Fabled for Thoughts

I have, as you probably know, a real fondness for fables. When one is out of sorts, as they say, there’s nothing like a good Hungarian fable to jump-start your soul. The Eagle, the Hen, and the Lonesome Fiddler, most versions of which come in under three hundred words, is one of my particular favourites: a near faultless piece of storytelling. Or what about a fable from further afield? The Black Sea has an especially rich tradition of fantastic fables, amongst which one may find such masterworks as The Snake who saw the Midday Moon and Uncle Boris and the Angry Cloud.

Western Europe, of course, has also produced its fair share of fables – though it must be said that I rarely venture into those well-worn fields. This last weekend was, however, an exception, as I enjoyed several happy hours devouring the works of everybody’s favourite seventeenth-century French fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. Here, for your immediate edification, is an example of his concise and witty writing.

The Mountain’s Delivery

A mountain having labour
With clamour rent the air.
The neighbours who came running
Predicted she would bear
A city broad as Paris
Or at least a manor house,
But at the crucial moment
The mountain dropped a mouse.

How like so many authors
Who say they’ll set to paper
A vast Promethean epic
But all that comes is vapour.

Like all good fables, this one sets the mind thinking. And my own thoughts turn, inevitably, to that uncertain philosopher Leo Barnard, the self-professed ‘mountain of thought’ who drops more than his fair share of mice. Consider, for instance, his much-hyped History of Boredom, in which the great man aims to prove that ‘boredom is greater than love’. A fair claim, perhaps, but one that hardly requires two thousand pages to prove. I could do the same in half an hour.

The Writer as Reader

‘After many years I think I have at last succeeded in reading my own works as a reader and not as their writer. My conclusion? They’re not really my sort of thing.’ (Nate Laami)

‘The writer is the first reader, that is all. And the first shall come last, and the last shall come first: you know the story.’ (Leo Barnard, On Stuff)

(Here is a subject to which I promise to return one day…)

Another Extract(ion)

‘My words are almost always taken, that is to say wrenched, out of their original context. I discovered myself once in a book of quotations: witnessing this was not unlike having a tooth extracted and hung in a crude display case for the edification of an ignorant public. I felt positively wretched for days afterwards’. (Leo Barnard)

I always knew the critic and the dentist had something in common. Having said that, there are a multitude of ways in which writers have described the above process. Back in 1931 Thomas Hippenholme (author of the infamous Hippenholme Chronicles) wrote an angry letter to the editor of The Tuesday Magazine who, he thought, quoted him a little too often. It read simply thus: ‘Stop picking flowers from my front garden’.

As for Leo Barnard, see more of his teeth here.

Being and Drawing

‘Life is the process of reflecting on the process of life.’ (Leo Barnard)

‘Early on in life someone told me about unconscious sexual imagery. I spent the rest of my life trying to draw anything but genitalia. I have, as a result, a very small artistic output.‘ (Max Lauder)

Real Substance?

Leo Barnard’s last book, Love and Selfishness, surprised us all by its brevity. Not only are we used to Barnard producing doorstop-like tomes, but we struggled to see how this subject, of all those he has tackled, managed to inspire so few words. Surely there was cause for several volumes? Instead we got a forty-eight page pamphlet.

Hot on the heels of this comes a controversial second short work entitled Sentiment and Substance. This one makes it all the way to fifty-nine pages. Compare this to Barnard’s earlier works: The Eternal Dilemma (912 pages), The Unworking World (1034 pages) and History Schmystery (701 pages) and you may understand our bewilderment.

Barnard has, it seems,  followed many a writer in eschewing quantity for quality in his old age. I say that: most elderly writers only think they pursue this goal – in reality they drop quantity, only to lose their grip on quality also. But Barnard has always been a cut above. He has, in fact, managed to pull off the near impossible feat of compressing several hundred pages of unalloyed wisdom into fifty or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has got shorter and better; he has merely managed to cut his losses; which is to say that he has got shorter without any discernible drop in quality.

Or, to put it another way, despite the hysterical gulf in the word count, Sentiment and Substance is much the same sort of book that History Schmystery was. These two brief books do not represent the dawning of a new writer. Leo Barnard is just as cantankerous, as casual, and as damnably clever as ever.

There has always been a pinch of the opinionated teenager in Barnard; a dab of the pretentious adolescent; a generous sprinkle of the obnoxious child lording it over his brain-dead parents with a strangely undefeated brand of logic. Sentiment and Substance has all these qualities in spades: it is the literary equivalent of a room of small boys throwing paper balls – essentially harmless, but not without a hint of animal malice. Maybe if I wait awhile a better analogy will spring to mind. Maybe not. And so I move on…

Barnard’s central – and indeed, single – concept is this: poets (and he uses the term loosely) rarely practice what they preach. Not a new idea by any means, but he tackles it nonetheless with unrestrained gusto. Indeed, he tackles it like a gang of hounds tackling a fox. Tread lightly? Pish, says Barnard. He picks up his poets by the scruff of their scrawny necks and shakes them like – and I quote – ‘the fearsome hypocrites they are’.

‘Who are they?’, he asks, ‘these so-called artists of ours? And why do we, why should we trust their emotional response?’ Anger creeps upon him quickly: ‘most of the great poems on love are written by hateful creatures’, he claims at one point, going on: ‘and yet we sup on them eagerly, like piglets sucking blood from a gorilla’s breast’. A simile after my own heart there.

It’s all slightly crazed stuff, but then you can’t say that he doesn’t back his statements up. There’s plenty of evidence stacked up on Barnard’s table, all pointing toward the possibility that the substance behind most sentiments is made of less than solid stuff. Still, the way he rounds on some of his subjects does seem overly cruel. Songwriters, in particular, get a rather rough ride: ‘peddling their coy harmonic tales of stolen kisses and small hands held, whilst sleeping their way through cities of whores’. It’s the age-old question: can you separate what people say from what they do? Barnard’s answer is charmingly abrupt: not in the slightest, he says. It’s all one.

It takes a brave writer to go about the task with as much ferocity as Barnard does – not least because it invites criticism of his own personality. Does Barnard practice what he preaches? Whilst he never claims to be morally incorruptible, for all the flaying he does of other people’s hides, he seems peculiarly comfortable in his own skin. But then, as he writes, ‘I have never pretended to have the last word on life. I speak with the wisdom of one who knows he knows nothing at all’.

All in all, it’s another typical work from Leo Barnard. Infuriating and illuminating, fanciful and fierce, beguiling and blunt. Barnard, for all his faults, never fails to stimulate discussion. And though it seems that he must be wrong, it’s usually very hard to prove him so. This is no less the case than it ever was; at fifty pages only, he is still the master of the wierdly-water-tight argument.

Measuring Up

‘A critic once said to me, “Leo, you truly are a giant among men”. I smiled. “You flatter yourself,” I replied: “I’d always thought of myself as a man among dwarves”. The last time I checked, said critic was referring to me as a louse. That must make him a grub.’ (Leo Barnard)

Love and Leo

Philosopher, thinker, ponderer, muser, chin-scratcher, eyebrow-stroker, sense-stalker, hot-potato-juggler, call-him-what-you-will: Leo Barnard has announced, through his publishers, that his twenty-ninth book will be called Love and Selfishness.

Looks like it’s going to be a long book…