Snow’s Progress

‘I am a master marble sculptor. I create a vast, furious block of text; a woolly mammoth of mighty words; a large and heavy mountain of narrative. Then I rest awhile, bewildered by this huge hulk of ideas; this thick wall of thoughts. First I am a gnat on a pumpkin, a tadpole swimming in a lake. Then I am a wasp on a pear, a frog squatting on a lily-pad. I ease, slowly, into a position of control. Lo, now I am Michelangelo, stone-carving tools thrust into my firm hands, the spirit of genius burning within my breast. My ego thumps like the tail of an over-excited dog. I can bend anything to any shape. I can breathe life into this dull and daunting form. I am the very dragon of creativity. I will chip and charge into beauty’s warm hole. I will break, like the consummate burglar, into the core of my text. Into the thick of the literary battle I go, pick-axe wielding, flint flying around my ears, the stony edifice crumbling before my sure and able touch. The words fall around me, but I am resolute. Watch me closely: I do not lose my nerve. I am a master miner. I will not stop before I find myself, standing proud, at the heart of this here mound; until the very essence of the object has been caressed by all two of my tough thumbs. I am a man of action; rocket, rock and ram. But my final touch, my final touch is smooth. When the main hunk of the marble has collapsed, and the soft beating soul is seen, I am again a tender craftsman. Roughness slips from me like the model’s gown. I am a cake-maker, an ivory-carver and a golf-green keeper. My fingers are alert, agile, lithe and lissom. They do not miss a single move. No petal is too delicate. No curl or curve, no wisp or line. I am there; I am on every ball there ever was, is, and will ever be. I am a master: a master marble sculptor’ (Walter Snow)

Good old Walter Snow: one of the best writers I know when it comes to describing the creative process. As a novelist, of course, he was nothing less than rotten – by no means the ‘master marble sculptor’ he claimed to be. Every one of his fourteen novels, the critics will agree, was a trite, insubstantial, chaotic piece of nonsense. But when he turned his attention to the process of writer, well: then his style took on a whole new force. Progress, his 1976 guidebook for writers (known in the business as ‘Snow’s Progress’) is, for instance, a strangely wonderful work. Somehow, when it came to writing about writing, Snow’s creativity knew no bounds. He flowed like a river in a storm. Returning to the writing itself, the power diminished: he went back to where he started – to a sad, trickling stream. As Jave de Lasse once put it, ‘the man who thought he was a master marble sculptor was, in fact, a master minor artist’. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, made him a rather good critic: a pity he was never really aware of it.

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Get Kicked Out

“The role of the Irish writer is not really to win prizes in Ireland; their role historically has been to get kicked out of the country for telling the truth” (Julian Gough)

It seems to me this whole problem would be solved if we created a prize for any writer who gets kicked out of a country a certain amount of times. (This would not include, I fancy, Edmund Blockington, who has been kicked off the Isle of Man seventy-two times; not – as he frequently claims – on account of his ‘incendiary short-stories’ but – as the locals will happily vouch for – his fatal tendency toward inebriacy).

Robert Wray (Pet’s Corner No.1)

Mr X—- P— ordered another drink from the bar, unbuttoned his cuffs, scratched his upper lip, blinked his right eye, stroked his companion’s knee, fiddled with a fingernail, and began:

‘Robert Wray,’ he said, ‘is the name that comes to mind’. We all nodded slowly. Robert Wray: of course! The poet Wray.

‘I met him four times,’ he went on, ‘in the summer of ’89. Or was it five in the winter of ’86? I know not. Does it matter? I think not. Every time I met him, at any rate, the animal was also there. Every single time.’

He took a sip of cider. ‘I was playing darts at the local pub. Research for a novel, of course, otherwise I simply wouldn’t have been caught dead hurling small arrows at concentric circles. It was a long novel, however, so I’d joined a team. I was, in fact, rather good. The novel required this of me – and so it was.’

Another, longer, sip.

‘One night we were due to play a team from Hartlepool. They cancelled, but our captain had a friend who had a friend whose captain had a friend who was part of team playing another team who had also cancelled. So we two teams played each other instead. This other team were a decent lot, a regular squad of fellows, so to speak, with only one exception. This exception was Robert Wray.’

‘What was so annoying about Robert Wray? First up, he never took his coat off all evening. He wore this whopping great coat, fur-lined and all – but he never once took it off. He threw every dart with his coat on. And the coins in his coat pocket, of which there were a horrible lot, went clink-clink-clink all the way. Every time he leaned forward, moved a leg or a hand, cink-clink-clink went the coins. It drove us mad. We played, needless to say, like a gang of feckless mongrels.’

‘There was, however, worse to come. Nothing could stop Wray when it came to making a fuss. He really was the one when it came to professional fuss-making! And god, did he get under your skin? Playing Wray was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. He disrupted the rhythm of your very breathing, let alone your game. He wouldn’t let a falling leaf settle. He was, in short, the most frustrating man I’ve ever met.’

