Wooden Cutlasses

‘Since the dawn of the literary journal, critics have always fancied themselves as samurai. Alas, the truth is that most of them are toddlers charging about with wooden cutlasses’ (me, here).


Ask a Leopard

‘A specific answer? From a critic? You may as well go ask a leopard whether you can borrow his skin. (And thank God for that!)’ (Johannes Speyer)

Intermission (The Love of Everything)

From an early essay by Jave de Lasse:

Difference springs from ignorance. Just as racial or religious hatred is fuelled by a naive fear of the unknown, so too is the dislike of certain art forms. The man who sayeth: ‘I hate romantic fiction’ knows not the subject of which he talks. Maybe he is scared of it. Maybe he hasn’t yet got around to it. All we can say is that he doesn’t know it – and that is why he doesn’t like it. If he did know it – as well as he knows, for instance, ghost stories – we can be sure that he would love it. For all that is known can, nay will, be loved. Only the lazy critic trades in hates.

Postscript: Ten years later and, yes, Jave de Lasse trades in hates like the best of us. On the plus side, he’s also stopped writing ‘sayeth’.

Waves and Fingernails

Ivor Bellinson, last seen chronicling Bulgarian poet Tomas Lurgsy’s London years (see here) has popped his head above the parapet again, in the form of an article appearing in this month’s Lit Up, the hip-new-literary-magazine-that-inexplicably-has-no-online-presence.

As usual, his findings are perfectly sensible, and make for a mildly interesting read. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking. Bellinson specialises in a middle-of-the-road kind of criticism, in which one follows a lead or two, stitches together a quote or three, and muses with no real intent on a handful of vaguely intriguing questions. He would make a useless hound: Bellinson is more of a lazy Labrador – a fluffy, charming, friendly dog; the type that one might expect to find following you around in the house of a wealthy old woman with hearing difficulties.

What Bellinson proposes in this new article is that the work of the contemporary novelist Danish novelist C.P.Pedrik, pride of smart Scandinavian schoolteachers, bears some similarities to the work of deceased English writer Virginia Woolf, pride of burly construction workers and lovelorn fishmongers.

Fair enough. However, where we might expect the scholar to shine the barely flickering light of his critical attention on Pedrik’s recently republished The Chronicles of Dorothy Pepperstone (see here), he turns instead to the better-known Ignoble Trilogy, passing through a wealth of fascinating possibilities to forage for food of rather less potential. So much could be said about Pepperstone, so little about Ignoble. But Bellinson, in his sweet little way, likes nothing so much as pointing out the obvious. At his best he’s harmless, at his worst pointless.

The subject on which Bellinson’s paper swings is something that used to interest me a little more than it does now. This is the art of near-obsessive description. Think of Woolf in The Waves, desperately seeking yet another way of letting words stand in for the shifting sea. Think of Pedrik in The Ignoble Trilogy, giving page after page over to his protagonist’s fingernails. How many ways does one Danish writer describe a fingernail? Let me count the ways… Actually, no: let me not count the ways – I haven’t all day. Suffice it to say, Pedrik is persistent. He gives the task his all.

Are there parallels between the way these two writers operate? Most likely. Woolf does for waves what Pedrik does for fingernails. It’s not a point I’m willing to debate. I do wonder, however, whether I ought to admire their dedication (or at least the extent to which I should). As suggested, this is something I have been pondering over for a while. I used to think, a long time ago, that this is what writing was about, that this was what true writers did: they scrambled their way to the very heart of things with ceaseless, diligent unerring devotion to the art of description. I used to adore nothing more than a novel that opened with twenty pages of descriptive prose; I would lose myself for hours in the lingering scene-setting of novelists such as Pedro Sõlavar and Nancy Kerosakov, writers who never used one sentence when they could use seventy instead, because they were writers: because that was what they were meant to do.

I wouldn’t say I’ve entirely lost patience with this approach. Not at all. I admire Pedrik’s fingernails as much as anyone. Who couldn’t? But I have come to admit that this style of writing can be as tedious as it can be thrilling – and that the vast majority of those who wander along this long old path are wasting their reader’s time. The truth is this: there is so much more to being a writer than the ability to give twenty pages over to a horse chestnut tree.

