Category Archives: Literature

The seventh of August, 2014: There isn’t, I’m afraid, a great deal to talk about…

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The actor Greg Page reads the opening of my novel, Wild Ink, which is now available to buy in paperback and e-book from Dead Ink Books.

The fifth of October, 2012: idolatrous confectionery

A three-part Clutterbuck, today. The figure linking the three parts is Edmund Gosse (1849-1928).

After his mother’s death in 1857, Gosse was raised by his father, Philip Henry Gosse, a marine biologist and a fundamentalist Christian with a decided hell-fire bent. The younger Gosse described the intense relationship between the two in the book that made his name: Father and Son (1907).

Modern readers of the book might find certain sections of the book oddly familiar. This will probably because (a) they have read it before and forgotten about it or (b) they have read Peter Carey’s marvellous novel Oscar And Lucinda (1988). Carey’s account of the childhood of Oscar Hopkins owes a great (and acknowledged) debt to Gosse.

Here’s Gosse:

He looked upon [each of the feasts of the Church] as nugatory and worthless, but the keeping of Christmas appeared to him by far the most hateful, and nothing less than an act of idolatry… [B]ut the servants, secretly rebellious, made a small plum-pudding for themselves. Early in the afternoon, the maids… kindly remarked that ‘the poor dear child ought to have a bit, anyhow’, and wheedled me into the kitchen, where I ate a slice of plum-pudding…

At length I could bear my spiritual anguish no longer, and bursting into the study I called out: ‘Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols!’… Then my Father sternly said: ‘Where is this accursed thing?’… He took me by the hand, and ran with me into the midst of the startled servants, seized what remained of the pudding, and with the plate in one hand and me still tight in the other, ran till we reached the dust-heap, when he flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the ashes, and then raked it deep down into the mass.

The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface.

One can well imagine. And now here’s Carey:

Oscar took the spoon and ate, standing up… [H]e was just raising the spoon to his mouth in anticipation of more, had actually got the second spoonful into his mouth when the door squeaked behind him and Theophilus came striding across the cobbled floor.

He felt the blow on the back of his head. His face leapt forward. The spoon hit his tooth… A large horny hand gripped the back of his head and another cupped beneath his mouth. He tried to swallow. There was a second blow. He spat what he could. Theophilus acted as if his son were poisoned.

Theophilus threw what remained of the pudding into the fire.

Oscar had never been hit before. He could not bear it.

His father made a speech. Oscar did not believe it.

His father said the pudding was the fruit of Satan.

But Oscar had tasted the pudding. It did not taste like the fruit of Satan.

Parts II and III of this Gosse extravaganza will have to wait till tomorrow.

The third of October, 2012: Fitzgerald’s advanced

Sage advice from a character in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (Vintage, 2003):

[Nagasawa] was a far more voracious reader than me, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least 30 years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short…

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs.”

I get the feeling that Murakami may have been unpopular at school.

He makes an exception, this Nagasawa, for The Great Gatsby, whose author, at the time at which this conversation takes place in the book, has been dead for only twenty-eight years. Nagasawa’s response: “So what? Two years? Fitzgerald’s advanced.”

Among the writers that, by Nagasawa’s lights, we can all start reading in 2013 are  Hideo KobayashiArthur KoestlerRebecca West,  Jerzy Andrzejewski – oh, and Hergé. Something to look forward to.

The thirteenth of September, 2012: I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up

This is a gaunt waste in Thule:

(Photo from Sash Alexander)

These are some Alps:

(Photo by Sandro Vannini/Corbis)

And here are the sand-dunes of Scheveningen:

(Photo by pinktigger)

The connection? Well, they’re all listed in Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native (1878) as instances of landscapes that mankind might, in future, value more highly than such conventionally scenic spots as Heidelberg, Baden, and “the vineyards and myrtle-gardens of South Europe”. These are landscapes that, like the fictional Egdon Heath, “appeal to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming”.

Demonstrating, at the age of 38, a somehat adolescent predilection for morbidity, Hardy goes on:

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter… The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the mournful sublimity of a moor, a sea or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

I can see why many people can’t bear Hardy (though I still think he’s great). In any event, I’m sure we can all agree with the critic Holden Caulfield when he says: “I like that Eustacia Vye.”

 

The twelfth of September, 2012: a two and three zeros

I don’t know a great deal, I’ll admit, about science fiction. As a kid, at the point where I would have got into it if I was going to get into it, fate directed me towards eight-inch-thick swords-and-sandals fantasy epics instead (it was my brother that took care of the eight-inch-thick Asimov trilogies).

But I’ve read a little Lem, and some William Gibson, and a lot of Vonnegut, and a couple of other things here and there, and when (as related, grippingly, in the Clutterbuck of the tenth) I came across Connoisseur’s SF in a secondhand bookshop I felt a hankering too powerful to resist. Kind chance saw to it that I had the necessary £1.50 in my pocket, too, so there we were.

Most of the stories in the book take what you might call a scientific approach to science fiction – not in that they’re technically very involved (they aren’t – they’re all from 1965 or earlier, which helps in that regard), but in that they ask a question and then want, immediately, with no shilly-shallying or literary faffing about, to answer it.

The premise of each of these stories could be summed up in a single ‘what if…?’ sentence, which makes them what I think of as being a very pure sort of sci-fi. Maybe, indeed, this is what makes them connoisseur’s sci-fi.

