Goodbye Alexander Reight (Part Two)

The year is 1987, the city is Frankfurt. Alexander Reight is one of seventy academics attending a conference on Anglo-German relations between 1500 and 1805. He was planning to give a paper, it is said, but pulled out, citing ‘paucity of research material’. No matter. The line-up is otherwise excellent – and the very fact that Reight is part of the audience is, for all those present, a distinct draw. Who wasn’t stunned, only a year or so before, by his seminal text: The Art of Prussian Balladery, 1705-1729?

What they don’t know is that Reight has never been overly keen on conferences. It’s not the concept of mingling with other minds that bothers him, per se; rather the manner in which this tends to transpire. The real problem is, he later claims, ‘verbal communication of an intellectual nature’. Not talking, specifically, but ‘talking clever’. Or else, as he later said (or should I say, wrote): ‘the wholly unreal expectation that I might actually speak as I write’.

Every academic has their nervy days. So what? Something about this conference, nevertheless, touches more than a single nerve in Reight. As each paper passes, followed by the customary ten minutes for questions, the pressure grows. No one expects him to ask a question everytime, not at all. But after the first day has finished – and Reight has yet to raise a single point – there is an almost tangible sense of disappointment. When will the great man speak? Surely he’ll say something? He must, mustn’t he?

The second of three days rolls by, but Alexander Reight continues to hold his peace. There are moments in which he appears to be mulling over a question; rolling over a query with his tongue – but this is as far as it gets. The words refuse to leap from his lips. He keeps schtum. The rabbit of wisdom is well hutched-up.

As the third day draws to a yawning close, Reight’s fellow delegates have long since given up on the prospects of him speaking his mind. They’ve tried during coffee breaks to coax him out of his shell, but to no avail. No matter. It’s a little sad, perhaps, but it happens. He’s a quiet man, so what?

They underestimate the pressure, however, that Reight puts on himself. To him, this is certainly not a small matter. This is simply not excusable. He really ought to say something, oughtn’t he? Ah, but time is running shorter than a legless dwarf. Only two papers remain – and there’s no guarantee that they’ll fuel a debate in which he’ll be able to participate. After all, they don’t remotely cover his period of interest. Still,what other options does he have?

As the penultimate paper finishes, Reight decides that the time is ripe. He’s going to ask a question. He’s going to speak at last. Yes. The mute oracle is about to open his mouth for the first time.

And say what? Therein lies the problem. Reight doesn’t have a question formed in his mind as he raises his hand. What he has instead is a small voice, a comforting voice, a voice which could be the voice of experience – but might also be the voice of ignorance. In any case, this voice is telling him that everything will be all right. He’ll know what to say when the time comes. He’s an intelligent man. He’s written a great book. He can ask a clever question, of course he can.

Or can he? Needless to say, he can’t. He starts off promisingly. ‘Could I just, um, perhaps, draw everyone’s attention to an issue, um, relating to a point made, um, at the beginning of your lecture?’. It’s non-specific, granted, but it might yet lead somewhere. Alas, no. This footpath goes off into thick undergrowth. And what undergrowth! Brambles, brambles everywhere. ‘I fancy that the exemplarity, ostensible though it is, corresponds to an innate interference emanating from an awkward instance of, um, irregular ontological, um, horizontality’. Truth be told, Reight has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. His mind and his mouth are going through a messy divorce – and communication is scant, even non-existent. Words come out regardless. Long words, some of them. If you don’t listen closely, you might be fooled into thinking that they go together. But they don’t. Not at all.

How long this goes on no one can quite remember. Some say thirty seconds, others five minutes. At what point he starts sweating, shaking and, finally, frothing at the mouth is also under debate. In any case, the dark curtains of chaos descend soon after. What started out as a tentative question turns out to be a complete mental-breakdown, from which he takes Reight a year, at least, to recover. Even the most well-constructed minds can unravel fast. And Reight’s mind unravels faster than a ball of string in the hands of an over-excited kitten.

It’s a sad story, make no mistake, and I somewhat regret my decision to tell it to you, if only because it leaves such an unfortunate impression of Alexander Reight. For though he never rose again to the heights of his first book, the rest of his career was nonetheless strewn with minor successes. I am firmly of the opinion, in fact, that he never wrote a bad book. His mind was, I repeat, first-rate. He was, by any standards, great.

