Sick as a Dog

Today I took a leaf out of Shakespeare’s book. An elm leaf. God only knows how it got there. Still, there’s no harm in attempting to second-guess the old chap.

Back in the grisly days of my studenthood I went through a phase of declaiming Stratford-upon-Avon’s favourite money-spinner to an audience of assorted animals. It was a sort of psycho-zoological-literary experiment, which came to a sad end when a German Shepherd Dog vomited all over my copy of As You Like It. Perhaps I shouldn’t have fed it all those marshmallows first. Still, I like an honest dog. Upon clearing the debris of extreme queasiness, I discovered his noble target. ‘Ay, marry, now unmuzzle your wisdom’ were the words I found lurking at the centre of the canine spew. Clearly something about this line excited him in one way or another; the concept of freeing one’s mind leading the gruff and furry fellow to release the shackles of the food particles making hay in his digestive system. Come forth thy emetic children; flee from the offending throat unto the hallowed page! Barf ye, barf ye (so and so somewhat immaturely forth)

Of course, the idea of being sick as a not-wholly-negative reaction to art has quite a few precedents. The work of the Bosnian novelist Hoçe is often said to ‘bring the reader’s dinner back’; likewise the paintings of Eugene Matendre. But in neither case is chronic nausea seen as a drawback; it is rather a truly natural response: a telling reminder for doubters all that art retains the ability to move the soul (and stomach).

So, how did the elm leaf get into my copy of The Bard’s sonnets? If this question were to be left unanswered, ‘twere better it were to be left unanswered here. On the erstwhile palm, I would imagine it fell from the tree that glorious early autumn day when once I read Sonnet XII to a squirrel.

Lamenting things that are lost

My previous post on Fabio Muzakaki (below) made mention of the fact that the second half of his second novel was lost due to a computer malfunction. This was somewhat of a tragedy, no doubt about it, albeit one of a rather undramatic nature. Oh yes indeed.  The best way to lose half of your novel, as any fool knows, is to drop a solitary handwritten paper copy into a strong wind near a lake. This looks great. We know this because cinema has told us. If you’re especially fortunate, there may even be an attractive member of the opposite sex on hand to help you put on the pretence of picking up the pieces.

Next time I lose something important I shall certainly make every effort to ensure that the process reeks of high drama. Indeed, I came close to achieving this quite recently when the estranged husband of an author whose book of poetry I was publishing stormed the launch party and made off with the first print run. The whole scenario was vaguely reminiscent of a chase scene from a blockbuster film, except that no-one really gave chase. They came, they saw, they stole the books. Bemused faces looked on from the gallery. More on that another day.

Meanwhile, something of greater importance has been lost. I know not where, I know not how. All I know is that its disappearance contained as much high drama as a play by Kristin Rindolf, or the type of minimalist symphony that rises to a climax with all the urgency of a broken kettle.

One day I had the idea to add a line or two to a piece of writing on which I had been working. It was a draft of an autobiographical text, fashioned to support a selection of works from my journal. There was nothing much to it; just a collection of memories, around thirty pages or so, covering several years of my career, painted in prose of a vaguely purple hint or hue. Not great work, but (in light of the inevitable difficulties one has in the sphere of autobiography) perfectly serviceable. Eminently serviceable, in fact.

Lo and behold, the notepad in which these things were contained could not be found. Never ye mind. I did not panic. I did not fall to my knees and throw out a prayer or four to St. Anthony. I did not flap my arms about and spin wildly around the bedroom, knocking Chinese vases off Japanese cabinets. I did not tremble in a violent silence – rising slowly to a bubbling boiling point – or simmer into a furious nothingness. I did not even drown my sorrows in pineapple juice. ‘It’ll turn up’ said I to myself – ‘it’ll turn up’.

Three months later and, of course, it hasn’t turned up. Gradually I have come to accept the fact that it is lost. The calmness with which I accept this significant fact frightens me somewhat. Have I replaced the words I lost? Otters above! Not at all. I fear I cannot. I am almost certain that I cannot recapture what is lost. Though what is missing is, in essence, very little, it seems probable that I will now have to abandon the project altogether. The thought of what is lost gnaws away at me; but it is terribly quiet sort of gnawing: an alarmingly quiet sort of gnawing. I shall be all eaten up before I realise what it is that’s eating me.

More on Muzakaki

Slacken your pace, you proceed with too much haste: one ought to allow the moment to abide. The early bird may get the worm – but what kind of worm is it? It’s an annelid of admittedly small proportions; a thin, dry creature, near-drowned by the dew, left in the lawn for over-eager claws.

