Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I must have seen the film "The Godfather" half a dozen times. It remains one of the supreme pieces of storytelling in cinema, not least for the way that Michael Corleone, at the beginning of the film a returning war hero who wants nothing to do with his Mafia family, has turned into the successor to his father, the next Don Corleone.

Reading Mario Puzo's original novel, a bestseller that came out three years before the film, I'm struck by how many of the iconic scenes from the film are straight from the book. Copolla, after all, was a late attachment to the film.

"The Godfather" tells the story of Vito Corleone, Don of one of the New York Mafia families. The novel begins just before the wedding of his only daughter Connie, taking place at his home. We are given sketches of several characters who are going to ask the Don for a favour on his daughter's wedding - a favour no Sicilian can resist. The wedding itself is a lavish affair, and brings together the whole family but also the wider Corleone "Family" the enforcers of this criminal underworld. Drawn together by blood ties that stretch back across to Sicily, and over decades, the New York of 1945 - familiar to us from the ticker tape parades of Pathe footage - remains a place where communities still live in ethnic enclaves and where the law often holds less sway than the Mafia. Yet its also a parallel world. Outside the wedding the policemen patrol taking car number plates to see who is attending the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter. We are introduced to Sonny, the hothead elder son, who whisks a way a bridesmaid for the start of an affair on his sister's wedding day, to Fredo, the softest of the three sons whose portrayal in the movie by the wonderful John Cazale is the one character in the novel that is expanded in the movie; and finally to Michael, a returning war hero who defied his father by fighting for country rather than family - something incomprehensible for a Sicilian, used to the corruptions of state power - who brings with him his girlfriend, Kay, an All-American girl.

This long book is a massively successful page turner - but what is so compelling about it, even for one so familiar with the film is Puzo's absolute control of describing this alternate society that exists besides normal American society. Its rules - such as the "omerta", vow of silence - to its roles, with layers of deniability between the "Don" and his captains and the operations underneath - are made clear and vivid from the start. Here we are seeing a man at the height of his powers, a Ceasar receiving tribute. Yet what is equally brilliant is that such a world doesn't happen by accident, and doesn't remain unchanged through luck. The "families" of New York - swelled by Italian immigrants and soldiers returning from war - are at a critical point. The illegal gambling and alcohol, and strongarm smuggling that served them so well from Prohibition through and past the war, may not be enough in the new world. Drugs are the new "cash crop" and younger hotheads are wanting a piece of the action. The "older heads" are only a generation or two from their arrival in America. Corleone himself is named after the village he came from, having being smuggled to America after his father was killed. His own "early life" when he challenges the local hoodlum is sharply drawn (but the story is excised from the film narrative and used in "Godfather II".)

Yet when his refusal to join the drug trade leads to another attempt on his life, there is another war. A war that claims many casualties - including his own elder son, betrayed by his sister's husband - as well as crooked policeman McCluskey, which brings down the whole weight of law on the Mafia operation. The reason that gangsters stories so fascinate in movies and books is because of how they reflect the dark side of the society we live in. The human frailties that lead to prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling create a skewed morality where the illegal activities are "taxed" - but not by the state but through their enforcers both in the underworld and the police. With the whole book taking place within the enclosed world of the Corleone Family Puzo created a superb alternate society, where issues of fidelity, love and honour are played out daily, but without the more distant codes of a more advanced society. Michael Corleone who avenged his father being shot goes to a Sicily he never knew and lives a different life there for a couple of years before circumstance - his discovery and betrayal, the explosion that kills his Italian peasant wife, the death of Sonny - bring him back to face his destiny.

Set primarily in that 10 year period after the war the book is a brilliantly constructured story, that I was surprised to find as compelling to read as to watch. Puzo writes in a cool, objective prose that though it rarely develops into poetic raptures, is fresh and journalistic and adept at knowing how to tell bits of the story. When something bad happens we have often been elsewhere with one of the other characters and only then get the full truth of the story. It seems to me a book that is a genuine classic in its genre, as much for its writing as for the originality of the subject - which has now become such a cliche. In Vito and Michael Corleone he has created two of the iconic characters of the late 20th century. Hard to imagine reading this in 1969 without thinking of Brando or Pacino in the main roles, but so perfect are both of them for it, that reading the original novel there's nothing that seems wrong about that casting.

Not all of the novel makes it into the movies. I can see why the extended bits in L.A. and Vegas are excluded, featuring the singer/actor Johny Fontane (much closer in the book to Sinatra than in the film) as they feel like short stories almost, but in the book they are there for a good reason - to set up for the move West of the Corleone family and the rise of Las Vegas that will follow. I suspect that the hard boiled L.A. noir of Ellroy takes a little from Puzo's book as well as from the noir thrillers of Chandler etc.

I started reading this on a tired Friday night when I wanted an easy read, and it proved to be an inspired page turning choice, every bit as compelling as the film. The novel is highly economical with its storytelling and this is also what comes across in the film, yet every character has a reality to them that makes it far more than a potboiler. "The Godfather" was, of course, the invention that made Puzo. There are later novels that revisit the scenes but of course it was the filmed story - in "Godfather II" and less so in "Godfather III" - which occupied much of his career.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Shortly after I'd started reading "Gilead", Robinson's prizewinning novel from 2004 it was listed as being one of the best novels of the 21st century by American critics. Highly acclaimed for her first novel "Housekeeping", "Gilead" was published nearly a quarter of a century after her debut - though she's since written two more novels.

"In 1956, towards the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son," summarises the back cover, and that's the form of this insular novel. Ames is a third generation "preacher", his grandfather was an evangelical preacher of legend - some of them unsavoury - whilst he has settled down into an urbane life in a dirty poor Iowan town "Gilead" that exists merely as a staging place on the road to Kansas or St. Louis. Ames' life took an unusual turn late on when he married - for a second time - and he has a small boy. The elderly religious pastor, renowned only for his kindness and dedication, with little of the fire of his notorious grandfather, has been at home with his books for many years, a dedicated community figure, even as the congregation reduces and the span of history avoids this dusty outpost.

The setting of the novel seems important - for it places Ames as born around 1880, another world entirely, and his grandfather's main claim for fame was being an abolitionist who ran away with the Yankees during the civil war. Race is an underlying theme of the novel, though in mostly white Iowa, it is hardly present, until the last quarter of the novel, when a revelation brings home the still burning issues of segregation in America three generations on from that nation-defining war. Yet it would be wrong to say that "Gilead" is a novel that aims to take in the whole of America, for its scope and ambitions are far more closely defined than that.

In choosing the epistolary form we only have Ames as company, and though he is "open" with us the reader as he is addressing his young son, it is an "openness" that conceals. His own status as a "good man" is one that he struggles to reconcile with a sense of underlying failure. Yet so strong is his belief in God and the scriptures that he turns to the written word as being the best place where he might find the answer, even as life offers up both wonder (in his late marriage) and torment (in the return of his namesake John Ames Boughton to stay with Rev. Boughton, his ailing oldest friend.) Beginning almost as a sermon, Ames tells his histories - primarily focussing on his grandfather - less so on his own father - but interjects a present story, as his health fails, as the people around him interrupt his life, as he struggles through another Sunday. "When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time," he observes, sardonically. It is this tone of voice which is one of the books sustained pleasures. We are in the company of a good, learned, honest man, but he is no paragon, he is not a pious man. When parishioners go all "hell and brimstone" on him, having heard some preacher on the radio, he reminds them that the loneliest place, is that part of yourself where God has not reached.

Its a highly religiously-charged book, but never offputting as Ames spouts scripture, or scriptural commentary, or talks through his own sermons. In this, Robinson successfully manages to give us a philosophy wrapped tightly within the insides of a quiet novel. There's something very homespun about Ames, even though he's studied widely, and is something of a theologian; just as he's had to tone down his more bookish tendencies for his congregation, he carefully explains his reasoning - leavened with much doubt about meaning, albeit with no doubt about God - to the audience.

Gilead is hardly a place at all - yet it stands as some kind of monument to certain passings of American history. That man stopped off here to do various bits of work, and that manifested itself early on in the building of several ramshackle churches. It seems an America yet to be touched by, or even close to being bypassed by the twentieth century. Here in 1956, neither great war deserves more than a passing mention,the much more recent Korean war may not have happened at all, and Elvis Presley and rock and roll are yet to make it to this outpost of American conservatism. That placing seems somewhat deliberate, yet its also a little odd, for the young Ames as he remembers it are not about leaving (though his brother would, and eventually his father), but about an earlier past that was already fading when he was a young boy. He remembers vividly going with his father to search out the last resting place of his itinerant preacher grandfather - and tries, in the early parts of the book, to piece together the family secrets that drew a line between his grandfather and father. This idea of a struggle of what is good or right seems to be at the philosophical heart of the book. His grandfather may well have killed a man, and hidden fugitives from justice, yet in that man's philosophy it was his the right thing to do. Far worse is the betrayal of family, or the failure to stand up for your own kind.
John Ames has struggled all his life with these questions.

Knowing he is dying, knowing as well that at seventy seven, his free spirited young son, aged seven, will hardly remember him once he's gone, he worries about having not left enough of his legacy for his son and wife, having married so late, he never thought to put a little aside for himself. His long term friend Rev. Boughton is iller than he is, has a vast family, but is made unhappy that the favoured son, the one he named John Ames after his friend, has been away for so long. When the news comes that the son has returned, the older Ames is worried about what it meanss, for John Ames Boughton has never had faith, always got in trouble, and yet remains much-loved by his sister and father. That Ames is suspicious of his namesake manifests itself in awkward conversations, and even more awkward occasions where he suspects an interest in his young wife, and that the younger man might be a threat to the future happiness of his family.

