceptance of this tradition. The reader is not only led to empathize repeatedly with the suicide victims in the book, but also to accept the mystical power that is associated with the place. Bill does make some feeble attempts to give voice to reason, but they are quickly lost in the emotional deluge of Junko’s mania.

Sea of Trees could have been a powerful and complex examination of what life means in the face of death, especially when humanity is faced with the complex phenomenon of its own self-destruction. Russell draws on the operatic, emotional power of the romantic tradition to give his novel punch, but the problem is that this formula is so worn out that, quite simply, I can’t believe in its nobility anymore. I read Goethe’s Werther, for instance, and I think “Put the pistols away, young man – this Lotte woman is not worth it. Your momentary, youthful despair is far less daring than having the maturity to face life with all its prismatic hardness.” Surely that is what novelists, in the twenty-first century, ought to have learned, too – or at the very least, that romanticism is fine when it arouses us into life, but pushed to its extreme it descends into the very worst kind of nihilism.

Rating: 2.5/5

© 2014 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Review: Taipei (2013) by Tao Lin   Leave a comment

coverTao Lin is hot property in the world of contemporary literature, with Taipei, his third novel, being hailed as his breakthrough work. Part of his appeal lies, no doubt, in his capacity to divide: whether as a person and a writer, he tends either to inspire adoration as the voice of his generation or hatred for being a shallow impostor. Lin also complicates matters further by blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography in making Paul, the protagonist of Taipei, into a rather transparent stand-in for his own self. Paul essentially shares every aspect of Tao Lin’s history, from his Taiwanese background to his rampant drug use.

One of Lin’s champions is Bret Easton Ellis, and it is perhaps no surprise that Taipei is being compared to Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero (1985). In terms of personality, though, these two writers could not be more different. Unlike the self-promoting, egoistic Ellis, Lin, to coin a term, is a “black hole” provocateur. In the interviews I have read, he comes across as curiously passive and non-committal, much like the protagonist of Taipei, in a way that initially makes me want to punch him in the face for his apparent pretentiousness but, after further consideration, makes me also admire his ability to provoke such a reaction in spite of his utterly flavorless personality (nonetheless, I still want to punch him in the face).

Taipei had a similar effect on me as I was reading it. The opening pages were a lesson in patience: endlessly detailed descriptions of Paul’s passive-aggressive interactions with his initial girlfriend Michelle, introductions to a myriad of characters who bobbed in and out of the story without much significance, a lack of clear plot direction, and most grating of all, the minutiae of Paul’s online activity, as he cycles through an assortment of online chats, emails, blogs, texts, and other social media that are just as boring to him as they are to us as readers. Taipei is a boring, plot-less novel about a pretentious, self-absorbed protagonist who fritters away his time on worthless pursuits, goes to parties, does LOTS of drugs, whines about his poor relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriends while doing everything in his power to alienate them, and generally inhabits a zone of hipster privilege that is itself a cultural cliche. Not only that, but the novel’s title misleads the reader into expecting that it will shed some light on Taipei in some way, but when Paul goes to that city he does the exact same things he does in America: takes lots of drugs, plays with his MacBook, and sets about alienating his female companion.

My opinion started to moderate a little not because the novel improved dramatically as it went on or suddenly took on some kind of coherent plot, but because I began to see some unexpected similarities between Lin’s writing and earlier works of literature. Throughout Taipei, for instance, Lin uses quotation marks to indicate phrases that seem like cliches, and while in the early stages of reading I reacted, for instance, to Kyle’s description of Traci as “really hot” in quotation marks with an angry note in the margin (“what is this? high school?”), I reluctantly remembered that Flaubert does much the same thing in Madame Bovary, albeit with italics rather than quotation marks. I remembered also reading about Sartre’s drug habits, about how he was so amped up on speed that if you examine his handwritten manuscripts you can see where his handwriting slides off the edge of the page from writing so quickly.

It was the Sartre connection that really got me thinking, making me ponder a possible resonance between Taipei and Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938). Nausea is a meditation on the anxiety of existence, a haunting feeling which troubles all human beings but that bothers, in particular, the novel’s sensitive central character Antoine Roquentin. Roquentin seems to be more attuned than others to this existential condition, and Sartre explores his protagonist’s ongoing dilemma through two main avenues: Roquentin’s ambivalent relationship with an Englishwoman, Anny, and various lyrical moments of philosophical insight, the most famous of which occurs when Roquentin sits on a park bench and contemplates the root of a chestnut tree (a passage that was inspired, it is said, by Sartre’s experiments with mescaline).

The best parts of Taipei more or less follow these aspects of Sartre’s novel. In place of Anny, Lin inserts Erin, a writer from Baltimore, into the story, who provides a breath of fresh air after Paul’s earlier, insipid entanglements with Michelle and then Laura, relationships that revealed little about the characters and did not move along the plot in any way. Erin, by contrast, provides an excellent foil to Paul’s character in the second half of the book, indulging his immature impulses by sharing drugs, making amateur films with Paul on their ubiquitous MacBooks, going to Las Vegas with him, visiting his family in Taipei, and then returning to New York for the novel’s final binge on heroin and magic mushrooms. Erin is the only character in the novel with any warmth and depth, and it is for this reason that she actually manages to shed some light on the colorless protagonist in Paul.

