The Crickets

In all parts of this fair world, the industrious writer faces distractions. As I sat down at my desk this afternoon I was more conscious than ever of the sound of crickets. I first noticed their ceaseless chirruping, of course, upon my arrival. I did not remark on it, but registered it nonetheless, marking it down as one of the more notable differences between my old home and my new.  At the same time I presumed I would soon get used to it.

That is almost, but not exactly, the case. The sound is now a familiar one; as familiar as the buzzing of electrical cables, or starlings playing on the roofs. Yet I would hesitate to say that it has become mere background noise. For crickets are never easy to ignore. Their song remains the same, but the tone and volume has a tendency of shifting subtlety. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they move into another gear. The chirping changes. New crickets move into the vicinity and raise the chorus to a new level. The chatter rises and falls, folds and unfolds, rolls and, when you least expect it, relents.

Crickets never really stop: the industrious writer grasps this early on. They keep on humming, day and night. They always have something to say, and it isn’t always nice to hear. On certain days their tune has about it a wistful melancholic air. On others it buzzes vibrantly, like a happy refrigerator. More often than not, however, it drones like the lawnmower of a zealous gardener. You want to shut it out, but you can’t. The only thing to do is to accept that it is there, that it will always be there, and that if you wait long enough, it will probably move into another register: not distinctly different, but never quite the same.

As with the crickets, so with the critics. They will always be with us, muttering and moaning, grousing and grumbling, objecting and opposing. You can’t pretend to drown them out entirely. At the very least, though, you can accept their awkward, eternal presence, and enjoy those brief moments in which their murmur becomes music.

Absences

Having said I would explain the absence of a review for Henri Ossan-Ossaf’s In Case amongst my Greatest European Novels List, I’m not sure I can. I started commissioning reviews for this list almost six years ago, asking no more than a few thousand words for each novel. You’d have thought someone could have come up with something by now, wouldn’t you?

Ah, but you underestimate the peculiar humour of this world of ours. Strange forces, fuelled by hidden realities, with the close support of metaphysical powers lying behind the mysterious veil of the unknown, have clearly decided that no one should write a review of Ossan-Ossaf’s book. Why I do not know. Suffice it to say that they have made their point clear on more than one occasion.

One could get too hysterical about this whole matter. One could even write a novel about the attempt to write a review of this novel; a novel that would quite possibly be better than the original novel. Yes: one could definitely make more of this if one wanted to.

As editors go, however, I seek an element of reserve. Where others go over the top, I merely peek my head above the parapet for a moment or so. Ultimately, I have better things to do than submit to hysteria.

On which basis, let me keep this explanation brief. The facts are as follows: several writers have agreed to write this review over the last six years. All of them have failed to finish. At first these failures felt like a spooky coincedence. They have since begun to seem like something rather more frightening. I exaggerate, perhaps, but the death of so many critics working on the same project in such a short space of time does strike me as just a little odd. Some of them were quite old, admittedly, but the demise of the others certainly came as something of a shock. Nobody, not even his anxious mother, expected Per Hansen to choke on that satsuma.

The greatest sadness of all, of course, lies in the fact that, amidst all this chaos, the review remains unwritten. God knows that we’ve tried to remedy this, but God clearly has other ideas. What they are exactly is beyond even my critical powers. I guess we’ll have to wait for him/her to write a novel.

The Art & Craft of Clever Reviews

‘Having resolved to exercise your brain and refresh your literary palate you decide to read this newly translated 1968 text by the deceased experimental french writer georges perec who is celebrated for once having written a long novel without using the letter “e” so having forked out your ten quid for this short story or at a stretch novella but a book is not any the better for being cheaper by the word you remind yourself in any case having forked out over ten pounds you begin to read and either you find the looping style immediately so rebarbative that you cast the book to the floor and feyly lament your wasted cash or you find the style intriguing and continue reading…’ (Stephen Poole on The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise)

Stephen Poole’s review of Perec forms part of a rather grand tradition: that of writing reviews in the style of the book reviewed. I used to know a critic who wrote every one of his reviews in this manner. If the book was short, sharp and full of sexy punctuation, so too was his review. If the sentence-structure was turgid, the metaphors laboured, and the punctuation lazy: his review was likewise. On top of this, the length of his reviews were always directly proportional to the length of the book in question. A novella received a paragraph; a two-part epic received a novella. His last, and best, review was of a new International translation of The Holy Bible. Each one of its sixty-six paragraphs took the style of a different Biblical book. It was both a masterly parody and a serious-minded review. It was also brilliant.