Such are the small plot points and tensions of "Gilead." Its a languid read, but beautifully written, and Ames' tone is pitch perfect throughout. His own character remains a little opaque. Here is the sense of a life lived well, yet nonetheless wasted. Yet Ames' own redemption - for no sins as such - will come towards the very end, as he finally comes to love John Ames Boughton. This idea of delayed destiny - of God's purpose - seems to be one of Robinson's more subtle aims. The other, somewhat contradictory, is that for all the "goodness" of this small religious community, the wider tides of social change mean that the task undertaken by his grandfather to free the slaves, still remain in segregated America a major sore and rift. Yet these moral ambiguities, large in themselves, but filtered through small, if not insignificant moments in Ames's life, and through the voice of Ames himself, are filtered down to such a degree that I think it would be wrong to call "Gilead" out either as a moral fable or as philosophising text. More, it seems, that her fascination is in finding a way of documenting one particular smalltown life, where American history collides only tangentionally with, and that as this is that of a religious man, that much greater themes, of moral authority, of man's relationship with God, are interweaved carefully with it.

I read the book in several chunks, as the slow languid pace and the elegant prose are richly rewarding, yet aren't necessarily compelling you to turn the page. Its a book of details, many of which are only hinted at, because of Ames being such a careful storyteller. It is neither self-justification or explicit memoir - rather a careful sermonising of a family history by a man who has spent his life reading nuance into the words that he carefully puts together every Sunday for his congregation. Not for the first time, an American fiction that is so based in a devout religious community seems alien to a secular English reader. The fascination in some American - and Irish - fiction with a slightly pre-modern world where the church and its morality are all encompassing has its interest, always, but can also be somewhat inert at times. The book is immaculately put together, never that easy in the epistolery form, yet there are still some problems with it. When John Ames Boughton finally reveals his story, the retelling verbatim by Ames doesn't fit with the roundabout tone of the rest of the novel, and the revelation itself, a somewhat sleight of hand, seems leaden, almost unbelievable in this book's context - its clearly a deux ex machina to bring together an understanding between the two men. That said, its a quiet, powerful novel that I'm sure I'll be thinking about for quite some time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Digital Dark Age

Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet has warned of a "digital dark age." Not because of an anti-technology bent such as you might find in Andrew Keen but because of the pace of change. Technology - and technology devices are moving at such a pace that increasingly we'll find it harder to access the photographs, films and emails that tell our story. In this context the idea of a "dark age" is where future historians have lost the information about our age. The ultimate irony that our information rich age may lead to an unplanned information drought. Few companies survive more than a couple of generations, hardly any for a  hundred years or more. Those future preparations - rich people cryogenically freezing their brains for future revival - are gambles on more than technology, but a faith in a technological progress that history doesn't always identify.

Shelley's classic poem "Ozymandias" with its idol fallen into the sand that has seen an empire perish is the most brilliant invocation of this. Yet Cerf is not a naysayer, he has a possible solution (technological of course), a cloud-based virtualisation of every "player", every software "viewer", so that we can in thirty years - regardless of where it has been moved or passed on  - replicate the experience of opening a JPG or a PDF of Word file.  Backwards compatibility lasts only so long. Even our word files - surely as ubiquitous as anything in the computer world - might find themselves unreadable in Windows 20, or - more likely - Microsoft as a company may have gone the way of DEC or ICL or Mercury Communications.

Anyone who creates for a living should be aware of this - and the idea of digital curation is a really current one - much debated in art and archive circles. This week the magnificent Whitworth art gallery reopens in Manchester - as lovely as the new space is, the true wonder is the Whitworth collection - hidden in basements and vaults. Yet as we move into an age of a reduced public sector what happens to those archives? Nicholson Baker has written eloquently of what happens when you lose the physical object to digitisation - that you also lose the context. That "save" icon on your computer represents a floppy disc that anyone under, oh, twenty five say, will have never seen in real life. Even now we find that old things are being found, which were thought lost, up in attics of houses when someone dies, or forgotten in archives and libraries. Like the reporter searching for the meaning of "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", the sledge with that name on it, could just as easily be put on the fire as the house gets cleared out. As family lines decline or move out to other parts of the world - what do we carry with us? Photographs...memories....letters.... something - but modern life doesn't do too good a job at collecting those. A person's iPod might be a physical replica of their favourite records long after they've gone, but when the machine stops working....

I have a long history of interest in the subject of obsolescence in media. It fascinates me - as it seems that by putting our work down at all, we are creating an impermanent permanence. I am still scarred by a poem that got lost when I was eight years old, the only copy bundled away as my parents got angry at the mess I'd left things in. Since then I've mostly been careful but have had several purges. I used to overwrite cassette tapes not having the spare £1 for a new one.

At least there used to a physical product. A few years ago I realised I'd stopped printing off most of my work - and it just existed on a series of hard disks - and in fear I realised that I wanted a paper copy - I began archiving work to Lulu which allowed me a physical version. These non-books are a personal safety blanket. The thing about digital is that it only exists when there is a second copy - for the stand alone copy is fragile. Yet if you make music what do  you keep? The original tapes/mixes or the just the finished object.

Cerf's plan seems a good one - a cloud virtualisation engine where different versions of software can exist for ever more. I hope he's got a version of an Apricot programme which I wrote my first novel for instance! Of course the digital object is perhaps no more vulnerable than the physical one. The "lost works" of antiquity are many... we don't know if Beowulf is the only story of its kind and quality or one of many, its survival only coming to light in the early 19th century. I suspect it is safe enough now. We then have those handed-down stories, Socrates known through Plato's dialogues, or the New Testament stories from nearly a century after the events, or Franz Xaver von Schönwert's fairytales lost in an archive for 150 years and only recently rediscovered.

Concern over what we have lost are nothing new and imaginative writers have often played with such thoughts - think notably of so many of Borges' short stories - but then again, read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production"  to consider whether we are going backwards or forwards. The specific of digital virtualisation - that it will be the machines or the software that stop us from playing or reading or looking at things we take for granted now - are new, as is the seemingly endless amount of information out there. A few years ago I was at an art group that was clearing out their office as their funding had ended. They had bin bags full of  VHS tapes of short films that had been entered into a festival. I imagine I haven't kept the original letters or original text that was sent in for Lamport Court, the magazine I co-ran ten years or so ago, though some may have survived.

It seems to me there are several layers of archivist. The personal, the public, and the professional. The personal is often the artist (or if we are talking of personal data, the person who stores your family photographs - I bet its your dad). The public is that which exists many times. Surely a record that has been made available in a million copies is unlikely to be forever lost. Then the professional: this blog for instance was being archived by the British Library, though I just checked and they stopped doing so in 2012... did they run out of money? Did my blog stop being important? Who knows? Then there's the Wayback machine which does a phenomenal job of snapshotting the web - will these things survive? And that's before you start talking about the unexpected event - the wars and natural disasters that can take apart even the best laid plans. I read with interest Peggy Guggenheim's autobiography recently where she talked about hiding her collection of art as the war started and then removing it to America as the war ended. This is a mix of the personal and professional. Like the BBC cameramen who kept a tape of David Bowie on Top of the Pops or an old Dr. Who episode - its much harder for things to be lost than you'd think.

Where Cerf is right I think is that a generation now creating and preserving work is not even aware of the limitations of the impermanent. Whereas a writer, painter or musician will have good reason to keep some tabs on their work even if they never look at it again, who now keeps old emails - whether personal or business correspondance. My Gmail goes back nearly ten years now but my Compuserve and Demon and Tiscali accounts before then are long gone. Even this blog - I did attempt to extract it a few times in the past, but if some trick of fate means that Blogger disappears, will I have the energy to find it from some digital archive?

I wrote last year about "the end of memory" - where tasks we used to undertake, such as remembering phone calls and directions, are being replaced by always on immediate technology. Maybe our experiential culture means that we no longer have much time for history. Is this a complacency I wonder? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In our late capitalist consumerist world, Apple or whoever don't want us to be nostalgic - whereas in the 80s and 90s they wanted us to re-buy what we had already had, a continuing repetition of nostalgia, now - whether its the Premier League with its Year Zero approach to past history, or Spotify with its all you can eat buffet of songs from every era without any historical context - nostalgia is only valuable as a product. Remake, remodel indeed. When something doesn't work - Windows 8, Apple TV, Google glasses - they get sent to the dustbin of history. There's always a new piece of kit to be sold to us.

And this is at the heart of things I think - that as we live in an experiential culture where every minute should be filled, we no longer have the necessity to be bored like I was so often as a child, and scarcity which saw me spending hours deciding which particular record to buy or devouring every book as if it was my last, is no longer available to us.  On demand TV, YouTube and everything else provides us with no need to look back. It possibly explains the first person of so much contemporary fiction; and also, when we do look back, whether Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall it is to make history also a product. Taken into the political sphere - a right wing government like the current coalition wants to create a narrative that implies a reduced public sector is the only option; whilst the left struggles with narratives that aren't backward looking. Our Conservatives no longer conserves, our socialists no longer have a collective vision for the future.

An absence of history - at school, in the fast rebuilding/regenerating of city centres and fast growing cities in the far east - seems to suit the relentlessness of contemporary capitalism. In this context complaining to Flickr or Google or Microsoft because they have extinguished our online album, removed the service we stored everything on, seems to place the consumer in the role of curmudgeon. The generation that embraces digital and analogue - my own generation - sits uncomfortably between the two: we haven't the photo albums that our dads kept, at least partly because we haven't always got the shelves or sideboards or lofts to keep them in, but neither have we the insouciance to let the "cloud" take over - that somewhere in the future it will be possible to search out that old photograph, that old email, that needle in the digital haystack.

