‘”Insufferable, insensitive, inconceivably successful”. This is all Javé de Lasse had to say about the young German novelist, Alan B Wightche – other than to ponder whether or not the B stood for Beelzebub. He was, of course, way off the mark. The B stands for Benedict. As for the rest, well, he was pretty much on the ball. Although one does wonder why de Lasse came to the conclusion that Wightche’s success was unfathomable. Has not the work of certified idiots always done relatively well in the modern marketplace?’
‘One morning, as I was strolling through the grounds of my suburban home, an idea took hold of the trapeze that I used to carry about in my head. Once it had taken hold, it flexed its arms and legs and began to do the most daring acrobatic feats one can possibly imagine. I just stood and watched it. Suddenly it made a great leap, extended its arms and legs until it formed an X, and said, “Decipher me or I devour thee”.’ (Macado De Assis, from Epitaph of a Small Winner)
This marvellous passages compares the conception and early growth of an idea to the movements of a high-flying acrobat. Though vastly superior in many ways, it is not unlike metaphors I have used myself. Ideas, thoughts, notions: they come to me, as to de Assis, in bounds and leaps; in twirls and rolls; in swings and swoops. I often liken a thought to the stylish spring of an antelope, or the graceful hop of a jungle frog. A thought emerges, as if from nowhere, flexes its muscles briefly before jumping off to another spot. To catch it completely one must be a dab hand with a butterfly net. More often than not it is gone before you got the chance.
It is often said that my prose owes a lot to my late mentor, Professor Johannes Speyer. This may be true. When I think of the way in which he described thoughts, however, there is a definite difference in our approaches. Ideas rarely leapt into Speyer’s mind. No, the process was far more organic than that – and, as usual, he resorted to watery metaphors to put it into words. Consider the title of one of his most famous works: The Waves of Thought. Or another: The Ebb and Flow of Ideas. These titles sum it up neatly. Different thoughts, of course, take different shapes, but the general pattern was constant. A thought might break upon the shore of his mind, or it might lap at the summery sands of his psyche. In either case, a thought took a liquid, rather than a solid, form.
‘There were eggshells in the omelette, so I did what any self-respecting chef would do: I resigned from my job, bought a new car, asked my wife for a divorce, sold my collection of sixteenth-century cookery books, booked a holiday in Croatia, got into a fight with an old friend in a bar at midnight, wrote angry letters to the press, tried to mend my motorcycle, rang my brother for the first time in fifteen years, quit smoking and started again, moved around the furniture in my flat, starting reading a different newspaper, dropped my phone into a public toilet, got fined for speeding twice, went swimming in the sea, broke the little finger on my left hand and started listening to South American folk music.’
According to a source I cannot reveal (because, quite frankly, I can’t remember who it was) this is the opening sentence to a new novel by the Andorran novelist Oa Aayorta. If so, I must confess to being a little confused; maybe even disappointed. I thought, as reported here, that Aayorta wasn’t writing a new novel at all, but was engaged in a spot of rampant marginalia? This sentence suggests, instead, that he has returned to ground covered by previous novels, The Everlasting Evening and The Endless Winter Night, both of which featured the same food-loving protagonist.
For all this, I like the sentence…
Music should have legs, meaning it should sound good played at a club, it should sound good if it’s played at Carnegie Hall, it should sound good if it’s a decent recording, or a good recording – or an excellent recording, obviously – and if it doesn’t, it’s either the fault of the players or, uh, something else… (Steve Reich)
Prose should also have legs. Good prose survives all forms: it speaks beyond the covers of the book, beyond the quality of the paper, beyond the size of the margins and beyond the first, second and third editions. It even speaks beyond those ‘unique’ (i.e. mass-produced for the chattering classes) folio editions, bound in imitation leather and heavy with prententious fonts. The reputation of good prose – like that of good biscuits – should never rest on the container in which it is kept.
