Coastal Conversation

I have given this a lot of thought, and come to the following conclusion: that the best conversation I ever had was with myself, in September 1989, walking on a coastal path in Cornwall. It wasn’t an easy conversation (I can be very rough on myself) but it had the content and structure of a classic debate.

Since then (and, indeed, before then) I have been fortunate enough to stage some pretty fine conversations in my head; all of them, in essence, with myself – though I must stress that the self is split: it takes on many roles, some of them relating to (and based on) actual people. This leads, inevitably and consistently, to confusions. One forgets which conversations one had with one’s wife in reality – and which one had in one’s mind (in which the part of one’s wife was played, with no small skill, by oneself). Though there is no way one can be sure which was which, I am inclined to believe that most of the conversations I remember with any clarity are those I have invented; for they are, by their very nature, much more memorable; containing all the qualities one desires, but rarely gets, in the course of life itself.


The Great Doze

I was reminded this morning of Emile Gofrank’s much neglected Radioze Stories, published (I think) in 1991 to what would best be termed the ‘weakest whimper of critical reaction’. Many will see it differently, but I stand by my opinion at the time – which was that Gofrank’s publishers (a scurvy lot, make no bones about it) had let the Frenchman down by delaying the publication of the work by three months, in order to drum up some publicity. You may not remember this, but Gofrank was somewhat of a big cheese at this time; you could see his gnarled and battered face on the cover of several obscure Luxembourgian literary magazines – maybe even find his books in shops (his best? Undoubtedly A Sentence or Two About You). The publishers thought, therefore, that they would do well stir the public into a Gofrank frenzy; that they would wait until his fans were drooling with anticipation before rushing to the rescue with his brand new book.

Unsurprisingly, the plan backfired. By the time Radioze Stories did make its grand landing, Gofrank fans were nowhere to be seen. And those that did hang around weren’t impressed. It wasn’t just that they didn’t care about Gofrank anymore, but that they didn’t care about his subjects either. To be quite frank, they didn’t get it. And why should they? These were stories of ‘a moment’: distillations of a present long lost in the past. The works in Radioze were designed to be read as shortly after the writing of them as possible. And now it was too late.

I forget the precise details, but at the bloody red beating heart of the matter was this. Radioze stories were created by the writer as he lay in bed one morning, dozing with the radio on. What he wanted to replicate was the feeling of being intimately connected to world news (it was not a music channel) whilst remaining in a state of internal rest and dreaming. Radio dreams, as you probably know, are a strange sort of dream – often the most vivid – and certainly high on imagination. Re-imagined in prose they give a good sense of what it was like to be dozing through that particular moment in history; when those particular stories were dominating local and world news.

Read a while afterwards, it comes as no great shock that Radioze Stories lose their potency. They become merely absurd – maybe even tedious. They ooze with paranoia over events about which the reader has long since shrugged his/her shoulders. 

Of course, one wonders what might have been had Gofrank been writing them now. Would they appear on a blog, perhaps? Not to say that blog posts are merely ‘of the moment’ (rifle through my archives anytime) but that they do have the benefit of reaching an audience at speed. If this has created a ‘speed culture’ we are in trouble – for ultimately, I am a ‘multi-speed’ man. Not everything can be created and consumed in the same way. Gofrank’s Radioze Stories, like sushi, were best eaten fast. Meanwhile his novel, A Sentence of Two About You, matures in the cupboard, like a fat English cheddar. The motorway hath many lanes: let us use them all.

Blogs and Non-Novels (4)

Blogs, of course, can be fertile ground for fiction of the non-novel sort. To expand on this idea would, though, require some sort of agreement on what I mean by ‘blog’ – and what others mean by the same.

The word once referred to the form rather than the content, but I’m not certain this applies any longer. The common perception of a blog (‘oh plebeian fields, how I miss your salty furrows’) is of an online confessional, or diary: a repository of random thoughts from someone under the misapprehension that the world might like to take a peek into his/her brain.

As assessments go, this is not far wrong. Most blogs are non-fiction. But there is no reason why they should be. Fiction can flourish here too. If it is good (which is to say, if it is in the publisher’s banker’s interest) it might go on to form a book: even a novel. Ah! But isn’t this what I have been railing against all along? To be a novel should not be the goal. To accept one’s non-noveldom: this is the key. To wander in the fog of uncertain classification – and not complain. To write – and not shape it to fit someone’s perception of what writing is – or should be. Yes!