If it is a digital dark age I think it will be in patches - there are patches we've already lost - and I don't think any preservation programme can really counter our personal and technological flaws. More worrying the movement to private collections via Google books, rather than public libraries and archives which are either no longer funded, overwhelmed with content, or have got rid of the trained staff who can interpret these collections, means that we may well look back at these early days of the 21st century and wonder why nobody noticed.

Monday, February 09, 2015

This Week...

Having quite a few interests means that I sometimes end up with clashes that aren't clashes to anyone else.

This week is a case in point. If you're in Manchester the next few days and feeling cultural then fill your boots.

Wednesday I could split myself in three....

Poetry....

Next Generation Poets at Waterstones 

More poetry... 

The Other Room at the Castle 

Music....

Richard Dawson at Soup Kitchen. 

Thursday is of course art night....

Castlefield Gallery Launchpad: For Posterity 

...or photography night

Manchester Modernist Society website launch

...or digital night

Digital Innovation Manchester - The Shed launch  

Friday is a night of Manchester's creative women...

fiction ...

Rosie Garland's "Vixen" at Waterstones

and music....

Jane Weaver at Gullivers (sold out) 

And thats without the Whitworth Gallery relaunch weekend. I was there on Saturday for a "friends and family" night and its already looking very special. 

More stuff next week as well... but that's enough for now!


Saturday, February 07, 2015

Still Appeal of Writing Poetry

As someone who writes I occasionally find myself wondering why I write a particular way or in a particular format. As a lyric poet, poetry causes me some particular challenges. Whereas with fiction I feel able to pull out of the hat a ventriloquism if the story demands it, apart from a few "voiced" pieces, poetry needs to sit with, and sing in your own head and voice. "Finding your voice" is what young poets are told, especially if they are too influenced by a particular model writer. We all have a voice, but it would be absurd to think that each of us can create something unique and lasting. Our fragments come together and more often than not are an accumulation of what we have been reading, or of how we think.

We find our own ancestors of course - and in some ways that's been a little bit of the problem for me with the favourted sons and daughters of contemporary British poetry. There's no Celtic in me, despite red hair, and neither have I ever been particularly entranced by rural England, or the sentimentalised past, or even the present nature. Part of this, probably comes from having a background - in the industrial Midlands - where my grandparents were tenant farmers. There's little sentimentality from me for that life. Besides, born in the 1960s, from an early age I was promised modernities - whether it was gleaming new toys, colour television, the VHS tape or CD, or - as a teenager - new films and music. My world is one different than a generation that had folk memories (or real memories) of a bucolic countryside.

Yet take away nature poetry, take away sentimentality, take away elegy, and a lyric poet isn't left with all that much. I never succumbed too much to the anecdotalism of the New Generation poets either - it seemed a thin gruel (at least in my own seeing, my own life) to write about. A fantasist in my fiction, in the more rarified world of the poem, the temptation is to use the language to dig around your own life, confessionally at first a la Plath, but afterwards, I think, writing a poetry that is from yourself even if not about yourself. It's why discovering "For the Union Dead" by Lowell was so important to me - this was a mini-film; a public poem; a history poem. The American voice - the American line - is one I've been taken with ever since reading Prufrock, or slightly afterwards, Cummings. It doesn't always easily sit with a working class vernacular voice like the one I grew up with. The cadences of the Black Country remain in my thoughts even where they haven't remained in my speech. (And because I was such a constant reader, I don't think I ever read in my head in a parody of Black Country vernacular, my brain was being retaught from the inside.) That said, the demotic voice is one that appeals to me time and again in poetry, whether its the Metaphysicals, Wordsworth and Keats, Louis MacNiece, or Americans like C.K. Williams. Older poets, of course. Partially because its hard to find my "contemporary". Armitage is a couple of years older than me, some of the emerging poets are much younger; those who are at least a decade older than me that make up so much of the poetry establishment, don't seem to be ones I have much time for - like your older brother's Slade records, you probably had to be there at the time.

But I've strayed a bit from what I was wanting to write - which was less about the "fit" but more about the "why?" I sometimes think I write poetry because else where would all that thought and writing that doesn't easily fit into fictional prose go? In other words its a creative medium vast and wide and untravelled enough to always bring me back to it, however lame my particular crossings have made me. I suspect the glitteriness of a good poem is what appeals - whereas a good sentence or a nice story or a powerful piece of prose can be enlightening and invigorating, they can't encapsulate in the same way - they are partial art, to a greater good, a greater aim. This writer, at least, even though I probably share my time (and my gifts) between prose and poetry, continues with the latter because of the possibility in the latter. Probably why I'm never very good at workshopping my poems (whereas I'm happy to workshop prose), there's something unknowable I'm working at: the sense-making of the poetry workshop can sometimes be antithetical to my my effort (though I will probably aim to solve the same problems that they bring up, albeit in my own way.)

For a good poem seems to have a lot going for it, but a lot that needs doing to it. How to come up with an idea that hasn't been expressed before? At least not by me.... How then to find the cadence that will suit the words? How to muddle between the lazy assumptions of an easy lyricism, and the extra mile required to stretch out the line? (I'm not Whitman, I'm not C.K. Williams, neither am I Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte). The form, then, like a template that you can tweak endlessly, like the three minute pop song, or the  Knock Knock joke. Yet we want to transcend the limitations of the latter - even if we're writing another sonnet. Its a complex recipe, worthy of an Ottolenghi cookbook, and its not surprising that sometimes I find I've not the ingredients, the tools or even the technique. Poetry though is more like a classic dish than something newly minted, and we put our own regional tastes on it. I wrote a poem last year where I compared nationalities via their different types of meatballs - faggots, albondigas, kofte etc. - the House of Babel may have many different languages, but we have a surprising propensity to share variants of our peasant food.

I think the demotic in this instance allows us to pull in the words of now, and has to. An American novel will be packed with brand names, as part of that daily mythologising they do; I distrust a plain poem that has only words that could have equally sat in a 19th century describing, just as I distrust those poetic words that the workshop is so keen on tossing out. I've just got the new biography "Young Eliot" and I look forward to retreading Prufrock and those other early poems, yet reading it as an 18 year old in 1985, it felt like a bygone age, even though I recognised the impulses. Perhaps that unwieldy name? Whatever, our formalism - not just in poetry but in life - separates us out. As I head into my late forties and the poems I write that people prefer are using a type of pseudocode, a knowing appropriation of language (Facebook LIKEs etc.) that I know will as likely be faded into memory in five years as any contemporary references - but these are just sprinkles of coconut on a seventies sweet, that will then brim with nostalgia at some later point.

For sitting down, with an idea, a line, a faithful nine syllable opener "Of course I never sailed to Europe..." I feel the old excitement again: and this poem, this tiny thing, suddenly seems a vast but honourable project. The second verse has already lost the magic of the first, I've already distrusted my poetic instinct in terms of making literal sense, but I'll keep at it... something more than a crossword, less than a cure for cancer, but in a still appealing place in the middle.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

There are Different Forms of Contemporary

Reading "Wolf Hall" it brought Tudor England into the present. Impossible of course, for the difference between then and now as so great as to not even work as a distended metaphor. But it tells us other things about ourselves. It is the birth of Protestant England; the birth of a process of independence from Rome and Papal rule, which allowed the growth of the English language; it also was an age of superstition, torture and state sanctioned murder - not so different than the world today if you know where to look.

I've always considered myself a contemporary writer - so that when people ask me I tell them  I write about the world we live in. And its true, I do, and will continue to do so. But looking at what I'm currently working on I realise there is a difference between being set in the contemporary world, and being about the contemporary world explicitly. Increasingly my concerns and interests are not about today, but have a wider scope - even if for reasons of expediency and style  the majority of my fiction is set in the day either before or after today. 

History becomes interesting not as setting, but for reasons of understanding. None of us rocked up in this world from nowhere. Create a character and he or she will have a history, a back story. There seems in an old country like Britain, a difficulty here - hence the continued obsession with class in the English novel - since change is difficult, it does not happen lightly to an individual. The fictional "life story" of rags to riches you might find in "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Arcadia" can hardly happen in contemporary Britain without a "windfall" of some sort. I've talked before about a certain kind of neurotic realism in contemporary British fiction where character/heroes are essentially static - the world happening to and at them, like in Nicola Barker's "Clear" or Tom McCarthy's "Remainder." We are adrift in a world where its hard to make our way, but harder still to be defined by our family and upbringing. In the TV sitcom the world of "family" has so often been replaced by that of "friends" (or "Friends") for we are uncomfortable with our historical place. Only late in their careers have - in "The Pregnant Widow", "Sense of an Ending" and "Sweet Tooth" - have our leading novelists gone back to what is now history - the sixties and seventies.

This lack of perspective is what creates difficulties for the young novelist trying to say something about their contemporary world - even about themselves - whilst at the same time not been pulled back into a BBC costume drama type of past. We don't seem to be in a world where the flux you find in F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway for instance - men who had (like their characters) gone to make their way in the world - is even possible.