Still, it would be wrong to pretend that he didn’t struggle. Perhaps he might have picked up the necessary skills at some point. People do. So far as the conference circuit goes, however, he never tested himself again. Frankfurt taught him a lesson he was never to forget, creating an impression he was never able to overturn: an impression of a highly skilled writer who simply couldn’t rise to the challenge of ‘speaking as he wrote’.

Alexander Reight was survived by his wife, Amelia, and two children, Karl and Sofia.

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Goodbye Alexander Reight (Part One)

I heard last night of the death of my old friend Alexander Reight, one of the most talented academics of his generation, whose career was blighted throughout by a crippling lack of confidence, but whose brilliance will live on, not quite as brightly as it should have done, but with a brassy beauty nonetheless.

Like a lot of writers, Reight’s first book was his best. One racks one’s brains unsuccessfully to think of a better short study in the field of eighteenth century German culture than Reight’s resplendent The Art of Prussian Balladery, 1705-1729. What nerve! What style! What a subtle understanding of how the bubonic plague may have affected syntactical patterns in the lyrics of early German folk music!

Reight’s mind was first class, no doubt about it. The relationship between his mind and his pen, meanwhile, had a holiness about it, almost as if he could think through his hands and fingers; guided by some strange spirit within (or, indeed, without). There, on the page, the light of his genius shone strongest. Every sentence stood as testament to his innate skill; to his unerring intellectual instinct. He knew how to place a comma in a way that would make his readers gasp for breath. What brashness! What brio!

What brio indeed. On the page, yes. Reight lorded it over anyone on paper. On paper. Ah, but to hint (as I am surely doing, am I not?) that his confidence left him completely when he was not armed with a pen would be cruel;  a charmless retreat to the stale old cliche of the socially inept academic. Or am I wrong?

Truth be told, he wasn’t incapable of holding a relatively normal conversation. On the whole, he got by perfectly. He could shop at any supermarket without freaking out the cashiers. He could phone strangers without fainting. He had a wife, after all. Granted, no one knows how he got her – but got her he did. And don’t for a minute imagine that she was the desperate type. She was, on the contrary, the pick of the crop. No, Alexander Reight wasn’t a social wreck – not at all.

You’d have to say, however, that he did lack certain survival skills. His talents, to be blunt, were chronically unbalanced. ‘He wrote like a angel,’ said one friend, ‘and spoke like a frog’. Again, this isn’t quite true. There was in fact nothing wrong with his speaking voice: nothing at all. When he gathered up the confidence to say something clever, he said it as clearly as anyone. When he gathered up the confidence.

High time, methinks, for an anecdote; one of those case-closing, career-defining, super-symbolic stories.

The year is 1987, the city is Frankfurt…

Crime and Punctuation

I have returned, not without a little reluctance, to the ongoing process of re-editing the articles in my temporarily static journal Underneath the Bunker. Why such reluctance? It is, alas, as I have mentioned on previous occasions, on account of the seemingly endless parade of errors I encounter every time I set foot on the old website. One edits once, one edits twice, one edits thrice: still the mistakes get through. Grammar, spelling, sense – there is no end, it seems, to the soul-crushing chaos. I could claim that it isn’t all my fault: I could blame my cack-handed contributors, for instance, or my imperfect proof-readers. Ultimately, however, an editor needs to stand up for his or herself: to confess their countless sins and make clear their intentions to right all careless wrongs.

It’s funny how sensitive one can become to these small errors; these piddling crimes of punctuation. I recall the late great Johannes Speyer writing a romantic letter to one of his many female followers. Two hours after passing the note over to the lady in question he burst into her house and demanded she return it. ‘Why so?’ she squealed (or so he claimed). ‘I have just remembered a small error I made,’ he replied, seizing the letter from her dainty little hands and rushing out of the room. Minutes later he reappeared, replacing the once-offending missive into her quivering palms. She looked down to see that he had crossed out a semi-colon and inserted in its place a comma. ‘I couldn’t bear for you to think of me as the kind of man who would misuse a semi-colon’ he said, before leaping through the open window and trampling on her flower beds.

Like the majority of Speyer’s love affairs, this one was not meant to be. Granted, the girl was never to think of him as the kind of man who would misuse a semi-colon, but she was to think of him as a selfish, four-timing, flower-bed trampler. Still: this was fine by him. So long as the love letters were appropriately punctuated, it didn’t much matter what came of them.

