A Touch of Flagrant Worthiness

As you will no doubt know, I have never pretended to be in the business of hunting ‘big’ prey. I have always tended to stalk the outer regions of culture, tenaciously tramping up and down the mountains of obscurity, creeping into thorny hedgerows, clambering over high-fenced boundaries and crawling through the tunnels that gather, like an orgy of earthworms, underneath the ancient bunkers.

This approach has its drawbacks, the most notable of which is that much of the literature I love is, as recently noted, far from easy to obtain. Indeed, it is a sad irony that the reviews of neglected novels that I have either written or commissioned are, it seems, more readily available than the books themselves. Still, what can you do? Far be it from me to abandon this lonely furrow of mine.

If I do occasionally wander, like a wayward weasel, onto the flat, central plains of ‘common thought’ it is usually only to vent anger. Last week, for example, I fired a weak shot or two in the direction of a Mr Campbell – a knowingly futile gesture, which nevertheless provided a stab or two of pleasure (due to be dulled in future months, when Campbell’s books start flying off the shelves of large London bookstores).

Ah, but the situation isn’t all that hopeless, is it? Sure, there may not be towers of the latest book by Oa Aayorta punctuating the carpets of your local Waterstones, but developments in publishing are making it possible for some of the more engaging writers to reach the audience they deserve.

Take this book, for example. If God were in the habit of having his or her way, this noble work would probably be compulsory reading for everyone who wanders, walks and squirms upon this charmingly squalid earth of ours. Alas, the deities haven’t been taking much part in literary matters recently, which is why it falls to people like me to scramble around for adequate ways of doing justice to yet another great example of ‘Arts That Be Sadly Overlooked’ .

For those who aren’t in the know, allow me to address, briefly, the following simple question. Why read Frank Key? Carelessly skipping over his masterly grasp of the English language, one must begin by praising his simultaneously scholarly and engaging (yes, you can have both) contributions to the increasingly exigent field of ‘Dobsonia’. As you might have guessed, this refers to the study of Dobson, the notorious out-of-print pamphleteer –  a criminally overlooked artist in his own right, whom Key does his level best to bring back into life, both in his pomp and, it must be said, in his less gleeful moments also.

As a chronicler of Dobson’s deeds, Key would have already earned himself a place in the annals of obscure yet flagrant worthiness. Luckily for us, his literary project extends beyond Dobson, touching a range of equally engrossing subjects, from the eternally intriguing goings-on in Pointy Town to an essential note or two on the manufacture of Balsa Wood Crows. In fact, there are few subjects which he will not pursue, with little fear of where they may lead him. Key is, essentially, the kind of writer who gives digression a good name. He doesn’t shove you off the forest path into a ditch of turgid divagation, as some clumsy writers will, but nudges you hither and thither, in and out of the soft shadows, this way and that, that way and this, until it doesn’t really matter where you are, so long as Mr Key is in control.

On this point, I shall resist the temptation to spiral off into another paragraph of poorly-structured praise, calming still-thirsty souls with the faint promise that I may, possibly, return to this subject in the near-future. On the off-chance that I don’t, however, you may console yourselves in the best way possible, by returning to the texts themselves – most, if not all, of which are collected here (though you are, of course, also advised to buy them in book form here).

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Kelf and the Prodigal Painting

 After letting him into the house I introduced him to my wife. ‘I need to make a phone-call,’ I said, leaving the two together – ‘You two get to know each other’. It was ten minutes before I found myself walking back towards the room where I had left them. I could hear Anthony’s voice well before entering. ‘Oh my love, my beauty!’ he was saying, ‘I want to embrace you, I simply must embrace you! Oh God, let me plant a thousand kisses on your…’ I entered the room to find Kelf busily admiring the painting – his own – that was hanging above the mantelpiece. My wife wasn’t even in the room.

(Lord Armondsey, quoted in Kelf-Portrait: The Life of Anthony Kelf, by Jon Harzinger)

Writers have it lucky. Their work is quite au fait with the perils of reproduction (such as they are). A book is always a special object, of course it is, but rarely is it unique. Most paintings, on the other hand, can never be properly reproduced.

