Stolen Commas

J-P Sertin has too many projects on his hands. This is how he works – and also how he gets nothing done. A charming paradox, no?

Well, I suppose it depends on your attitude to paradoxes. In any case, J-P Sertin has come up with another idea, which he thinks is A Good One – and which many other people, myself included, thinks has Potential, depending on How It Is Done (i.e. like most ideas).

The idea is this: to write a novel.

The second part of the idea is this: to write a novel, using all your own words, but someone else’s punctuation. Let us take, for example, the first line of a relatively well-regarded novel: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”. Let us now rework that line, with a story of our own, but with the same pattern of punctuation: “Winter had come, with a biting vigour, with a quiet ferocity, with a sullen grace, with a cunning fearlessness, with a crushing confidence, with a wormy doggedness, with an underlying sadness, with a stormy petulance, with a stern magnificence”

And there you have it.

More on this, perhaps, later.

Portrait of a Worrying Trend

There is much talk of ‘mashing’ these days. Monster-mashing, for instance. I discussed it briefly here, in reference to Fjona Uu’s recent novel The Brontesaurus Sisters. Today, however, I’m pondering on a rather more general scale. Mash-ups are, after all, but another form of parody. That’s right: parody. That beautifully disgusting genre. The highest of the low arts. No one can sneer at a perfect parody, but experience tells us that these are few and far between. So why do we all think we can do it?

I speak not for myself, per se, but for my friends, the majority of whom spend a large portion of their evenings at The Crippled Bee musing over parodies they are thinking of/are definitely going to/have just started writing. There’s Mr X, waxing lyrical over his proposed Portrait of a Ladyman, Miss Y dreaming of making a mint with her Search for Lost Thyme and Mr Z all at sea over his Robinson Crusoe, Space Adventurer. All very much beneath me, of course, yet it seems to delight them so. And they remain convinced that this is what readers want; the same stories repeated over and over, albeit embellished with ludicrous subplots. Could they be right?

My wife, meanwhile, continues to write her Hieronymous Bosch-based thriller. I say write, but I think she’s still in the planning stage. In fact, I fear she’s overestimating the amount of work that ought to go into a sensational novel. Those sort of things need to be vomited onto the page, or left well alone.

That Grizzled Fig

I don’t think my wife reads this blog. Or if she does, not very often. Last week, however, she clearly took a peek, for on Saturday morning, at breakfast, she came forth with the following question:
‘Were you ever invited to Maria von Küppelberg’s?’
My answer was succinct. ‘Yes,’ I said: ‘Once’.
‘Can you elaborate?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, scooping a spoonful of scrambled egg into my mouth. ‘I don’t know’.

Can I elaborate? The truth is, Maria von Küppelberg was past her prime by the time I met her. In the seventies young literary sorts would do anything to bag an invite to one of her ‘evenings’. By the mid-eighties, however, she was considered – how can I say it? – a little ‘stuffy’. It was in 1981, I think, that a certain Hungarian poet described her as ‘that grizzled fig’. So far as her physical attributes went, this was on the mark. As for her mind: I confess, that too was fading. By her death, in 1989, she was (according to the same poet) ‘as sharp as a squirrel’s tail’.

As far as our meeting went, there is very little to report. I neither impressed nor insulted the famous hostess. I was never invited back, granted, but then I did leave the city soon after. In any case, I’m pretty certain I did not embarrass myself.

I do regret, of course, that I never visited the woman in her prime. Or, to be exact, that I never visited her house at its prime. For one went to the von Küppelberg’s as much for other people as for Maria herself – much as one goes to The Crippled Bee for the excellent company – and not for that strange potion they serve at this time of the year (I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t mulled wine).

The Vanilla Milk Incident

Johannes Speyer was not what you’d call a violent man. Violent language – possibly even violent ideas – were very much a part of his criticism, especially in later life, but beyond the page, well, I have met soft toys with a meaner streak. For all his call to action; his appeal to readers across the world to get up off their backsides and fight the good fight, Speyer himself led a quiet life. Which is not to say that he was a hypocrite; he was simply slow-off-his-feet and hampered, throughout life, by a series of crippling injuries. Had he not had chronically flat feet and a back that would make loners on the roof of Notre Dame chuckle carelessly, who knows – he might have read a few more novels on mountain tops.