To the Bemused (The Bastard 6)

Seeing as I’ve been writing about a novel concerned with the nature of correspondence, it only seems right that I should introduce some correspondence of my own, written in response to issues arising from both old and new reviews of Boris Yashmilye’s fiction.

‘I am bemused,’ writes my letter writing friend (whose name shall remain unknown). ‘More than that: I am positively flummoxed. And let me tell you why’. Tell away, I say, tell away. ‘It is principally a matter of dates’. Ah yes, 1066 and all that. Unless of course you refer to the edible drupe of the date palm tree. No? All right: go on. ‘Your review of Boris Yasmilye’s first novel, written some years ago now, refers to your having read the book as a student, only to imply that it was written, at the earliest, in the late 1980s, almost a decade after your student days. Perhaps you could explain this curious discrepancy’. Perhaps I could, perhaps I could… But stop: there is more. ‘On top of this, I find in your more recent review of Yashmilye’s career [see this post] a distinct reluctance to confirm the dates of all his novels, or to offer an explanation as to how and why the writer seems to have written only five novels over the space of twenty-five years. Slow progress, is it not?’

Truth be told, these are all good questions. So let’s throw some facts upon the table. Boris Yasmilye’s debut novel was, as far as I know, first published in 1991. A rather poor English translation appeared the following year, later superseded by a much better, albeit controversial, translation in 2005. Yashmilye’s second and third novels were published in 1994 and 1997 respectively. I can’t recall the dates of their English translations. Out Damned appeared in 2003. Translations of this exist but have yet to be published. The Bastard was published this year. Again, a translation exists, but no willing publisher.

Meanwhile, your point about my claims to have read Yashmilye’s debut as a student is well-made. I note, in retrospect, that the tone of my review (to be found here) is indeed a little misleading. I appear to suggest, do I not, that I first encountered Yashmilye as a young, fresh and quite possibly foolish man; that Flashes at Midnight was one of those books one falls in love with in the days of one’s youth – and fears, in later life, of offering no more than an air of nostalgia.

This, as you have no doubt realised, cannot be true. For in fact I was in my late thirties when Yashmilye’s book was published; no fresher than cut-price carrots: a bright young thing whose bulb had long since broken. And yet, and yet – I was, officially, still a student. Those were still student days. So too, indeed, are these present days. I am, after all, still engaged on my doctorate; ever the pupil in the classroom of life, eager to learn and never less than keen to confess my eternal ignorance.

As for your second point (or was it the third? I forget…) you will have noticed that Yasmilye has actually, according to these facts, written five novels in eighteen years. This is not an awful writing rate, though you are right to draw attention to it, as there is a distinct gap of eight years between his third and fourth novel; one which ought, I admit, to have been underlined at a previous juncture. Though I can’t at present supply a precise reason as to why Yashmilye took so long to produce Out Damned, certain details may go some way to alleviate your concerns. Chief among these is the fact that Yasmilye, like a lot of obscure European novelists, simply does not make enough money from his writing to support himself. This is a point much overlooked by critics, I confess – and one which we should make every effort to address in the future. For the truth is that many European novelists have alternate careers; careers which can, on occasion, pull them away from their literary concerns.

Yashmilye falls into this camp. During the period in which his five novels have been published, he has held a variety of other jobs, from bookseller to bookmaker, from farmer to pharmacist. For a man as talented as he, this is far from ideal. It is, however, the sad reality of things. Whether this completely explains the eight year gap I cannot quite say, but it must be kept in mind, if only to serve as a much-needed reminder of the far-from-charmed lives than so many of our great writers lead.

One last thing. As a postscript my close-reader of a correspondent writes: ‘A final query. Your original Yashmilye review tells of how you spend every June and July in your summer cottage in Vladivostock. I presume that means you are there now’.

I offer only a short answer to this one: don’t presume anything.

Cute Animals Harbouring Cruel Intentions (The Bastard 5)

As every man and his dog knows, stories with animals in them are not, on the whole, about animals. They are stories written by humans who are ashamed/afraid/incapable of presenting ideas without first hiding them under the skin of a fluffy bunny. Bring forth the bunnies and everything seems a little bit easier; safely removed one step from reality, hard edges softened by the simplest of literary tricks. There is, of course, a word for this – a word so closely associated (in my mind anyway) with proud young students of literature that I feel disinclined to use it here.  So disinclined, in fact, that I feel myself resisting the urge entirely. See how I resist, oh see how I resist.