So here are the authors (in order of appearance), and here are their questions.

1. Alfred Bester: all right, a tough one to begin with, but something like – what if people could travel not through actual history but through history as they imagine it?

2.Frederik Pohl: what if advertising became the most powerful and dangerous force in the world?

3. Kurt Vonnegut: what if an effective anti-ageing serum existed?

4. Theodore Sturgeon: what if it were considered deviant and criminal to want to be alone?

5. Jack Finney: um… what if, during the US Civil War, two men travelled into the future to steal an aeroplane from the Smithsonian?…

6. JG Ballard: what if a city were so overcrowded that people actually had no concept of what ‘open space’ was?

7. Isaac Asimov: what if schoolchildren were taught by machines instead of human teachers?

8. Eric Frank Russell: what if humans conquered new worlds not by using logic but by being deliberately irrational?

9. JT McIntosh: what if cloned humans acquired equal legal rights?

10. Fredric Brown: what if the world were suddenly and irreversibly deprived of electricity?

One of the answers Brown gives to that last question, incidentally, is that some of us would miss the lightning.

What was the point of this little exercise? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m being reductionist for the sake of it; I do think that the genius of these stories is in the formulation of the question and in the desire to answer the question rather than in the answering of the question.

While we’re on the subject of the future, here’s one more line from Nabokov’s The Eye that I’d like to note down:

What did I care if this letter would indeed travel across a remote mountain pass into the next century, whose very designation – a two and three zeros – is so fantastic as to seem absurd?

The Eye was written (in Russian) in 1930.

The eleventh of September, 2012: the last letter, and all the postmen

I started today with one of those moments of false déjà vu that occur when, in reading a book you haven’t read before, you come across a passage that is dimly familiar.

A man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up his watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen.

From Nabokov’s The Eye (Panther, 1968). This is such an exceptional piece of writing that it would have stood out even if I hadn’t come across it before – but I had, in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience (Cape, 2000), where Amis discusses the suicide of Lamorna, the mother of his daughter Delilah.

‘The writer is the opposite of suicide,’ Amis concludes. Of suicide, he says: ‘It’s not in me to pass any judgment on it. It escapes morality.’

The tenth of September, 2012: Breeding Of The Weasel

We recently found ourselves in the repository of good things that is Alnwick’s Barter Books. There are many things to like about it: the little train that runs along the tops of the bookshelves; the panopticon-style layout of the fiction section; the tasty rarebit served in the buffet; the automotive contortions you have to enact in order to get in and out of the carpark (all right, I didn’t technically enjoy that part, but I did feel obscurely improved by the experience).

But the main thing about Barter Books, the important thing, is that there is a great number of books there. The children’s section is a treasure-trove of technicolour-jacketed derring-do (although, as so often, there was a dismaying lack of Willard Price). There are beguiling, mouldered rarities kept behind glass. There are raffishly orange Penguin spines by the hundred.

I came away, inevitably, with a bagful, including the marvellous Penguin 1965 Connoiseur’s SF (Pohl, Vonnegut, Ballard, and so on – I’ll say something more about this pocketful of wonderfulness another time) and Nabokov’s The Eye in Panther (1968), featuring some great press quotes on the jacket: ‘Nabokov is the natural successor to Chekov’ (Tribune); ‘The likeness between Nabokov and Pasternak… jumped to my eye more than ever before here. And Nabokov’s superiority jumped as much as ever’ (Guardian – hear, hear, whatever the Nobel Prize committee might say).

Also in the bagful was Yorkshireman H. Mortimer Batten’s Habits And Character Of British Wild Animals (W & R Chambers, 1928) (yes, Waugh fans, we’re very much in the territory of feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole). It’s a book that, for me, has two extremely charming features.

One is Batten’s propensity – one he shared with most natural history writers of his day, and earlier days – for making scathing moral judgments on the personal character of the creatures he’s writing about. The rat, in particular, really gets his back up: ‘In the following it is proposed to deal only with the less commonly known habits and characteristics of this odious and universally detested creature,’ he says, barely able to even contemplate the beast without his bile rising.

The other is the illustration, which is byWarwick Reynolds (1880-1926) and is extraordinary: I don’t recall seeing anything like it in a natural history guide from the period. It’s surprisingly dramatic, full of movement and action, and rendered in ravishingly thick layers of pencil-lead. Here’s the brown hare:

And here’s the fox:

I’m damned, however, if I can find much out about the fantastic Mr Reynolds. All I know is that he was an English artist and animal painter (and he also painted this chap. Who is he? Why, he’s Colonel John MacFarlane, of course – and I’m damned if I know anything about him, either). He’s listed alongside E. H. Shepard (of Pooh fame) and W. Heath Robinson in this Bonzo profile of ‘Famous Artists and Writers’ from 1924 – so I also know that he had a gravedigger’s face and a pudding-bowl haircut. And he drew for The Strand (pdf), too (a week rarely goes by without me giving thanks for the good people of Archive.org and their indefatigable scanners). He was only forty-six when he died.

It’s rather  sad, of course, that so interesting an artist is so little remembered. But, on the other hand, there are worse fates than to be found, slightly the worse for wear and with your binding coming loose, in an under-explored corner of a Northumberland bookshop.