This can make it hard for some artists to let go of their precious creations; to uncage their cherished chickens from the creative coop. Still, few have ever taken it as badly as Anthony Kelf, for whom each sale was nothing less than an emotional wrench. As Armondsey’s anecdote reminds us, Kelf found it almost impossible to completly let go of his paintings; treating them like old flames or beloved children – sometimes even sending them letters (his Christmas card list is said to have consisted of nine people and seventy-two paintings). 

On receiving an invitation to dine with a friend he had not seen for twenty years Kelf is said to have responded thus: ‘My heart beat fast. It was not so much the excitement of seeing J again, but the possibility that she would still own that oil sketch of mine’. In fact, J had sold the sketch some years before, the knowledge of which sent Kelf into near mental breakdown as he tried in vain to track the old work down. ‘It felt like the death of a close friend’ he claimed in a typical display of histrionics, quietly overlooking the fact that J was dealing with problems of her own (many of which were, all things considered, of a slightly more serious nature).

What’s more, as it happened, the sketch in question was not dead at all – and was able in time to be reunited with its anxious creator. ‘The Prodigal Painting has returned,’ Kelf is said to have exclaimed, reaching for the telephone to order a fatted calf curry.

Obsessed with Obsessions

I daresay this irony is no less obvious than the one against which I railed at the weekend. Nevertheless it stands – and several people have been keen to draw my attention to it.

In his article exploring the silly obsessions of great writers, it seems that Michael Rosinith reveals a tendency to obsess in a manner that some might call silly. He appears to espouse serious themes, whilst waging his own ‘peculiar vendetta’ against, for example, anagrams. He is inclined to draw our attention throughout to irksome details simply to tell us that they are irksome. We might never have noticed them otherwise – now we cannot see past them. Now who’s being silly?

Another complaint about this article is the lack of clarity with which Rosinith tackles the pupil-teacher problem. Paavo Laami (who, you may recall I once saw fall down a flight of stairs) is castigated for obsessing over an old biology teacher. No attempt is made, however, to explore the specific circumstances. Rosinith seems to work on the basis that all such ‘vendettas’ are, by their very nature, of the paltry sort: that this must be a gripe – and nothing more. All in all his obsession with obsessions blinds him to the great range of silliness that can be contained therein (from a tiny little to a hefty lot). We must in turn wonder whether there was in fact anything at all silly about Laami’s dislike of his biology teacher (a hard task when the actual facts are not forthcoming).

My final thought, which pushes the argument in neither one direction nor another, concerns Rosinith’s curious eschewing of what I would consider the very best example in the Laami canon. Why no discussion of the transsexual scientist from his 1975 novel, Nothing Delicious? This would not only strengthen the case of Laami’s obsession, but suggest a darker, perhaps more ‘serious’ source to it.

A Most Ingenious Parrot Box?

We all know that Hector Spinkel owned a parrot, but did he own a parrot box? More to the point, what is a parrot box? Not, I fancy, a box in which one keeps a parrot – no, that would be cruel – but a box which either houses objects related to a parrot (parrot-seed, talon-clippers, feather-combs, the pocket version of How to Make Your Parrot Speak and its sequel How to Shut Your Parrot Up Again) or which incorporates the image of a parrot into its design.

You may be interested to know that, as a child, I owned a box of the latter sort. It was bought for me by a friend of my father’s on a trip to an outsize aviary outside Hamburg. Little bigger than a large matchbox, it had on its lid an illustration of a greyish-green parrot, most likely the Senegal Parrot (as seen here). I kept in it four blue marbles, with which I never played.

Other, perhaps more famous, literary-minded personages are said to have owned, or been in some way connected with parrot boxes. It is claimed that Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, owned a parrot box that looked a little like this. Some say he housed a library in it – I am not altogether sure. Flann O’Brien, meanwhile, owned a much bigger parrot box, inside which he kept another parrot box, inside which he kept another parrot box, inside which he… (and so on). I am also informed that Ingemar Holleston owned a box in the shape of a parrot, which might have looked like this. Or then again, it might not have looked like that at all. So far as I know, none of these men actually owned a parrot.