To Start With

I have been thinking for a while of compiling my favourite opening lines from Underneath the Bunker reviews, with a view to choosing ‘the best’. However, rather than hand out a crown to any one competitor based on current and curious whims, I have since decided to present a wide selection of worthy winners, which you, dear reader, may rank accordingly (or not, as the case may be). Here they are:

As has been recently revealed by a diarrhoeic spew of critical studies, the utilization of lavatorial substance and imagery in modern culture has a rich, if not pungent, history. [continue reading]

I was once privileged enough to meet one of Europe’s greatest novelists – Kirios Quebec in the men’s room of an expensive Parisian hotel. [continue reading]

Upon first looking into Egor Falastrom’s “Dark Dreams of a Delirious Dog-Catcher”, I felt as though the sweet hands of love were slapping me tenderly in the face. [continue reading]

Starting two months ago – and ending last week, due to significant lack of interest – Thursday nights at The Crippled Bee (the finest public house in North London) were set aside for the pastime of Karaoke-Poetry. [continue reading]

Oh my sainted satin slippers. What am I doing here? [continue reading]

I hope you will agree that, for all their failings as reviewers (and they have many), my critical cohorts have never had any problems kicking off.

More of this, perhaps, one day.

Treacherous Loses and Thoughtful Dots

Amongst the most recent reviews to have re-appeared over at Underneath the Bunker we may find Sebastien Cheraz’s reaction to Jarni Kolovsky’s …And I Lost: a novel made famous by its rugged simplicity – and by the unbelievable regularity with which reviewers mistype its title. How many times, for instance, have I seen And I Lost…? Too many to count. Also: And, I Lost, And: I Lost, And… I Lost, And I… Lost, ……And I Lost, And.I.Lost, And… I… Lost…. The list could go on: critics have been creative in their idiocy (as critics almost always are).

Lesser writers might shrug off these middling misptints: Kolovsky, however, has never taken kindly to such lapses. Rage is the word that scuttles across the paving stones of one’s mind. Pure rage. ‘It takes him days to recover,’ his literary agent admitted to me once: ‘he simply cannot abide the error in question. Cannot abide it at all‘.

One may wonder why. Is it, perhaps, on account of the time he takes over his titles? Most probably. Kolovsky is one of a large brood of writers for whom naming a book is a deeply serious endeavour – one that times up as much time as writing the book itself. To blithely misquote the title of a Kolovsky novel is, therefore, an act of treachery: it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the writer and his craft. Rest assured – every one of the three dots that precedes the three words in the title of …And I Lost has been put there for a very good reason. These are thoughtful dots.

Writing for the Critics

You write for your readers, not for your critics. Or at least, you shouldn’t let yourself worry unduly about what the latter will think. They are one in a thousand readers. They wield power, yes, but they are famously hard to please. So why try? Put the critics out of your mind…

And yet you succumb. See how you succumb. Subtlety so, but succumbing all the same. You’ll deny it, when pressed, but the truth is that you couldn’t let those critics out of your mind. The proof is in the prose. It panders in so many parts: oh how it panders! It throws out a rope and begs a critic to catch it. No – it doesn’t take a detective to catch you at it. You don’t have to look so hard to see it.

In the case of the Belgian writer Pieter Hepp, you hardly have to look at all. Hepp has recently proved himself the arch prince of critic-pandering. He has taken ‘writing for the critics’ to a whole new level. He writes with the critics not vaguely (as with most of us) but directly in mind. His novels are, essentially, love letters to critics.

And when I say ‘critics’ I don’t mean critics in general – I mean specific, name-able critics. He brazenly shapes his work to suit the tastes of a dozen or so specific Belgian critics. He follows their work closely; studies their backgrounds; even asks them, on occasion, what it is they expect from contemporary literature. And then he writes it. Easy.

Curiously, this tactic ‘appears’ to pay off. His last novel caused a storm in Bruges earlier this year, with every critic praising it to high heaven. ‘This is the future of the novel!’ trumpeted one. ‘The greatest work ever!’ pealed another. Beyond Belgium, however, the critics were somewhat less positive. The novel bemused them. It wasn’t bad, no, but it didn’t quite strike the right chord. It wasn’t for them.

Hepp, however, isn’t all that discouraged. All he needs to do now, in his mind, is to pursue his project with a little more scope: to expand his pool of critics to include other literary scenes; to write for more of the – if not all of the – critics. Europe first, then the world. Once he’s managed this, he might even consider the common reader. Pretty soon he’ll be writing with all of us directly in mind. Resistance will be futile. He’ll be onto us before we know it. Or will he? His last novel was five hundred pages long. It took this many pages to please a bevy of Belgian critics. What price a world of them?

