Receding Criticism

I cannot let this one pass, I guess, without a word or two. As Claude Sorgny-Beichveloff was to remind us during the course of his excellent review (first published 2005) I haven’t yet had a good word to say about Hoçe’s Receding Rainfall. In my introduction to the Greatest Novels List (also published in 2005)  I called it ‘a paltry twenty four pages of poetry’: suggesting that it was unfit to be termed a novel, let alone a great one. Elsewhere I have called it ‘charmless and unreadable’ and ‘horribly indulgent in its use of the word “lollipop”‘

As the flames lick my feet, will I recant? The answer, as ever, is ‘yes and no’. Re-reading Sorgny-Beichveloff’s piece the other week sent me straight back (as a good review should) to the book, from which I emerged with what can only be described as ‘the faintest of smiles on my face’. Which is to say: fourth time around, I find myself warming to Mr. Hoçe. He may yet win me over. Notwithstanding any lingering regret over his resounding abuse of the word ‘lollipop’ (I will never stop struggling with this) Receding Rainfall turns out to be much smarter than I remembered. The satirical passages about hats are especially pertinent – and will only grow more so. Nor can I think of an Eastern European novelist who has written more moving lines on the subject of yeast. Beyond this, however, I retain my reservations. A novel – or just a collection of random thoughts? That is the question…

Not a question, I must say, that gnaws at my mind all that much. At least, other questions prod my thoughts with far more constancy. Such as: whatever happened to Claude Sorgny-Beichveloff? An excellent writer, make no mistake about it – but one of many critics to have appeared on Underneath the Bunker just the once, before vanishing like a tugboat in a heavy fog. A sad state of affairs, this. It is almost as if the journal were haunted. They come and go like bees. Only I stand still: the frog under the flower – patiently plying my humble trade, croaking my lonely tune. Claude, Claude, whither art thou Claude? Hast Hoçe wreaked his peculiar vengeance upon you? Or are you contributing anonymous reviews of cheap paperbacks for a major tabloid newspaper? Perhaps all that I heard about the ‘curse of the Sorgny-Beichveloffs’ was true. In which case, I’ll say no more. Except… No, I’ll say no more…

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Manifesto Memories

So: Underneath the Bunker has shed a skin and re-emerged in a new form. Now begins the process of republishing all the original articles: a process which will be accompanied by a series of reflections on said writings – and links to further reading.

We start, as you may see for yourself, with a manifesto written in 2005, just before Underneath the Bunker made its online debut. Five years isn’t so long ago, unless one is a critic, in which it is nothing short of an age. Critical opinion flows, after all, with the somber calmness of a raging waterfall. By the time something is published it is usually horribly out of date.

Nevertheless, I stand by much of this manifesto, for all its obvious weaknesses (and they are, I fear, far too obvious). As noted in my brief introduction, the piece was written in difficult circumstances. In this respect it is a typical manifesto. When a small group of idealistic thinkers get together to craft a tight statement of their hopes and dreams you can be sure that you will end up with a chaotic compromise. It is just as likely that they will give up and go drinking instead, which is precisely what happened in our case. This was the famous evening, I recall, on which Heidi Kohlenberg drank her bodyweight in wine – and an inebriate J-P Sertin wrote what he called ‘the greatest story ever written’ on the back of a beer mat (on which Kohlenberg promptly vomited). It’s a miracle, indeed, that any manifesto got written, let alone this one.

Since writing this manifesto I have scribed many a better summary of what it is that I do: nevertheless, this one continues to cover the basic points relatively well. Underneath the Bunker is a journal dedicated to the outsiders: to the obscure. This is the project at its simplest. Forgotten art. Ah, but does that mean we will support anything that is forgotten, regardless of whether it has or has not earned its fate? Of course not. We support art that does not deserve to have been forgotten. And there is, as you can see, plenty of that.

Before I wind my merry way elsewhere, a final word on manifestos. The best manifestos, I’ve always found, are those that one has no real hope of living up to. This is where we failed: our manifesto dared to be achievable. The same could not be said, however, for the Bulgarian Farm Poets Movement. Their manifesto, brilliant as it was, symbolised everything that they, as a group, were not. It was a magnificent dream-work: a refreshingly pointless call to arms for a war that would never, could never, be fought.

If I can find it, I promise to publish it here at a later date.

The Library: Principles and Models (Part Three)

A library is, in principle, a wonderful thing. A supremely wonderful thing. So why is it so rare to see me entering one?

Firstly: they hardly ever stock the books I desire to read. A library is a canon: albeit one that reflects a wider canon. My reading takes place largely outside of canons. Thus it must take place largely outside of libraries. Esoteric libraries there may be, but I have yet to find one that stores the complete works of Koira Jupczek, or Oa Aayorta. This is what is known as a Sad Fact.

Secondly: libraries have a habit of getting in the way of that beautiful relationship between a reader and a book. This is not altogether saddening. There is, indeed, a certain pleasure in handling a book with a history. Who touched this cover before me? Whose coffee stain is that on p.213? Who underlined that particular word and why? Yet with libraries comes a responsibility; one that stops, arguably, at a coffee stain. There are boundaries to the relationship a reader can forge with a library book – not least the fact that, at one point or another, the book must be taken back. The reader is, thus, expected to treat the book with decorum.