Yet writing about the present has its own foibles. The first person present tense of so many contemporary novels on the one hand; or the creative imagineering of impressive feats of historical ventriloquism on  the other; yet I think - and this is me writing in my forties - that when I want to write about the "contemporary" I now think of something different than I did even ten years ago. Now, I'm beginning to see that its possible to assemble my characters' lives from a meaningful history that in itself is now withered enough to allow change. I've suspected that a few writerly choices as to when things are set are to do with the fast changing technological times we live in. The simple thriller can't be as simple in a world of sat-navs, GPS, mobile phones and internet; similarly setting a book in the mid-90s safely puts us in a less technologically frantic age. We'll get used to it of course - I don't think one made too much notice of whether it was telegraphs or telephones, or motor cars or horse drawn carriages in "The Good Soldier" for instance.

The contemporary therefore becomes a useful setting, without being what the novel is necessarily about - yet I don't think I'm that concerned with the historical past so much as the social one. How my grandfather differed from my father differs from me seems an interesting story - more so than setting something in the 1930s or 1950s or 1970s. There are other writers who are more comfortable there. Similar to my writing of poetry, that is not so much about myself, but has come from myself in some way shape or form. I think I'm going back to an argument I've made here before - negating David Shield's "Reality Hunger" - that I'm much more interested in making things up. The world gives us plenty of setting to do this in; but even in a long piece, its surprising how soon your characters begin to crowd out everything else, wanting the room to tell their stories - and that aim you had to reflect on, say, the  Nixon administration, or punk rock, or Greenham Common, gets reduced to mere colour. Like in life, so in novels, so much of history is off stage. It's why I preferred "Wolf Hall" - with Cromwell on the rise, to "Bring Up the Bodies." The latter is too dependent on the court of Henry VIII, of which we both know too much, and paradoxically will always know too little. A Richard Yates novel - or "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson which I'm currently reading - can tell us more about the times I think, through its concentration on a microcosm of those times.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The 21st Century's Best

Its taken a while, but as we enter into 2015, the first "best of the century" list has been produced (or at least the first I've been aware of.) The BBC's international culture site asked a number of American critics what the best noels of the century so far were. Its an intrigueing, if somewhat populist list - populist in that most of these novels had won prizes. I was surprised that Zadie Smith's engaging, but adolescent debut "White Teeth", is still being gushed about, even if it's probably - just about - her best novel (though not her best writing: some of that's in "NW" and her recent "Emperor of Cambodia"). Its a very Anglo-centric list - I guess translated novels take a while to come through - though the late Robert Bolano is included for his "2666." I've read only 8 of the top 20 (or is that quite a good showing?) so can't comment on alot of them. I was surprised to see "The Road" so low, as for a moment it seemed to be the exemplar novel of our times.

A couple of things are of interest I think. Firstly, that the "new novel" has made a good showing. Whatever you think of them, the books by Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Bolano and Smith's flawed but adventurous "NW" are novels which play around with form.  They are tricksy sons and daughters of David Foster Wallace or grandchildren of Vonnegut and Barthes, rather than a new new realism. In fact, that kind of techno age knowingness, Brett Easton Ellis - Jay McInerney, has disappeared (and their own books are no longer like that either.) Perhaps there diminishing returns from a certain kind of brash zeitgeist surfing - so, no Douglas Coupland for instance. Not so many older novelists in there either. It seems particularly negligent that Roth's "The Plot Against America" isn't in there - but neither is that other great counter-history, Stephen King's "11.22.63." The British novels that have crossed the ocean, with the exception of New York based Zadie, are, somewhat predictably, of the Merchant-Ivory persuasion; so great as "Wolf Hall" and "Atonement" are, one can't help wish that America would look to us for something other than prettied up history. I'm not particularly keen on Hollingsworth's "The Line of Beauty", its let down by the Jamesian nature of his prose, elegant but somewhat defeated by his subject material I thought (I preferred "The Stranger's Child", though some sections of that book were much better than others.)

Secondly, British readers will not be that aware of a couple of books on the list. Edward P. Jones "The Known World" and Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" are both new names to me. Similarly if this was talking to a wider pool of reviewers I kind of think that writers like David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson and David Peace might have made the list - never mind outliers like Tom McCarthy or A.L. Kennedy.

Thirdly, there does seem a little bit of inertia in the choices. Franzen's "The Corrections", McEwan's "Atonement", even the Junot Diaz, strike me as books we may well like now but tire of, or not return to. Time might tell. 

I'm sure I've missed some and there are books that I really should have read but haven't (for instance I've been carrying "Gilead" with me for a month now without having had a chance to get into it) and my number one choice is a personal favourite, that nobody else seems to have read or been as enchanted by, but I'm convinced will grow in stature over time.  So here's my off the cuff list for now....

1. Three to see the king - Magnus Mills
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell
4. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
5. A Girl is a half formed thing - Eimear McBride
6. The Damned United - David Peace
7. 11/22/63 - Stephen King 

8. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
9. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
10. Life after life - Kate Atkinson
11. Five Miles from Outer Hope - Nicola Barker
12. The City and the City - China Mieville
13. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
14. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
15. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick De Witt
16. Summertime - J.M. Coetzee
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
18. Lunar Park - Brett Easton Ellis
19. Platform - Michel Houellebecq
20. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre


Addendums
(rather than alter the list above I'll add any ones I've forgotten here with relative position....)
4 - The Book of Dave - Will Self. 

Other Thoughts 
The Junot Diaz novel began life as a long short story which was then expanded. "NW" and "A Visit from the Goon Squad" could both be seen as collected shorts in some ways. Maybe the renaissance in the short story is as much about revitalising what can be done with the  novel as anything else? 

Also, looking back to see when things were published I had to dump "The Savage Detectives", "Atomised", "Enduring Love", "Wide Open", "American Pastoral", "How I Came to Marry a Communist", "Disgrace" and "The Poisonwood Bible" because they were all published in the nineties. I haven't the time now but maybe its time to sit down and write an essay about the stunning fiction of the last decade of the 20th century?  

Verbose - at Fallow Cafe - Monday 26th January

This Monday, 26th January, recover from your haggis with a night of live literature - the Wee Timorous Beasties performing will be David Gaffney, Elizabeth Baines, host Sarah-Clare Conlon, Sian Cummins and myself - but with ten open mic slots already booked it should be a diverse and interestign evening. Get there for 7.30 to make sure you don't miss anything - fiction, poetry, who knows?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can we be our own Greatest influence?

After his patchy eighties - "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", the misunderstood Tin Machine period - the world wasn't exactly holding its breath for a new album, when "Black Tie, White Noise" was announced in 1993, and news that Nile Rodgers, who'd produced his bestselling "Lets Dance" was at the helm, didn't really help either - as despite its commercial success it had appeared to precipitate Bowie's decline. Yet when "Black Tie, White Noise" came out it was an artistic return, that also gave commercial success - going to number one in the UK charts. Moreover, it saw Bowie engaging not just with music, but with his own music. In some ways its a great example of a mature artist looking over his career and not picking the best bits as such, but remembering what different elements worked for him. So we have a return of Ronson, who would pass away later that year, but had done a Bowiefication on Morrissey a year or so before (Bowie would cover Morrissey on the album), the updated R&B (Al B. Sure! on the title track) echoed both his work on "Lets Dance" and his longstanding dance interest on "Young Americans", "I feel free", a Cream cover could have been seen as an updating of Pin Ups, the instrumental interludes that he'd written for his wedding were reminiscent of the Eno Berlin years....

There comes a point when an artist can stop looking for new things, new places to go, but rather can go back to their own points of influence, their own career, and start exploring paths that they either abandoned too early, or which have a resonance. Neil Young, Eno, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are all artists who - after apparently searching for new sounds for years and across albums at some point came to the conclusion that there could be honour in looking back; and that the looking back could be productive. Thus "Time out of Mind", "Ragged Glory", "Harvest Moon", "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" and "New York", like "Black Tie, White Noise" and "1. Outside" could be seen as - if not career highlights - at least positive additions to the personal canon.

For less successful or iconic artists its no less the case. And I think it applies to writers as well as to musicans - and probably to artists and film makers as well. I'm not talking about retreads - "Godfather 3" etc. - so much as there comes a point in life, career, where the searching is different than it was before. Its not that you know everything, but that many of the touchstones that you have explored or want to explore have already been exploited by your art. Often, I think it is the coordinating of these touchstones that becomes the key thing. A good example would be one of my favourite writers, the late Bruce Chatwin. Before "In Patagonia" he had been a travel writer for a sunday paper, and worked at an auction house. Yet his nascent writings - a grand, large book about nomads - that he'd been writing during these years, failed to emerge. A reading of his letters (more often postcards) and biography gives us the genuine Chatwin - a voice that would be recognisably reproduced in the travel books "In Patagonia" and "The Songlines" but also in the fictions "Utz" and "On the Black Hill." The obsessions - travel, nomads, collections, history, home, outsiders, solitude, rootlessness - are there in the letters and postcards from the sixties and seventies; many of the places he visited - that intrigued him were to reappear in his fiction and his other writings - yet it was the synthesizing of these that mattered. Chatwin died too young, but left a near perfect selection. There was no final act for him.

Where there isn't a great publication history, where writing has to be fitted in alongside the work, the home, the family, the children, illness, addiction, whatever, it can be the same thing. At times I've been struggling of late to understand what I want to write about, what is/are my "subjects" - partly because I have sometimes covered these, but also because currently I'm not in a state of mind where worldly concerns really explode into my fiction or poetry, rather I'm increasingly taken by the structural idea, the process of doing, even the granularity of words and language - these are metaphysical concepts rather than themes or subjects. Yet over the last few days I started something new, again, where I realised that I was pulling together various strands that go back to before I wrote my first novel, back to concepts I first explored when I was sixteen or seventeen, in unpublished books of scribbles - my equivalent of the "nomads" book is a story called "A novice in the land of fakirs" - a Burroughsian scrabble of words and ideas that never cohered into anything; yet remains there in my past thinking.

