Tuesday, 8 December 2009


There have been a few works that I wanted to re-experience immediately, or as soon as I start forgetting them. Their effect may be short-lived (U2's "One", Elbow's "Fugitive Motel", Kate Bush's "Under the Ivy") or they may stick with me for years ("Cinema Paradiso"). Here I'll look at 3 literary obsessions.

Love Letters on Whitewash - Joel Lane

Joel Lane's best known for Fantasy/Horror writing I think, but I first heard him as a poet when he was doing an Mphil about the history or philosophy of Science. "Love Letters on Whitewash" has about 10 4 line stanzas. I've seen it published in a few places. Here are 3 sample stanzas.
On this wet wall in a blank house,
In this locked flesh of a sanitised womb,
I touch the face without make-up,
The bloodshot eyes and bruised mouth.
Where your picture floats face down,
Blurred from the developing fluid,
unsigned, like a valentine
Or a ballot paper. Perhaps
Or if, only once, I made you cry
Prisms that trapped new bridges
Over these choked canals, and lit
Chimneys stubbed out against the clouds,
I was a sucker then for urban squalour - blown litter, flapping tarpaulins - and flashy imagery. Still am.

Malone Dies - Samuel Beckett

Acually, it's just the last few pages of this, before "The Unnamable" kicks in. After 250 pages of Beckett's trilogy, the pace accelerates at this point. Here are 3 extracts
On. One morning Lemuel, putting in the prescribed appearance in the great hall before setting out on his rounds, found pinned on the board a notice concerning him. Group Lemuel, excursion to the islands, weather permitting, with Lady Pedal, leaving one p.m. His colleagues observed him, sniggering and poking one another in the ribs. But they did not dare say anything. One woman however did pass a witty remark, to good effect. Lemuel was not liked, that was clear. But would he have wished to be, that is less clear. He initialled the notice and went away.
Are you the one in charge? said Lady Pedal. One of the sailors leaned towards Lemuel and said, She wants to know if you're the one in charge. Fuck off, said Lemuel. The Saxon uttered a roar which Lady Pedal, on the qui vive for the least sign of animation, was pleased to interpret as a manifestation of joy. That's the spirit! she cried.
Then they set out, all six, from the shore.
Gurgles of outflow.
This tangle of grey bodies is they. Silent, dim, perhaps clinging to one another, their heads buried in their cloaks, they lie together in a heap, in the night. They are far out in the bay. Lemuel has shipped his oars, the oars trail in the water. The night is strewn with absurd
absurb lights, the stars, the beacons, the buoys, the lights of earth and in the hills the faint fires of the blazing gorse. Macmann, my last, my possessions, I remember, he is there too, perhaps he sleeps. Lemuel
Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hachet on which the blood will never dry

For a while I thought this section to be the most beautiful passage of prose I'd ever read

so many ways to begin (jon mcgregor)

A novel that emotionally engaged me more than any other. 60 sections, each headed by an item ("Biscuit tin, rusted, used as money box or for keepsakes, c.1944"). The format gives him flexibility - some chapters describe a moment or offer a past/present juxtaposition, some are enjambed narrative fragments. His strength is narrative rather than quotable, flashy highlights but he's never less than tidy - "She said nothing, waiting for the blurred sarcasm to wear itself out" (p.312). There are lists of details (e.g. p.37 describing what he likes about museums - "scribbled designs for the world's first steam engine, spotted with candlewax and stained with jam").

The writing's spare - years and events are elided; paragraphs are often juxtaposed instead of being connected by recitative. He slips unobtrusively between past and future, between reality and might-have-beens, between hopes and regrets. Sometimes (e.g. p.205) he offers alternatives - "Eleanor walked quickly ... Or she walked tall ...Or she ran" - even if the event only happened once.

The artfulness? Well, there are the usual novelistic coincidences and parallels (Mary and Dorothy in chapter 60; the choice of Coventry, etc). The chapter headings are in the style of museum labels - "Tobacco tin; used for storing buttons, beads, safety pins, c.1960s". These are everyday exhibits from which one can make a narrative from a life much as a curator might try to manoeuvre a visitor around a show. And at the end (especially, but also whenever people look back) one is conscious of the inadequacy of trying to represent a life by episodes and objects.


What do these works say about me? What do Lane, Beckett and McGregor have in common? Maybe not much. McGregor's is a realist novel, with only hints of shifting signifiers. Lane's doesn't confront the difficulties of language and representation. They're all easy reads on some level. They're all lyrical, with local flashes of (showy?) brilliance embedded in a punctuated narrative arc. They all touch on the human condition.

Lane's piece isn't merry, but it ends on an upbeat. Beckett's could be a fable of personality disintegration and recovery. McGregor's narrator lead an ordinary life, where it "felt good to be doing this thing that was almost but never quite the same". That's about the nearest he gets to epiphany. That's it.

Like the pop songs I fall for, they may not be "good". Maybe they just turned up at the right time, forever linked to some now forgotten autobiographical event. Partly their impact was because they were examples of what I aspired to write at the time. Sometimes I feel they have stopped me in my tracks as far as my writing's concerned. They were hard to let go but in the end I had to - with grateful, fond memories.

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