Monday, 17 March 2008

Cambridge City, not Canonicity...

...and so another of my proleptic postings fails to herald its analytic fruit. Well, my promise will eventually hold good.

As term drew to a close I canned the writing for a week and went on what I like to call a 'book binge'. Selected highlights include:

James Kelman- A Disaffection

Malcontent high-school teacher in late-1980s Glasgow worries about Holderlin whilst driving aimlessly up and down the A74. I enjoyed this. In fact, I enjoy most novelists who make a whole-hearted commitment to staging existential malaise in a contemporary (or at least familiar) setting. I also harbour a strange bias towards Scottish fiction in general, and a less ambigous one for Kelman in particular. Firstly, he's a pretty 'righteous' guy (I've been impressed by some of his writings on apartheid from the bad old days). Secondly, he made one of the Booker judges throw an almighty tantrum when he won said award for How Late it Was, How Late. Apparently the judge in question felt that novels which contain obscene language aren't proper literature. Of course, this is the same Booker Prize which is freqently awarded to 'literary', southern English safe bets like the ghastly McEwan. I'm guessing the line 'I'm going to take you home and fuck you all afternoon' from McEwan's Enduring Love (a choice line given to the narrator's middle-class literary critic girlfriend on the occasion of her acquisition of an old volume of Keats) constituted a judicious, mimetically necessary employment of obscene language, whereas Kelman's subject matter (an angry Glaswegian in the drunk tank) could easily have been articulated without recourse to profanity.

Actually, this does seem to have turned into a post about canonicity, but I'm not making the point I wanted to make so I'll stop!

Mary Keene- Mrs Donald

I picked this up dahn Charing Cross Road last year purely on the basis that its author was one of Henry Green's many lovers. The blurb seems to think that the novel reads quite like Green: I'd say this argument only holds water if one reads Green very selectively. Though I enjoyed the portrayal of a self-pitying, gratuitously melancholic poet (I sense a composite of Green and Louis MacNeice here), this wasn't particularly good. It wasn't published until after Keene's death and its release seems to me like yet another attempt at Fitzrovian hagiography: yes, everyone has a novel in them, but it's the carousers of Greek Street who are most likely to have the social wherewithal to get one published.

Adam Phillips- Promises, Promises

Another collection of essays in which the likeably whimsical Phillips divulges all of the intimate details of his consultations before coming to the conclusion that you'd probably reached about ten pages previously. It's his literary and theoretical writing that really work here, mostly because of his optimistic commitment to open-endedness and ability to make very difficult things sound manageable (there's a review of Prynne's Collected Poems in here that makes 'High Pink on Chrome' seem as straightforward as Doctor Seuss).

A.L. Kennedy- Day

Another Scottish author- two in one week. I bought this rather reluctantly, feeling that I had to read it because it had a similar plot (returning POWs) to Green's Back. I had a hunch that it would be gauche and badly-written, a feeling that I'll admit came about more or less due to a broadly favourable review for the novel in the Guardian, which tends to plump the cause of most glib, woolly books that come its way. That's the thing with the Guardian. Its book reviews tend to operate on the principle that works of literature are good if they A) exhibit a generally humanistic political stance (a decaf-Leavisitism, if you like) or B) correspond thematically more or less to what the editorial board think 18-35s want to read about. There is a bizarre twenty-something implied reader that the Guardian have in mind when they're reviewing. They're urban, reasonably well-off, and they go clubbing a few times a month. They drink and drug moderately, but this doesn't relieve them of a certain gravitas-bestowing melancholia. They watch films by Michel Gondry and listen to records by Antony & the Johnsons. They visit the V&A rather than the Tate Modern and a new Almodovar vehicle is a major event. Though they would like to consider themselves culturally worldly, their tastes fit easily on the same humanistic spectrum that (for example) Zadie Smith occupies. The literary 'experiments'- if they can be named as such- with which they are familiar are more likely to be by Dave Eggers than Ezra Pound. Though they champion the reading of poetry, their taste in the medium is formally conservative, as they tend to confuse supposedly 'edgy' content with stylistic or structural radicalism.

Okay. That was an inset, a purposefully-induced tangent. I'd been aiming to nail that (true) stereotype for a while. Anyway, Day was a pleasant surprise. It isn't brilliant, but Kennedy handles her materials extremely well and manages to convincingly evoke the feelings involved in a sleepless night over the Ruhr. She doesn't skirt the moral questions raised by the Allied bombing of Germany (addressed in W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction and- more controversially- in Jorg Friedrich's Der Brand), but does manage to address them in a way which doesn't oversimplify the ethical economies involved. Most importantly, from a literary perspective, I didn't feel- as I do in the case of Sarah Waters and Chris Paling amongst others- that I was reading a collection of out-takes from Henry Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Kennedy finds her own voice to deal with the war without resorting to cliche. Apparently, she spent the best part of the year prior to the publiation of Day in the Imperial War Museum, so it looks as though the research paid off.

Derek Raymond- How the Dead Live

I'd been meaning to read Derek Raymond, the supposed father of English noir, for some time. It was worth the wait: this was like an Agatha Christie derailed by a Socrates-spewing Taggart. More seriously, I felt like this was an insightful penetration of some of the darker corners of the English psyche in the Thatcher years: it reminded me of Dennis Potter, in fact. I can certainly see the validity of the comparisons that are often made between Raymond and David Peace, although I'd venture the opinion that Peace is probably a technically better writer.

Orham Pamuk- Snow

Haven't finished this yet. Again, I'd been meaning to read this for a while (ever since I read Pamuk's 'city biography' Istanbul). This is, I think, only the second Nobel-winning novel I've ever read. I've learnt that the Nobel stipulations are like an elevated version of the Guardian's, which is to say that a BIG THEME is a must if one is to be considered a SERIOUS WRITER. Pamuk's big theme is the biggest of all, namely the so-called 'Clash of Civilizations', but he also manages to incorporate that other Nobel favourite, namely the nature of Art (darling) and creativity. This is probably in the John Banville category of late, late, late, Late Modernism (note the capitals). Though I sound a little cynical here, I'm actually really enjoying Snow.

Anyway, that's my reading report. I used this blog title because I didn't write about Sean O'Brien writing about canonicity, but I did go to watch Cambridge City play Bognor Regis Town in the Blue Square South on Saturday afternoon. It's many a year since I watched a game from beside the dugout and, my oh my, do you hear some colourful language down there. I can affirm right now that there would be some very dramatic hissy fits were the coaching staff of the Milton Road outfit to win the Booker. That said, on crowds of less than 300 and with two teams from the same city (Cambridge United and upstart minnows Histon) playing at the level immediately above them, the Booker is probably the only trophy that the Lilywhites are likely to win anytime soon.

Okay. Disorganised ramble over. Next projected football match is Darlington-Bradford on March 29th, next projected event is The Fall live in Hull in a week's time. With Pawel Abbott hitting form for the Quakers right now, I'd say that Mark E. is the star least likely to turn up.


No comments: