Wednesday, 22 September 2010


The current buzz around Tom McCarthy and his recent novel C strikes me as fascinating. Here is a novelist who deliberately aligns himself with the Modernist legacy of Joyce, Kafka and Beckett and furthermore openly admits to the influence of continental Post-Modern Theory on his approach. As if this weren't heretical enough, in the conversation between McCarthy and Lee Rourke (another interesting novelist) in last Saturday's Guardian:

( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/18/tom-mccarthy-lee-rourke-conversation#start-of-comments

he goes further in denouncing the traditions of "sentimental humanism" and its cult of the individual which still inform so much of our critical discourse, and in enthusiastically citing a whole raft of other coolly transgressive names ( Cocteau, Heidegger, Blanchot, Pound, Celan, Ballard, Mark E Smith) almost in the manner of an early 80's NME piece by Paul Morley - though needless to say with rather more substance than Morley ever managed.
    This is hardly an original stance, of course (one wonders in fact whether McCarthy has his tongue at least half in his cheek when making some of his more ponderous statements); the blanket demonisation of "liberal humanism",for example, is one of the corner-stones of any undergraduate Literary Theory course. Yet because of the scant credence ordinarily granted to such intellectually-weighty pronouncements, their very abnormality coming from the mouth of an English novelist - that endemic retroist and rester-on-laurels, staunchly averse to ideas, theories or formal experiment - McCarthy comes across as remarkably refreshing and forward-looking.   
     Moreover, the fact that C has not only been nominated for the Booker Prize, but is 9/4 Favourite to win, speaks perhaps of a groundswell of dissension among general readers, an inquisitive inkling that it might still be possible to do new and exhilarating things with the haggard old British novel.
    All this is immensely heartening for writers like myself who also invariably take their bearings from the cross-currents of international Modernism and its later forms. Within the sphere of poetry, Identity Parade seems to indicate a similar desire to challenge and redefine the parameters of mainstream taste, although in McCarthy's terms we might still point to out-moded tendencies - default realism, autobiographical disclosure, a belief in 'personal voice' - which need debunking in British poetry as urgently as in the novel.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Scribbled Form

   Received the new edition of PN Review over the weekend with my review of James Byrne's excellent volume Blood/Sugar within its pages.  It still feels an honour to see one's own writing within such a prestigious publication - and furthermore the contributor's cheque enclosed brought my literary earnings for the year to the princely total of £20!
   Michael Schmidt in his editorial makes a comparable point about US culture - the blatant erosion of religious tolerance and pluralism - as I did in the previous post although in a far more considered and eloquent way.
   Finishing King John the other morning - one of the most under-appreciated of Shakespeare's history plays - I came across this astonishing image:

             I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
             Upon a parchment, and against this fire
             Do I shrink up.  (V, 7, 32 ff)

Is there a more resonant metaphor for death in all poetry, especially for the writer who at the end of the day might have hoped to embody his or her life in their writings - how imperfect this always is (only "scribbled") and how perishable is the medium of paper we have written on (especially when books - whether the Koran or a Salman Rushdie novel - can be deliberately burned).

Thursday, 9 September 2010

From Walt Whitman to Walt Disney in Three Easy Moves

 Arrived back from my first trip to the States last weekend, feeling rather bloated - physically and mentally - from the sheer supersizedness of everything in America: the theme-parks, the meals, the roads, the vehicles, the people, the egos, the skies. Not all in a bad way: it feels like there's so much room to manoeuvre, so much latitude for exploration, you inevitably gain a sense of expanded possibility out there. Whereas (I know this is very far from original) England does feel like Toytown in comparison when you return, all constricted, claustrophobic and undernourished.
  No wonder English poets like Auden, Thom Gunn, Christopher Middleton and Geoffrey Hill all started writing in freer, more expansive modes when they moved to the States: what was it William Carlos Williams said about American reality not fitting into iambic pentameters? (I touch on this in the piece on the Yale Selected Poems of Geoffrey Hill I've been working on for The Wolf - how does the early highly-wrought English Hill accord with the later prolific, looser-tongued American one?)
  On departing for Gatwick back in the middle of August, I somehow forgot to pack any books so had to buy one in a rush at WH Smiths at the airport. The only paperback that even remotely appealed was Martin Amis's Money - it proved fantastically apposite in the chapters where John Self hits America in a maniacal booze-fuelled pinball-bounce from comical disaster to disaster - the rambunctious, rambling, foul-mouthed prose is Amis at his best. Somewhat as I said in reference to Hoffman's Acrimony, how acidulously prophetic of our recent economic collapse is Money's narrative arc - remarkably though this is the late 70's recession John Self gets caught in, not even the 80's one. The boom-bust cycle really is ongoing.
   Didn't see many signs of recession in Florida, either among the Americans or our fellow Disney-worshipping Brits. But then the paradox is (and which Amis manages to show in Money ) in how apple-pie wholesome and 'have a nice day y'all!' America is on the surface and what a seething turmoil of social inequities and illiberal prejudices festers beneath. Did you hear about 'Burn a Koran Day'?!