Sometimes, its fine to look not at other writers, but to our troubled, troubling past and wonder whether we are not our greater influence. This time, late in the day, with maybe some of the tools to better achieve what we were reaching for first time out.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The New New

Every year, the new...

Every year, the new you - and every year the new, new. Art doesn't come popping out of an egg, its gestation period can be much longer or a one night stand that comes to live nine months later.

The media is eager to tell you about the new new. Each year again as if its an epoch. Fine and dandy, but so manufactured is this now, that I imagine if anything really new came out of it, then it would not even be on the radar. It takes time after all. The old new or new old is just as enticing - so good to see Manchester author Chris Killen, back with his sophomore novel "In Real Life" featured here in the Guardian. His debut came out in 2010, so an age ago in modern media terms, but in art terms, not so long. (My own poetry pamphlet, shorter than his debut novel, was published then as well, anyone interested in a follow up?). Another friend and Manchester-based author, Sarah Butler, will have her second novel out this year as well - yes, yes, we all know each other a little bit, its a small town!

But the new, new continues unabated and the Observer's taken to running round the publishing houses asking which books they are hyping (sorry, which good new authors have works coming out) in the new year. Obviously they're looking for this year's "The Miniaturist", but of course, these books would have all been signed up long before Jessie Burton's bestseller had hit the shops. It's a long list, and there's some interesting books, even if there was something a tad depressing about reading the first five "best new authors" were respectively, an award-winning comedy writer, John Le Carre's granddaughter, a journalist, a literary agent and a "multi-talented musician/academic" - the slushpile this aint! Anyway, there will be good books on this list, and good writers who come out of it. So take your pick.

Also in this week's Observer was an interview with a previous literary overnight sensation, Alex Garland, who has just directed his first film.  There are few more zeitgeist-y writers than the author of "The Beach", but its interesting that after that first novel was filmed, how the collaborative nature of that genre appealed to him far more than being a career novelist. Not a unique trajectory its true, but fascinating nonetheless.

Maybe it was going to see the Warhol show this week at Liverpool Tate, but it does seem on the one hand "everyone is an artist" but on the other, there are fewer writers that I really find myself interested in. It's not even the split between a mainstream and avant garde, or between commercial and literary fiction; it seems that we're in an age of over-abundant creativity on the one hand, and, on the other very little that stands out. For writers, its not just a hip subject or treatment, of course, but the writing itself, which was why "A Girl is a half formed thing" or "A Visit from the Goon Squad" have been standout books from the last few years.

I've had a chance to catch up with a few things online this week - a fascinating article on a new "portable" David Foster Wallace - I've always liked "collected" or "selected" editions and wish more contemporary authors were available in such a pick 'n' mix fashion, so I might get hold of it even though I've most of the stuff already. Though at nearly a thousand pages, its quite a hefty introduction - perhaps its meant to be the other bookend to "Infinite Jest"! Of equal interest, given world enough and time, I'd like to read this new biography of James Laughlin, the rich founder of avant garde publishers "New Directions." Here we have the publisher as auteur, not only creating a list that chimed with his own tastes, but developing a market for those tastes that created, to a large extent, an alternative canon. There's not a single press that you might go to these days for a similar nurturing role (and New Directions published short stories and poetry as well as longer works, which seems to me essential if you're going to take the literary pulse of the times), though Melville House, Copper Canyon and others are doing a fine job. The old joke about "how to make a small fortune in publishing - start with a large fortune" may mean that the rich gentleman publisher is a thing of the past; but the publishing industry keeps on going - and has even, by some accounts - seen off the e-book.

Tomorrow night, the first prize giving of the year takes place, with the solid T.S. Eliot's taking place in London. Eliot died 50 years ago this year and there's a new biography coming out to celebrate this - which again was extracted in the Guardian this weekend. "Once a subversive outsider, he became the most celebrated poet of the 20th century – a world poet, who changed the way we think", as the Guardian's sub-editor has it. There's not much subversion in the T.S. Eliot prize, unfortunately, which takes the venerable British Anglican poet, rather than the young American firebrand as its model - but that's British letters for you, a somewhat different mix of art and commerce than elsewhere in the world.

Locally, things should start up again in the next week or so - but as I'm not heading to any literary events this week I'll leave a round-up till the next time. The new new will be somewhat old hat by then, all being well.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Transmitting Warhol at Tate Liverpool

Its been a while since I've seen a single-artist show at Tate Liverpool, and the current "Transmitting Warhol" show makes clear that we should see more in the North. I've grown up with Warhol, he's been there as an iconic image maker all my life, and some of his most famous pictures, the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell's Soup Cans, Mao, Double Elvis I've probably seen half a dozen times. So prolific was he, and so often did he create multiples, that his work is amongst the easiest of great 20th century artists to see.

Yet that very ubiquity - and the media images of Warhol himself: in the sixties in the Factory, or later in life with his Simpsons style cartoon white hair - can obscure both art and artist. For Warhol began as a commercial illustrator and this exhibition includes works from early in his career right through to his death. There's rarely been an artist who has been so easily able to combine the commercial and the aesthetic. When, say, Damian Hirst, dabbles in album cover art for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, it doesn't feel a critical part of his work, just a paid job. With Warhol the two things are intermingled. Pop art = pop culture. I'd forgotten as well about his involvement with Interview magazine, an iconic monthly magazine that acts as a strange tableau of the briefly famous. For fame as much as popular culture was Warhol's currency. It seems there are three types of "icon" in Warhol's work - the truly iconic such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis; the made famous - his Factory superstars such as Edie Sedgewick; and the "famous for 15 minutes" icons of contemporary pop culture. What is interesting is how his treatment of these differs. For he never painted Marilyn or Elvis - rather he took a single image, and reworked it endlessly. On the other hand his Factory superstars  (and the one thing missing from the exhibition were his screen tests - but you can find these on Youtube) were famous for nothing other than how they looked, icons only in Warhol's universe, always subjugated to his fame. The temporary fame of contemporary culture is almost an acting out of Warhol's predictions - and with Interview magazine, his films, and commercial work where iconic record covers like the "Velvet Underground and Nico" are joined by much less interesting ones by Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Billy Squier, he becomes almost a secondary documenter of this culture.

In this sense Warhol's long prolific career finds its main moorings in the 1960s. In many ways he seems to exemplify so much of the visual culture of that decade - or at least that aspect that has lasted beyond pastiche. A room at the exhibition is held over for a recreation of the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" with films projected onto four walls and a soundtrack of Velvet Underground live takes, particularly "Sister Ray" playing over the top. This, I realise, is my world - somehow Warhol's American Pop Art was a democratisation of glamous as well as soup cans and Brillo boxes, that "let in" suburban British kids such as myself. That crossover with pop music seems crucial particularly since Warhol only seemed to have the most transient interest in it. The Velvet Underground may seem the perfect "art rock" band for him, but they also seem an oddity - for they were out of step with the music of the time, and moreover, their currency was a rawness which seems at odds with the sophistication of advertising culture and the rest of Pop Art. This eclecticism reminds me that Warhol was a very successful outsider. I can't, for instance, imagine Hirst or Emin having the psychological distance required to be relevant to be both a fawning art world and an avant garde. Besides, there's something about Warhol's collaboration which seems uniquely open - he seemed to have a genius to create value by association, without corrupting what it was that was valuable. So that first Velvet Underground album is unproduced despite being "produced" by him, the one lasting contribution to the band being his hooking them up with Nico (an odd absence from the exhibition). Similarly we see Warhol's films, his screen prints, his multiples, and they are allowed to breathe - he is almost a curator gathering them together. The film with Edie conversing with her own image on video tape seems remarkably untouched, or untouchable. She is the "superstar" and Warhol is there as the artist offstage. That he was his own "character" - the white haired "Drella" always taking photographs, always bringing the late 20th century into his artistic spaces rather than going out and finding it - seems equally as vital.

Its not a comprehensive show, but by concentrating on the idea of Warhol's use of materials, his range, and his different techniques I found "Transmitting Warhol" a riveting and fascinating show that reconnected me with the artist above and beyond the iconic images which sometimes seem to define the "Warholian" approach. He was the only pop artist who remained immersed in pop culture - in itself remarkable in the New York of the early 1960s, coming from an artistic avant garde where folk or jazz would have been the more likely art forms. His use of film seems increasingly important and separate somehow from the idea of cinema - and perhaps its that documenting of a space and time, now half a century ago, that creates an ongoing ripple effect for the viewer.

The show is on for another month and its well worth a visit.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It was perhaps inevitable, that in its frequent coming together with the "information age" that literary culture would eventually churn up a novel that was ostensibly on the button about our dependence on social media, ubiquitous connectivity, and ever more complex devices and that it would be hailed as a significant book about the way we live today. Equally inevitably, that that same book would get things so terribly, terribly wrong.

That was my conclusion after the first hundred pages of Joshua Ferris's 3rd novel "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour", which was unaccountably shortlisted for the Booker this first year of American eligibility. Paul O'Rourke is a successful New York dentist who has steadfastly refused the lures of the modern world - his practice doesn't even have a website. When one day one appears, followed by a Facebook page and Twitter feed also in his name it looks like we've got some savvy identity thriller.  When he eventually gets in touch with the unknown creator of the website things turn strange - for this has been their slightly unusual way of getting in touch with him to intrigue him about him being one of a small number of people with a pure bloodline making him an "Ulm", an early Old Testament tribe who have been forgotten by history. Rather than techno-thriller this is something with the weariness of a parodistic Dan Brown or Umberto Eco. First, though that digital element. So painstaking is Ferris in describing the takeover of O'Rourke's non digital presence that its painful to read to anyone who knows anything about the online world. Let alone the capitalisation of Internet throughout - here Ferris seems torn between being all modern and tech-savvy on the one hand and being crass enough for an older audience on the other, and it doesn't work at all. The tech-thriller angle is just a ruse, but here's the thing, it feels like it from the first, and its awkwardness gets out of hand - with Paul, our scabrous narrator talking about phones as "me machines" like a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1991 taking the piss out of mobile phones.

