Art, Humanity, Suffering

One does not need to suffer for one’s art: one need only be human. Correction: one needs to suffer for one’s art: one is, after all, human. (Johannes Speyer, Repeated Scrawlings)

The Writer as Reader

‘After many years I think I have at last succeeded in reading my own works as a reader and not as their writer. My conclusion? They’re not really my sort of thing.’ (Nate Laami)

‘The writer is the first reader, that is all. And the first shall come last, and the last shall come first: you know the story.’ (Leo Barnard, On Stuff)

(Here is a subject to which I promise to return one day…)

Sadness In Spades

A few years ago I wrote the following words, as part of this review:

As Heidi Kohlenberg has noted, for all his gutsy glumness, Turgidovsky is the master of faintly comic desperation. The fact is, he has no real staying power. In fact, I fear that he fears complete desperation. In fact, he clearly fears it as well, which probably explains his post-modern interjection in Chapter Fourteen [of The Lunatic] as well as his personal appearance (surely a self-conscious veil for his inability to be as truly wretched in prose as he would wish?) That’s not to say that there aren’t some winningly pathetic moments in his novel – the storyline with a man who falls in love with a woman based on her cough is a highlight – but in the end, Turgidovksy’s despondency is the type that gnaws. It’s the feather tickling one’s toes, the mouse nibbling at the Gorgonzola. Tortuous in its way, but not what would you call fatal.

What was I thinking? I seem to have underestimated the severity of Turgidovsky’s glumness, mistaking it instead for ‘faintly comic desperation’. I even go so far as to describe his particular brand of misery as a ‘feather tickling one’s toes’! This is, I think, a grievous error. Turgidovsky has never wielded a feather. He lays sadness on in spades, throughout his entire ouevre. It has been said (on many an occasion) that his sense of desperation is so acute that it comes back around again to jubilation, but I for one am beginning to doubt this. The Lunatic, admittedly, has its comic moments: a multitude of them, in fact. But it doesn’t even come close to gnawing at one’s heart. This is a book that smashes hearts with a wordy mallet. The same applies to Delicious Air of Life. Now there is a novel dowsed in despair, awash with wailing and suffused with solemnity. Turgidovsky takes despondency much more seriously than I have ever given him credit for. We pretend to laugh, perhaps, because we cannot conceive the depth of what he is doing. Were we able to do so, rest assured the smiles would drop off our faces, sink to the floor and be crushed, definitively, beneath our calloused feet.

Burying Books

‘He regularly spent more than four hours a day moving books back and forth – for no good reason other than to ‘keep the little bastards guessing’. One upshot of this was that he was always losing books..’ (see below)

Another upshot of Speyer’s book-moving obsession was that people are still finding his books. His house in Southern Germany no longer stands: in 1991 property developers knocked it down to build flats for pensioners retired from the retail trade. These pensioners are rather fond of gardening, as is their wont. They wake, they drink tea, they dig holes for seeds, they drink tea, they fall asleep, they lose their false teeth, they dig holes for seeds, etcetera, etcetera. During these frequent digging sessions they are constantly coming across Speyer’s books buried beneath the soil.

There are two responses to this. Some people have suggested that the books have ‘somehow found their way into the earth’. Many things get covered in layers of dirt despite themselves: one cannot argue with this, eternal truth as it is. However, I know for sure that, late in life, Johannes Speyer developed a habit of deliberately burying books. Exactly why he did this I cannot say, but there is no disputing the fact. I saw him, with my own eyes, one Sunday morning, digging a grave for his Henry James novels.


Two or three years ago, when I first read this review, I knew very little about its subject, the writer Niklas Naramaratov. Not much has changed. The well is as empty as it ever was – and I feel strangely disinclined to fill it up. Not with pure water, anyway.

Naramaratov, for his part, has done little to change my mind. He has, I believe, written twelve novels. I have, I believe, read eight of them. But what can I remember? Very little. I recall what they were ‘about’, but this is all: a mere tag or hook – a few stray words standing in for an ocean of pages. I know that Memoirs of a Gun-Toting Madman, for instance, was a sly take on the interesting subject of sperm donation. The name of its main character, however, slips from my mind. Nor can I name a single incident that took place within the book. As for the author himself – and the healthy remainder of his burgeoning oeuvre – there is barely enough on which to hang a beret.

Solid facts regarding Naramaratov are hard to come by: this much I have intimated. On which note, let us indulge our rogueishness and trade in rumours instead. Knowing little for sure, what do I possibly know? How many half-truths might I have gleaned from passing acquaintances? Which stories may or may not have contained a reference to the man and his work? Open the sluice-gates and let the muddy streams of salacious gossip flow!

Here, with my tongue lodged firmly in my cheek, go I:

1. Niklas Naramaratov’s middle name is Joseph. This was also the name of his uncle, who worked for the Soviet government under a further namesake, Mr Stalin, of whom he was a close friend. We say close: what we mean is ‘close enough’. Close enough to get along without being butchered for perceived disloyalty. Joseph Naramaratov, as it happens, was one of a few men who didn’t pose a threat to Stalin, owing to the fact that he was A Russian of Very Little Brain. This was partly, but only partly, due to his having fallen off a tractor during a visit to a collective farm. History relates how the fall came about from ‘uneven ground’; researchers (aka ‘jealous killjoys’) claim, however, that Joseph had consumed a little too much vodka for his own good.

2. Niklas Naramaratov eats rice for lunch, every day. Sometimes with seeds, sometimes with nuts.

Those with further ‘Naramarumours’ are hereby invited to offer additions to this remarkably paltry collection.

Rather Like Birds

‘To keep his books Cosimo constructed a kind of hanging bookcase, sheltered as best he could from rain and nibbling mouths. But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered books as rather like birds which it saddened him to see caged or motionless.’ (Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees)

This passage raises two important issues: that of keeping books outside, and that of keeping books on the move. As one would expect, Johannes Speyer had something to say on both these points.

Firstly: the great outdoors. Should or shouldn’t one run the risk of leaving a book to the natural elements? I know people who wince whenever they pass booksellers taking their precious wares onto the pavement. This is, to them, an act of pure cruelty. What if it rains or snows? Even the sun can bleach a book cover. No, it doesn’t bear thinking about…

But consider it from the book’s point of view. It’s nice to take a breather once in a while; to feel the wind caress your earlobes like the tip of a squirrel’s tail. What novel wouldn’t like to feel a soft breeze ruffling through its back pages? A tricky question to answer – unless your name is Johannes Speyer. ‘Books belong outside,’ he told me several times: ‘it’s the only place for them’. Shortly before his death he began an essay on this very subject. Alas, Dickens Amongst the Leaves was never completed. What it argued, however, is that literature, like living things, needs air. It needs to be exercised in order to work its spell. ‘Take a book for a walk,’ is yet another of Speyer’s famous sayings – but it holds true.

This leads us neatly onto the second point: that books need movement. ‘A bookshelf is like a battery farm,’ wrote Speyer in Riding the Crest of Culture: ‘and we know that battery hens lay inferior eggs’.

Need I say more? Perhaps I ought to. Suffice it to say, Speyer didn’t own any ordinary bookshelves. He struggled, however, to create what he deemed ‘a satisfactory system for the ordered disordering of books’. Several methods were tested, but they all took up too much time. He regularly spent more than four hours a day moving books back and forth – for no good reason other than to ‘keep the little bastards guessing’. One upshot of this was that he was always losing books. This didn’t bother him all that much. ‘One must not keep one’s thoughts too tightly bound’ he once said. Thus was chaos allowed to reign, perhaps a little too freely.