Too Much Cream on the Cake?

I won’t go so far as saying that p.52 is purposeless. I shall never read the fifty-second page of a novel in the same way again, I’m sure of it. But I am unsure as to how to deal with Monsieur Sertin. In the end, what is he good for? A lovely line, a funny idea or two: a writer of cheery confidence, with a tendency towards self-indulgence. An adjective too far, perchance? Indisputably, irrefutably, incontrovertibly, incontestably. p.52 is a depositary of spare words: too much cream on the cake, my dear sir: too much seasoning in the sausages, too much gravy on the pie, too much sugar in the tea. (Sebastien Cheraz)

Thus spake Sebastien Cheraz, in his review – not of J-P Sertin’s p.52 – but of Jarni Kolovsky’s …And I Lost. Cheraz’s fears were, however, echoed by other writers. Andrew O’Hara (whose own response to Kolovsky is collected here) also threw down some thoughts on Sertin’s experimental novel:

Sir, – It is with regret that I must express my alarm at your promotion of the very dangerous work by Jean-Pierre Sertin, ‘p.52’  Given my deep respect for you and your publication, I must assume this was a hasty decision made without careful thought as to the consequences, the consequences to our children, our purity of essence and our precious bodily fluids.

At first blush, ‘p.52’ might appear to be a simple and quite amusing exercise to be tackled by any person, particularly those who enjoy solving and even constructing their own convoluted puzzles.  I cannot help, however, but be disturbed by several aspects of this seemingly innocent game and what it truly represents.

First, it stretches the imagination to believe that the number 52 was chosen so randomly, so casually.  Why not 25?  Or 53?  Oh, we are assured, it was most likely chosen by this Mr. Booth for no reason at all. I would happily accept such a notion if I did not immediately recognize some alarming clues that I believe are being used by Sertin, surreptitiously and most maliciously, to promote  his own frightening agenda.  It is hardly coincidental, for example, that there just happen to be 52 Nag Hammadi ‘religious’ texts discovered in 1945 that now threaten the very moral fiber of our society by suggesting heretical Gnosticism replace Christianity and name Thomas as a fifth disciple (note the five again, coupled with a ‘second’ religion, equals 52)!  Such timing for p.52 to come out now, would you not agree?  And do you not find it interesting that it’s page 52 of the Satan Bible that describes how the Devil calls on the forces of evil to overcome the powers of light?

Further, the well known socialist, Pythagoras, in the 52nd verse of his ‘Golden Verses’ declared ‘Thou shalt likewise know that according to Law, the nature of this universe is in all things alike’ (i.e, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs – familiar sounding, yes?). To be more scientific, as the sum of four combinations of the first 15 prime numbers, the number 52 has major significance to mathematicians, astronomers and tax preparers.

Finally, it has until recently been a closely kept secret that the British government has been stockpiling Adrenomudullin, a 52-amino acid peptide that is suspected of stimulating adenylyl cyclase activity in a platelet bioassay.  How many ‘natural deaths’ can be attributed to the undercover use of this volatile substance?  How is it that the author is so conveniently aware of what is, to most, a very obscure chemical?  Once again, I find all of these things, combined, to be hardly coincidental with his choice of the number 52.

And don’t think for a moment it went unnoticed that, in the index, a page number was deliberately left out (to divert us) for ‘wooden telephone box’.  I wasn’t fooled by Sertin’s little tricks.  It took me an hour of repeated readings but I found it on page 52.

No, 52 was not a casual choice at all.  It is a little noticed but highly significant number.  I fear – for us all – that Mr. Sertin actually taunts us by using it.  I can go on and on but will spare you further examples of the danger presented by this number.  I will only add, however, that I am immediately suspicious when sensing so transparently hidden an agenda, regardless of which it might be.  You will forgive me, I hope, for feeling a strong need to express my skepticism and refusal to be manipulated so easily.

I have an even greater concern.  Even if this particular exercise does not turn the weak of our society into atheistic anarchists (as well I suspect its purpose may well be), I am concerned for the health of those who might enter into this folly thinking it a mere amusement.  Bartlebooth is an excellent example – he goes blind and clearly quite mad, dying a miserable death, torn by frustration in which he forgot the number 52 and became preoccupied with the letter ‘W’.

I’m happy to point out that a recent study by Doctor Oskar Zweiundfünfzig of the University of California strongly suggests that forcing children to do puzzles (or complex exercises such as these) causes idiocy and hastens the onset of senility and even madness in adults.  There are 217 uses of the number 52 in this book – enough to drive anyone mad!  For these reasons alone, I feel measures should be taken to have this book removed from the market immediately and banned.

