Opening Line Please

It was one of those ‘you bring your own story’ artworks. All very well I thought: after all, don’t we bring our own story to most, if not all of the art we consume? Sure we do; we can’t help it. Still, one wonders – is it too much to ask for an opening line?
(D H Laven)

Yet More Naughty Monks

Those who continue to harp on tunelessly about the lack of sex in the contemporary obscure european novel will no doubt be interested to hear that, after some delays, Ciambhal O’Droningham’s new novel will be on selected bookstore shelves sometime within the next two weeks. Called Half-past Twelve at the Intergalactic Candy-Shop, it continues the story of Seamus O’Solly, star of earlier works such as The Dead Priest (reviewed here) and Anti-Gravity Cassocks (reviewed elsewhere, I daresay).

For those foolish enough never to have uncovered the facts, O’Solly is a monk sent out to work on a monastery on one of Jupiter’s moons in the distant future (c.2200, I believe). Religious at heart, O’Solly is on the surface somewhat of a over-sexed philanderer, ever-keen to try his luck with whichever many-breasted alien woman floats his way. For this reason, he has a tendency of falling out with the Catholic authorities – though his superb conversion-rate keeps them from ever pushing him into the abyss.

If the publicity material is to be trusted, Half-past Twelve at the Intergalactic Candy-Shop finds our hero ‘locked in mortal combat with the head of the Venus Moon infertility clinic’. The prose, meanwhile, is described by the mindless publishing-house drone as a ‘cross between Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and 50cent’. As these are all quite foreign reference points to me, I will not hover over them needlessly.

Needless to say that, unless you’re the type to get offended by saucy St. Agatha jokes, this novel is probably worth investigating.

Loose Leaves

Continuing in the spirit of an earlier post, allow me to dive once more into the swampy pond of ‘google search terms’: the ever eccentric means by which web surfers find themselves stranded on my strange and stony shores.

Pure absurdity is usually the name of the game, especially when phrases such as ‘a game that involves an olive and beard’ turn up (I can’t say what the seeker wanted in this case, but they undoubtedly found themselves at the feet of Alexis Pathenikolides). The subject of today’s discussion, however, is to be a much abrupter term: something short and sweet, though nonetheless stimulating .

The inviting ‘foliage novel’ is the term to which I refer. And the questions, as always, abound. What could be lurking behind such a query? Is someone, somewhere, yearning for fiction that contains rather more foliage than your average book? Has someone hit upon the idea that what modern literature is missing, above all things, is a proper sense of foliage? And if so – to which author might they be instructed to turn?

Funnily enough, google’s fourth suggestion (at time of writing) mirrors my own thoughts, putting forward Y Yippo’s novel Why The Fig Leaves Fall as a possible example of a contemporary novel in which foliage could be said to feature highly. As you probably know, Yippo’s enterprising work imagines a futuristic world run by toucans, in which two humans (coincidentally ex-lovers) are thrown together (in zoo conditions) in order to create a child (read a review here).

What you may not know (unless you have actually read the book in question) is that, beyond its surreal depiction of a toucanitarian state, Why The Fig Leaves Fall contains some of the best description, intelligent utilisation, and deep understanding of foliage to be found in modern european fiction. Under the shade of its words, any foliage lover may shelter, safe in the knowledge that the flowers of foliage-related thought will surely blossom forth.

In short, this book leaves nothing to the imagination.

In Which I Mention Two Books (Part Two)

Let me restart yesterday’s engine with a clutch of further musings on the subject of Percy Grass. His/her book, as suggested, is as much a book about metaphors for life as it is about tranvestite circus performers. Some of these metaphors are successful – others less so. Most of them, however, skirt around the rigorously regular. The central motif – that of a buoy bobbing about on an ocean of perplexity – is hardly eccentric. Oceans are common fodder for the metaphor-maker – as are forests, fields, swamps and swimmingpools. Grass at his/her best is a canny manipulator of the cautiously mundane. Indeed, one of my favourite metaphors from Buoyant concerns a kite: yet another popular device for the arch-allegory grabber. Kites themselves, I fancy, are useless things. But put them in the hands of a writer and they become objects of real beauty: the last line in symbols of tethered freedom.

