03/2008

Book reviews and books read
March 31st, 2008

I’ve long had a vision of the books reviews / books read part of this site, and now I’ve finally “left” my job (officially on 30th March), I sat this evening designing and coding the first part of it, which you can now see by clicking on the Books 2008 (beta) in the Books Read part of the blogroll to your right. (ps. This is actually my favourite bit of the website). I hope you like the design – particularly the colour scheme, since it’s the colour scheme I’m going to use on the rest of the website when I get round to it. I like the simplicity too. – For this page, I intend to have a running commentary on my progress and thoughts deriving from it running down the left-hand side, and some kind of complex statistical information down the right-hand side.

This particular page, if you’re interested, was written (by me and from scratch) in XML, XSL and CSS. I particularly enjoyed the co-operation between XSL and CSS – which had only been a theory in my head earlier today, and which worked out wonderfully. Using CSS was a computing dream: I kept thinking, “I wonder if you can do this,” and almost always you could. (Such a strange computing experience, I’m such you’ll agree.)

Anyway, the plan is to replace all the “YadaYada”s with little reviews. (Which won’t replace longer reviews on this part of the blog, I don’t think, if I have anything particular or strong I want to say about a book). Also, I’m going to put in a conditional search at some point to weed out all the books I’m in the middle of (although, as it happens, this is nothing like a full list of books finished and in progress). In fact, I hope to design a few tabs / buttons at the top, so you can choose between the lists of fiction, non-fiction, short stories, books in progress, and abandoned books – and it will generate the stuff for your perusal, just like that.

p.s. If you want to learn how to do any of this web stuff, a relatively easy guide can he found here.

Obooki
March 30th, 2008

My website’s been down (mostly) all day (all weekend perhaps, for all I know), so I was idling about looking up the name “Obooki” on yahoo (not google, mind you) to see if I’d had any great impact – and I discovered that a comment I’d made on the Guardian booksblog (which had garnered no particular response in that location from what I recall) had been republished in the Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters’ newsletter (issue no 119, item no 9 – pdf doc).

They also called me “the splendidly-named Obooki”, and so I thought I’d mention the name’s origin – which is that I made it up as the imaginary name of a highly complicated Oriental boardgame, which in turn was to be the basis of a novel in which a laid-back talented young pretender attempted to defeat the fastidious reigning master, in a contest taking place over several years and all the while interspersed with historical anecdotes about the origins of the game and the individual pieces. (An idea I’ll probably never carry out, not least because of its very strong resemblance – as I’m sure you’ll have noted – to Kawabata’s The Master of Go). – When I was first requested to supply a pseudonym for a website (in that case, internet poker) I cast about and decided it would be good enough. (For those interested, I now play poker under the name of Maumort – I’m sure you know the literary reference).

It doesn’t seem I was entirely original in my invention of the name either. The same trawl through the internet seems to show Obooki may have either Hawaiian or Polish origins.

Prix Goncourt Project – Catch-up
March 26th, 2008

I thought I’d do a brief catch-up of the most recent books I’ve read in my project.

The Wedding, by Yann Queffelec

I really enjoyed this novel, though I feel there was in some way something very personal in my enjoyment. – I shall admit, I’ve been working the last five years in a child care department, so I find myself pleased by how right Queffelec’s portrayal of a troubled (very troubled child) is: how being neglected destroys the child, destroys any chance of him being able to form social bonds with others in later life, and how that neglect displays itself in the guise of learning difficulties or mental illness. I know this to be true; I know this to be the consequence of neglect; and I know that children, who are neglected by their mothers, will still love their mothers and defend their mothers and believe that their mothers love them. Yes, it is all too true; and it is great achievement, I felt, of Queffelec’s that he doesn’t let you understand whether the child’s condition is purely because of neglect, or if there is something wrong with him as others maintain. – Oh, if I told you any more of this story, then I’m sure you wouldn’t want to read it. Too many harrowing family dramas – who needs another? If I’d read a summary of the plot, I would never have touched it. And yet, it is so well written, so well structured. The narrative is split into three parts, each one a fascinating scene in its own right, a scene which has its own intrinsic interest.

Fields of Glory, by Jean Rouaud

Which I enjoyed, but perhaps with reservations. A meandering work of nostalgia, describing a short period in a family’s life that is permeated by death, and haunted at the same time by the greater time of death that was the First World War. I don’t have much to say about it: it charms in its way, and I particularly enjoyed the description of travelling in a 2CV.

One-Way, by Didier van Cauwelaert

Which began badly, I felt, and I was in half a mind to give up on it: a tiresome account of a child / adolescent growing up in poverty around the suburbs of Marseilles, yet interesting I suppose since I’d never read anything about this sort of urban misery in French literature (except I suppose parts of Zola, but I mean modern, contemporary). Yet about page 40 there is suddenly a twist and the story takes off, becoming instead a strange and humorous journey to find a place which exists only in the imagination of the protagonists. Much to say, one feels, about nationality, about immigration – but a good story too.

