The Visual Essay (1)

A note on this ‘new approach’ of his. Once upon a time Thomas Stippel used to write like the rest of us. With words, letters, sentences and whatnot. Now, however, he uses images; scraps of colour and ‘various visual detritus’ built up in ‘blocks’, offering a ‘critical reflection’ on the work in hand. He emphasises the word ‘critical’: for those who think his reviews are simply ‘visual echoes’ he has nothing but scorn. ‘It’s sharper than an echo,’ he says: ‘It’s the first blast of a trumpet, the first cockcrow of the day’. When I talk about ‘capturing a mood’ he gets even more frustrated. His German brow wrinkles with vehemance. The words ‘mood’ and ‘aura’ are, it turns out, pet-hates. His word is ‘essence’. His essays can be read from top to bottom, but not necessarily from ‘right to left’. It depends on the line, apparently – or on the shape of the ‘block’. In fact, it seems to depend on a lot of things.

Thus spake Heidi Kohlenberg a few years ago in her introduction to Thomas Stippel’s review of Donna Devoni’s novel Hotwiring Honolulu. Now the dust has settled on Stippel’s strange little offering (and strange it certainly was) what more can I add?

For a start, it seems clear to me that Stippel’s review is not ‘sharper than an echo’. Nor is their anything ‘essential’ about it. I am all for shifting the boundaries of critical discourse, but this doesn’t even count as a noble failure. An image may say more than a thousand words, but the images Stippel chooses are so small, and so tightly packed together, that they say almost nothing. ‘Detritus’ is the word, indeed. Stippel’s essay is a bad design for a carpet. I can hardly read anything into it, let alone a response to Donna Devoni’s prose.

All of which is a pity, for I’m not against visual essays per se. I simply don’t think that Thomas Stippel knows how to write them.

The question is, who does?

Sinister Syntax

I sense I may have caused confusion in my last post by neglecting to make an adequate distinction between unpleasant content and unpleasant style.

Regarding the latter: it is possible, I maintain, that a writer –  who may or may not be a lovely person, and may or may not desire to write about lovely things – may be naturally inclined to write in a manner suggesting unpleasantness. Where does this nastiness lie? It lies in the space between the commas, in the colons and the dashes, the paragraph breaks and sentence lengths. It lies in the way the long words hang over the short words; in the manipulation of alliteration and assonance; of onomatopoeia and colloquialisms. It lies in the strangely sinister syntax.

This is poorly explained, I know. How can I accuse a writer of an unpleasant style in such vague terms? It is a major accusation – and yet it stands. Some writers, I believe, employ semi-colons in a way that only be described as ‘evil’. I am not saying that they are evil, or that their writing concerns evil things. It is something in the way their writing walks across the page: the sadistic gait of their sentences. Their writing is simply disposed towards unpleasantness.

Sometimes an unpleasant style (which it not necessary unpleasnt to read, I might add) comes with unpleasant content, as in the case of Pyetr Turgidovsky. More often that not, however, the two remain apart – which is why they must not be confused. One can write about wonderful things in a style that is not wonderful. Furthermore, one can do this and yet still write something that is wonderful to read. I am not talking about a bad style, after all, but an unpleasant one; a style inclined to evil. And what is more wonderful than an inclination (but not necessarily a definite movement) toward evil?

Writing the Soul

The eyes, some say, are the windows of the soul. Maybe. But what about writing style? What does that reveal about the writer’s soul? Does a man’s syntax afford us a glimpse of his heart? Does the way a woman wields a semi-colon reveal the contours of her conscience?

I ask this because, on more than one occasion, I have been surprised by meeting an author whose writing style I either loved or despised. The surprise came when I realised that they were nothing like they appeared to be on paper. Their authorial voice bore little or no relation to their actual voice.

This, of course, is not always the case. Fierce writers often turn out to be fierce people – and vice versa. Pyetr Turgidovsky would be a case in point: he is every bit as spiteful and mean in person as he is in prose. In other cases, though, we have to accept that there is a discrepancy. The Swedish writer Lars Shloek, for instance, writes beautiful lyrical sentences; soft as spring blossom and warm as a newborn puppy. Lars himself is by all accounts an obnoxious philanderer.

The critic Lise Raussenan, meanwhile, has penned some of the cruellest reviews I have ever read. Her style is brilliant and compelling; fizzing with vituperative rage and uncontrolled passion. In person, however, she is rather sweet and demur. ‘It’s just the way I write,’ she explains: ‘not the way I am‘.

At Home(s) with Paavo

It has been said of Paavo Laami that he had at one time six residences in the same city. None of them very large, admittedly, which suited his needs perfectly. He intended, after all, to use each space for one purpose alone. In one flat he slept, in another he wrote, in a third he read, in a fourth he ate, in a fifth he made love, and in the last he entertained. Every now and again the function of the residences would shift: the house in which we ate become the house in which he made love, the apartment in which he wrote became the apartment in which he read, and the studio in which he entertained became the studio in which slept.