Goodbye Alexander Reight (Part Two)

The year is 1987, the city is Frankfurt. Alexander Reight is one of seventy academics attending a conference on Anglo-German relations between 1500 and 1805. He was planning to give a paper, it is said, but pulled out, citing ‘paucity of research material’. No matter. The line-up is otherwise excellent – and the very fact that Reight is part of the audience is, for all those present, a distinct draw. Who wasn’t stunned, only a year or so before, by his seminal text: The Art of Prussian Balladery, 1705-1729?

What they don’t know is that Reight has never been overly keen on conferences. It’s not the concept of mingling with other minds that bothers him, per se; rather the manner in which this tends to transpire. The real problem is, he later claims, ‘verbal communication of an intellectual nature’. Not talking, specifically, but ‘talking clever’. Or else, as he later said (or should I say, wrote): ‘the wholly unreal expectation that I might actually speak as I write’.

Every academic has their nervy days. So what? Something about this conference, nevertheless, touches more than a single nerve in Reight. As each paper passes, followed by the customary ten minutes for questions, the pressure grows. No one expects him to ask a question everytime, not at all. But after the first day has finished – and Reight has yet to raise a single point – there is an almost tangible sense of disappointment. When will the great man speak? Surely he’ll say something? He must, mustn’t he?

The second of three days rolls by, but Alexander Reight continues to hold his peace. There are moments in which he appears to be mulling over a question; rolling over a query with his tongue – but this is as far as it gets. The words refuse to leap from his lips. He keeps schtum. The rabbit of wisdom is well hutched-up.

As the third day draws to a yawning close, Reight’s fellow delegates have long since given up on the prospects of him speaking his mind. They’ve tried during coffee breaks to coax him out of his shell, but to no avail. No matter. It’s a little sad, perhaps, but it happens. He’s a quiet man, so what?

They underestimate the pressure, however, that Reight puts on himself. To him, this is certainly not a small matter. This is simply not excusable. He really ought to say something, oughtn’t he? Ah, but time is running shorter than a legless dwarf. Only two papers remain – and there’s no guarantee that they’ll fuel a debate in which he’ll be able to participate. After all, they don’t remotely cover his period of interest. Still,what other options does he have?

As the penultimate paper finishes, Reight decides that the time is ripe. He’s going to ask a question. He’s going to speak at last. Yes. The mute oracle is about to open his mouth for the first time.

And say what? Therein lies the problem. Reight doesn’t have a question formed in his mind as he raises his hand. What he has instead is a small voice, a comforting voice, a voice which could be the voice of experience – but might also be the voice of ignorance. In any case, this voice is telling him that everything will be all right. He’ll know what to say when the time comes. He’s an intelligent man. He’s written a great book. He can ask a clever question, of course he can.

Or can he? Needless to say, he can’t. He starts off promisingly. ‘Could I just, um, perhaps, draw everyone’s attention to an issue, um, relating to a point made, um, at the beginning of your lecture?’. It’s non-specific, granted, but it might yet lead somewhere. Alas, no. This footpath goes off into thick undergrowth. And what undergrowth! Brambles, brambles everywhere. ‘I fancy that the exemplarity, ostensible though it is, corresponds to an innate interference emanating from an awkward instance of, um, irregular ontological, um, horizontality’. Truth be told, Reight has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. His mind and his mouth are going through a messy divorce – and communication is scant, even non-existent. Words come out regardless. Long words, some of them. If you don’t listen closely, you might be fooled into thinking that they go together. But they don’t. Not at all.

How long this goes on no one can quite remember. Some say thirty seconds, others five minutes. At what point he starts sweating, shaking and, finally, frothing at the mouth is also under debate. In any case, the dark curtains of chaos descend soon after. What started out as a tentative question turns out to be a complete mental-breakdown, from which he takes Reight a year, at least, to recover. Even the most well-constructed minds can unravel fast. And Reight’s mind unravels faster than a ball of string in the hands of an over-excited kitten.

It’s a sad story, make no mistake, and I somewhat regret my decision to tell it to you, if only because it leaves such an unfortunate impression of Alexander Reight. For though he never rose again to the heights of his first book, the rest of his career was nonetheless strewn with minor successes. I am firmly of the opinion, in fact, that he never wrote a bad book. His mind was, I repeat, first-rate. He was, by any standards, great.

Still, it would be wrong to pretend that he didn’t struggle. Perhaps he might have picked up the necessary skills at some point. People do. So far as the conference circuit goes, however, he never tested himself again. Frankfurt taught him a lesson he was never to forget, creating an impression he was never able to overturn: an impression of a highly skilled writer who simply couldn’t rise to the challenge of ‘speaking as he wrote’.

Alexander Reight was survived by his wife, Amelia, and two children, Karl and Sofia.