Brazil Red, by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Which is a mere adventure story, but entertaining enough, about a French attempt to colonise a part of Brazil and the many inherent religious disputes of the colonists. It intrigues me a bit, considering our own Booker’s tendencies (with which I’m inclined to compare the Goncourt), that such a novel could take the big prize. Would we recognise such a yarn ourselves and accord it anything? Similar in this sense to our earlier read: Echenoz’s It’s Over.

On Blogrolls
March 26th, 2008

I notice today (or perhaps it was yesterday by now) that one of our most discerning and enlightened brethren has had the foresight (or was it the folly) to add me to their blogroll. Naturally this news elates me, for naturally I take it as an affirmation that there might after all be something worthwhile in this business of ranting into the air, which frankly I was beginning to doubt. – Yes, there I stand, proud of my non-capitalised first letter (like a modern day e e cummings) among a list of litblogs I’ve for a long time admired from afar but whose opinions I’ve rarely thought myself worthy to disparage. To have my name alongside such sites as The Literary Saloon and Three Percent, whose php-generated pages I’ve visited religiously each day for years (or, at least, for as long as they’ve been around – which in the case of the latter isn’t so long, I suppose) – to be included with these luminaries, it cannot but give one a sense of gratification – perhaps as much as one day I will wander into a bookshop and see there a book of mine, next to Isherwood or (if he has fallen much further from grace by that time) Ishiguro, but whichever at least somewhere near Joyce (perhaps on the same shelf, who knows, unless he’s been hived off into classics by then? – but what’s that: you say he’s there already – I don’t believe you) – and I will open that book of mine and read a small excerpt and chuckle to myself and put it back again.

Yes, I’ve looked along blogrolls before, as we all have, searching to see if my name’s been added, to see if anyone’s seen fit to acknowledge the worthiness of our desperate, insomniac ramblings, to see if we’ve been recognised by those we wish to recognise us, and finding of course that, no, it hasn’t and only about twenty people have visited our site that day in any case and even those twenty are probably bots trawling the web aimlessly, without much of the exegetic intent we were hoping for in our visitors – it would be too much to believe these statistics were the rectangular residue of human individuals; take too great a leap of faith to believe that people came, let alone came back. But now at last we have this acknowledgement and we feel, like the author whose work has just been accepted, that we’ve made it. (Which, of course, we haven’t).

(So, I beg you, divine blogroller, don’t remove me now from your blogroll – since you only added me, I can tell, because I was reviewing a whole load of foreign books, which I’ve now squeezed into a single page to replace it with this drivel. For if I am reprieved, I shall review a whole lot of books you’ve never read by authors you’ve never heard of. – No, seriously. The stuff so far is nothing – everyone’s read these writers. – But right now, for instance, I’m reading a book by Kálmán Mikszáth who I’m sure you’ve never read since, despite being one of Hungary’s greatest writers, his books have only ever been translated into English once – I think – by Corvina Press, in the early 70s. – And I’ve got others too; I’ve got many, many others, and I’ll write reviews just so that at those lovely literary parties you no doubt attend you can say, “Ah yes, but have you ever read any Aleksis Kivi?” – and they won’t have, I assure you).

I Watch A Film
March 26th, 2008

which I only remark on because it seems to me I haven’t watched a film for ages, so precious has time come to seem that I can no longer bring myself to waste ninety minutes of it idly. Not, needless to say, that I often do anything but waste time, but I like at least to consider that I’m about to do something constructive, which isn’t possible once you’ve sat down to watch a film.

Anyway, the work was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film, Le Silence de la Mer, which I enjoyed greatly with its voice-over and its long silences, its small cast and limited locations. Oh, they knew how to make small-budget films back then in the French New Wave: think Godard and his usual cast of three or four, the backdrop of Paris and a few rolls of film. How often, though, that you encounter one work of art which deals with the same area as another you’ve also recently come across. So it was with this film: its concern with the French reaction to the German occupation in WWII reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Flight to Arras which I’m still currently in the middle of. de Saint-Exupery is slightly earlier though: the Germans are still invading, though it is certain they will conquer, as indeed, in de Saint-Exupery’s vision, it was always certain they would conquer: for it is de Sainte-Exupery’s belief that the French knew they would lose even before war was declared, but they must declare it anyway, for the sake of pride; just as they continue in the novel to hurl their soldiers suicidely into the defence of their country, knowing there is no point, knowing the inevitable.