I have done someone a minor disservice. I may seem to have implicated (see ‘Guardians of petty corruption’ below) that the writer Fabio Muzakaki was a quitter – and that he was unable to complete more than half a dozen chapters of an otherwise promising novel. As often as the corn is cut, so is the case more complicated than at first it seems. In fact, on going over my files, I realise that Muzakaki’s Honeycomb Chronicles was not his first novel. It was proceeded, of course, by The Pompei Poodle (which was, alas, never translated into English). The relative success of this novel, however, suggests that the young writer (contrary to rumour) does have the endurance needed of a novelist. Furthermore, it ought to be stated that the failure of the Honeycomb Chronicles was prompted by a series of unavoidable mishaps. The first was the collapse of the Italian journal in which it was originally published, in eight instalments (with a further eight to go). The second was a malfunctioning computer, leading to the disappearance of those eight further instalments. The third, finally, was the decision by the translator Malcolm Harding (best known for his part in the ‘Luis Funnel Affair’) to abandon the project – provoked in part by a mysterious finger-related illness.

My apologies go out, therefore, to Fabio. It was foolish of me to have forgotten these facts. I hope that I may be able to repay you by publishing the opening chapters of your novel (in Harding’s translation) sometime in the near future. Though I understand that The Honeycomb Chronicles has now been shelved once and for all, I am led to believe that a third novel is on its way. If a healthy and talented translator can be found, my publishing house would be happy to consider it.

Alphabet 2

In honour of a possible lack of originality buzzing around my discussion of this issue (see ‘Alphabet 1’ below) I will at this juncture direct you an authority other than myself, who may or may not have more penetrating things to say on the subject. Two pieces of writing by Georges Perec spring tiger-like to mind, both of which can be found in the collection, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. The first, ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’ is concerned, as you may have deduced, with systems of ordering in relation to bookshelves. The second, ‘The Alphabet’, forms part of a piece entitled ‘Think/Classify’ and is more directly concerned with, well, the alphabet. This post might also have its uses.

Whilst the fly of our thoughts rests on the Perecian sticky bun, here is another quotation:

‘Thus Perec’s novel calls for an active independent reader, one who must recognize, first, that there is indeed a puzzle to solve even before becoming a participant in the “game” of puzzling…’
(Mitchell, Peta: ‘Constructing the Architext: Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual’)

More on active readers here.

Alphabet 1

Alphabetisation is a necessary evil. Discuss.

I remember visiting a man once – Manfred, I believe, was his name – and, whilst waiting for him to return from the cellar (I was a vinolent fellow in those days, and made social contacts on the basis of wine cellars) I took the opportunity to look over his record collection. I spent five minutes scanning the first of what I imagined to be a series of alphabetised shelves. I moved onto the second – and then the third. That was it for this room, and yet every record I’d seen so far was by a band or composer beginning with the letter ‘A’. If he had three shelves of ‘A’ alone, how many records did he own?

That’s it,’ he replied, anticipating my question. He had a frightening habit of doing this.

He uncorked something from the South-East of France: ‘Yes, oh yes, oh yes. That’s the lot of them. The whole bang lot. Lock, stock and barrel. Every pickle in the jar. Every guppy in the tank.’

‘Explain,’ said I.

‘I will,’ said he. And he did.

It was a simple explanation. He had started collecting records at a young age, systematically, giving every band its due. He didn’t like to make opinions based on the opening chords; on one or two listens only. He liked, nay needed, to take his time. It’s better to know a few things well than a lot of things hardly well enough. This was his philosophy and is, to a certain extent, mine also (derived, you will not be surprised to hear, from Johannes Speyer). Working this way, it was no surprise he’d never got beyond ‘A’. There were new bands and new composers beginning with ‘A’ appearing all the time. I never met him again, but I’d be highly surprised to hear that he ever found his way to ‘B’.

Roughly nine and a half years after this encounter, I published a work called Gogol to Galsworthy: A Rhapsody in G, a broad study of European literature, discounting texts by writers whose surname did not begin with the letter ‘G’. There’s a small bookshop in Hamburg with a stockroom full of copies (the owner would be thrilled to part with one).

About thirteen years after this I published my list of Greatest Novels by Contemporary European Writers (two for each letter of the alphabet). You’ve probably heard of it. In the introduction to this list, despite my evident refusal to eschew it, I mused with due negativity upon the horrors of the alphabetical approach.