Rose-smothered Squirrels

My attention has been drawn, not by a talented draughtsman, but by a story carried by one, two or three Greek newspapers this last weekend. The following, somewhat lengthy headline in The Athens Owl pretty much sums it up:

Rose-smothered Squirrel Experiment goes badly wrong as brother of Greek writer Alexis Pathenikolides lands himself in yet more ungodly mayhem

We turn, nonetheless, to the Cretan Times for further elucidation:

In a misguided attempt to restage late Roman emperor Elegabulus’ (aka Heliogabalus) flower-fuelled orgies, Giorgos Pathenikolides (brother of novelist Alexis) invited or coerced seventeen squirrels into his Athens apartment, where he plyed them with ouzo, brennivin and cheap Italian brandy, before throwing five duvet’s worth of yellow roses over them, in which he intended them to drown. When this did not seem to work, Giorgos started throwing roses directly at the squirrels, all but one of which reacted by biting him in the leg.

Though no squirrel-smotherer, the above-named brother – Alexis Pathenikoldes – is no stranger to controversy himself. A couple of years ago, Underneath the Bunker followed, in some detail, the story of his court-case. You may read it here.


‘This book exaggerates. It is as full of exaggerations as everything else. For we can’t stop exaggerating, can we? It’s how we work – how we make things work. It’s how we survive…’

(Louis St. Arnold, Exaggeration and Many Other Essays)

Holleston and Non-Novels (3)

The time has come to say a word about Ingemar Hölleston. Not about his parrot boxes – though it’s true, he did have some. Actually, I take that back. He designed them and killed parrots in order to make them, though evidence suggests that his hands were never responsible for the construction of a completed parrot box. It seems that the women in his life (of which there were many, all nicknamed after Dutch paintings) were keen either to stifle his parrot-murdering tendencies altogether – or at the very least prevent him from fashioning boxes out of their feathery corpses.

As I wrote, however, the main aim of today’s post is to not to linger on the subject of parrot boxes, but to push the critical trowel a little deeper into the Hölleston flower-bed: a very worthy task at any time, but especially relevant when set along recent investigations into the concept of the non-novel.  After all, Hölleston is for many people the archetypal non-novelist. Here is a writer who thrives in the shadowy corners; a shape-shifting spirit: a marvellous snowman, bound to melt under the burning sun of critical scrutiny.

Shouldn’t I, thus, hold off the hounds, call off the search and put down the gilded pen? Should I not let the non-novelist be, safe in his nowhere land of diaphanous forms, uncaged by careless catagories?

Perhaps I should. Before I do, yet, I will toss a handful of sand across the slate, or fling a block of damp wood into the quietly burning fire. I will, perchance, risk another paragraph or so.

Some will shiver, shake, and quite possibly quiver at the reverent attitude I hold towards Hölleston. Such has been the case from the very beginning. For some he was and is the Danish Da Vinci; for others no more than a moneyed crackpot. Even Hölleston himself wasn’t too sure. A self-confessed idler and layabout, he thought that he was both  ‘boring’ and yet ‘quite frankly the most interesting person I have ever come across’. ‘Layabout’ was probably about right, though one has to remember that he lay about in great style. As always, he brought to the task (or non-task, as the case may be) an original vision: a new angle, a fresh perspective, a distinct divination.

‘I never edit,’ he once wrote – and it’s not as if we needed to know. The thing about Holleston was that he wrote. That was all. He wrote things down. Where they were going he didn’t know. Some bits were long, other bits short. Some bits were accompanied by pictures, others by diagrams, others by nonsensical scrawls. Prose slipped into poetry mid-sentence, then back into prose. Stories began, then disappeared, then reappeared, then left again, never to return. In the midst of all this there were flashes of wisdom. Too many flashes, perhaps. One was – and is – often blinded by Hölleston. He points a searchlight at your soul. His words, at best, are what strobe lighting is to an epilectic. At his most medicore, he is but a candle in a cathedral, steadily melting our waxen hearts.

Hölleston was full of great ideas, though he was never afraid, nor ashamed, to keep them in embryo form. Some call this his weakness – I think it his strength. In working up ideas into novels, many writers lose what it was that got them going in the first place. The foundation stone is crushed by the great galumphing building constructed on top of it. Readers, those soft-hearted fools, will lose their way in the margins, falling for this or that character, all the while ignoring the essence of the thing: the spark that started the fire. Hölleston, however, never got round to creating a fire. He lit the match and blew it out, time after time.

How does one read him? I’ve never been sure. Bits of his work have been published, haphazardly, by various houses, though they remain far from readily available to the potential masses. The rest lingers, meanwhile, in Danish libraries: a page here, another page there. It seems that no one has ever had a hold on Hölleston. But that’s the beauty of the man. He ain’t the type to be tamed.