I have not found it

‘There are pitifully few days in which we are able to imitate the watery Archimedes with cries of “Eureka!” There are more than enough, however, when we find ourselves screaming its opposite: “Akerue” – the one and only way of expressing the emotion of realising that one’s supposedly original ideas are not in the least bit unique’  (Leo Barnard)

Barnard wrote this in 1999. Two years later another commentator made the same point, claiming no knowledge of Barnard’s observation. His claim was probably true. After all, there is no good reason why someone else should not have followed  Barnard’s thought processes – without imitating them. Nothing is new, except in context.

Incidentally, I would suggest that ‘Akerue’ is not – like its opposite – a dramatic exclamation. It is not a cry of anguish, but an emotion of the ‘dawning’ sort: the kind that seeps into you, steadily engulfing you. Like a damp and dark cloud.

The Meaning of 52

A couple of evenings ago a man with a gingery beard approached me by the bar of The Crippled Bee. ‘What’s your tipple?’ he asked. ‘Whisky,’ I said. He bought me a whisky. I jettisoned the ice cubes, flung in for no good reason by that pretty barmaid whose name I cannot recall (but whose nose, I have to say, is unforgettable). A little later that same evening the same man approached me once again.
‘What is it with you and the number fifty-two?’ he asked. I ruffled my forehead. ‘I wasn’t aware I had any special kind of relationship with that particular number’ I confessed. ‘But surely,’ he continued: ‘surely you do. After all, were there not fifty two novels in your list of Greatest Novels? And did your publishing house not release a novel called p.52?  Gadzooks! What further evidence do you require?’
‘You forgot one,’ I pointed out. ‘Last year I had the temerity to partake of fifty two weeks in my year.’ ‘Exactly!’ he said. ‘You’ve got fifty-two on the mind, my fellow. You’re obsessed!’ I smiled. ‘What’s your tipple?’ I asked. I bought him a cider.

The answer to his question, of course, is that I have no exceptional fondness for the number fifty-two. There are fifty-two books in my Greatest Novels List simply because there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet (and no matter how many ways I’ve tried to double that number, I simply can’t avoid hitting fifty-two). As for the title of Jean-Pierre Sertin’s novel, that is his own business. What I can say is this: nothing links the two.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Monsieur Sertin, I can also say this. I seem to remember promising an interview with him on the subject of his eagerly awaited follow-up to the aforementioned novel. I have not forgotten this promise.

That is all.

‘This is Not That’

The process of reading, re-reading and active reading which I put myself through makes it near impossible to write about new books. By the time I have read a book properly, it is not ‘new’ in any sense of the word. It is, however, ‘known’ – which is much more important. Our obsession with the ‘new’ is nought but a handy veil, covering a lack of (and fear of) proper knowledge. By the time I know the ‘new’, it is ‘old’ – and no one wants to know. My conclusion? Nobody really knows about knowing.

Those waiting for a review of Edmund ‘Blumin’ Ek’s Dust Jacket will, therefore, have to wait (unless I can weasel an article out of my old friend Heidi Kohlenberg). I will however, take this opportunity to say a word or two about another, ‘new-ish’ book: namely, Franz Ludo’s latest collection of essays: This is Not That (SpeakEasy Books 2008). Ludo, as you all know, is somewhat of a cultural polyglot. To put it another way, his car was never fitted with brakes. Nor is he the kind of driver to be put off by icy roads, or bumpy dust tracks. For all of these reasons, one must admire him. Twist your admiration valve and let the gasses of respect engulf us all. Now twist the valve again, open the window, and let a stiff wind of sense blow through the room.

We few, we unsteadily pulsed few. How very necessary we are, in all our assorted madness. We are the mixed bag merchants, the fair weather friends, the loose-springed jack-in-the-boxes. We are the one-winged swallows cavorting in the summer winds. We are the delicate soufflés, rising and falling to strange inner rhythms. We shiver and shudder in the subfusc light. We glimmer in the gloaming.

Enough of that. To what target is this outrageous arrow flying? What I am saying is this: Ludo’s essays fling themselves over a wide variety of topics, from The Intersection of Contraception and Poetry in the Republic of Congo or Boiled Sweets and Modern Japanese Fiction to a pleasingly aimless rant entitled How’d We Ever Get So Sentimental?  By far the best essay in the collection is, however, On the Passing of Eternal Values: a beautifully elastic piece of writing, which veers between astringent cynicism and treacle-coated idealism. I haven’t a clue where Ludo stands by the time the last word has been written, but in a funny sort of way I don’t much mind. He manages to transmit the sheer joy of fighting through a series of contrasting arguments, with no need of an answer – though one suspects there might yet be one, lurking under the mound like a movement of moles.

Man or Book?