The true potential of this novel, however, comes into focus whenever Lin follows Sartre by providing the reader with lyrical contemplations about the meaning of existence. Normally, the prose style of the novel is either dull (tedious, in-depth descriptions of drug-taking and email-checking) or, in some cases, laughably clumsy. Lin comes up with some awful similes, from comparing Paul’s inability to understand others to “an amoeba trying to create a personal webpage using CSS” (p.10), to his protagonist’s social discomfort being “not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual” (p.37). But these moments are somewhat redeemed by some glimpses of true lyrical beauty, such as this passage in which Paul imagines technology subverting its role as humanity’s slave and slowing taking over society:

“At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated, implanting little computers into people’s brains, or other methods Paul had probably read about on Wikipedia, until it became the distant, shrinking, nearly nonexistent somethingness that was currently life— and life, for immortal humans, became the predominate [“predominant”?] distraction that was currently death— technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of increased functioning, until the universe was one computer. Technology, an abstraction, undetectable in concrete reality, was accomplishing its concrete task, Paul dimly intuited while idly petting Erin’s hair, by way of an increasingly committed and multiplying workforce of humans , who receive , over hundreds of generations, a certain kind of advancement (from feet to bicycles to cars, faces to bulletin boards to the internet) in exchange for converting a sufficient amount of matter into computerized matter for computers to be able to build themselves.” (p.167)

Or, to give an another example, here is a beautiful passage from late in the story in which Paul, high on mushrooms, imagines that his being is melding with that of Erin:

“His steady, controlled petting of one of Erin’s vertebra with the cuticle of his right index finger gradually felt like his only method of remaining in concrete reality, where he and Erin, and other people, shared a world. Sometimes, forgetting what he was doing, his finger would slow or stop and he would become aware of a drifting sensation and realize he was being absorbed— from an indiscernible distance, beyond which he wouldn’t know how to return— and, with some urgency, move his body or open his eyes, seeing grid-like overlays on the walls and holograms of graph paper in the air, to interrupt his being taken. The effort became gradually smaller and more unconscious and, as if for something to do, in place of what was now automatic, Paul began to discern his rhythmic petting as a continuous striving to elicit certain information from Erin by responding or not responding to her rhythms, in a cycle whose goal was to produce momentary equilibriums. He felt increasingly attuned to the speed and quality of her breathing and heart rate, until he felt able to instantly discern changes in her physiology, which in entirety began to seem like an inconstant unit of unique, irreducible information (an ever-changing display of only prime numbers) that was continuously expressed and that bypassed the parts of them that allowed for deliberation or perception or intuition, beginning and ending in the only place where they were exactly together, undifferentiated and unknowable, but couldn’t, in their present form, ever reach, like a thing communicating directly with itself, rendering them both irrelevant.” (pp.243-4)

These are the kind of occasional gems that are buried in the midst of a novel that is otherwise focused on the annoying and pretentious task of enumerating the banality of a certain class of people in America. Could it be that one style cannot exist without the other, that these lyrical passages need the tedium of Paul’s postmodern life in the same way that a picture needs a frame, that light needs darkness? Whatever the case,  I certainly don’t think that Taipei is the next great work in contemporary literature, nor that Tao Lin is mature enough to break through at this stage, even though the consensus seems to be against me. Young writers tend to suffer from a lack of discipline, but Taipei perhaps suffers from too much: its relentlessly unemotional style is suffocating, a drawback made all the more stark by the intrusion of its best, most lyrical moments, those rare times when the novel breaks free from its pretentious shackles and shows glimpses of the writer that Lin might someday become.

Rating: 2.5/5

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted June 20, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Proust’s Madeleine: Learning and Indirection   2 comments

MadeleinesThe most famous scene in Marcel Proust’s monumental novelistic cycle In Search of Lost Time involves a cup of tea and a madeleine, a kind of French biscuit (cookie). In that scene, the narrator, Marcel, dips the madeleine into his tea and is suddenly, without warning, transported back into a labyrinth of memories, a whole lifetime of impressions that subsequently become the base material for Proust’s gargantuan work.

Now, I want you to do an experiment. I want you to take a cup of tea and a madeleine – I’ve baked a few just so that you can try this out – and replicate Marcel’s actions. Okay. What happened? Yes, yes, the madeleine was delicious, I’m an excellent baker, but putting that aside, what about the rush of impressions? The flood of memories? Were you transported into a meditative state that inspired you frantically to write down every detail of your life? No? Well, why not? Why should this work for Marcel and not for you?

This experiment came to mind as I was reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life for the book club that I attend each month.  The experiment, of course, is designed to fail (and also provide an excuse for eating a delicious madeleine!). But what it illustrates to me, more seriously, is a realization that cuts to the  heart of why de Botton’s book is a horrendous misreading not only of Proust, but also of what novels do in general.