When the primary function wasn’t changing, the decor was. He was always repainting, buying and selling artworks, moving around furniture, creating partitions, installing cupboards, reshaping windows and removing carpets. Hardly anything stayed long enough to consider itself settled.

These six residences, I should add, were not close to each other. They were, instead, scattered across the city. He engineered it in this way so that he never belonged in any particular part of the city. He was, he maintained, Viennese; he refused to be claimed by any one neighbourhood.

At this point I must remind the reader that I began this post with the lines ‘it has been said’. When I asked Johannes Speyer, a close friend of Laami’s, whether the above was true, he was, at best, skeptical. He added, nonetheless, that after his first successes as a novelist (his novel, The Phoenicians, was something of a runaway hit) Laami went through a phase in which such projects (or indulgences, if you will) were ‘by no means untypical’. As Speyer put it: ‘He put all his money back into his art, which was a wonderful idea, were it not for the fact that he produced no art at all. No art on paper, that is’.

Same Board, Different Dive (2)

I notice only in retrospect that the title of my last post did not do justice to the content. Or at least that it anticipated content that was not there. In my rush to expose Leberret and Frome as attention-seeking poseurs, with the combined literary talent of a potted lobster, I neglected to mention that there is a history of ‘coincidences’ such as theirs – and that we should hesitate before slamming them. After all, what does it matter that two stories start in the same way, so long as they go on to explore different avenues? As a child, I was never consciously frustrated by ‘once upon a time’: it was but a familiar diving board from which writers would stage a range of eccentric dives.

Now, unless Leberret and Frome have mastered the art of synchronised diving, the similarity of their opening lines shouldn’t bother us one bit. And here, I think we can safely say, the argument ends. Though their novels are equally bad, their plotlines share as many features as a crab and a cloud. Even then, though, I wonder if I would have a problem. One can steal a plot and still write a completely different story.

Same Board, Different Dive

I believe I promised updates on one of the great (albeit minor) literary controversies of recent times: i.e. the ‘spooky’ similarity between the opening lines of Cosmo Frome’s On Onerous Oneness and Stephan Leberret’s Rue de la Wreck. Here, for those who don’t have both lines written on the walls of their copious memories, are the competitors once again, starting with Frome:

Apologies: we started without you. Hope you don’t mind. But glad you could join us. Better late than never, no? Now, where were we?

and moving onto Leberret:

Sorry: I started without you. And I sure as hell can’t be bothered to recap. You’re going to have to pick things up as we go along. That’ll teach you for being a gentle reader.

The relationship between the two is obvious. But whose lines came first? This, unsurprisingly, is the question that sits like a sulking teenager on the wet step of the literary world’s lips. Frome’s novel was published two weeks earlier than Leberret’s; though the latter was already printed when the former was on the shelves. Neither author claims to have seen the work of the other at an earlier stage, or even to have heard of each other (this is plausible: both writers are a little on the obscure side, after all). This suggests, then, that is was a coincidence. But try to tell the newspapers that.

Actually, what I would suggest is this: that Frome and Leberret are in league and have contrived to stir up this controversy to publicise their respective books. And with good reason, for they have both written what is generally known in the business as a ‘stinker’. I can safely say that Leberret’s novel, despite its jaunty beginning, is just about the worst book I have read for quite some time. Never in the history of literature has the bohemian lifestyle been detailed with so little vigour. I’ve read stories about stockbrokers that made me yawn less. Frome, on the other hand…


Me and My Flightless Mind

I am, once again, struck by a passage in George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man, in which he notes of Balzac (the best advert for coffee I know of) that ‘he seems to me to have shown greater wings of mind than any writer that ever lived’.

‘Wings of mind’: what a marvellous phrase this is! It is hardly original – writers have long referred to thoughts as winged creatures – but it could not have been better put, or found in a more appropriate context. Balzac’s mind had so many wings: he could soar like an albatross, swoop like a swallow or hop from branch to branch like a foraging sparrow. He could even be a bat if need be. His was a mind which could twist and turn in any direction, at any speed. It could be clumsy, yes, but it was a graceful clumsiness. It was a clumsiness that knew what it was about – and where it was going.

Enough, however, of Balzac. What of our own minds? Do our thoughts fly, or have they (as I often feel myself) something of the ostrich about them? On some days, I sense that my mind is distinctly penguin: it waddles, slides and swims with the best of them, but will never take flight. On other days, I am as a wren trapped in a shed. I can get into the air without trouble – but where am I going? The ceiling is the limit; the sky no more accessible than the landscape in a painting. The wings of my mind, alas, are clipped.