I am reluctant to take so strident a stance, for I do truly oppose censorship, but too few people are aware of the dangers inherent in this number 52 and what it can do in the hands of someone so reckless as Sertin.  Until public education can increase awareness and prepare people for the dreadful impact of ‘fiftytwoness’, we cannot allow the spread of books like these.  Think of the disruptions alone–people missing subway cars while trying to figure out which page to bookmark (52?) and MFA teachers trying to maintain order in their classes (‘Everyone turn to page…?’) Very truly yours,

J JIMSTON,  Editor, the Jimston Journal

Still further rumblings (and/or grumblings) on the topic of Sertin’s prose can be found here. And the novel itself? Why, here it is.

As for Mr. Sertin: more on him a little later…

Hot Off the Hungarian Press

For those who don’t know, this year’s Hungarian publishing sensation (there’s always one) turns out to be a novel called The Fake Ape by a young female writer going by the name of Lilla Jakobi. The English translation is due later this year; though one is encouraged, as ever, to read it in its original language.

So far as I can tell, the novel juggles several narratives. The first follows a soldier fighting in the First World War. The second follows the book he takes with him. We read this story, so to speak, with him – and witness his reactions first-hand. That is, until he dies, whereupon the novel reaches a false ending; the first story finishes because the soldier is no more; the second because the soldier is no more to follow it. What happens next, perhaps predictably, is that someone else picks up the abandoned book and starts reading it, from the beginning, so we get the same story accompanied by fresh reactions. This person, however, doesn’t die (at least not until she has finished the book within the book), sparing us a third reading of the same story.

Are you with me? This is, needless to say, a rather simplistic synopsis of the proceedings, but it gives one a sense, a taste, a glimpse of the wider picture. For the rest, I invite you to read the book. From what I can gather, it looks as though the novel dances a wild jig with that ever-present evil: sentimentality. However, it is also said to say something, maybe even a profound something (less certainly a subtle something), about the power of literature, which shouldn’t be scoffed at, not on my watch.

More on this, I dare say, a little later…

How We Got Here

Patrick Stendt has always been a sensitive writer. An overly sensitive writer. Creating fiction is, for him, a process that calls for painstaking precision. He approaches the world of fantasy as a historian approaches that of reality. No detail is too small; one cannot be too intensive in the pursuit of background information.

This explains why his novels, up to now, have struggled to get beyond background information. The story never seems to get off the ground; or at least, the story soon becomes something else: what comes before taking precedence over what could be happening now. There is no time for that. The back-story defeats the actual story every time.

His new work, Origins, is no exception. Stendt shows little or no signs of calming down. Here we find him indulging his weakness more than ever; picking at his scabs like a mindless child.

We start with a man and a woman having a conversation on a train. Six hundred pages later the same man and woman are on the train, having the same conversation. About two minutes have passed. That’s 1/5 second every page by my reckoning (slow moving, by anyone’s standards). Stendt, you see, has a real problem when it comes to moving forward. He simply can’t do it. Every small action has to be explained: one has to go back, way back, in order to go forward, slightly forward. We know plenty about the man’s great-great-grandparents, or the woman’s mother’s brother’s dog. But the man himself remains somewhat of a mystery. We know everything and yet nothing about him. The details are there, but the man is intangible – he has no living form. He is what he has been – not what he might become.

Stendt’s characters are explained; their past carefully – oh-so-carefully! – uncovered. But here they end. He can create them, but cannot seem to do anything with them. And so he goes back, again, into the past, to see what else he can recover from the wreckage. All we get (as he seems to have realised) are origins. We know where everything is coming from, but there is never any sense of anything going anywhere.

And so Stendt leaves us: just like that. His man and woman remain on their train, waiting for the sum of their pasts to propel them into some kind of future. Waiting for the back-stories to end, and the main story to begin. Which it never does, of course.

The Poppy with No Seeds

My father was a big fan of indexes. An avid reader of non-fiction, he used the index as the portal through which to begin his passage through a book. A rabbit warren has many entrances: this was his. From the first page to the last? Never. From the index to page 24, then back to the index, then off to page 267, then back to the index, then to page 89 – and so on and so forth. He asked not of a book, ‘What does it mean to say in general’, so much as ‘What does it say about this thing or that’. Books were to him a buffet lunch; eaten in bits, in several trips.