Here I struggle. To be obliged to treat a book with decorum: this I simply cannot accept. This is not to say that I want to kick all my books about. I am not, largely speaking, an abuser of books. But at the very least I want to be in a position in which I could abuse them if I wanted to. This is all I ask.

Extreme Reading (Intermission)

The gospel of Georgy Riecke is not, to my small knowledge, widely read. Several of my passions are, nevertheless, clearly shared by others in this strange bedraggled community we call ‘the world’.

Active Reading, a project passed onto me by my late-teacher Johannes Speyer, is one such passion. I’ve written about it many many times (such as here, or better still here). Little did I know, however, that other people have been writing about it also, albeit under a different guise. Where I call it ‘active’, they call it ‘extreme’. See, for example, this essay here.

Closer to home, I note that children across the United Kingdom were asked to participate in some ‘extreme reading’ as part of this year’s ‘World Book Day’. This, I fancy, was one (previously reported) result, though there are many others, (including this and this). All very commendable, in my mind, though one hates to see something as serious as ‘active’ reading treated as a mere fancy: something one does one day of the year, and only when a photographer is close at hand. And why aren’t more people crediting Johannes Speyer as the Father of Extreme Reading? Credit, I think, where credit is due…

The New Readers: Principles and Models (Part Two)

The history of reading, as the last post argued, has its traditions. Each century has its reading habits. There have, however, been few radical changes in the way people read. In recent decades, nonetheless, some critics have noticed a shift in practices. In A History of Reading in the West Armando Petrucci writes:

The impression one gets by frequenting places of higher learning in the United States – in particular, certain university libraries (if I can generalize from personal and relatively casual experience) – is that there, as elsewhere, young readers are changing the rules of reading behaviour…

Interesting. He goes on:

How can we describe the new ‘modus legendi’ of young readers? First of all, the body takes totally free positions determined by individual preferences: a reader can stretch out on the floor, lean against a wall, sit under (yes, under) a reading room table, sit with his or her feet up on a table (the oldest and most widespread stereotype) and so on.

Under a table? Really, this is too much…

Second, the ‘new readers’ either almost totally reject the normal supports for the operation of reading – the table, the reading stand, the desk – or else they use them in inappropriate (that is, unintended) ways.

Can it get any worse? It can…

Finally, the new ‘modus legendi’ also includes a physical relationship with the book that is much more intense and direct than in traditional modes of reading. The book is constantly manipulated, crumpled, bent, forced in various directions and carried on the body. One might say that readers make it their own by an intensive, prolonged and violent use more typical of a relationship of consumption than of reading and learning.

Oh now: consumption is such a dirty word. Petrucci is worried, clearly. All this ‘intensity’ has him hot under the collar. After all, think of the implications:

All this ends up influencing reading habits. The short lifetime of the book and the absence of a precise collocation for it (hence the uncertainty of ever being able to put one’s hands on it) make difficult, if not impossible, an operation that was common in the past: rereading.

Here, it seems, is the rub. Now books are being crumpled and bent by the intensity of the ‘new’, ‘active’ or ‘extreme’ reader, the possibilities of rereading are diminished. The book is treated as something to be consumed and then thrown away: not to be re-read.

But is this really true? If it is, two of my passions (active reading and re-reading) are seen to contradict each other. The book that is read actively is less likely to be read again. Unless of course it is. And why wouldn’t it be? ‘Active’ or ‘extreme’ reading doesn’t necessarily destroy a book. Damage takes place, certainly. To read a book with intensity is not, however, to wish to kill it. Quite the opposite, in fact. The ageing of a book represents a closer, more intimate relationship between book and reader. The book is marked by the reader: it becomes part of their identity. To throw it away would be to throw away a part of themselves. A fresh, un-marked book is easy to give away: it has no life. A dog-eared copy of one’s favourite novel on the other hand: to destroy such a thing would be sacrilege.

Which brings us, I guess, to libraries…

Principles and Models (Part One)

Throughout its reign, the dominant order of reading dictated certain rules about how to read in a civilized manner… They proclaimed that the reader must be seated in an erect position with his arms resting on a table and the book in front of him. Reading must be done with maximum attention, without moving, making noise, annoying others or taking up too much space. One should read in an orderly fashion, following the text section by section, turning pages carefully without rumpling them or folding them down and without mistreating or damaging the book… according to these principles and models, reading is a serious and demanding activity requiring effort and attention… Other modes of reading (alone, anywhere in the house, in total liberty) are of course known and even acknowledged, but as secondary; they are grudgingly tolerated, but felt to be potentially subversive (Armando Petrucci, A History of Reading in the West)

Serious and demanding: yes. Reading is certainly this. But to impose rules upon reading undercuts the seriousness of the endeavour. It makes reading just another silly ritual, like  passing port to the left, or standing for the national anthem. The  more subversive the reader, the more serious. One does not engage by being orderly. Take care, by all means, but take care not to be too polite. Be serious about your carelessness.