Before You Begin

There is, as you probably know, a long and rich tradition of ‘scathing prefaces’: sometimes written by the author themselves; sometimes by a close friend; sometimes by a miscellaneous other (acquaintance/enemy/family member/delete as appropriate). The aim of such a preface, whosoever pens it, is simple. It is, first, to anticipate criticism (usually by dealing it out, thick and fast); second, to steal the show from the main event. A ‘scathing preface’ is a work of art in its own right – though it ‘belongs’, by right, to the words that follow, it can be read as a standalone piece. Indeed, the best prefaces (the majority of which are ‘scathing’) rise well above the novels/memoirs/stories to which they are, in theory, a mere forerunner.

Writing a ‘scathing preface’ is less easy than it sounds. There are, however, several masters of the form. I know one man whose best work as a writer can be found in his preface’s to other writers’ works. He’d probably rather this wasn’t the case, but it is, and I see no reason why he should be ashamed. The perfect ‘scathing preface’ – like the perfect blog post – is a difficult beast to tame, let alone conquer. The man should be proud of himself.

Speaking of prefaces, I can’t let these comments fade into nothingness without mentioning the work of Jaymer Veers, whose novel Poppies: Part One consists entirely of a overlong preface (or ‘Note on the Translation’) to a story that doesn’t yet exist. The sequel, Poppies: The Index consists (as you no doubt guessed) of the index to said story. We eagerly await the middle-section, ever-conscious that it may never come. And who cares if it doesn’t? To have the preface is, to my mind, more than enough.

Non-Standard Text

Writers are, I believe, undecided on whether becoming a ‘standard text’ represents a great compliment to their novels, or an honour to be treated with some suspicion. Paavo Laami is said to have fallen into a tantrum upon hearing that his novel, East Atlantic Foxtrot, was deigned to be ‘compulsory reading’ on the national literature syllabus. ‘Just what I need,’ he fumed, ‘a generation of schoolchildren cursing my prose’. ‘No one should be made to read my work,’ wrote Gretchen Haldt, whose 1986 work Consider Me Quasimodo suffered a similar fate: ‘nor am I, in any shape or form, a “classic”. The very thought of this sickens me…’

There are other writers, however, for whom appearing on a syllabus would represent a career-high. This was definitely the case for Laurence Havello (1949-2011) one of the few novelists to openly seek ‘standard text’ status. Friends and family tell of how Havello was ‘desperate to see his books studied at schools’. So desperate, in fact, that he took to including sample questions at the end of his novels, or adding footnotes which drew the reader to themes and leit motifs. Of course, by making the writerly process so transparent, Havello took away a good deal of mystery which attracts people to literature. In the words of one critic ‘Havello sought to simplify work that was already simple: a complex process, yielding completely pointless results’.

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There was also his general lack of enthusiasm for anything that did not begin with the letter ‘X’, which resulted in him becoming one of the only five-year olds I have heard of to have developed an addiction to dry sherry (xérés in French) and swordfish (xiphias). He was also the first person to have passed xylophone diploma grade at the age of seven and is to this day credited with having amassed the world’s largest collection of dead carpenter bees (xylocope).

Read the full, fantastic, and most definitely x-rated story of Xa Xov here.

To Start With

I have been thinking for a while of compiling my favourite opening lines from Underneath the Bunker reviews, with a view to choosing ‘the best’. However, rather than hand out a crown to any one competitor based on current and curious whims, I have since decided to present a wide selection of worthy winners, which you, dear reader, may rank accordingly (or not, as the case may be). Here they are:

As has been recently revealed by a diarrhoeic spew of critical studies, the utilization of lavatorial substance and imagery in modern culture has a rich, if not pungent, history. [continue reading]

I was once privileged enough to meet one of Europe’s greatest novelists – Kirios Quebec in the men’s room of an expensive Parisian hotel. [continue reading]

Upon first looking into Egor Falastrom’s “Dark Dreams of a Delirious Dog-Catcher”, I felt as though the sweet hands of love were slapping me tenderly in the face. [continue reading]

Starting two months ago – and ending last week, due to significant lack of interest – Thursday nights at The Crippled Bee (the finest public house in North London) were set aside for the pastime of Karaoke-Poetry. [continue reading]

Oh my sainted satin slippers. What am I doing here? [continue reading]

I hope you will agree that, for all their failings as reviewers (and they have many), my critical cohorts have never had any problems kicking off.

More of this, perhaps, one day.

Words and (No) Pictures

I spent the morning re-reading Klaus Stiegsson’s Things I Never Photographed: an elegant and imaginative collection of stories about visually stimulating subjects, brought to life by words alone. ‘Anyone can photograph a sunset,’ writes Stiegsson, ‘but it takes words to really bring something alive’. In our visually saturated world, we would do well to pay heed to Stiegsson’s philosophy.

I am nonetheless reminded of a quotation by Hilda Kraginder: ‘The only thing more pertinent than well chosen words is the absence of any words at all’. Things I Would Like to Say Nothing About was published earlier today by Absent Books. Free copies are available everywhere.

Stolen Notepads, Discovered Worlds

One of my favourite books cannot be found in your local bookshop. Nor can it be purchased via the drably wondrous world of the internet (that which offers almost everything you want, but really nothing you need). It is instead a unique work, co-authored by fourteen simple shop assistants. And it came to me – into my dear yet flaky hands – by even simpler means. I picked it up one day by the counter of a small boutique on the outskirts of Athens, thinking it to be a complimentary leaflet of some sort (oh all right, I admit it, I plain stole it). But as it has no appreciable value (certainly it was not for sale) I consider my crime to have been amongst the more diminutive of the order. It’s no more than a notepad, employed (it seems) for various petty tasks: noting down telephone orders, making sketches when bored, writing silly poems, spreading gossip, cataloguing ‘inspiring’ quotes etc. Despite this, I find it endlessly fascinating…

More here.

This is an interesting review, though I know a good few shop assistants who would be disappointed at being termed ‘simple’. One wonders, also, whether the reader needs to know that the author has flaky hands. Nevertheless, De Vejean’s conceit – that the infamous shopping list is a work of art after all – demands further investigation.

The Writer’s Voice (2)

In a quotation reproduced below, the widow of the late American writer David Foster Wallace speaks of his growing frustrations with his ‘writer’s voice’. In a seperate comment, we find the writer himself noting how his ‘various verbal habits’ have moved from ‘discovery to tecnique to tic’. How to keep up an authentic voice?

This question has troubled writers for centuries. I recall Franz Ludo telling me of a young Hungarian writer who had ‘lost all faith’ in the relationship between his ‘writer’s voice’ and what he called his ‘inner’ or ‘own’ voice. ‘The poor man had for some time given up writing about issues in which he himself believed,’ claimed Ludo, ‘because he couldn’t trust his writer’s voice to tow the line with his inner voice. The two had gone in seperate directions. His writer’s voice proved perfectly adequate when it came to selling books, but it seemed to bear no relation to what the author was actually feeling‘. Ludo laughed at the memory of this unfortunate figure. ‘To think,’ he grinned, ‘the poor fool actually believed that he had a voice of his own!’