‘But what about the animal? I haven’t even come onto the animal, have I? You’d think it was bad enough, what with Wray himself, clinking and fussing away. But no – this wasn’t enough for poor old Robert. He needed more – just a little something else. So what did he have? A chicken on a leash! A full-grown and feathered chicken on a three foot leash, clucking and clucking to its heart’s content. Clink-clink-clink, cluck-cluck-cluck. What a game of darts that was! Robert fuss-pot Wray and his flipping chicken-on-a-leash. Tied to the radiator, clucking the night away. Can you believe it?’

Well, yes, I can believe it. It was Robert Wray after all.

More on that, however, later.

Lobster Walking and the Like

‘Almost the only thing that everyone knew about him was the famous, and perhaps apocryphal, story of how he used to go for walks in the parks of Paris taking a live lobster with him on a leash’ (Richard Holmes on Gérard de Nerval)

A live lobster on a leash? How very tame. Eccentricity at its most conservative. Pyetr Turgidovsky used to wander around St. Petersburg with a dead lobster on a chain.

More on writers, animals and leashes later.

Pint of Von Effen, Please (Answer 1/9)

Question: Which German poet, nicknamed ‘The Flake’ at school, managed a mildly successful brewery in Western Cologne before publishing his first work, Ballads of Mud, Silt and Dust in 1926?

Answer: Ludwig von Effen, of course. Undisputed king of the greatest poet/worst translation ratio, I don’t think I’ve ever read an even vaguely competent translation of a von Effen poem (this includes Lou Ratzinger’s 2002 attempt, The Collected Works of Ludwig von Effen, the majority of which is poor – the exceptions being those which are, I think it’s fair to say, shiveringly bad). Although a couple of Cologne based breweries still sell ‘Von Effen’ beer, the poet no longer has any connections with the industry. Indeed, he has publicly disclaimed at least one of the beers in question, complaining that it tasted of ‘donkey wee’. I can vouch for his word.

Congratulations to Caspar N for getting this one. A large black cross for Heidi Kohlenberg for erroneously supposing that it was Aaron Schlinker. Everybody knows he was a weaver. Honestly, Heidi…

That Grizzled Fig

I don’t think my wife reads this blog. Or if she does, not very often. Last week, however, she clearly took a peek, for on Saturday morning, at breakfast, she came forth with the following question:
‘Were you ever invited to Maria von Küppelberg’s?’
My answer was succinct. ‘Yes,’ I said: ‘Once’.
‘Can you elaborate?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, scooping a spoonful of scrambled egg into my mouth. ‘I don’t know’.

Can I elaborate? The truth is, Maria von Küppelberg was past her prime by the time I met her. In the seventies young literary sorts would do anything to bag an invite to one of her ‘evenings’. By the mid-eighties, however, she was considered – how can I say it? – a little ‘stuffy’. It was in 1981, I think, that a certain Hungarian poet described her as ‘that grizzled fig’. So far as her physical attributes went, this was on the mark. As for her mind: I confess, that too was fading. By her death, in 1989, she was (according to the same poet) ‘as sharp as a squirrel’s tail’.

As far as our meeting went, there is very little to report. I neither impressed nor insulted the famous hostess. I was never invited back, granted, but then I did leave the city soon after. In any case, I’m pretty certain I did not embarrass myself.

I do regret, of course, that I never visited the woman in her prime. Or, to be exact, that I never visited her house at its prime. For one went to the von Küppelberg’s as much for other people as for Maria herself – much as one goes to The Crippled Bee for the excellent company – and not for that strange potion they serve at this time of the year (I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t mulled wine).

I, Demented Kitten?

In his comment to the post below, Javé de Lasse points me in the direction of the ‘demented kitten’ chapter of his torpid novel Declining Bore, wherein I may discover the previously undiscovered fictionalised portrait of myself.

Here follows a quick precis of what occurs in this chapter (no.8 for those who are interested): James (the hero) and Mary Potter (i.e. Peggy Grounter) rescue a kitten from the hands of a dirty gypsy. Like a lot of things in the novel, it is never made clear why they do this, but that’s just how it goes. In any case, the kitten soon lives up to its tag – and runs riot around the office, weeing on proof copies, vomiting in the photocopier, dragging in a family of half-dead ducklings (from where? again, it isn’t clear), biting a famous writer’s hand and (I quote) ‘mewing gutturally’. They plan to kick the kitten out, but it decides to leave of its own accord, not before depositing a small pile of poo on James’ perversely tidy desk.

I’ll be straight about this: I shared office space with de Lasse and Grounter for a few years and – though I may, at times, have been an enthusiastic colleague – I never once excreted any sort of substance on a book/desk, or mauled a duckling, or bit a writer on the hand. And though I struggle to imagine what a ‘guttural mew’ is, I’m almost certain it isn’t something I’m in the habit of producing.

As for vomiting in the photocopier, I was very ill at the time (and I resent the use of ‘in’ – it was rather more ‘on’).