Of course, even the calmest souls bubble over into casual violence occasionally. Remember the contretemps with the vociferous magpie? Who could forget it? Speyer in a temper was a dangerous beast. It was lucky that it happened so rarely – and that when it happened, the circumstances were usually so bizarre that the whole thing could be covered by laughs.

Throwing milk in the face of a ten year old isn’t, on reflection, all that funny. But one must appreciate the fact that this was, all things considered, a somewhat ‘difficult’ child – and that the best of us, put in the same situation, might have thought a glass of milk the safe option. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the same child, on different occasions (and by different people) had the following things chucked in her general direction: a fire extinguisher, a shoe, a large cactus, a hot apple pie and a small-scale model of a cathedral in southern France. So a glass of milk represents restraint: real restraint.

But what was Speyer doing with this child in the first place? That will all become clear when I explain that she was the daughter of Maria von Küppelberg, the infamous German hostess, whose Thursday ‘at homes’ were the heart of the Viennese literary scene in the early 1970s. You’d be hard pressed to find an Austrian writer who wouldn’t have chopped off a limb or two in order to get through von Küppelberg’s front door. Even Speyer, it seems – not usually a social butterfly – was drawn in by her mysterious powers.

Her daughter, however, he was less impressed with – for the very good reason that he had high expectations of her. Too high, one might say – but then Speyer had ridiculously high expectations of all children. As you will no doubt know, his texts are liberally sprinkled with phrases such as ‘seeing with a child’s eye’ or ‘this supreme child-like vision’. The idea of the child-like eye was one with which he was obsessed. Too bad he never met a child who had such an eye. All the children he ever came across saw with somewhat cynical eyes, sorely lacking the profound naivety he praised them for.

Matilda von Küppelberg was one such child. He thought, poor chap, that she of all people would appreciate his forward-thinking theories. Her pure child’s mind would see to the heart of his vision and understand its eternal truths. Her young imagination would be fired up by his thoughts. She would understand, oh yes: she would understand.

Unfortunately not. ‘You are a silly man,’ was all the young girl had to say on the matter. Active Reading was not for her. A glass of vanilla milk in the face, consequently, was.

A Lucky Man

‘So,’ he said, ‘You think yourself unlucky?’
He let out a chuckle, as a chimney lets out smoke; a quiet puff of malevolence put forth.
‘I knew a man,’ he continued, ‘who had what you might call a difficult week. On Monday he was, believe it or not, head-butted by a llama. On Tuesday he accidentally swallowed his boss’s car-key. On Wednesday, no less, his house was broken into and all his books stolen. On Thursday his girlfriend’s arm was broken by an angry swan. On Friday, for Friday it was, he was hypnotized by a professional magacian and broke the law eighteen times within an hour. On Saturday his brother died. On Monday, the following one, I met this man and asked him whether he thought himself unlucky. Do you know what he said?’
I shoke my head wearily.
‘He said “not at all. Not in the slightest. For guess what? Sunday passed quite without incident“‘

(Pyetr Turgidovsky, A Sea of Blood is Not Enough)

The Doors are Closed

I have to strain my imagination to picture the sort of person who might not have been thrilled by every last line of my article The Doors of Pineappleception. However, after careful thought, I appreciate the fact that such a person could actually exist. Yes, I confess it: it’s isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I, Georgy Riecke, might have wondered into the murky woods of literary tediousness. Still, it does seem a little unlikely, does it not?

In any case, for those who still care, allow me to remind you of the fact that said article has, at last, been delivered in its entirety. Which is to say: I am finished with it. No more talk of pineapples for now. It is high time I let the cow of contemporary thought out to graze on the pasture of fresh ideas. High time indeed.

I should just add, however, that, as well as featuring on this blog (in nine bite-size parts), the article has also been published, in full, over at Underneath the Bunker. Read the whole thing here.