What would he have made, I wonder, of Jaymer Veers’ latest work, Poppies: The Index, the ‘sequel of sorts’ to Poppies: Book One? (first mentioned here). He would have liked it, I think – albeit with reservations. That is to say, he wouldn’t have taken it seriously as a work of art, but he’d have enjoyed it for ‘what it was’.

But what  is it? It is an index to a book that doesn’t (yet) exist. A book which consists, otherwise, of a translator’s note. A book that lives, primarily, in the mind of its writer – and, to an increasing extent, his loyal readers. Poppies: Book One framed the non-existent work; Poppies: The Index adds a few splashes of colour. Or is it more than this? The index in question is, after all, comprehensive in its range. This isn’t one of those piddly indexes one finds at the back of a cheap academic book. This is the sort of index my father would have drooled over. Sub-headings abound. ‘Kingston, Harold; Character of: 34-7, 65, 110-3, 213; Sexual deviance and: 36-7, 69, 319-23; on foreign policy: 118, 401-3’. Imagine a fuller, richer, deeper version of this and you’re somewhere along the way to grasping the sort of thing that we may be dealing with here. This is a monster index. This is a book taken apart and put back together according to alphabetical names, places, events and themes. Here are the jigsaw pieces: now make the book.

This is more, therefore, than a few splashes of colour. This is almost the whole picture; albeit the picture fragmented; cut into segments: plenty of water, you could say, but no real river. Poppies: The Index gives us a very good idea of what the book is about; about what it covers – but how does it flow? Poppies: Book One offered a few clues in that direction, granted, but the book itself remains, quite deliberately, just out of our reach.

And so the tease continues – as we ought to have guessed it would. Where will Jaymer Veers go next? Poppies: The Critical Response? Poppies: The Souvenir Guide? Poppies: A Synopsis in Ancient Greek? Anything, I should think, than Poppies: Book Two. The Poppies project will always skirt the edge of what we may perceive to be an ‘actual text’. It refers to something other than itself, but it is what it is. And of this we can hardly complain. Poppies: The Index more than stands for itself. An index that questions the very nature of indexes: that comes before a story. This is enlightening stuff. It’s also clever stuff. And you know – sometimes it takes a poppy with no seeds to remind you what you never saw when the seeds were there. My father would have cradled his reservations close: I toss them out of the window, with the next-door neighbour’s cat.

The Boy and his Toys (Part Three)

It was not, I confess, deliberate, that hasty ending to the last post. To leave my discussion of Luigi Narsceni’s collection of unfinished stories unfinished would be, I think, too smart for my own good. That in which I was involved was, in fact, nothing more than a long pause for breath. Now, said breath having been drawn in, swallowed and duly enjoyed, let us continue where we left off…

For instance: The Department, a project that Narsceni introduces on p.127, develops on p.128 and drops, for no good reason, on.p.129. The Department is the story of six teachers working in the English department of a college in Boston Spa, in the county of Yorkshire. They are all creatively minded but, like Narsceni, have a tendency towards the unfinished, along with a very English reluctance to admit that they write for pleasure. Thus each teacher works on his or her novel on the quiet, discussing them constantly, but never directly. It is a story of the clash, and relationship, between our inner and outer lives. I say ‘is’: I mean, of course, ‘could be’. The Department exists no more than the novels of the characters that appear within it.

On p.212 we have another of my favourites: Roberta Gravesen’s Greek Riffs, followed directly by The Diaries of Sir Henry Skerryman. I cannot say which I prefer; which I would most like to see finished. On reflection, I think the latter appeals most:  the diaries of a small man who gives away all his possessions, flees to Kenya and lives on stilts with a herd of giraffes. The former would, perhaps, come a little too close to the work of Dinos Teriotis (author of Perseus and the Pepper Grinder and The Golden Bomber Jacket).

Elsewhere, I am drawn into even less developed plots, some of which barely extend beyond titles. On p.301 we find the line ‘Alasdair Le Gaurekelle Stands Up For Himself At Last’. A string of words only, but they have a strange appeal nonetheless. Already I want to know more.

There, however, it ends. One wants to know what one will never know. Narsceni’s Toys is all about stimulating, not satisfying, the imaginations of its readers. It frustrates and excites you in equal measure: you want to hurl it across the room, but there it is, still, nestled like a baby lamb in your lap. Narsceni charms and irritates: he pushes you to the edge of detestation, but something stops you from falling into the dark hole of hate. What is it? Is it the possibility that, however small his chances of ever seeing an idea through are, one has to admit that his ideas are better than most of those you’ve ever come up with? With some hesistation, I am inclined to go with this. The only question that remains is: why can’t someone else finish that which Narsceni has started?

