Bears With Me

The deep forests of my head are populated by bears. Bears, bears, everywhere.

A bear eating from a tree – as represented by this statue –  is the symbol of Madrid. Quite why I cannot recall. Nor can I remember exactly why Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists, have spent much of their career dressed up as a bear and a rat and wandering about like so. Needless to say, they have: and their work in this mode is, at present, at view in Madrid (in the Reina Sofia). It’s well worth examining.

There are, however, other reasons why bears have crept into my head and pushed their hairy paws through the dustbins of my thought. I travelled to Madrid, of course, to engage in a little research on my longrunning European folktales project. My goal was the papers of Professor Seth Kinloch, the Scottish collector, who lived in the Spanish capital from 1941 to 1972. He too, it seems, was fond of bears – and found plenty of bear-related material to interest him in the wide world of the European folktale. Indeed, he dedicated one of the largest folders in his collection to ‘bear stories’: a folder which contains no less than four hundred tales in which bears, in one shape or another, take an active part.

Why the interest in bears? Was it anything to do with Madrid, his adopted home, or might it have had something to do with the fact that Kinloch, by all accounts, looked somewhat like a bear? One friend described him thus: ‘His panda eyes reminded us that he slept little; his broad and hairy chest reminded us that we ought never to question this way of working’. Kinloch’s physical stature is almost always mentioned: it was impossible to ignore. Whilst we may never know the height of his rival Stanley Pleeber; Kinloch was overkeen in mentioning the fact that he measured exactly seven foot. We also know a strange amount about his eyebrows; one of which he left to his secretary in his will; the other of which followed him, willingly or otherwise, to the grave. Having seen the former – now preserved in the Kinloch archives – I can assure the reader that it is, as eyebrows go, exceedingly ‘bear-like’.

I am neither interested, nor capable, of summarising the function of bears in Kinloch’s collected tales. However, I would like to briefly mention a series of popular Hungarian stories featuring a wandering bear who breaks into the homes of peasants and threatens to eat their children if they don’t tell him a good story. The framing device is, as you can see, not dissimilar to that of the Arabian Nights, except that this bear – unlike the Arabian King – is a harsh critic, and always ends up consuming the kids. Either that, or the beast is a dirty liar and enjoys the stories greatly, only to discover that (despite the opinion of some) Art does not assuage one’s appetite. Wonderful as a good story is, one needs a good square meal to survive.

Should one go the other way, yet, and claim that the bear was correct: that the stories aren’t good enough, what we are left with is a remarkable piece of self-criticism: a set of stories in which the authors regularly remind their readers of the fact that they aren’t much good at what they’re doing. In one sense, this renders the entire series redundant, making it a sort of anti-Arabian Nights – a tribute to the near impossibility of perfect storytelling.

Or maybe bears are just hard to please.

Plant My Bleeding Heart

‘All art is melodrama. You may tear me into fifty fleshy strips, plant my bleeding heart in the cold damp ground and dance a fierce Scottish jig on my grave for a thousand years if I’m wrong’ (Elmer Rautchberg)

The Man with the Crop-Circle Hands

Firstly, some mildly saddening news. I will be away for the rest of the month – and unable, I’m afraid, to wander the dusty old ballrooms of the internet like a long-haired dog without a lead.

The good news is that, disaster notwithstanding, I will be returning a wiser man. Or to put it another way, a slightly more knowledgeable man. For yes: I am, once again, undertaking some research (older readers may recall my visit to Boston last September). This time my destination is Madrid, where I intend to get my wrinkled fingers around another stash of mysterious manuscripts relating to old European folk tales and their origins. Why Madrid? Why not?

Truth be told, I will not be looking at Spanish manuscripts; rather the papers of a Scottish man who once resided in Spain (after travelling through Eastern Europe on a donkey). That man’s name was Professor Seth Kinloch. More on him later.

Meanwhile, a little something on one of Kinloch’s favourite folktales: The Man with the Crop-Circle Hands. As usual, this story appears in many forms: some long, some short, some happy, some sad, some simple, some baffling. The vast majority of them, however, revolve around the same root. There is a man who wakes to find circles (much alike to crop-circles) on his hand. That’s the root. No more than that. Like the best folk tales, it is disarmingly simple: a jigsaw puzzle that looks, from the box, as though it should be easy to complete. Only fifty pieces? I’ll have that done in no time at all. Aha – but will you? Have you stopped to consider the shape of the pieces? Have you fully understood the nature of the completed picture?