Still, god bless those who continue to do it, and do it well.


Why address a topic directly when you can dance a merry and fruitful waltz around its boundaries instead? Having spent many years as an editor of a literary journal, I have been witness to a fair procession of reviewers getting down to the wonderful business of never quite getting down to business. Critical fumbling, it could be called -except that this fumbling isn’t as bad as it sounds; not always, anyway. Sometimes a strange diversion can enrich a review; very often a seemingly irrelevant comment or anecdote can make the whole thing worthwhile. As the Finnish actor Tippi Udje once said: ‘Mr Ambiguity wears some funny shirts, but he makes a good cup of tea’.

There are other times, yet, when one is driven near to violence by a reviewer’s refusal to look his/her subject in the eye; to make good on their promise to ‘explore’ the relevant issues in any sense at all. This is not quite the case with Heidi Kohlenberg’s two page reaction to Edmund Ek’s name change (published this morning in Majfisk, a Swedish fishing magazine, available in all good Scandinavian newsagents) – but it may as well be.

To be honest, it’s not as if she doesn’t warn us. ‘I am struggling to conceive an arrangement of words that would properly sum up my feelings on this subject,’ she writes in the opening sentence. Only struggling? ‘In fact,’ she writes two sentences later, ‘I have totally failed to conceive such an arrangement’. Aha. But this is not quite the end of the matter. In the final paragraph she reassesses her failure and tries, at the last moment, to salvage all with the assistance of a single word. ‘I wonder,’ she wonders, ‘whether or not all this can be summed up after all, within the following statement: Ha!’

That, then, is her response. ‘Ha!’ The rest of the review deals simply (and rather wonderfully, as it happens) with the idea of responding to unexpected news, with other people’s responses to unexpected news, with possible responses to these responses to unexpected news, with responses to ideas of responding to responses of unexpected news and with various other things of little or no relevance to the matter in hand. I have to say it – it’s a good article. But (‘Ha!’ aside) it isn’t really the response most of us were looking for.

All of which leads to the question – is ‘Ha!’ enough? I wonder…

Missing: God?

Spare time, like the sun, has not been hanging around my neighbourhood of late. For this reason – amongst undisclosed others – I have not been able to delve as deeply into my Greatest Novels list as much as I had hoped. I would like to take this opportunity, therefore, to make a few general points; to hover hopefully above, in all my kestrelesque glory, forever surveying the lie of the land. To put it another way, I would like at this juncture to bring you up to date with a complaint or two arising from said list.

Like all true critics, I start with an excuse. Let me say this. There was never an occasion on which I suggested that my Greatest Novels List was designed with any sort of perfection in mind. I never claimed that its results would be in any way ‘comprehensive’, or that – when all the reviews were collected – it would give anything other than an incomplete image of the European literary scene. I have, I hope, never been presumptuous enough to pretend that I can lay chaos aside for more than a second or so. It can’t be done.

In light of this, I am not ashamed to see my list criticised. Nor am I tempted to dismiss such criticism. I always said that there would be mistakes; which wasn’t to say I didn’t care about the mistakes – rather than I knew that, having appeared (according to the laws of Mr. and Mrs. Inevitability) a time would come when they could be confronted with more ease. That time, quoth the cliché, is now. So here we go:

General Point regarding the Greatest Novels List, No 1: The Absense of Texts which appear to deal directly with Religion.

‘Appear’ may be the operative word here. Or is it ‘directly’? I suppose the point I am making is that I find something rather tiresome about novels which are built around the kernel of a single ‘big’ subject. Show me a great novel that is essentially ‘about God’? Show me the opposite and I’ll be equally impressed.

But I am, perhaps, avoiding the issue. What is seen to be missing are not books that deal, at significant length, with God (or gods) per se, but with institutionalised religion. To put it yet another way, where is Tibor Tibetti’s Artificial Light or Moses Mayeau’s The Rain it Works?  Most obviously, where is Ingemar Glozon’s A Thousand Men – one of the few novels I know to have been unofficially banned by the liberal press for its rigidly pro-Catholic content?

These novels are, I confess, conspicuously absent. Critics do seem to have consciously shied away from them. Why? This, as they say, is the question.

More on a related subject (leading to what may or may not be an answer to this query) later.