A Third Sighting

First a charity shop in Gloucestershire, then a beach in Fiji, now a street in Mexico city. Eva Holubk’s missing book, The Marmalade Jar, has been spotted once again.

Well, according to J-P Sertin anyway, who claims to have seen the book lurking in footage of the swine flu pandemic. ‘It was on News 24,’ he claims: ‘there was a shot of a man sitting on a bus, wearing a sky blue mask and reading a book. The book was clearly The Marmalade Jar’.

Bearing in mind that fact that this is a man who saw Marilyn Monroe at a South London shopping precinct late last year, this is not necessarily the most reliable sighting ever. But stranger things have happened – and I wouldn’t like to spoil a good friendship by doubting everything Sertin says.

Meanwhile it gives us all something to do whilst those eery images of flu-ravaged Mexico appear on our screens. We could fill the time waiting for the Great Vomit to overtake us all with ceaseless panicking – or we could scan the screens for another priceless sighting of Eva Holubk’s mysterious poetry collection instead.

I, Demented Kitten?

In his comment to the post below, Javé de Lasse points me in the direction of the ‘demented kitten’ chapter of his torpid novel Declining Bore, wherein I may discover the previously undiscovered fictionalised portrait of myself.

Here follows a quick precis of what occurs in this chapter (no.8 for those who are interested): James (the hero) and Mary Potter (i.e. Peggy Grounter) rescue a kitten from the hands of a dirty gypsy. Like a lot of things in the novel, it is never made clear why they do this, but that’s just how it goes. In any case, the kitten soon lives up to its tag – and runs riot around the office, weeing on proof copies, vomiting in the photocopier, dragging in a family of half-dead ducklings (from where? again, it isn’t clear), biting a famous writer’s hand and (I quote) ‘mewing gutturally’. They plan to kick the kitten out, but it decides to leave of its own accord, not before depositing a small pile of poo on James’ perversely tidy desk.

I’ll be straight about this: I shared office space with de Lasse and Grounter for a few years and – though I may, at times, have been an enthusiastic colleague – I never once excreted any sort of substance on a book/desk, or mauled a duckling, or bit a writer on the hand. And though I struggle to imagine what a ‘guttural mew’ is, I’m almost certain it isn’t something I’m in the habit of producing.

As for vomiting in the photocopier, I was very ill at the time (and I resent the use of ‘in’ – it was rather more ‘on’).

Declining Bore

I mentioned an interview he gave, but did I mention that Jave de Lasse has written a novel?

And yet ’tis so. Another critic has succumbed to the deadly temptation to practise what they preach – with typically poor results. Which is not to say that Declining Bore is the worst novel I’ve read this millennia, but that it remains, all things told, a mediocre mound of lazy tawdry nonsense. And when I say lazy I mean, of course, that it is not really a novel at all; simply a cack-handed reworking of de Lasse’s life. Weird, then, that it doesn’t work. A set of memoirs might have been welcomed with (partially) open arms. But in trying to boil everything down into a novel de Lasse has lost the flavour of it all.

Still, for someone who knows de Lasse, there are a handful of interesting passages. Take this description of Mary Potter on page 36:

She looked like someone had put too much baking powder in the mix, allowing her to rise quite out of proportion; her doughy breasts forever tumbling and bubbling out of the habitual blouse. It was bad enough as it was, but in the summer they seemed to get still larger. Was the cake still cooking?

One does not have to be Sam Spade to recognise in this a portrait of my (and de Lasse’s) former colleague Peggy Grounter. Not an especially winning portrait, I must say, but a fairly accurate one (and once you’ve read his portrayal of his ex-wife, you’ll agree that Mary Potter comes out of the book pretty well).

Seeing as my ex-colleague appears in his novel – and that the book is, essentially, a reworking of his life – some readers may be wondering: do I feature? The answer to this is that, as far as I can tell, I don’t. Of course, de Lasse and I aren’t as close as we used to be; although this might have given him the perfect opportunity to get back at me. And yet I search in vain (and with no small relief) for a character resembling me.