Even though they fall under the collective umbrella of literature, the genres of the fable and the novel are quite different in their intentions. Read to the end of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes,” for instance, and the author explains the moral of the tale you have just read: “Similarly, certain people, [just like the fox,] not being able to run their affairs well because of their inefficiency, blame the circumstances.” But flip to the end of In Search of Lost Time or Great Expectations or Gravity’s Rainbow and you’ll find no such explanation. It’s not that the novelist has forgotten to put it in there, nor because there is any shortage of moral messages in novels, but instead this absence arises from the fact that novels are meant to be read in a way that differs markedly from the purposes of the fable.

The great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the history of literature shows an evolution from early forms, which are characterized by their imposition of a single perspective and voice, to the gradual emergence of the novel, which incorporates multiple voices that are in dialogue with each other. While I don’t agree with the implication that fables and other early genres lack complexity, I do think Bakhtin’s insight into the character of the novel is correct: we ought to read every voice, every opinion, every action, not as a didactic assertion from the author about how we should see the world, but as one idea that is being played off against a whole series of competing points of view. For Bakhtin, then, the worst kind of novel is one that preaches at us, that tells us how to live rather than provoking us to enter into the dialogue and ask searching questions of ourselves.

There is a sense in which we already do this when reading drama. Take this famous dictum from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” This saying is widely quoted as an example of Shakespeare’s great wisdom, but close readers of the play will know that it carries quite a different meaning when viewed in its proper context. These words, in fact, are spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes, and carry not the conventionally understood message of “be yourself,” but rather “look out for your own interests,” a less morally glamorous meaning that is appropriate coming from such a self-serving toady. It is a mistake, then, to attribute these words so carelessly to Shakespeare the person: they occur in a dialogical situation in the play that changes their meaning and, in so doing, strips them of their general applicability as a moralistic proverb.

The greatest novelists, then, are those who are willing to step outside the comfort zone and give serious consideration in their novels to ideas and philosophies that are not their own. Bakhtin considered Dostoevsky to be one such example, and it is not hard to see why: for a devoutly Christian writer to paint such a convincingly cynical portrait of the church in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is a daring and intellectually dangerous move. It not only shows the depth of Dostoevsky’s faith, but it also forces us, as readers, to question the extent to which we, in turn, are willing to ask difficult questions about our own beliefs. Dostoevsky is a brilliant novelist precisely because he raises these ethical questions without preaching to us, instead drawing readers into a dialogue of ideas that requires us to think for ourselves.

De Botton’s greatest sin in How Proust Can Change Your Life lies in the fact that he ignores this core logic of how novels work and instead uses In Search of Lost Time as a repository of maxims from which he can then draw moral lessons that suit his own middlebrow agenda. As such, Proust’s work is stripped of its status as a dialogue and transformed merely into a superficial “guide” to living. In so doing, de Botton, as he does repeatedly throughout the book, contradicts his own advice, for in the final chapter he warns that we must not treat writers as “oracles” whose wisdom we follow without question, for to do so would be to commit “artistic idolatry” – a perverse conclusion coming from a book  that even announces in its title, without any trace of irony, that it intends to do exactly that to Proust.

What de Botton overlooks is that this kind of indirection lies at the very heart of the kind of knowledge that the humanities seeks to teach. Indeed, it is something of a lost art in today’s society, which has seems only to value only those things in which the educational intention appears clearly on the surface. Thus, everyone understands, for instance, that the concepts and skills that an engineer learns are transferred directly through the classes they take and are then applied to their jobs. Engineering, business, medicine: these are all fields that rely primarily on direct learning.

But how does one become a person who is capable of learning and understands the path to success? These ingredients are just as important for becoming a successful doctor or businessman as prescribing the right pill or balancing an account book, if not more so, for such personal qualities are the foundation from which success springs. These qualities – let us bracket them under the name “wisdom” – can only be learned from experience, never directly from a book or a teacher, as Proust’s character Elstir observes:

“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” (p.67)

De Botton quotes this same passage but, in yet another example of self-contradiction, he nonetheless undertakes the journey of reading Proust for us in order to mine the latter’s work for every last sparkling piece of wisdom while ignoring its deeper meaning and context.

De Botton’s writing calls to mind Milan Kundera’s notion of kitsch. Kitsch, Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is the kind of populist art that simultaneously manipulates our emotions and transforms the extraordinary into a generic form, easily consumable by the masses and thus a perfect tool for political manipulation. De Botton does exactly that to Proust, especially because for many of his readers, How Proust Can Change Your Life will be the easy-to-read, populist excuse for not actually reading In Search of Lost Time: look at readers’ reviews of the book on the internet and just count how many times they say “well, I’ve not read Proust and I probably never will, but I loved de Botton’s book about him…” Make no mistake: underneath his veneer of fake intellectualism, de Botton represents a social agenda that is merely bourgeois morality masquerading as self-improvement.

The reality is that wisdom, if it can be taught, can only ever be taught indirectly. Just as you won’t evoke the torrent of memories simply from eating a madeleine, so too there is little chance that Proust or any other novelist can really change your life unless you learn to enact the kind of indirect, dialogic thinking that lies at the very heart of what the novel does – a mode of thinking that de Botton, despite all his knowledge and education, abandons in order to turn out this tawdry piece of kitsch.

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 18, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Article

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