Posts Tagged ‘Ben Marcus’

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018

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I really liked If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and have read it a couple of times. I wondered why I’d never read Invisible Cities, and something else I was reading recently re-awakened my interest and prompted me to get it and finally read it, and it was marvellous. The concept itself is astonishing: a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which the traveller describes a range of imaginary cities to the great Khan in a series of prose poems. All the cities are named after women, fall into a range of different categories, and are woven symmetrically into the whole. Interspersing the nine chapters of the book are conversations between the pair, reflecting on a range of connected ideas.

I found myself very quickly reminded of Jorge Luis Borges in a number of ways. Firstly, the writing is in short sections or chapters; like poetry, each deals with a single subject, or here, city. And the slightly magical, slightly ethereal style is also reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer, although, of course, my judgement is limited as I can read neither in the original.

Each city is different, disturbing, dislocating; each contains enough in itself, in its own story, to shake you up, make you reflect and ponder. Some will truly enchant you, others will hardly move you at all. At one point the great Khan realises that in each city Marco Polo may be describing a different aspect of Venice, his home city; equally he is contemplating aspects of our life journey in the world. Sometimes a city verges on the truly surreal, in a way in which the language itself seems to lose its meaning – rather along the lines of Ben Marcus‘ bizarre The Age of Wire and String – you read the words, and they are words you can comprehend individually, but the ways in which they are related to each other challenges perception…

Each city is its own prose poem: the cities are weird and the magic of Calvino’s words and images conjures up vivid if implausible, unreal or insane places, at times in a drug-like haze. Many of the places have a very seductive appeal, and even though the travels are going nowhere, for these places do not exist, the magical and haunting lyricism of the cities timelessly suspended in eternity carries you along in a trance.

How does it work? We listen to an intriguing story-teller; we are in the territory of myth; we are travellers visiting unknown places along with him. Words create vivid pictures, and ideas make us think. The ethereal nature of the places and the encounters carry us effortlessly along… and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s a lovely book, and I don’t use that word about many books.

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Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

On disappointment

October 3, 2016

51bp1419yjl-_ac_us160_Have you ever started a book which you were really looking forward to reading, expecting it to be really good, and gradually been let down, realising that actually you weren’t enjoying it very much? Optimistic, you continue, hoping it will pick up… sometimes it does, a bit, but it never actually matches your original expectations. And perhaps, like me, for various reasons you’re reluctant to just give up.

It’s happening to me a little more frequently nowadays, and has got me thinking. I’m always quite sceptical of reviews, especially those that rave about how brilliant a particular book is. Perversely, perhaps, the more fashionable, trendy or popular a book seems, the more suspicious I am of it.

Disappointment is often linked to the length of a novel. I’m not put off by the proverbial door-stopper, expecting to find depth and detail more satisfying, and some lengthy tomes are worth the effort – War and Peace, Life and Fate, the Arbat Trilogy – but others have deceived. When I came to re-read Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros, I wished I hadn’t bothered; the last Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, sustained me during a lengthy illness, but I can’t imagine myself reaching for it again, and Don De Lillo’s Underworld, which so many raved about, was a masterpiece of tedium to me: I really couldn’t see the point. I’ve been disappointed by some of my favourite authors: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was a great let-down after The Name of the Rose; The Island of the Day Before was a little better, but not a lot. But then he gave us Baudolino

When I consider what’s happened, I’m often struck by the thinness of the plot – too drawn-out and self-indulgent, even: a story that takes too long to get not very far, and after having really enjoyed a previous novel, I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll try this, it should be good’, and it’s not. Are writers doing a Dickens, and writing by the yard because they need the money?

My current disappointment – I’ll write a proper review when I get to the end – and what’s prompted this post is The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp. It’s a novel about the complications and frustrations of life in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic), set in Dresden among a relatively privileged group of families. So far, in 400 of 1400 pages (!) there have been some interesting glimpses of daily life, a sense of menace from the ever-present Stasi, and a lot of tedium reading about a group of people for whom I do not really care. I shall persevere, though I currently feel victim of my enthusiasm for books that do not seem likely to get translated into English. This one will be no great loss, on current showing.

It strikes me that I’ve become harder to please as I’ve grown older, and perhaps a little more conservative in my tastes. I used to read a good deal of experimental literature, including some quite weird stuff, and really enjoyed it. But then, I have recently enjoyed Ben Marcus and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and they are hardly run-of-the-mill writers. Maybe one has less patience as one ages?

The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016

continued]

One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]

 

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet

January 4, 2014

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This is the second weirdest novel I’ve ever read; the prize for the first goes to The Age of Wire and String, by the same author. That one was weirder because more poetic in the way that the author (ab)uses language and concepts to confuse/ seduce/ amaze his readers; this one is a novel with a real plot which you can (attempt to) follow…

Surrealist is a word I might use here, although Marcus makes Boris Vian at his strangest seem quite mundane; nor does he bore me stupid like Robbe-Grillet in La Jalousie. In the same way that Marcus takes language to its limits, I’m finding it rather a challenge to write about his book… but here goes:

In a New York he imagines, human speech has become toxic: first, it’s the speech of children, then increasingly vocalisation of anything by anyone, causes a range of weird and appalling symptoms; eventually parents and their children can no longer inhabit the same towns, let alone houses; bands of feral children can terrorise and disable adults by shouting at them. The toxicity of words, reading and all kinds of symbols make life impossible, and the search for palliatives and cures involves all sorts of bizarre and unethical methods; the narrator is a member of a strange group of Forest Jews whose odd rituals alone in the woods may or may not be linked to a solution… the book is full of weird devices it’s almost impossible to visualise. Eventually, the residue of all human speech lies around as piles of salt…

In and among this, of course, is the human need for fellowship, companionship, love and sex, and the descriptions of what sex has become in this universe are most strange. The narrator loves his wife and daughter, and has to abandon or lose both in different ways.

Although all the ideas in this story are initially so alien, it bears reading and the plot urges you on, as you wonder where on earth it can go next, and I was left shocked and upset at the end. I’m sure I will read it again, because I can see there is a lot I will inevitably have missed first time around.

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