Back in the day (which day it was, I cannot recall) I remember utilising the symbolic power of the kite to make a point about the relationship between base and superstructure in Marxist thought. I was in metaphor mood: later in the same paragraph I compared Feudalism to a syphilitic giraffe. Neither trick worked in my favour – and fair enough. I lacked Percy Grass’s perserverance and poise. There may yet be a way of bringing kites into Marxist discourse – but at present it may be safe to say that they fly with further majesty when used in the context of a story about clowns and sex changes.

Now for the second book which I have come here to mention.

The bright-eyed among you will probably remember my writing about Emile Gofrank about a month ago. I posted on his heavily underrated Radioze Stories here, noting in passing his more famous work, A Sentence or Two About You. Others may know that the latter novel was reprinted this year in a new translation by the mildy wonderful Marcel Lantin-Fauré – a translation which has thrown me back into the far reaches of this book, where I gyre and gimble with the best of them.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever pretended to dislike Gofrank’s novel. On the other hand, I’ve an unfortunate tendency to compare it unfavourably to two of the other great suicide-related contemporary european novels –  namely Koira Jupczek’s Death Charts and Nate Laami’s Flaws in the Plan. The more I read Gofrank’s work, however, the more I wonder whether it isn’t just as good as these two transcendent works (if not better).

I don’t have time to supply all the evidence that points to this conclusion, which is why I shall devote the remainder of this post to but one common question regarding Gofrank’s masterpiece. Why that title?

The novel, you may know, is about a man who wishes to die in a precise and peculiar manner. He wants to be killed by a falling watermelon. He wants it to happen, however, when he isn’t quite expecting it – and he doesn’t want anyone else to be involved, so he puts a vast amount of time and effort into inventing a machine which will, at a random moment, do all the work for him.

So far, so good. But none of this offers much of a clue as to why the novel is called A Sentence or Two About You. On this, yet, I have a new theory. I believe that it may relate to the work of another writer, Mr Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), whose ‘novels in three lines’ are presently gaining a certain amount of attention. One cannot help but notice that Fénéon’s early life shares much in common with Gofrank. Born in Turin to a travelling salesman and raised in Burgundy: both writers can claim this – though where Fénéon went on to Paris, Gofrank went off to Luxembourg (where he remains to this day). Writing-wise, they also took very different paths. Fénéon settled on ‘a sentence or two’ (sometimes three, maybe even four, but rarely much more), whilst Gofrank has, for the most part (though not entirely) worked on the basis of covering things at length. To put it more simply, he writes far more than ‘a sentence or two’. Far, far more.

The title must, thus, be ironic. See how the plot of his novel can be squeezed into a few lines. There is little more to be said that I have said above. And yet Gofrank writes so much more. Where Fénéon cut the frills off the dramatic dress, Gofrank can be seen busily sewing them on. And yet his work, re-read, does not strike one as needlessly florid, or overly tiresome. It is, instead, mesmerising: stately in its pace, though simple in its subject. I cannot do better than to implore you to cast your eyes again over those seventy-something pages in which his protagonist walks to the hardware store to buy four screws. Was such a dull event ever better detailed? Did such seeming transparent simplicity ever gain more from concerted re-reading than this?

In Which I Mention Two Books (Part One)

Along with the common cold, the end of December carries in its deep and dirty pockets the equally dangerous disease of ‘list-making’. As you will have seen for your own poor selves, many blogs, journals and newspapers have been spending the last few weeks putting forward their end-of-the-year lists. In the former case, it is almost as if they fear that not doing so will result in their being disqualified from the so-called blogosphere.

So far as I know, this is not a liklehood. Or if it is, it is a very unlikely one. And should this be the case, I must have already received my eviction notice, since I have thus far denied the urge to throw forward a selection of books to represent the last twelve months or so.

‘Thus far’, I write – as if the urge is about to overtake me all the same. But no, I say now. No. I will not be bewolfenbuttled into arranging such a list as this. I’ve read a fair few books this year, of course I have, but I have absolutely no interest in ranking them. In fact, I cannot help but feel it’s a little too early even to be writing about them. After all, I am rarely confident enough to criticise a book until I’ve given myself the chance to actively re-read it. On top of this, books need a little time on the shelf: they need time to mature, like whisky and cheese, or children and wine. I would go so far as to say that one has as much chance of providing at present an accurate list of the ‘books of 2008’ as one does of losing weight during the last week of the year.