Perhaps the most curious thing about The Man with the Crop-Circle Hands is the fact that it was written several centuries before crop-circles received any sort of popular recognition. Most scholars agree, in fact, that it predates crop-circles – and yet it clearly alludes to them, in a range of complex and bizarre ways. One of things I hope to find out is how and why this happens; how a thirteenth century Hungarian peasant was able to refer to a largely English phenomenon with origins in the seventeeth century. I also intend to discover why half the versions of this story feature a talking raven, and the other half don’t, and why one version contains a sub-plot involving a pig who sells his snout to the devil’s daughter.

Once I’ve done that, I may venture beyond the manuscript room and into the city of Madrid itself, perhaps to see this (about which my wife once dreamt).

My temporary absence from this blog will be, I’m sure, the source of much misery. On the other hand, it presents the noble reader (yes, I do mean you) with the perfect opportunity to engage in one of the world’s most dignified pastimes: re-reading. With that in mind, I have assembled a random gang of ancient articles, which you may or may not wish to cast a keen eye over.

From this blog: Jens Klofferson’s Short-shorts, a French folk-tale about bats, some divine mysteries for kids and a profound discussion of what happens when dog vomit meets Shakespeare.

And from the mothersite (Underneath the Bunker): my recollection of Tristan Sard and Robert Sevre, Michael Rosinith’s examination of Great Writers and Silly Obsessions, and Heidi Kohlenberg on the love-letters of George Forthwith-James.

For now, farewell. Feel more than free to leave comments wheresoever you wish. I will be happy to reply on my return.

The Long Way Home

Before the infamous and influential Single Cream, the Polish writer Max Zdowt published a novel called There’s Another Elephant. But you already knew this, no? Maybe so, but what you may not have known is that the novel attracted fierce criticism from many quarters. ‘My Elephant was besieged’, wrote Zdowt, later. And he was right. An army of warriors surrounded his elephant, harpoons raised, war-cry engaged and feet stamping with spirit. And yet only one warrior really went for the kill.

That warrior’s name was Laurence Reidegger. Not a great critic – as this story proves – but a man of majorly middling intelligence. Which is not to say that I think There’s Another Elephant is, actually, a work of genius; rather that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it in the manner in which Reidegger did.

‘Every chapter wastes at least ten pages,’ wrote our middling man: ‘take them away and what do you have? A glorified short story, if that’. He seemed perturbed. ‘What a mess!’ he exclaimed elsewhere – ‘Where is Zdowt going? Nowhere. This book is a road to nowhere’.

On the contrary, this book is very much a road to somewhere. It merely gets there in peculiar ways. As Reidegger was keen to point out, chapters begin in curious ways. They don’t follow on from the ends of other chapters. They don’t even jump ahead a bit, shift perspective a smidgen, or forge new tributaries that will, eventually, run into a central narrative river. Instead they offer lengthy and irrelevant lead-ins, introducing situations and characters that have no bearing whatsoever on the main story. Detective work will get you nowhere. These pages are truly – and quite deliberately – wasteful.

Did I say wasteful? I meant, of course, ‘useful’. So what if Zdowt indulges in a veritable stack of seemingly meaningless subplots? Can we criticise him for this? What he is doing, surely, is creating a new perspective on the  central story. Not a carefully engineered one, perhaps, but a restless, wild, irreverent, diverting, misleading, aggravating, mysterious and maddening one. He reminds us, constantly, that the heroes of his story are just people; a minuscule segment of an elephantine whole. He imbues their every action with significance, then withdraws into the world again, as if to say ‘how significant was that, really?’ It can be a frustrating approach, but it’s no more a waste of time than life itself.

Of course, if I had a mature sense of irony, I might have ‘wasted’ the first four hundred words of this review on an unrelated subject, before settling, at last, on the subject of Zdowt. But then, how do you know that Zdowt was ever my central subject? Maybe it’s all been lead in to something else entirely. Maybe my story lies elsewhere. Maybe even here. Right here.


Why address a topic directly when you can dance a merry and fruitful waltz around its boundaries instead? Having spent many years as an editor of a literary journal, I have been witness to a fair procession of reviewers getting down to the wonderful business of never quite getting down to business. Critical fumbling, it could be called -except that this fumbling isn’t as bad as it sounds; not always, anyway. Sometimes a strange diversion can enrich a review; very often a seemingly irrelevant comment or anecdote can make the whole thing worthwhile. As the Finnish actor Tippi Udje once said: ‘Mr Ambiguity wears some funny shirts, but he makes a good cup of tea’.