Incidentally, whilst we’re flapping clumsily around the subject of Hector Spinkel, I wonder whether anyone knows when his long-awaited biopic is due to be released? The last I heard was that several Hollywood stars had declined the part of Spinkel – and that someone called Denzil Gust was involved, as either actor or director (I forget which).

Life in the Undergrowth

I am often quoted, not incorrectly, as saying that the main aim of my journal (Underneath the Bunker) has always been to ‘to reject the well-trodden path and rush off into the prickly undergrowth’. This aim – I need hardly inform you – was praised by many. So why is it I find myself constantly beleagured by complaints that too many of the books I review, or magazines I mention, are ‘far too hard to find’?

What can I say? It is an unfortunate state of affairs. Limited print runs, small publishing houses, the state of the Slovenian literary industry: there are no end of things squatting like indolent hogs in the road of convenience. Obscure European Culture is just that: obscure. Following contemporary Bulgarian poetry is never going to be easy – and I have never pretended that it would be. Greatness, after all, usually comes at a price.

There are, nonetheless, one or two occasions on which I may allow the murmur of grumbles to persist. Earlier this week, for instance, I drew your attention to a new literary magazine named Lit Up – yet another magazine dedicated to obscure European literature. It was, I warned, hard to obtain: so it has proved. Though the offices are based here in London, getting hold of a copy is, I am told, near impossible. Why don’t they have a website? This has been the cry of some – and can I blame them? The internet, after all, should help readers connect with obscurity. And yet, so far as I can tell, Lit Up has no internet presence whatsoever.

Luckily, help is at hand. As you may have noticed, the latest article to appear on Underneath the Bunker  (see here) is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Lit Up. We are, thus, going some way to ensure that readers are not completly cut off from the culture that counts.

All in the Name?

Neither obscure – and barely culture – the following item under discussion could be said to fall somewhat beyond my remit. But here I go nonetheless.

A few months ago I accused the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ of publishing a spurious review of a book by Haruki Murakami, in which the reviewer seemed overly keen on publicising his own work; a novel which seemed to me, wandering as I often do in the valley of perpetual cynicism, to offer as much promise as a fat free yoghurt.

Today the same newspaper devotes many columns to this very novel, of which it offers an ‘exclusive review and extract‘. Maybe I deserve a shower of toads to fall upon my head for criticising a novel before it has even been published. Maybe I deserved to be whipped by a troupe of bamboo wielding pandas, or used as a dancefloor by a gang of salsa-loving rhinos. Still, I do feel compelled to say a word or two.

In the opening lines we find Mr Campbell, an old celebrity and literary newbie, compared to Roth, Nabokov and Murdoch. It’s a rather misleading comparison, you won’t be surprised to learn, pivoting as it does on the simple fact that all of them have written books with psychiatrists in them. Hardly an exclusive club, then.

The review goes on to consider the many rewarding and oh-so-original themes that we simple-minded readers can expect from novels with psychiatrists in them, one of which Campbell explores in the following excerpt:

It was one of the great ironies of his [the psychiatrist’s] life that he urged his patients, and friends in his own circle, to be open about their own feelings and experiences, yet remained so closed about his own..

The best ironies, I have always felt, are the kind one likes to roll in. They are delicious, they are succulent. They are sharp, they are alluring. They make one purr, they make one shiver.

Campbell’s ‘great’ irony does not, need I say it, fall into this camp. As ironies go, it is as obvious as they come. And – forgive me if I am wrong – it seems to me that this sentence may be indicative of Mr Campbell’s work as a whole. So far as the aforementioned excerpt goes, at least, All in the Mind  (already crippled by the least original title in Christendom) does not inspire confidence.

Much Ado About Something Very Small

Lurking here and there in Turgidovsky’s text we find an irrational madness or two. It was Professor Arnold Biffwright, I believe, who first drew our attention to the Russian writer’s irritating and unreasoned obsession with marshmallows. It doesn’t punch you in the face, maybe, but closer study reveals a needless parade of snide comments directed towards those connected to the marshmallow industry, from creators, to vendors, to consumers. He has learned to deal with his fear of women in an equitable way – why not his marshmallow anxiety?

Read more here

More on this later (of course).