The Accidental Plough

I’ve never been too sure about anagrams, but there’s no denying that they can, on occasion, yield enticing results. See here, for instance. There can be very few phrases lurking in that list that a budding writer would overlook as inspiration for a worthy story. Who would not wish to weave some words upon the alluring loom of ‘creation temple beguiler’ or ‘impermeable ingot lecture’? The accidental plough prepares fertile fields indeed.

One’s mind turns, of course, to the late (but not quite great) Ernest Kinley-Fowlington, whose based an entire career on such anagrammatic games. Kinley-Fowlington had wanted to be a writer from an early age, but struggled to find a subject. His upbringing had been satisfactory, his social position ever-comfortable and his personal relations unstrained. Whichever way he looked at it there were few dark emotional ponds in which to cast the net of his literary aspirations. And so he seized inspiration from somewhere else entirely, using accidental methods to conjure up a context, from which he flew with unexpected confidence.

The idea was simple. The title of every story he ever wrote (and he wrote several hundred) consisted of an anagram of his own name. This was not only the title: it was also the diving board, the starting line – the boiling water waiting patiently for the uncooked egg. Once he’d found a new title he was away. Wherever that title pointed, he went. On a blank page he wrote nothing. But given another anagram he was fine. He was off again.

I’d be lying if I said that all Kinley-Fowlington’s stories are worth reading. But there are a few gems kicking around in the dirt. One of his later tales, To Sly New Florentine King (1987) – which consists of a fourteen pages of careful advice metered out to a non-existent Italian king – has always moved me; so too Gentility Knows Lone Fern, the novella-length study of a melancholy gentleman who falls in love with a small clump of fern. Though he was never really a humorist, a couple of stories are delightfully funny – Inserting Kennel Wolf Toy, for instance, or (continuing the kennel theme) the slyly elegiac Left-wing Sonority Kennel, both of which can be found in his 1978 collection Gentlefolk Win Oyster Inn.

Inevitably, too much Kinley-Fowlington can be tiresome – and, for all the pleasures of his anagrammatical findings, one ultimately senses the lack of weight behind his work. There was a good decade’s worth of fine work in this game of his; unfortunately he played it for forty-something years. He could at least have changed the anagram source – which would have saved us countless elks – but no, he persisted with the original plan right up into the end.

Still, his very last story was one of his best. Lenin Fleeing Knotty Rows is a riot of a yarn, with a historical significance hitherto unseen in Kinley-Fowlington’s work – and a denouement to die for (which, as it happens, is pretty much what he did).

Closet Bourgeois

Last night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned to the subject of Fjona Uu’s ever-dwindling Marxist sympathies.
‘Only a fool would be surprised,’ said the man with the moustache: ‘it’s quite clear that she always harboured a secret love for the bourgeoisie. Look at that man she married. Isn’t he an earl?’
No one quite knew for sure, though there has never been any doubt of James Lapperton’s elevated social status. One look at him is enough to know that he was Lord of Prefects at Harrowton on the Hill.
‘And don’t cough up any of that stuff about breaking down the system from within. Uu has always been a bona fide bourgeois. Even before she met the Lapperton fellow she was writing stories about romance in English public schools. Now tell me, is that a natural subject for an Icelandic Marxist?’
We all agreed that it was not – and the man with the moustache ordered another brandy.

The story he was referring to was, I think, Nothing Ness – a rather charming little tale about two rich and witless teenagers who decide to fall in love and live mildly happily ever after until the day they’re run over by a rogue tank on the high street of a minor Southern city. Here’s how it opens:

When asked what she was doing, or what she wanted to do, Vanessa as a child was accustomed to saying ‘nothing’, for which she soon earned herself the nickname ‘Nothing Ness’, which was to follow her, like some sad lamb, through three schools and beyond.

In order to spice up her soporific existence, ‘Nothing Ness’ engineers an infatuation with someone called Stuart, who pretends in turn to love her back. Both characters are presented throughout as spiritually empty; vapid and humourless. Despite this, it’s hard not to like them, in their way – wherein lies Uu’s problem. She lingers tenderly on details which, when she set out, were meant to bare teeth. Her humanity overtakes her. She falls into her own trap.

