Lightening the Modern Canon

‘I take issue with foreboding,’ said Dinos Tierotis in an interview several years ago. ‘The sense of an inevitable disaster coming my way ruins so many stories for me. If I’m reading a novel and the characters embark on a long journey through a dark forest into unchartered territory, I toss the book away. I know what’s going to happen. Madness will descend, men will die and “civilisation” will take on all sorts of depressingly nuanced meanings. Everything we were warned of will come to pass, in agonisingly slow motion. All we will learn is that we shouldn’t have tagged along when the destination was so obvious from the start’.

Now for the counterpunch. After two books that offered cautious updatings of Greek myths, Tierotis has finally fixed his uncertain sights on the modern canon. There are no points awarded for guessing the primary source of his new novel: Heart of Sparklyness. Nor should it take too long to imagine the manner in which Tierotis ‘twists the familiar premise of the modern novel in smart and unexpected ways’. To simply turn something on its head is not exactly ‘smart and unexpected’  is it?

Or is it? I admit I’ve never been the greatest fan of Tierotis’ work. I thought his debut, Perseus and the Pepper Grinder, had its moments – but there was very little to love in The Golden Bomber Jacket, its desultory successor. Tierotis has, however, shown flashes of talent in shorter literary forms – with his pamphlet, The Tissues of Lies, receiving a surprisingly positive critical reaction. He has the ability, it is generally felt, to be a sharp satirist. He simply needs to rein in his leanings towards uninspired silliness: to understand – and safely navigate –  the difference between an loose spoof and a penetrating satire.

This, then, is the question: will Heart of Sparklyness prove to be the making of the man? The early signs, as I have already suggested, are not good. The idea behind the book, as expressed in my opening paragraph, is not necessarily a bad one. The title of the novel, however, is. As for the synopsis, it reads rather like Hansel and Gretel on drugs. One looks forward to the full text with, well, a sense of foreboding…

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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 Original Tissue

Dinos Tierotis’ second novel, The Golden Bomber Jacket, has been in bookstores (well, a few of them anyway) since May. I confess I haven’t read it. I flicked through it once, in a desultory manner. Damn it I was desultory. Of course, it took me some time to be won over by Tierotis’ debut, Perseus and the Pepper Grinder. But something about the follow-up has flicked the wrong switch entirely. It is as if the book doesn’t want to be read; as if it resents having its fresh pages turned over; its sentences violated by the eager reader’s eyes. ‘Leave me on the shelf’, it sobs, ‘don’t touch me, don’t touch me’.

Much was expected of this book, which may go some way to explaining its anticlimactic reception. Very little was expected, on the other hand, of another piece of writing by the same author: an independently published pamphlet, entirely unconnected with the novel. ‘Bonus material’ it might be called, were it not so well hidden. I was lucky enough to have found it.

The Tissue of Lies is the name it goes by; the first in a series, the back cover claims, of ‘pamphlets by contemporary writers, each exploring the true origin of a common phrase’. Tierotis’ phrase, as you will have guessed is ’tissue of lies’, which he duly investigates with wit, charm and the consummate skill of an experienced storyteller. Playfully ignoring all logic, Tierotis weaves a tale of such silliness that resistance is near impossible.

It turns out that there was once an actual ’tissues of lies’. Or should I say, ’tissue of Lies’, for ‘Lies’, it transpires, is a place. A town famed for a propensity of writers and – later – for a tissue. How the tissue got to be so famous – and how it became the origin of a common phrase – are questions I shall not answer here. It is, after all, a short pamphlet, and I should hate to parcel out so many of its few secrets here. Suffice it to say that these secrets are well worth bending an ear towards.

More on this later.

A Few New Works

As noted earlier in the year, 2009 always looked as if it would be a good one for contemporary European literature. At least half a dozen of the authors who featured on my 2005 list promised us new titles, from Hamish Wishart (whose short story collection, Sore Chasm, was published at the beginning of April) to Dinos Tierotis (whose second novel, The Golden Bomber Jacket, hit the bookshelves, albeit lightly, in May). If I have failed to mention these two works before now, it is not because I haven’t given them any attention; merely that other books (Turgidovsky’s Delicious Air, for instance) have taken precedence. What is more, as you will know, I am not one to be rushed into thrusting forth my critical opinion. One takes the cake out of the oven only when it is cooked. Then one consumes the cake. Thus is one becrumbed (which is an entirely different matter, to be considered on another day).