The Boy and his Toys (Part Two)

As restless sparrows chatter in busy British hedgerows, so do readers rant relentlessly: barely stopping for precious breath. The subject of their rants? Most recently, it has been Luigi Narsceni’s work, Toys: A Memoir of Me and My Many Works in Progress. Now is the time for me to plunge my hand into the hedge and spring a couple of ‘w’s: what is it about Narsceni’s book that has got us all het up? And, perhaps most importantly, why has it got so many defenders?

First up, I should point out that it was self-published. Oh vanity, self-publishing is thy name! But times are changing, are they not? Or perhaps they aren’t. In any case, self-publishing has always offered the opportunity for the truly maligned, or merely well-off, to get their work into the world without the hassle of the sinister go-between (damn that go-between!) And good for it. Would a publisher have accepted Toys? I like to think that Upside-Down-Then-Backwards, in sunnier times, might have done so. Others? I doubt it. So: does this mean that Narsceni is unfairly maligned or merely well-off? Has he a ‘difficult talent’, or is he just a self-indulgent idler?

It’s hard to say, for his financial situation is part and parcel to his talent. He has never completed anything, perhaps, because he lacks the will financially speaking. And yet he has the talent, certainly. He can write. Just not all the way to the end.

All of this, however, takes for granted the fact that Count Narsceni is telling us the truth; that this really is a collection of stories to which he sought to, but simply could not complete, rather than a collection of deliberately designed unfinished tales. What is the difference? Again, it’s hard to say. What I can say, yet, is that Toys presents the incomplete narrative in a manner previously unseen. It argues, unconsciously, for a reconsideration of the unfinished work as an important genre in itself: as a source not just of curtailed, abandoned fiction, but of work that is, in itself, great. Throughout Toys, Narsceni toys (excuse me) constantly with the idea that he is a failed novelist; in fact, he is a successful unfinished short-story writer. Toys is not a series of tragic un-happenings, but a treasure-trove of possibilities; of joyous beginnings, gloriously unhampered by tedious middles and leaden endings. It is, thus, tantalising, inspiring: endlessly stimulating. Better, in parts, than a thousand finished books.

For instance…

The Boy and his Toys (Part One)

Luigi Narsceni (quoted here) is that most hateful of creatures: a rich artist. Count Narsceni, I believe, is his full title; although, bless him, he seems quite happy to be called Luigi. How very kind.

Now why waste words on this foreign fancy-trousered money-pockets? Why indeed? Sadly, you can’t go anywhere these days without stumbling into a conversation about dear old Luigi. To say that his first novel, book, volume, collection of sentences – whatever you want to call it –  is ‘all the rage’ would be somewhat of an understatement. The rage blows harder than a typhoon. Angry bulls look on in envy. The more raucous gods have a definite rival.

What is it about this work that has excited such enthusiasm? Is it the idle charm of the writer that thrills us so; the pathetic humanity of his multiple flaws? Boil off the moisture, strip things to their core, tear the clothes off the model  – and what do we have? A memoir, essentially, about a man’s inability to ever finish anything. Or, more pertinently: an unfinished memoir about a man’s inability to ever finish anything. A boy and his collection of badly-shaped, half-constructed, battered and bruised toys.

Narsceni is nothing if not honest. Toys (for that is the name of the book) opens with a suitably frank, suitably clumsy confession of all the writer’s faults. ‘I have been writing for ten, fifteen, maybe even thirty years,’ writes our forgetful friend: ‘a period typified by one real quality: a complete lack of finish.’ ‘I have,’ he goes on, ‘started at least two hundred projects during this time. Not one of them has got far beyond the planning stage. Chapter Four was reached once. That is the zenith of my achievements. Four mouldy chapters’. What to do? It seemed obvious. ‘I decided I would collect my scraps, gather together my strange toys and present them thus, unfinished, to the public, with the invitation to judge them as you will’.

And judge them we have. But not, as one might have suspected, as badly as we might have. In fact, some might say we have been altogether too kind to Mr Luigi’s Toys. We might have laughed in the face of his thwarted projects and jeered his foolhardy attempt at redemption; instead, we have smiled, nodded and held forth, at length, on the many merits of his most ignoble tome. Why?