There are other times, yet, when one is driven near to violence by a reviewer’s refusal to look his/her subject in the eye; to make good on their promise to ‘explore’ the relevant issues in any sense at all. This is not quite the case with Heidi Kohlenberg’s two page reaction to Edmund Ek’s name change (published this morning in Majfisk, a Swedish fishing magazine, available in all good Scandinavian newsagents) – but it may as well be.

To be honest, it’s not as if she doesn’t warn us. ‘I am struggling to conceive an arrangement of words that would properly sum up my feelings on this subject,’ she writes in the opening sentence. Only struggling? ‘In fact,’ she writes two sentences later, ‘I have totally failed to conceive such an arrangement’. Aha. But this is not quite the end of the matter. In the final paragraph she reassesses her failure and tries, at the last moment, to salvage all with the assistance of a single word. ‘I wonder,’ she wonders, ‘whether or not all this can be summed up after all, within the following statement: Ha!’

That, then, is her response. ‘Ha!’ The rest of the review deals simply (and rather wonderfully, as it happens) with the idea of responding to unexpected news, with other people’s responses to unexpected news, with possible responses to these responses to unexpected news, with responses to ideas of responding to responses of unexpected news and with various other things of little or no relevance to the matter in hand. I have to say it – it’s a good article. But (‘Ha!’ aside) it isn’t really the response most of us were looking for.

All of which leads to the question – is ‘Ha!’ enough? I wonder…

The Transcendent Reader

According to this postage over at Hooting Yard: ‘an eighteenth-century subscription library in London divided its readers into four categories: the Sedate, the Historian, the Theatrical Amateur, and the Gay and Volatile.’

More work needs to be done, clearly, on the precise features of these four categories, although I can already say for sure which of the types I would like to see pushed off a rocky promontory into a shark-strewn sea. I refer, of course, to the ‘sedate’ reader.

Now I’ve got nothing against sitting down, or sitting still. An action-packed life is not for all of us. Nevertheless, seeing the word ‘sedate’ placed next to the word ‘reader’ makes me choke. Reading is a journey, is movement, is progress, is exploration, is momentum, is activity. A ‘sedate’ reader is not a reader at all: it is just a person looking at words.

A quick glance at the remaining categories makes me wonder whether they hold any more promise. Probably not. Categories can be pitiful things – and it would be dangerous for any reader to slot themselves into any one of these. The true reader is transcendent. They must slip into no and into every category. They must burrow like moles, soar like kites, scuttle like crabs, glide like eels, bounce like kangaroos, trot like ponies and dance like a cowboy’s daughter. They must transcend.

The Side of the Road

‘Life’s certainties? Death, taxes and crap adolescent poetry’. So said Elmer Rautchberg in 1957. And it can’t have been the first time that someone publicly railed against substandard teenage verse. The wild scribblings of angsty young adults have, for all the passion contained within, rarely set the world alight. Though volumes of early works by some of the age’s greatest sonnetists continue to shift significant amounts, very few of them have garnered critical praise.

It’s true: waves of cynicism lick the beach of my brain repeatedly, but still I will confess that I have a slight weakness for crap adolescent poetry. Not my own of course (heaven forbid) – nor that of your ordinary troubled citizen. But when someone emerges with a piece of early writing by a contemporary master, I am almost always intrigued. It may lack the skill, poise and sense of later work, but it just as often delivers an unexpected punch: a line or two, maybe, of surprisingly wonderful verse –  or the tentative appearance of themes integral to maturer writings.

I was thus thrilled to see that some of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s youthful work has recently been republished (against the author’s wishes, I believe) in a Russian literary magazine. Who knew that the young Turgidovsky used to pour his heart into poetry? And who’d have imagined that it would be this good?

 I want to die by the side of the road (written at the age of sixteen and by far the best of the present lot) is nothing short of a classic. Of course, adolescent self-loathing is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the mad Russian miser, but it’s nonetheless a shock to see how good he was this early on. This, truly, is moving stuff. And they will scrape me up/and they will lay me down/and they will kick me clean/across the gravel. And what about those lines about the hedgehogs and the crows? And the description of the maggots? The Russian critic Alexander Hrabav says it best: ‘Imagine The Good Samaritan, but without the goodness’ – a line that could just as well describe everything Turgidovsky has written since, much of which appears to have grown like mould from the festering wound of this poignantly shocking early work.