Reading through Heidi Kohlenberg’s aforementioned review of Edmund Ek’s novel The Incredible Expletive Shock, I was struck, like the proverbial ping-pong ball, by this sentence:

‘Given the choice between Edmund Ek and his novel  [Kohlenberg was, of course, Ek’s wife] I have chosen the latter – it is that with which I will share a better relationship (i.e. on my own terms)’

The thoughts are slammed back across the table, into open court. Here they are taken up by another female reviewer, Miss J de Vejean. In her piece on Egor Falastrom’s wonderful novel, Dark-Dreams of a Delirious Dog-Catcher (and its sequels, Further Dreams of a Delirious Dog-Catcher and Still More Dreams of a Delirious Dog-Catcher)  she describes a similar move. In her case, however, she selects the man over the book, but only on a temporary basis, as a means of getting back on good terms (i.e. self-serving terms) with the book. The love affair is, once again, with the book – and not the man. As she concludes:

‘Let’s keep things fictional. It’s more exciting, more sensual even, than you can possibly imagine.’

Fiction beats reality 2-0. Or, I should say, two-love (maybe even ‘to love’).

Missing: God? (Part Two)

Much pondering and musing has been taking place over the last twenty-four hours or so, a fair amount of which touches on the subject of my previous post. Having directed your attention to the complaint that my list of Greatest Novels lacks something when it comes to what may be termed (not nervelessly) as ‘religious novels’, I have been inundated with comments, some of which run contrary to this opinion; others of which suggest, as I did myself, a further few novels that might have fulfilled this particular desire.  Andrew K, for instance, puts forward Gustav Holschenschifter’s Cathedral of the Heart: Catharsis of the Inviolable – a work with which I am not yet familiar – but which, as worthy contenders go, seems worthier than most. Another work that has come to my own dear mind is an anonymous text I read a couple of years ago; a subtle satirical work entitled The Diary of Agnes Day. So subtle was its satire, I was not aware of it until the fifth reading. I still find it hard to imagine that it wasn’t written by a middle-aged alto from a church choir in the home counties (though I am assured it was not).

So far as the actual list goes, a couple of people have hastened to remind me that Edmund Ek’s quintessentially clinquant debut, The Incredible Expletive Shock, contains a fair stab at ‘religious’ content, with its vaguely amusing description of a group of American Christians so keen on ridding the world of bad language that they follow a young Norwegian student across the world in the hope of converting him. I’m not absolutely sure this qualifies – Ek’s text is somewhat simplistic in its approach, rarely straying beyond the convenient notion that most religious people are hypocrites. Having said that, he does veer off at one point into an intriguing modern analysis of the Book of Habbukuk – the best of its kind I have ever read, and all the better for having come from the pen of a Norwegian dissident.

Missing: God?

Spare time, like the sun, has not been hanging around my neighbourhood of late. For this reason – amongst undisclosed others – I have not been able to delve as deeply into my Greatest Novels list as much as I had hoped. I would like to take this opportunity, therefore, to make a few general points; to hover hopefully above, in all my kestrelesque glory, forever surveying the lie of the land. To put it another way, I would like at this juncture to bring you up to date with a complaint or two arising from said list.

Like all true critics, I start with an excuse. Let me say this. There was never an occasion on which I suggested that my Greatest Novels List was designed with any sort of perfection in mind. I never claimed that its results would be in any way ‘comprehensive’, or that – when all the reviews were collected – it would give anything other than an incomplete image of the European literary scene. I have, I hope, never been presumptuous enough to pretend that I can lay chaos aside for more than a second or so. It can’t be done.

In light of this, I am not ashamed to see my list criticised. Nor am I tempted to dismiss such criticism. I always said that there would be mistakes; which wasn’t to say I didn’t care about the mistakes – rather than I knew that, having appeared (according to the laws of Mr. and Mrs. Inevitability) a time would come when they could be confronted with more ease. That time, quoth the cliché, is now. So here we go:

General Point regarding the Greatest Novels List, No 1: The Absense of Texts which appear to deal directly with Religion.

‘Appear’ may be the operative word here. Or is it ‘directly’? I suppose the point I am making is that I find something rather tiresome about novels which are built around the kernel of a single ‘big’ subject. Show me a great novel that is essentially ‘about God’? Show me the opposite and I’ll be equally impressed.

But I am, perhaps, avoiding the issue. What is seen to be missing are not books that deal, at significant length, with God (or gods) per se, but with institutionalised religion. To put it yet another way, where is Tibor Tibetti’s Artificial Light or Moses Mayeau’s The Rain it Works?  Most obviously, where is Ingemar Glozon’s A Thousand Men – one of the few novels I know to have been unofficially banned by the liberal press for its rigidly pro-Catholic content?

These novels are, I confess, conspicuously absent. Critics do seem to have consciously shied away from them. Why? This, as they say, is the question.

More on a related subject (leading to what may or may not be an answer to this query) later.

More on this later.

It has been brought to my sometimes waning attention that I have developed a habit of closing posts with the phrase ‘more on this later’. There is a theory flying about, with all the fight and fury of an angry wasp, that such a phrase presents a promise of things to come, the majority of which do not, in fact, make any sort of appearance. Far be from me to be querulous and point out that the word ‘later’ does not suggest a specific time frame. Far be it

(More on this later.)