Tales of Turds

The title of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s new collection of short stories, This World of Shit, is sadly suggestive of the cheaply made Christmas compendiums that we are all well used to seeing at this time of year: those endless gaudy baubles of charmless prose meanly tossed onto the lifeless tree of cynical consumerism (to put it as gently as I can). We could blame this on the translator, were it not for the fact that Turgidovsky was probably aiming for just such a connection. He has such confidence in his particular brand of high-minded literary nihilism that echoes of low art (and one cannot get much lower than Christmas cash-ins) are merely a source of amusement. To commit a crime against good taste has become, for him, something of a daily necessity.

Needless to say, the new stories are typical in this regard. Composed with stunning care, they are yet crammed with crudity of the very highest order. He claims in his introduction that he wants to create the literary equivalent of a blocked toilet. This, I think, he has achieved. Too many of his sentences refuse, after several days, to flush themselves from my mind. There they remain, ever-festering; emitting a ever-changing, but never-improving odour.

As it is, the title is apt. This World of Shit delivers exactly what it promises: a multiplicity of bowel movements. In one story, a peverse gargoyle sitting on the corner of a building in an Italian piazza spends his lazy days pondering over the toiletry habits of the humans below. He takes particular interest in a group of people who appear to frequent the lavatorial facilities of a small art gallery opposite, leading to an array of philosophical meditations on the relationship between art and shit.

In another story a frustrated husband secretly eats his own shit, keeping a detailed diary of his adventures. One does not even want to consider whether or not Turgidovsky’s recreations of this diary gain their success from personal experiences.

There is more. A lot more. Too much more, perhaps. But then this is Turgidovsky, a writer who does not do things in halves. Poo is his subject, and he is determined to make the most of it. Which is not to say that he isn’t inventive with excrement. There are foul things aplenty in this collection, but few of them are repeated unnecessarily. Turgidovsky’s approach, as ever, is both wide-ranging and unexpected. All the old avenues are explored, but new channels are also opened up. Shit there is, in all shapes and sizes, in all situations and circumstances, in all symbolic and sensual guises. Tales of turds come easily to Turgidovsky, that much was obvious even before the publication of his collection; but it is nonetheless satisfying to see him covering  typical territory with such terrific poise and precision. It may be hard to stomach at times, but one cannot fault the writer – nor, when all is said and done, the title. Taken together, these stories really do examine a world of shit. What’s more, they argue that this world is worth thinking about it, and writing about, at some length.

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‘.

Enjoyable Hours (Answers)

A few days ago I posed three questions. Here are my answers:

1. It depends on what he means by ‘low point’. Turgidovsky’s fiction is deliberately depressing; in one sense, therefore, his novels are as ‘low’ as novels can get. If it is a question of quality, however, one must disagree with the critic in question. Turgidovsky may be an embittered misanthrope with a heart of coal, but he wields a semi-colon with the confidence of a classical master.

For all this, my experience of Andrey Torg suggests that to take him seriously is to wilfully waste the time of the world and oneself. Hyperbole is his plaything: he means not what he says, because he knows not what he means.

2. A title is just a title – or is it? A wise man once said that if a title is the front door of a book, than a clever reader ought to enter via the first-floor window. On top of this, I find that many titles suffer greatly in translation. In Spanish it may seem like a sensible idea to put a fruit in a title of a novel; in English it strikes one as desperate. There was a trend, once; a time in which the sounds chimed brightly. Now I only have to see the word ‘mango’ or ‘apricot’ in a book title to walk the other way.

3. There remains something of a difference of opinion over whether Yevgony Nonik ever existed, let alone when he died. I maintain, nevertheless, that I was either a.) in the bath, b.) reading a book or c.) engaging in a spot of illegal elvering.

Related by Hate?

Several readers have asked whether there is any relation between Ulyana Grinksy (mentioned here) and Pyetr Turgidovsky (mentioned in many places), other than a shared contempt for the world.

As far as I know, Grinksy and Turgidovsky are neither friends nor, as I see it, like-minded writers. Grinsky, in my opinion, holds nothing against the world at large. She reserves all the hatred for her readers – ‘those pitiful creatures, who swallow everything I say, with never a thought of chewing’ – whereas Turgidovsky… Turgidovsky hates pretty much everything…

Explode Those Noses

Last Night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned, with all the style and swerve of a wind-scything swallow, to the subject of ‘sensory reading’.

Let me expand. You will have heard, no doubt, of the latest Scandinavian musical sensation: The Stockholm based Nose Explosion Project – a forty-nine piece brass ensemble whose main aim is (and I quote) ‘to make the noses of our audience explode’. As you’d expect, blaring, blasting and altogether bludgeoning trumpets, tubas and trombones are very much the order of all their raucous concerts, which are, I am told, both well attended and received. As it stands, however, not a single nose has exploded.

I wonder whether the violent melodies of the Nose Explosion Project (or NEP, for those in the nose) are quite to my discerning (i.e. somewhat traditional) musical tastes. Probably not. I am, nonetheless, a cautious admirer of their ambitions. Indeed, I rather wish that contemporary writers would take heed of this fantastic troop – or their ideas, at least. Too many present-day scribblers settle for the smallest sensory reaction from their readers. They want people to ‘like’ their books! To laugh, perhaps, or smile. To shed a solitary tear. To shiver.  To frown. Otters above! Is that all?

There are, of course, notable exceptions. Think of Hoçe, for instance, of whom it was written: ‘rarely does a reviewer resort to issuing a public health warning, but on this occasion I feel it is an absolute necessity: if you are to read this book with the same level of serious intensity with which it was written, you will almost certainly die’ (see here). Or Pyetr Turgidovsky, who starts every sentence with the hope that ‘it may bring vomit to the mouth of my readers’. There are also positive reactions. Ciambhal O’Droningham, for instance, has remarked how, like the best erotic writers, he expects his readers to feel no less than ‘constant, knee-shaking arousal’ from the majority of his sentences – ‘and preferably more’.

These writers aim high – and I thank them for it. Others, however, need to step up to the sensory plate: to think seriously about chasing a much wider range of readerly responses. Think closely about all the possible physical reactions. How marvellous would it be to write a paragraph that gave every reader an itchy ear, a strange pain in the knee and/or eight tingling fingers? Better still, how about beating the NEP at their own game? I look forward to hearing about the first contemporary european writer to make a reader’s nose explode.

Narrative in the Streets

Andy Hunter, who insists on calling me Gregory, sends the following information:

Broadcastr, a project by Electric Literature, just released an iPhone app which automatically plays audio stories specific to your GPS location. The iPhone app is free, and can be downloaded here …We all fall into routines, and travel the same paths every day. The Broadcastr mobile app reveals layers of narrative in the streets around us, connecting us to a wealth of memory we may never have discovered otherwise.

Being entirely unfamiliar with iPhone technology I can no offer no hints as to whether this ‘app’ is as interesting, or as frightening, as it sounds. Secretive man as I am, I dislike the idea of a phone keeping tabs on my location and connecting me to a wealth of undiscovered memories – but I am at least wise enough to appreciate that, as these things go, this may be a rather revolutionary way of meeting the modern reader’s needs.

One ponders just how adept the phone is at linking stories with locations. If I step into a bar in Irkutsk, I am greeted with a sample from Pyetr Turgidovsy’s The Lunatic? Are visits down East End London side streets to be accompanied by fictional re-renderings of Jack the Ripper? Is Oa Aayorta is any way involved in this project?