Even the post-ironicists haven't quite worked out how to "write the internet" - "Infinite Jest" was just about a pre-internet novel after all - yet it shouldn't be so hard. Douglas Coupland has been doing it brilliantly for years, Stephen King managed to come up with a credible web-enabled plot for his excellent "Mr. Mercedes" and David Eggars had enough handle on the psychology of technology in "The Circle" to make this novel seem lazy, and shoddy in comparison.

But though it takes a while, the novel slowly unwinds from its clunky beginning. A dentist is a fine character to have centre stage. He sees into human mouths rather than human souls, but in how we treat our teeth he can make any number of moral judgements. His own moral life is perplexingly narrow, like a sitcom character, aware of the multitudes of opportunities on offer in New York, but stuck with the rituals of watching the Friday night game, and the three co-dependent women in his practice, one of whom, Jewish Connie, he was in love with and has only recently stopped seeing.

O'Rourke is that other everyman of American fiction, the curmudgeon who can't quite understand why the world is so shit, why he himself is so unhappy, and why people can't just leave him  to be unhappy and go on about the world being shit. There's a Heller-esque feel to the story at times, but I'm more thinking, Bruce Gold, the jaundiced Jewish professor of "Good as Gold" rather than "Catch-22." Too much of the early part of the novel is a series of funny, but slightly stale riffs. Describing his chequered love life O'Rourke talks about being a man who has several times been "cunt gripped", a horribly unedifying description of his love dependency, where, not content with falling for a particular girl, he also has to fall for her family and - bizarrely - their religion as well.
Is this then a novel about the lost gentiles love of the Jewish ideal? Partly so, it seems. Not for the first time I'm puzzled by hip Young American writers obsession with religion - for here its centre stage - a novel about belief that calls to mind certain bits of Michael Chabon for instance. How strange that we have a novel about a non-Jewish dentist who is an unbeliever who becomes obsessed with finding whether or not he belongs to a "cult" of other ancient unbelievers who may or may not have been the sworn enemy of the Jews. If this seems parochial its because of that trope of so much American fiction of "finding oneself" being so writ large. Given we only have O'Rourke's take on things we wonder if he is indeed writing these letters and emails to himself in a kind of "Fight Club" style dual-identity.

As the novel unwounds, the riffs keep on coming, on ancient religious lore and on his lost faith in the Boston Red Sox ever since they've broken the habit of a lifetime and become winners. Some of this is undoubtedly funny, once you get past how frequently annoying it is. One of the problems is O'Rourke, who is not just insensitive but crassly so. He's as jaded as a latterday Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney character but there's a cynical, nasty side which seems to come from him as much as from the society he's part of. He's clearly still traumatised by his father's suicide - yet we get to know nothing about the why? nothing about the man his father was - and therefore this quest for meaning feels hollow. There's more humanity and humour in a single episode of "30 Rock" for instance - yet here we've three hundred pages of mordantly humourous angst, paranoiac conspiracy theory and dental practice comedy. The latter of these three furnishes the novel with most of its strengths..

As the conspiracy theory takes hold - and O'Rourke meets others who have been identified as Ulms, the novel improves conspicuously and the last third would have made a Paul Auster like New York novella - but even here the over-egging of O'Rourke's (and maybe Ferris's) obsessions, reminds me a little of the untrammelled nature of Ned Beaumont, clever enough, but to what purpose? Once the internet (with or without a capital I) recedes into the background there's less plainly bad about the book and the dental comedy is suitably grim but fiendish. Having read that strange religious dystopia, Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" earlier in the year, it falls incredibly flat in comparison, and it seems a novel struggling to bring in big themes whilst wanting to retain a flippancy. New York - the world, even - recede into tiny worlds as a result of this - and the narrowness of the novel despite these big themes is both a strength and a weakness providing with a claustrophobia that fills well with the brightly lit dental studio at the same time as making it all seem a little irrelevant and unbelievable.

For a British reader, the endless pages on Boston Red Sox baseball are enough to make me think this is  a novel that shouldn't have crossed the Atlantic never mind got a berth in the Booker shortlist, yet its the obsession on antique faiths which seems oddest about the book. Neither fish nor fowl I'm not sure who it will please, other than those Booker judges, who I think must have liked its traditionalism (that Heller-esque quality) whilst pretending to applaud its (faux) modernity. Even on its own terms, as a story about a middle aged man's breakdown in the complexities of the modern world it falls down badly, especially when compared to something as masterful as A.M. Homes. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

End of Year Lightning Review

With just a couple of days to go its probably time to sit down and do favourite this, favourite that, this year. I've had a bad cold since Christmas day and its proving persistent so I'm not much in the mood for anything too philosophical or creative. I might expand on each of these later...or not as the case may be.

Poetry

A few highlights:

Appearing in "Bare Fiction" with 3 poems earlier in the year. New magazines are often hard to judge - but this one has come on in leaps and bounds out of seemingly nowhere - with a clear aesthetic, a good (and unusual) mix of fiction, poetry and drama, and some great writers. I was particular pleased that my poem "Impressions between places" found a home.

Online can be hard, but valuable. Ink, Sweat and Tears remains a great site with new content daily. It feels by poets for poets. They published "Scott in the Burnt House" recently. 

I don't really like writing to "commission" as I'm not that good at it - but occasionally get asked, and something unexpected comes along. When Angela Topping was editing 3 pamphlets of poems inspired by the Brontes, Shakespeare, and Austen, though I tried a Shakespeare, it was Austen that I was happiest with, and it subsequently appeared in "Advice on Proposals."

I saw less poetry than usual this year, partly as I was away a lot, but regular nights like "The Other Room" and "Peter Barlow's Cigarette" as well Liverpool's "Storm and Golden Sky" (which I've yet to get to) continued. At PBC, the Saturday afternoon session with Jonty Tiplady was a bit of a highlight, as he read from various language-intense works in progress.  Good to see a healthy mix of different poets on the "next generation" list, it felt a lot more wide ranging than the one from ten years ago, highlighting the plurality of contemporary poetry scenes, and especially good to see Melissa Lee Houghton included.

In terms of books, magazines and collections I didn't read that much but had a lot of time for Bobby Parker's "Blue Movie" which somehow managed to fix this least-fixable of poets between the pages of a "conventional" first collection.

Music

My personal music highlight was finishing another album "Meet the Relatives" which was all recorded using my newish Korg Monotribe attached to my 30 year old Juno 6.  I was also pleased to have another old track on the 90s edition of the ever excellent "Bedroom Cassette Masters" series.

In terms of other people's music I bought a lot - though mostly secondhand - and listened to a bit less. Of new albums there were a few highlights. Krautrock meets psychedelia on "The Silver Globe" by Jane Weaver, the "Bitches Brew" stylings of "You're Dead" by Flying Lotus", the surprisingly effective mining of early Simple Minds for Manic Street Preachers' best album in years "Futurology", and the surprise breakout hit "LP1" by FKA Twigs; I was surprised how listenable the Sun O}}} Scott Walker collaboration was as well.  Other albums that were more widely acclaimed all had their moments - St. Vincent, Royal Blood, Caribou, Sleaford Mods - as well as some good debuts from Young British Artists and September Girls, but I wasn't really paying as much attention as usually.  I enjoyed Sounds from the Other City where YBAs, Bernard and Edith and Pins were amongst the acts playing; also Pixies at Castlefield Bowl and Sleaford Mods at Club Academy. A strange highlight was the Thurston Moore trio at Cafe Oto back in March. Realised how much I sometimes prefer the avant garde and the improvisional over other more conventional musics.

There were some good singles of course - not least Lonelady's return with "Groove it Out". The new pop was still just about working this year, with end of year smash "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, and earlier, "Real Love" by Clean Bandit.

Fiction

Only just got hold of this year's Booker list, and so not read any of them yet - I'm not even sure its a reliable arbiter of anything these days anyway. Again writers like Nicola Barker and David Mitchell seem to not get much further than the longlist  yet are clearly head and shoulders above so many others. The best novel I read all year was belated prize winner "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing".

Everywhere we're hearing its renaissance time for the short story but the plethora of awards and prizes seem to have quite a prescriptive view of short stories. (One point: the longer stories that seem to win the BBC short story award would have very little chance of being published unless by more established writers as most competitions/magazines have very low word limits.) Colin Barrett's "Young Skins" was one of several much lauded collections this year that looks promising - though wonder if it would have done so well if it had been set in smalltown England - the Irish seem to have much more confidence in their literary culture than us. I'm going to try and get to grips with a few of the collections and anthologies I've bought this year over Christmas, as I'm sure there are some gems - yet I'm wary of renaissances.

For me it was a good year - I'd really tried to concentrate on writing more fiction (even as I pulled away from poetry) and it seemed to pay off with 3 stories published this autumn. Of course, the cupboard is now bare, so I need to write a few more over the holidays to keep up the momentum. I'm also writing what may well be a novel, but we'll see how that goes.