In many ways I feel that blogging suits me. I would even go so far as to say that my best work has been done as a blogger (not counting my as-yet-unfinished memoir Conversations with Speyer and my similarly incomplete doctoral study of Easter European folktales). There are, however, several aspects of blogging that irritate me. They are as follows:
1. Length. Herein lies the strength and weakness of the medium. The best blogs say a lot in a few words: this is as it should be. Nevertheless the pressure to keep things short is not always a good thing. The success of ‘twitter’ seems to have blinded many people to the fact that a multitude of words is not necessary a tiresome indulgence. Rein in your precious concentration and who knows: maybe there is something in Proust, Tolstoy and Szesz after all?
2. The day-to-dayness of it all. Things become dated far too fast in this part of the world. Blogs, like most internet mediums, seem overly concerned with the contemporary. Must we all be journalists? Most blogs, including this one, are ordered so that the latest post is the first post. Useful as this may be – from an ordering perspective – this gives the sense to the arriving reader that the best place to start is the last thing to have been written. This, as we all know, is not necessarily the case. One can start anywhere – and I rather wish that my readers did. There is much to be gained from trawling a blogger’s archives.
3. The obsession with statistics. Bloggers are obsessed with statistics. How many people have read this post? How many posts did I publish last August? Where does my blog rank? All of these statistics are misleading. I would rather know how my posts are being read than knowing how many times someone has clicked on a particular title. And yet I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to following numbers. My eyes stray to the column on the right of this post and I wonder why I am writing less this year than I did last year. Why does it matter? It doesn’t. That I am still writing at all is a miracle. Fortunately I am less concerned by my number of readers. This is the great privilege of being unread: one doesn’t have to worry what one’s readers think, how many they are and where they may be coming from. My distinct lack of fans gives me a certain freedom.
‘Having resolved to exercise your brain and refresh your literary palate you decide to read this newly translated 1968 text by the deceased experimental french writer georges perec who is celebrated for once having written a long novel without using the letter “e” so having forked out your ten quid for this short story or at a stretch novella but a book is not any the better for being cheaper by the word you remind yourself in any case having forked out over ten pounds you begin to read and either you find the looping style immediately so rebarbative that you cast the book to the floor and feyly lament your wasted cash or you find the style intriguing and continue reading…’ (Stephen Poole on The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise)
Stephen Poole’s review of Perec forms part of a rather grand tradition: that of writing reviews in the style of the book reviewed. I used to know a critic who wrote every one of his reviews in this manner. If the book was short, sharp and full of sexy punctuation, so too was his review. If the sentence-structure was turgid, the metaphors laboured, and the punctuation lazy: his review was likewise. On top of this, the length of his reviews were always directly proportional to the length of the book in question. A novella received a paragraph; a two-part epic received a novella. His last, and best, review was of a new International translation of The Holy Bible. Each one of its sixty-six paragraphs took the style of a different Biblical book. It was both a masterly parody and a serious-minded review. It was also brilliant.
What would Johannes Speyer have made of digital technology? The question lurches around my head like a drowsy summer fly. I could wait for it to die, as all flies do eventually, safe in the knowledge that another, quite indistinguishable fly would soon take its place. Or I could get up, old copy of a literary journal in hand, and do something about it.
What would Johannes Speyer have made of digital technology? Here is one answer, at least. Taking it for granted that digital technology will change the way we consume books, leading us gently (or not so gently) to a future in which the book as object will no longer exist as a concept, let along a thing, one can only conclude that Speyer would not be overly disappointed. So long as the words still exist, he would argue, what is the problem?
One advantage of reading a book online, or on an e-reading device, is that one is not constantly besieged by a book’s cover. For many people, this comes as a sadness. Book covers are fascinating things: sometimes they lead us into a book itself; just as often they put us off. The lack of a book cover allows the words to speak for themselves. The reader, in turn, is expected to work a little harder. This, Speyer would argue, is exactly how it should be. A book doesn’t need a cover to exist. A book requires words alone.