The summer, meanwhile, was set to provide a fitting climax to the literary riches of the spring, symbolised by the possible appearance of the long-awaited Poppies: Book Two, by Jaymer Veers. Ah, what more could a fan of obscure European literature ask for than the sequel to Poppies: Book One? Does not the very thought of it make your earlobes tingle and small toes twitch?

Forgive me, then, for dumping on your eager shoulders the dank and despondent news that Poppies: Book Two will not, in fact, be published this summer – nor, indeed, this year. Why? It’s a mystery. Some argue that there are ‘small teething problems’, whilst others claim that there is ‘no book at all’. Veers himself has been conspicuously quiet.
More on this later, perhaps.

In the meantime I am pleased, nay relieved, to be able to counter this saddening announcement with the information that Boris Yashmilye’s new novel is due at the end of July. There is a tendency amongst many of the writers I admire, as you may have noticed, to toss out books at the rate of one or two a decade, if that. Yashmilye is a blessed exception. His last novel, Out, Damned, was only published a couple of years ago (though it never found an English publisher, translations are readily available – or you may choose to read it in the original Bulgarian if you so desire). Hot on the heels of this, now, comes The Bastard, which, if the the frantic wasp of rumour is to be believed, is set to confirm Yashmilye’s triumphant return to form (his second and third novels, you may recall, were largely disappointing).

More on this when more there is.

I’ve Been Thinking About Uu

And so it is. The dark crow of my thoughts has been gliding over the field of Fjona Uu, fueled by the food of her past work – and the promise of work to come. As hinted here, her short story collection Put on your Ontic Stasis Suits, originally published in 2000, will be reprinted later this year by McSíldo, an Icelandic/Scottish publishing house. As if this wasn’t enough, her third full-length novel, The Brontosaurus Sisters (mentioned in passing here) will be appearing at the same time. And what time is this, you ask? The release date seems to be going through more changes than the heroine of a theatrical musical, but it looks to be somewhere around the beginning of July. I hope, nevertheless, to get my claws on a proof copy a long time before then.

Needless to say, the title of the novel may have already caused some to emit a groan; nonetheless it is par for the course for Fjona, whose previous works, I hardly need to remind you, were called Lava in a Cold Climate and Pincers in the Tower.  I would, however, persuade any such groaners to ensure that their prejudices don’t stand in the way of their reading Uu’s work, which is much cannier than it may sound – as is often (but not always) the case.

Much the same applies, I think, to the work of Dinos Tierotis, who is following up his debut Perseus and the Pepper Grinder with The Golden Bomber Jacket (published next week). Like Uu, Tierotis is one of those writers whose novels rely heavily on other people’s stories: in his case Greek myths. Though it is tempting to call this a lazy method, it has proved to be an effective one throughout the ages. A little-known English playwright, William Shakespeare, did a similar sort of thing, and it did him little harm. To succeed, however, a writer has to prove that they are using the story to help them get somewhere – and not just carrying it around like some worn trophy. Which is to say that are as many bad examples as there are good. As many? I mean, of course, much more. And when such books fail, they really fail. Anyone read Francine Paramoré’s Dante in Dagenham? No? Well, don’t – for the sake of your health, don’t.

More on this later.

Fresh Coal

The most eager of my readers will have already noticed that a good many of the novelists who featured on my Greatest European Novels List are feeding this year’s steam train of new literature with the fresh coal of their particular talents. 

First up is the long-awaited Turgidovsky novel, Delicious Air of Life (subtitled The Ugly God-Damned Wife), due in a couple of weeks. This will be followed by Hamish Wishart’s ‘highly witty’ Sore Chasm (comment courtesy of the press release) – a collection of short stories, none of which will feature his most famous character Gavin McCloud (or Dunce, as he is better known) and will, thus, attract much less attention than they probably deserve. 

In May, then, we are promised Dinos Tierotis’s The Golden Bomber Jacket, a prospect that pales in the face of the possibility that Jaymer Veers’s Poppies: Book Two could be hitting selected bookstores sometime in the summer. Could it be true? Let us hold hands, murmur a pointless prayer, quaff a jorum of some warming spirit and hope for the best.

You can read reviews of earlier works by these authors here (as you should know by now).