Art

How do you find the time? people ask. And the answer is, I don't. I've seen much less art this year than I would have liked whether new shows or old. Catching a few things in Manchester, and one or two round the country as the months have gone by. Liked an exhibition of photography curated by friends John Sears and Patricia Allmar, "Taking Shots", William Burroughs photography last January at the Photographer's Gallery, and enjoyed catching the Tove Janssen show at Helsinki's gallery in June, as well as regular shows at Castlefield Gallery and the Holden Gallery in Manchester. Note to self: more art in 2015.


Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

About a year ago I began writing a piece of fiction that had at its heart another piece of fiction, and I remember asking via social media for other examples of books within books. By coincidence or serendipity I've since read two novels that are quite close in intent to my own aims, last year's First Novel by Nicholas Royle and now, Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark's Booker shortlisted novel from 1981.

I read (and saw) "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", Muriel Spark's most famous book, a long time ago, and have been meaning to get around to another of her many novels since - especially since I would see her name increasingly mentioned as being something of a British avant gardist, something that the wry, comic style of Brodie didn't really indicate. Like Burgess with "A Clockwork Orange" or Golding with "Lord of the Flies" the one book has towered over the others in the public imagination. Popular as she undoubtedly was, its rare for me to come across her novels in the second hand shops - unlike, say, Iris Murdoch, a novelist with who shares an appreciation of ideas and philosophy if not necessarily a similarity of tone.

"Loitering with Intent" begins with a young woman - Fleur - sat in a park, contemplating the last period of her life, a period that has just come to an end. This foreshadowing is a tease in some ways, allowing her to introduce us to the idea of the Autobiographical Association, a strange "memoirists" club which she had been secretary to over the last couple of years. Invited to the position by a friend of hers - who subsequently plays little part in the narrative - she immediately becomes immersed in the life and household of the founder of the club, Sir Quentin Oliver, and his odd household, finding an ally in his 90-year old mother. So far, so straightforward. A classic British tableau of eccentrics out of any stock Miss Marple production then appear; but here the "mystery" isn't a murder mystery - at least not directly - but an altogether more literary puzzle. For Fleur is also writing a novel - has already written much of this novel - and it seems that bit by bit the characters of the Autobiographical Association come to take on the life of the characters she has written.

Set in a very specific time and place - London's boheme fringes around the end of rationing at the fag end of the 1940s, the novel is a literary satire that questions the idea of where ideas actually come from. Is Fleur really telling the truth here? The pages of her novel "Warrender Chase" are mangled with her own life - deliciously at times, yet at the same time we're in a strange hinterland in time when a young female novelist can bounce between lovers without too much care in the world, can hobnob with the remnants of a dying aristocracy, whilst at the same time hang out with impoverished poets. At one point, she steps into a pub in literary London and the real life poets, Dylan Thomas and Roy Campbell are said to be drinking there. Given that one of the themes of this novel is the idea of the "roman a clef" then is it really a surprise that it teases that it might be one itself?

Spark - writing in 1980 - has revisited a millieu that reflects her own beginnings and yet its all done with a customary humour, but with an undertow of serious purpose asking about the very role of autobiography. Those in the Autobiographical Association have been cajoled to write their candid memoirs as they are "important people" to be found in Who's Who, and their books will remain hidden for 70 years - until everyone in them is dead - allowing them to be entirely candid. Yet when Fleur starts typing them up she can't help also jazzing them up a bit, partly with scenes from her own book, but also to keep her interested. When one or other member complains that it didn't happen like that, the other members counter by saying how the made up version feels more true.

Fleur has been having an affair with the slightly invisible Leslie, whose wife Dotty becomes both her friend and nemesis as a result. Dotty doesn't mind sharing Leslie with his new mistress, but when he leaves them both for a young male poet, she finds it harder to take. A Roman Catholic, there's a slight satire on that faith's prescriptions on truth and confessional. Yet its all handed lightly, as a cast of less than developed characters from the literary millieu spin around the ever self-justifying Fleur. In a complex subplot (or is it the main plot?) her own novel gets caught up in the intrigues of the association and first gets accepted for publication, then rejected, then stolen, then is to be published to great acclaim. The censorious Britain of the late 1940s comes through clearly here.Yet in many ways its written like a forties or fifties novel, an odd explicit "fuck" apart. Though the setting feels very real - Fleur's cramped flat, drab places to eat - we never actually get a sense - three decades on - of what it was really like to be young in that time of what David Kynaston called "Austerity Britain," so rarified is Fleur's world. Even her casual affairs are only mentioned matter-of-factly.

In many ways this comic tale sits happily in a long history of British class satire - the Wodehouses, the Waughs - and yes, that slightly déclassé world of Agatha Christie, where every street corner you are not far from a baroness down on her luck or a defrocked priest, or a retired civil servant. Its strange to find this persistence in a novel written at the turn of the eighties. In his introduction to this edition, Mark Lawson puts it in line with other metafictional works of the time such as Martin Amis's "Money" or David Lodge's "How far can we go?" I remember reading the Lodge at University on a course looking at "contemporary British fiction" and it felt dated then (the Amis had only just come out so was clearly too new for our vulnerable minds!) with its harking back to bygone era and its slightly obtuse philosophical thoughts on Catholicism in the modern world. The Spark novel is a period piece in a different way I think, in that it plays up the satire - with the benefit of hindsight - of being a young female writer in a calcified turn of the half century London. Like Lodge (and Murdoch) she has slightly more than satire in mind, and the book constantly references too different autobiographies, Cardinal Newman's and Benvenuto Cellini's. Who, she is asking, should write their own life story? The great writer? Or the great man? In the mist of memory of interpretation truth gets turned into whatever reads best - i.e. fiction can sometimes be the greater truth.

At heart the novel is a satire on literary London, and what would have seemed highly recognisable in terms of its archetypes in 1980, now feels a little creaky, but not that unreal. Our current world sometimes seems to have lost any sense of a bohemian fringe where aristocrats can rub shoulders with show girls. Fleur is a suitably strong willed heroine - writing from the perspective of being (like Spark) a successful novelist. I'm reminded that Spark was once editor of Poetry Review and without knowing much of her autobiography, its clearly a novel that looks back on her own experiences - and also echoes her debut novel "The Comforters", where a character becomes aware that they are a character in a novel.

Having picked this up as part of a set of five Muriel Spark's I'm looking forward to reading more of her wry, intelligent satire, short and pithy as this one was.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Written Language

There's probably a time - an age - where your use of language becomes fixed; where's there's little else that you'll learn, no new words, or none you'll find comfortable with, and no new idioms. Similarly the things you say, and the way you say them (or write them) will become detached somehow from the world around you. It may well be, if you're a professional writer, that your audience will grow old with you, that you will speak to them in a familiar language; but however educated you are (and the more educated, in this case, perhaps its for the worse) there will be an inevitable disconnect from the written world around you.

As a kid I couldn't understand why things like The People's Friend still existed in the magazine store. I used to occasionally read the stories in old hardback volumes that collected Boys Own Stories or similar, and the tight print was almost unreadable. This was a language as musty as the smell of the books it came in. The classics on the other hand held up, and influenced our own idiom. As a fifteen year old reading "Pride and Prejudice" I didn't go all "this is dull" but having read a fair share of old books by then, could take joy from its language as well as its story, only stopping dead to ask the teacher to explain what an "entail" might be. I distinctly remember it wasn't the language which was the problem but the social more of a house being passed down on the male line and - more strange - that it was not on death that this was the consideration but during the life.

Language changes, and we might use Chaucerian or Shakespearean phrase or idiom but to speak like their characters speak is now only allowable in comedy sketches. It would be naive to think that the twentieth century - that time of change in so many ways - was also not a time of change in language. From the first "talkies" through to the internet, technology has influenced and changed things. We laugh at class difference language of Monty Python sketches, yet that knowing separation between working class and upper class registers is in itself now an anachronism. In novels its often a sign of something when we begin to find a writer dated; often that he or she always was and that the warning bells can't now be ignored - now that the passage of time has moved on.

I was thinking about how this pace might be quickening even. There was a debate online about criticism which I mostly kept out of, but was wondering how many of today's contemporary writers engage (or indulge) in criticism. Do we not read critical essays by David Peace or Nicola Barker or David Mitchell because they have nothing to say, or because they never get asked, or because their time is spent only on their fiction? When Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith drops a long essay in the New Yorker or somewhere we sit up and listen because, I think, its a little rare. But one aspect of this absence is that the culture around books changes and the interrogation of language also changes.

This week you can pick up the 25 year old "Doolittle" by Pixies, a reissue of an album I remember coming out and buying on vinyl (though oddly I had their debut on CD), a quarter century ago. We know music dates and dates us. But in some ways its a different way: music's a time capsule of the immediacy of when it was recorded. We listen to "Doolittle" and wish music was as loud, spontaneous and sinewy as this these days. Hearing them play tracks from it this summer, it was a no nonsense set, that to these ears didn't sound dated (but of course I was there with lots of men of a certain age, though the audience was much wider than that as well.) We don't quite get the same thing with prose of course - though perhaps the Book festival or Radio 4 is the same thing - "ah yes, its that nice Clive James or Jeanette Winterson" or whoever. It may be years since we read the book and we probably don't want to read the latest, or even the last ten since the "hit", but identify with the writer, with the sayer of these things.