In which spirit I will happily shirk the urge to spill a list upon this page (watch me shirk, oh watch me shirk). I will, however, be taking a little time to mention two books published in the last five years, which I have recently got round to reading, actively, for the fifth and sixth times respectively. These short reviews will probably not be anticipated with excitement: they do not concern books which have been published in the last year, nor books which have been held under pronounced discussion at any point in the last few months. I am not about to say that these books are great in their own right – or any less great than other books. All I am saying is this: I have read them enough times now to have come to a greater understanding, and appreciation, of their ways – and I wish to communicate a portion of these to you. 

The first book, Buoyant is, in fact, the type of book I might usually associate with the silly Christmas season. Being the partially true story of a lowly transvestite from Bavaria who grows up to run his/her own fetishistic circus, before accidentally killing his/her father in a manner too complicated to go into here, it positively reeks of sensationalism. Except that, as it goes, the book is not quite what you would expect from a work in this genre.

The problem (or saving grace, rather) is that as it’s author, Percy Gräss, is incredibly reluctant to tell his/her story straight, spending the vast majority of the book searching for the perfect metaphor for his/her confused condition.

The title itself derives from one such metaphor. It is based on a misunderstanding by the young narrator between the words ‘buoyant’ and ‘boyish’.  A misunderstanding that some might mention, only to abandon (right or wrongly) shortly afterwards. Grass, however, does not abandon opportunities like this. Given half the chance to dive into the leafy swimmingpool of strange uncertain symbolism, Grass will freely indulge his/herself. Indeed, Grass rarely leaves this scuzzy natatorium. He/she likes nothing better than to stumble through a gloomy forest of metaphors, ever seeking, though never really finding, the silent hanging fruit of truth.

What he/she does find is, it must be said, frequently inferior fruit. This book is as full of bad metaphors and similes as my stomach is, at present, full of plum pudding. One wonders why, then, I recommend it to you.  Ah, but you see: for all his/her errors, Grass’s fumblings are not quite in vain. I write that he/she never quite discovers the truth. Maybe. Still, every now and again, he/she does hit upon a version of it that is, for its part, sumptuously imagined. And it is for those moments that I value this work: for those precious moments in which Grass lunges reeklessly into the mist and, against all odds, hits a (though not always the) target.

(More on this later).

[Buoyant: That’s Me Bobbing on the Sexual Seas, Being A Semi-Autobiographical Personal Memoir by Percy Grass was published by Piggy-Winkle Books in 2005]

Stop Writing, Start Re-reading

The Bready article reminds me of many things, not least the ideas of my late, great mentor Johannes Speyer: the father of Active Reading and lifelong campaigner on behalf of the slogan ‘More Reading, Less Books’.

I may have written before on this subject but – as Speyer himself was always keen on saying –  it is better to repeat yourself than never be heard.

Speyer is, of course, a paradoxical figure. He was a writer and critic who had very little faith in the future of either writing or criticism. He hit the ironical heights, however, when he penned an essay called Stop Writing, challenging young and old artists alike to put down their pens for a while and ‘give us all a chance to assess the mess we’ve made, before throwing fresh trash on the mound’. It was in this same essay that he proposed an international ‘Non-Writing Month’ (he was secretly hoping for a ‘Non-Writing Decade’ but decided to start low) during which everyone would promise to dam the creative river for thirty days or so and devote their time to reading or re-reading the books they already owned. ‘Most of what we need,’ he wrote, ‘we have already got. We just can’t be bothered to look for it.’

Like a lot of Speyer’s work, this essay was never published. Curiously, Speyer insisted on publishing his entire output with the same publishing house, despite the fact that they frequently pushed away the fruits of his endeavour, usually on the grounds that it was ‘far from beneficial to their trade’. They had a point. It probably wouldn’t have done their business that much good to have published an essay instructing people to stop buying new books.

Some of Speyer’s views were extreme – I recognise that now – but it’s often hard to argue with the foundations of his logic, especially when you see some of the books people are writing these days (and the books they aren’t reading). So then – what about a non-writing, no-new-novel reading week in 2009? Anybody with me?