Why Fact Is? – Part Two
March 20th, 2008

…added to which, of course, historical writing is a prime example: most languages – or at least the Western European ones I happen to know – aptly confusing the concepts of “history” and “story” (French, histoire, and Spanish, historia, meaning either), with even the OED’s first definition of history reading “1. A narration of (in later use, esp. professedly true) incidents; a narrative, a story,” and though no one uses it in this sense any more, it’s pretty clear that was the original sense of the word and it only later gained its now more common and general usage – which is fair enough if you actually read any historical works prior to the nineteenth-century (pace Thucydides, of course, and his wild attempt to ***find book, insert quote*** , though thankfully two thousand years were to pass before anyone would think to follow his precept), which contain any old nonsense and propaganda. I recall a friend of mine, some historical scholar, apprising himself one day of a copy of the great later Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus which happened to be lining the floor of my room, who scoffed heartily at the baseless absurdities he found therein, which he declared weren’t worthy of being called history in this least; – and then what else: we read that the Germans were a pure-hearted race once upon a time because it was written in Tacitus, who never met a German and whose subject wasn’t really Germans at all but the impure Romans by contrast – at which you laugh, no doubt, because you know so better; and yet you sit down on your Saturday evening and watch your Roman drama on the TV about their fornication and their degeneracy as if there were any truth to the writings of Suetonius and Saint Augustine, as if this were fact and without understanding that the Romans wrote this way about their own because they were austere, to reinforce that austerity and to root out those suspect elements – to go back, indeed, to the piety of that noble soldier-farmer with his proud republican sentiments, just as all Romans dreamed.

So that, when one considers Defoe, who published all his works as if they were true whether they were or not, was there such a vast gap between history and story, reaching its culmination in his least readable work, A Journal of the Plague Year, whose falsity the reader can barely credit (for what, then, is the point)? And what the difference between this falsity (the novel) and that (the history) – especially when we are given no helpful indication? – Or, if you will, the Arthurian legends, which were taken as fact and perhaps still are in some vague way, as they made their ascent into the literature of romance and thence Cervantes? – Or More’s visit to his Utopia, a la Marco Polo?
But why suddenly, in the nineteenth-century, this sudden attitude to things? Why this odd inhuman desire towards finding out what actually happened? Why this investigation of – fact?

Why Fact Is?
March 17th, 2008

One of our esteemed litblog brethren asks the question “why fiction is?”; – personally I think a more interesting question would be “why fact is?”. Human-beings have always lied through their teeth, ever since they didn’t know the answer to something or felt the desire not to be entirely open. Hence world religion, mythology etc. – In fact, mythology is an interesting case in point, since (if one were to believe scholars) such tales are not at all inventions handed down to literature by some primitive oral cultures who didn’t know any better, but rather plausible fictions created by a literary culture to explain away their own bizarre religious rituals. (I suspect, now I think of it, that the Oedipus tale in its primitive incarnation had nothing to do with taboos of incest, but this was merely added by the aesthetic sense of Sophocles). – And then of course there’s Homer, who didn’t know squat about the Trojan War, let alone Mycenaean Linear B culture. Maybe one percent of what’s in his text was handed down through oral tradition; the rest of it he (or others like him) just made up to fill in the gaps and entertain somebody. – Then, as we come into the realm of ancient philosophy, while some lip-service may at times be paid to some sort of empirical truth, wherever that is found wanting, thinkers were only too happy to put forward any theory that came to mind – though you got some odd people like Pythagoras and Thucydides who kept muttering on about truth and proof and such, but no one paid them much mind, and it was all forgotten anyway in the crazy world of Christianity and neo-Platonism, where anything unreasonable passed for a truth.

The need to explain wrongly is natural to man. But wherefore the need to explain aright?

I Resign
March 17th, 2008

I’ve decided to leave my job and concentrate on writing for a while, so I thought I’d keep a journal of my various thoughts around the process of writing. (Perhaps it will be more successful – in terms of my keeping it up – than my other blogs). I’ve got other things to be getting on with too, but mostly I intend to concentrate on my writing.

I’ve been writing this particular novel for perhaps slightly over five years. This seems an extraordinary length of time; but I’d say in my defence that most of that time I’ve pretty much done nothing. The early part of the novel I wrote at the beginning of those five years, relatively rapidly, during another period when I wasn’t working. Then, once I’d returned to work, the idea had been to keep at it for six months to a year, till I had sufficient money in hand, and then to leave and complete the novel. It never panned out that way.

For a long time, I thought it would be possible both to work and to write. This seemed to be the case at first, but eventually the writing ground to a halt. I felt at the time that I wasn’t giving the novel enough attention, that I wasn’t doing justice to the material and, not satisfied with producing something I didn’t believe to be of the standard it could have been, I began to believe I shouldn’t both work and write at the same time. None of this was helped either by the fact that during this period I also started studying for a second undergraduate degree. So I laid the novel to one side, until I should find enough time to concentrate on it again.

Then, a year or so ago, I decided to take up the novel again, even while I was still working. The material which I put down during that period seemed good and at times I’d feel I could still manage it this way, but again and again I kept grinding to a halt. This was exacerabated, I felt, by the fact that the part of the novel I was writing was the most complex emotionally, much more so than anything which I’d up to that time attempted. At last I came to accept that I was never going to finish this novel if I remained in full-time employment; and with time passing by, I’ve felt an increasing need to get this novel finished – if only because of the urge to be on with the next one, and the one after that.

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