This creates a conundrum for the contemporary writer who is now in his forties (me, say) for what am I but an anachronism? It sometimes seems that there was a moment, a wet Wednesday in 2004 perhaps, where I went from being always a little futuristic in my prose, to being always a little fusty? I exagerrate of course - but you look up from the pages of the book you are reading and wonder if the type of book you've been striving to write all these years is now on its way out before you've even had your say. Like the Magi in the T.S. Eliot poem you've been waiting all your life for the messiah, only to find you are too tired and set in your ways to truly appreciate his arrival. Yet if we are talking about a life lived without - being born out of age - in our peaceful, abundant, post-war west we've had it easy. I've never had books I can't read - no samizdat. Instead the whole of the world's best literature has been constantly available to me, and yet I've made (we all make) so little use of it.

One thing reading McEwan's "Black Dogs" was thinking about how likely or not a book like this would get published, especially if from a first time novelist, these days. Its written in such a high style, and its so circulambutory in its holding back of plot that I think not. Moreover, though it pretends to be a book from a solipsistic narrator it quickly uses this only as a wrapper, as another story unfolds. I reread the first fifty or so pages of "London Fields" by Amis recently and it was a wonder - just purely joyful reading him at his phrase-making best. Yet how indulgent is this kind of serious prose (even in a funny book.) The paragraphs are long, the descriptions are blocky. It actually seems closer to Dickens than it does to, say, David Nicholls. Serious books, serious writers, even younger ones still want to tackle not just the story or the first person narrative, but the many layers of writing. Here's where Will Self's "oh woe is me" about the death of serious literature - and serious readers - comes to pass I think; that as the audience for this kind of depth resides, it becomes anachronistic and dated. And the pace of this thing - with so much passing by us in the info-heavy age - means that I can speak for myself, a pre-internet, pre-computer reader, and realise that a fifteen year old would have to be pretty focused to follow my reading regime when there's so many other exciting things around him.

It seems that there's a weird corollary to this in the publishing world where we can see a young writer like Eleanor Catton write a Dickensian novel and win the Booker, or a snappy, snazzy short story writer like Colin Barrett gain many plaudits for a "Winesburg, Ohio" set in contemporary Ireland, and nothing is really wrong - serious books are still being written. But there's an immediacy about both those examples - like Zadie Smith in "On Beauty" - which can occasionally seem too easy to like. "Black Dogs" would seem - had it been published this year - eligible for both the Goldsmiths and Folio Prizes, yet this is McEwan we're talking about, a writer we generally think of being moderate and to some degree minimalistic. Turns out he was actually a late modernist all along.

I sometimes think this blog sticks to the same number of readers, the same few comments, not because of anything inherently niche about it, but because its unable to step beyond that wet Wednesday in 2004 - I was once future-talking, but in an age of ghost written Youtube vloggers, I'm inevitably old hat. I should find a hook, start talknig about "my life" etc etc. Yet more positively we see longform journalism coming back - think sites like Medium or the Guardian's long reads - and niche magazines of cultural criticism like n+1 and the White Review seem to be saying there's more to life than the TLS or the New Yorker.... then again, the year's media sensation has been "Serial", "In Cold Blood" for the podcast generation. Our language betrays us like nothing else in our life, a signature as time-heavy as the rings on a trunk.

I suspect I won't get to say anything more before Christmas, so, in time honoured fashion (old/new collisions), a happy Christmas to all our readers....you know who you, Johnny.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Literary reputations usually rest upon a book or a series of books, with the writer's other works acting as a supporting cast, or, as powers decline, an echoing coda. When that writer is still very active, and popular, as Ian McEwan is, there's a difficulty in wrestling that reputation from its current status. I have long wanted to write a long piece on McEwan, at least partly because he has written books that I love, books that I think are incredibly weak, and books which have both his strengths and weaknesses on equal show.

Yet whereas Martin Amis will forever be judged against the high water mark of "Money" and "London Fields", McEwan's career is an interesting weave, with some disagreement as to what might be his "big book." The very short novels and short stories he published in the seventies brought him much acclaim, but it was the five more political novels of the eighties and early nineties from "Child in Time" culminating in his Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" that cemented his reputation. The third of these, 1992's "Black Dogs" was his second Booker short listing, and I remember at the time how highly regarded he already was.

Reading "Black Dogs" for the first time, two decades later, in some ways it seems a period piece, obsessive about the past, and written in a complex, convoluted "high" style that seems somewhat dated. Yet, it is also instructive: in that some of its tropes are reflected in later novels like his massive selling "Atonement" and "Saturday." The novel centres around a scene that is constantly telegraphed, but delayed until near the end, of a confrontation between two black dogs and a young pregnant woman in the aftermath of the second world war in rural France. The teller of the tale is the son-in-law of June, that woman, and his own prevarications and uncertainties tease the reader in the first exploratory pages of the book.

For Jeremy is a writer who, in making up for the death of his own parents in a car crash when young, has latched onto those of his wife as a project. With June in a nursing home, hovering slowly towards her end, he acts as an unecessary go between between June and Bernard, who have spent most of their life unable to live together, but never quite separating. Regular McEwan readers will know that broken families, estrangements and lost children are central to his work. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his archetypes simply resurface from novel to novel - so that Bernard, a larger-than-life media-friendly Labour politician could be reincarnated as the elderly poet in "Saturday", or that Jeremy himself is the slightly naive onlooker who reappears in "Enduring Love".

The novel is a series of concentric rings that places the personal story around two momentous events - second world war at one end and the fall of the Berlin wall at the other. Like "Saturday", its alacrity - it came out in 1992, not long after the wall had fallen, becomes a way of using immediate history to the purpose of a grander narrative. If Amis always seems a writer who needs the overhang of larger historical events onto which to write his satires, McEwan goes the other way somewhat, amplifying personal tragedies by virtue of the wider canvas. Had I read "Black Dogs" in 1992 I would have baulked a little at the poshness of it all. However small and personal the narratives, McEwan's characters are usually supping near the top table. This sense of privilege is used here as a way of examining conflicting ideas of the world - can we change the world by social good deeds, such as the welfare state as Bernard believes? Or is it more about personal epiphanies, avoiding compromise as June does? They both begin as Communists, but June leaves the party almost as soon as she's joined, whilst Bernard rescinds his membership after the invasion of Hungary.

Yet there's not too much of this historical backdrop - or certainly McEwan doesn't overplay it. The sense from his work - at least up until "Atonement" - that he doesn't so much write novels as string together disparate scenes to make up a more credible tableau is very much the case with "Black Dogs." Why does Bernard insist that Jeremy takes him to Berlin just after the wall has fallen if not for the fact that McEwan couldn't resist writing a piece of drama-reportage there. The small contretemps that happens there is an absurdity: a piece of show theatre as a Turkish man waving a red flag is almost attacked by a group of young Germans with swastika tattoos, until Bernard's semi-intervention, and the appearance of a young woman who comes out of nowhere to embarass the attackers away. Such vignettes are McEwan's staple, and see his writing at its best, as a heightened sense of immediacy and drama comes into these moments.

If there is an overwhelming meme throughout his work its that sense of dread - and particularly the dread of the upper middle classes for something outside of their control. Like the house invasion in "Saturday" or the tragic accident that opens "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" has at its heart a moment of potentially fatal violence. On their honeymoon, just after the war, June - newly pregnant - and Bernard get separated by a few hundred feet and in that  moment June becomes confronted by two large black dogs, who bear down on her whilst he's back down the path sketching caterpillars. He is the rationalist, and his hobby is entomology, she is the idealist, who is suddenly confronted with something real and deadly. This scene has been forewarned throughout the book, to some extent the delay has become infuriating, but the scene when it happens is done with his customary power. The sense of everything changing in a moment. Yet the tightrope walk of a McEwan novel is not one of actual despair - at least not for his middle class protagonists - but of existential crisis. By the time Bernard arrives on the scene the black dogs are gone, and its as if they are myth. Later that evening they hear that the black dogs were left by the Nazis, and there have been other sightings, other terrible stories. McEwan plays with this beautifully, so that even though we face the horrors, they are as potent if we believe in them as myth.

Yet to get to this point, we've some considerable scaffolding. My favourite of his novels, "The Innocent" is almost a companion piece - and indeed it came before "Black Dogs." But its style could not be more different. Its a noirish thriller, played very straight, half Graham Greene, half "Casablanca", about an engineer working on secret tunnels in Berlin just before the Berlin wall goes up. For a brief moment as Jeremy and Bernard peer over the Berlin wall we are looking into the space that his previous novel has examined. Yet quickly we go back in time - for June and Bernard are that early generation, survivors of history - that they, as young optimists are given the task of changing. In a typical McEwan moment, Jeremy gives us a flashback to when he meets his wife Jenny, and its after a tour of concentration camps that they make love for the first time. The sense that the political and the personal are intertwined, and that our our insecurities - our very English insecurities - can only be unlocked through grand trauma, remains a continued fascination within his work. In this sense, reading "Black Dogs" two decades on, it seems the quintessential McEwan book in some ways, yet overly conscious of itself. The conversations between different belief systems - the spiritual vs the political - seem fusty, as if ransacked from the minutes of some college debating society; and the contemporary world in which its set, the late 1980s, is almost glossed over as the novel concerns itself with the echoes of incomplete pasts.

In many ways its the kind of book nobody writes anymore - erudite, full of ideas, and earnest - and one kind of regrets that; yet I can also see why - and see how his own work has become more immediate, less indirect in telling a story. The Englishness that Bernard and June represent - even with a backdrop of continental Europe - seem lost somehow. In an age of savage cutbacks, technocrats and market-led capitalism, their kind of Bloomsbury-socialism, is long gone. Its an appealingly literary novel that feels fusty for something written by a living writer just two decades ago, and it makes me wonder where we'll place McEwan when all's said and done, whether one or more of his books will last beyond the contemporary.