More could be said about this story. For now, however, I would like to draw your attention to another female European writer who has, for no good reason, developed an obsession with that peculiar institution they call the English public school. I refer, of course, to the brilliant Czech novelist Koira Jupczek, whose Death Charts, though set in Central Europe, clearly owes a lot to the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the like. Again, not the most obvious path to amble down when you hail from the Czech Republic. And yet Death Charts channels the spirit of the bourgeois boarding school to great effect, allowing its much-derided charms to seep through the hard skin of the writer’s sharp satire.

As far as I know, Jupczek is not married to a polo-playing, pipe-smoking earl – nor has she ever professed herself a Marxist. This link between her work and Uu’s is, however, an intriguing one, which merits further investigation.

Reconfiguring Space

Whilst stopping over at the incomparable Hooting Yard the other day, I left a comment regarding an unwritten story by the Icelandic writer Fjona Uu. You may read it here.

For those interested in perusing the story Reconfiguring Space you may find it, along with the aforementioned The Easter Bunny is Alive and Well and Living in West Dulwich, in her 2000 short story collection Put on Your Ontic Stasis Suits, originally published in a limited edition of 250, but due to be reprinted (I’m told) later this year, in a slightly larger number.

Although I would recommend most of Uu’s work, those already familiar with her oeuvre will find little to surprise them in her short stories, many of which play around with themes dealt with at length in her two novels, Lava in a Cold Climate and Pincers in the Tower. Her Marxist sympathies have softened slightly over the last five years, I hear, which is just as well, for there is something  perverse about the pleasure she takes in torturing her bourgeois characters over the course of these early stories. Teach them a lesson, by all means, but there’s no need to overdo it.

Since we’re on the subject of Fjona Uu, short stories and overdoing things, a few friends of mine have pointed out the similarities between her work in this medium and that of postmodern trickster Hermann Husch, whose Pilgramage I covered here. It’s true: both writers have long set up camp on the boundaries between fiction and reality, with a marked propensity for taking characters out of context and playing with the minds of their readers to a unhealthily dangerous degree. Husch, however, puts Uu’s self-indulgence and literary perversities to shame. A story within a story within a story is probably enough for her. For him, it is nothing – it is far too simple.  It is only the beginning. You can never take an idea too far with Hermann Husch. He will run and run with it. And then some.

Climb Every Sentence

Jave de Lasse, last week, in an interview for a Spanish literary journal:

Believe it or not, I’ve met people who are actually impressed with the answer given by the ape-headed climber in response to the question, ‘Why climb Everest?’ In my mind, his witty reply doesn’t mean much; not when the question is so obviously at fault. ‘Why should we care?’ is the only proper way of dealing with such a situation. Mountain climbers bore me terribly. What is one supposed to learn from climbing a mountain? Go home and read Proust, for Marcel’s sake. Read Szesz. Do something useful.

As it turns out, this is not the first time de Lasse has offended the mountain climbing community – last time he did so (back in 2001, I believe) he woke to find all the windows of his house  smashed by grappling hooks and half a ton of snow piled up in his library (no mean feat, considering that he lived in Seville at the time). Still, it’s nice to see that this experience hasn’t stopped him speaking his mind.

Of course, we mustn’t take it for granted (as de Lasse seems to) that those of the mountain-climbing persuasion aren’t also, in their spare time, keen readers. Perhaps even active readers. Indeed, there have long been rumours that Tenzig Norgay carried with him to the summit a copy of Caspar Bloff’s 1949 novel, Death in Vladivostock, with the intention of seeing how the thin air on the peak would affect his reading of the stirring final chapter. Unfortunately he is said to have sacrificed the book halfway through the journey to pacify a hungry snow leopard. What the leopard made of Bloff’s work has, alas, never been recorded – though I suspect that he or she would, like me, find it a wholly overrated work, not fit for an endangered species.