Now I am busy working on an index to Underneath the Bunker – an alphabetically based index, of course. As much as I dislike the alphabet as a classificatory system, I never seem able to spurn it. I am held in its thrall, like a monkey under hypnosis.

Guardians of unpeculiar corruption

As it turned out, transpired and forlornly occurred, none of the Eastern European Literary Reviews that I normally read on a Saturday afternoon have arrived through the post this week. I have been forced, therefore, to acquire a copy of a national newspaper, going in the end for one called ‘The Guardian’ (you may have heard of it.) Here, amongst other things, I found a review of a book by a novelist whose name I know relatively well: Mr Haruki Murakami. A year or so ago, my publishing house was contemplating publishing a novel written by a man called Fabio Muzakaki – a work which, I am told, bore resemblances to Mr Murakami’s work (It was called The Honeycomb Chronicles – I’ll see if I can find an excerpt of it somewhere). Alas, Muzakaki was not as good as his word; the so-called excerpts of his novel turned out to be the novel itself. We waited around for him to bring the work to a more dignified stage of completion. Nothing happened.

Returning to ‘The Guardian’. I have noticed a couple of peculiar things about the review of Mr Murakami’s book. Firstly, the review is written by a man whose claim to fame, beyond the general exhibition of insufferable smugness, is holding the position of private secretary to a former British Prime minister. Secondly, though ostensibly about Murakami, I do believe that the real subjects of this review are a couple of books written by said reviewer. Note how the publishing date of Campbell’s first novel is mentioned twice (in the body of the review and, in case you forget, at the end) and how we are told that he is on the third draft of his second one (as if we should give a pennywhistle).  No, Murakami’s book is not the subject of the review at all, but an illustration employed as part of the propaganda for another book entirely.

I say peculiar. It isn’t, of course. As birds eat crumbs, so do critics suck the seeds of petty corruption. This is a common problem in reviews. The reviewer almost always sneaks in a reference to their own work. I won’t pretend that my journal hasn’t published reviews of this sort. Indeed, I recall a recent review by Adrian der Linger, in which the first paragraph or two were dedicated to a novel he had written (Blue Paper Moon was its name – you might find a spare copy hanging around at the paper pulping plant). Having said this, der Linger did at least play the game (such as it is) with honesty and self-awareness, making sure that, in the end, the review in question was engineered to offer the bulk of its support to the actual book in question. Which is not to say that Mr Campbell doesn’t like Mr Murakami, but that he’d probably prefer us to like him more.

The Dream Zoo

Last night I dreamt I was Thomas Hardy’s darkling thrush. There I was, ‘frail, gaunt and small/In blast-beruffled plume,’ flinging my soul ‘against the gathering gloom.’ Was I bringing ‘blessed Hope’ into a world in which there is – according to the sort of poet who carelessly leans on coppice-gates – ‘so little cause for carolings’? To be honest, I can’t remember. I can be as atrabilious as any literary-minded gentleman, but I like to imagine that I do not reside in a state of permanent fervourlessness. Nor am I prone to death-laments – even when I am repeatedly called a tedious wimp (see here for a start)

It being a custom of our household for my wife and I to bore each other with our dreams over the breakfast table (and trust me when I say that hers are never short of soporific), I was for once interested to hear that she had undergone a similar experience. Where I was Hardy’s thrush, however, she was Goya’s dog.

If we were to treat these dream identifications as symbolic visions (a flight of fancy – and nothing else) the question is undoubtedly this – which of us should be feeling better? At least I have some words on which to hang my hat. Or is this a hindrance? She can go almost anywhere with her imagery. But can she go anywhere hopeful? Is there any ‘ecstatic sound’ trembling through her painting’s air, or is there nought but the tuneless whinnying of a misplaced mutt? Ah, but is that any worse than the over-optimistic chirpings of a seed-brained bird? If these two animals have never been compared in a classroom, every teacher in the country should have their limbs bitten off by a bug-eyed giant.

All of which reminds me that dreams in which I appear as fictional animals are not all that rare an occurence. Oft do I tread these strange, unsteady and sometimes furry boards. A month or so ago, I appeared as a crimson-throated toucan from a novel by Y Yippo. Before that I had a succession of nightmares in which I was Milne’s Piglet, being chased by Sancho Panza’s donkey. What is the meaning of this? It is, I suspect, that I read a lot of books with animals in them.