Let us move on with sweet speed, stopping only briefly to consider the case of Pierre Manniac, a man who, you may remember, turned this tradition of which I speak on its furry little head. His ultra-violent story of gangland murders, Death: A Way of Life, would have been a generic shoot-em-up were it not for one fact: Manniac decided to replace all his humans with animals. Suddenly everything became strangely interesting (according to some: personally, I remain unconvinced). Readers who might have been bored stiff by an account of a bloody fistfight between two brainless gangsters were, it seems, beguiled by a reenactment of the same scuffle featuring a polar bear and a giant lobster. The animals, somehow, made the story.

Manniac’s path to anthropomorphism (resistance duly over) wasn’t the usual one, granted. It was, in fact, a last-minute get-out clause, if not a lucky mistake. Others might have got there quicker. Some people, indeed, struggle to get anywhere else. For animals dominate the stories of amateur storytellers. Folk tales are swimming with them. And many of the worst are – like Manniac’s novel – saved by them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s hard to write a bad story with a talking goat in it. Or at least, harder than writing a bad story with a talking bank manager in it – even if the plot is, essentially, the same.

Boris Yashmilye is not an amateur storyteller – not by any means – but The Bastard nevertheless hands a lot of pages over to amateur storytelling; to join-the-dots narrative construction; to wax-crayon on sugar-paper plot prefabrication. This after all, as Yashmilye well knows, is what happens when one tries to create a story out of correspondence with people who, to put it simply, both lack the true writer’s touch and, most significantly, see some kind of need to hide their true (and possibly cruel) intentions behind cartoonish, distinctly non-human characters. What is true to Yashmilye’s experience is undoubtedly true to mine: get a group of perfectly sane people together to weave a story and there’s every chance that what they’ll come up with will feature, somewhere along the way, a cute-faced kitten with a hidden agenda.

Admittedly, there are no kittens in The Bastard. Still, there are some pretty fine substitutes, well poised to make up for this oversight. There is, as previously noted, a pelican or two, a ship of parrot pirates (with small men on their shoulders) and at least one talking potato. On top of this we have what is for me a first in modern European fiction: a ‘sqirl’ (a small female squirrel). Oh dear me yes. Sqirls there are in abundance. Sqirls everywhere. And I dare to say that I actually like this novel!

So it is. For the sqirls, at least, are not without their uses. Indeed, I would even so far as to call them a masterstroke. Awful as they are, their awfulness is not without a certain beauty; a certain calculated beauty, I should say, testament to Yashmilye’s understanding of what The Bastard is all about. And here, again, the footnotes save the day, alerting the dazed reader to the curious set of circumstances that surround the invention of – and consequently save the copious employment of – these tragically adorable creatures. Yasmilye’s brilliantly weighted interjections not only excuse the sqirls, but they make them integral to the project: pathetically heroic symbols of the novel’s central themes.

But be warned: a sqirl in the hands of a less talented writer is a very different sort of animal.

Sentences

‘This sentence was written today. And this one today. The two sentences preceding this one were written several years ago’

(Lucio Ganzini, Where the Power Lies: Pricks, Prats and Publishing Houses)

Great Nest of Pulsating Emotions (The Bastard 4)

Boris Yashmilye’s new novel, The Bastard, consists – as previously noted – of a story stitched together through the correspondence between the author (or author substitute Ivan Grilenko) and three women. The result is somewhat of a chaotic compromise, cunningly lifted from the quagmire of ineptitude by the careful use of our old friend the footnote. Through this the novel becomes less of a poorly constructed patchwork quilt, and more of a subtle exploration of the implications of a poorly constructed patchwork quilt. The difference between the two may be negligible: nonetheless it saves the novel.

Throughout the book, one particular question reappears: are the three women aware of each other, or is each of them under the impression that they are in sole correspondence with the wily Grilenko? The truth is that all three have their suspicions; the narrative is too choppy for them not to, too fraught with incriminating possibilities; but these come out, not in forthright accusations, but in delicate underhanded allegations, quietly woven into the fabric of this strange, cooperative tale. The story is, thus, a great nest of pulsating emotions: a fantastically intricate four way dialogue – an almighty bust-up, you could say, squeezed through the sieve of a peculiar little story about pelicans, pirates and potassium-rich potatoes.

More on this – i.e. the pelicans – a little later.