1930s Reading Project – Foreign Edition
April 25th, 2008

Just to make my reading project further unlikely and impracticable, I’ve decided to alternate English language books with foreign language books. – I’m really going to try and make an effort to read one book at a time to its conclusion, and not follow my usual practice of starting ten at once and never getting round to finishing them until six months later.
Here’s the list:

1.Family, by Pa Chin
2.Birth of our Power, by Victor Serge
3.The Sorrowful Eyes of Hannah Karajich, by Ivan Olbracht
4.Hordubal, by Karel Čapek
5.The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch
6.A Sad Affair, by Wolfgang Koeppen
7.Tarabas, by Joseph Roth
8.Cainaima, by Rómulo Gallegos
9.Seven Red Sundays, by Ramón J Sender
10.Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz
11.Verdun, by Jules Romains

A varied selection, with emphases on the Austro-Hungarian empire and anarchism, which you could only expect from me – and from the 1930s.

(p.s. Does anyone know how to render unicode characters in HTML? The Č on Čapek needs its little hat.)

1930s Reading Project – Extra Book
April 24th, 2008

I was looking through my unread books, thinking of doing a complementary project of books written in the 1930s in foreign languages, when I discovered to my horror that one of them, written by a certain FA, wasn’t in foreign language at all but was originally written in English; – so I shall be adding it to my list.

The Dogs of Paradise, by Abel Posse
April 23rd, 2008

Continuing with a short Argentinian author theme, Abel Posse’s The Dogs of Paradise won the prestigious Romulo Gallegos prize back in 1987, at a time when it was awarded to the best Spanish language novel of the previous five years (we shall get around to the eponymous Gallegos himself soon enough – we have a book on our shelves – a much revered writer and occasional President of Venezuela). The previous four winners being pretty much Latin American classics, and with Bolaño, Vila-Matas and Vallejo since, I guess I was having high expectations of this, and I guess I was to an extent let down – but only to an extent: the beginning and the end of the novel I enjoyed immensely: it was only in the middle that I felt either I, or perhaps the writer, had lost his way.

The novel is about Columbus’ discovery of America and in terms of interest I guess you can hardly go wrong with the subject, (I’ve for a time had a vague idea I’d like to write a Colombus novel of my own). It begins with a multi-threaded narrative, switching between Columbus’ early life, the lives of some indigenous Americans and – for me the best scenes – the growing power of and love between Fernando and Isobel. Which leads me to my main problem with multi-threaded narratives – which is that, as a reader, I tend to measure them by the strength of the worst strand: in this case the Indian segments, with which I became frustrated and often found myself half-inclined to pass over.

Once Columbus sets out on his voyage, however, the novel picks up again: I particularly enjoyed the scenes within Beatriz de Bobadilla’s murderous and pornographic domain on the Canary Islands; and the whole last part of the book, as Columbus becomes convinced he has discovered, in America, the original Eden and increasingly descends into despotic mysticism, are utterly fascinating and bewildering. Indeed, I came away from the book wondering quite how much of what I’d read was true, since the novel had a tendency every now and again to make footnoted reference to first-hand evidence. – And I wondered too whether the novel hadn’t lost something in translation. I cannot really judge, of course, but I’m a little suspicious of an aphoristic style which may perhaps have become flat and muted.

1930s Reading Project – Opening Paragraphs
April 22nd, 2008

1.Her Gart went round in circles. “I am Her,” she said to herself; she repeated, “Her. Her. Her.” Her Gart tried to hold on to something; drowning she grasped, she caught at a smooth surface, her fingers slipped, she cried in her dementia, “I am Her, Her, Her.” Her Gart had no word for her dementia, it was predictable by star, by star-sign, by year.

2.“Fearon! What is the matter with you, boy?”

3.When the writer permits himself the familiarity of calling her Mary Dove it is not from any disrespect to a lady of rank, nor with any pretensions to the intimate condescension of a lady of fashion. It is written so merely because he finds it a pleasant thing to set down the name: Mary Dove.

4.In the year 332BC a short line of galleys might have been seen, sailing in-shore from mouth to mouth across the Delta of the Nile. Sailing from East to West, from the port of Naucratis, hugging the coast; and at the poop of the leading ship a group of young men stared at the shore. From time to time they scratched its appearance on their tablets, and leaning upon one another’s shoulders, compared results. More than once one whom they called Nearchos, the only one who wore his beard cut short like a seaman, put off in a dinghy and trudged the beaches; or, mounting the ledge of rock which divided the sand from the true earth, stared across the country at his feet.

5.Far down the street I saw the night watchman slowly approaching with his lantern. He was singing to himself in a soft grief-stricken voice. When he saw me he grew silent, his wrinkled-apple face grew intent and solemn. He passed me quietly. And then when he reached the corner he began singing again, chanting, I should have gathered from his tone, about the coming of disasters, the grief of old men, the end of love.

6.Beginning this book (not as they say ‘book’ in our trade – they mean magazine), beginning this book, I should like if I may, I should like, if I may (that is the way Sir Phoebus writes), I should like then to say: Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends.

7.Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein – a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

8.“Claro,” said the warder, “Claro, hombre!” It was the condescension of one caballero to another. His husky voice was modulated upon the principle of an omniscient rationality. When he spoke, he spoke from the bleak, socratic peak of his wisdom to another neighbouring peak – equally equipped with the spotless panoply of logic. Deep answered to deep – height hurled back its assent to height! “Claro, hombre!” he repeated, tight-lipped, with the controlled passion of the great logician. “We are never free to choose – because we are only free once in our lives.”

9.‘49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.

10.It seems, though it was many years ago, only yesterday that we citizens of a seaside town, standing in the ranks along the esplanade, watched, cheering at the same time with all the force of our lungs, the outset of the three brothers who, with the inconsiderate fine daring of youth, were prepared, each in his own way, to go far on bicycles, distinguishing our town by an attempt which even the brothers only dimly understood and which seemed to most of us who stood spectators vociferously cheering impracticable, to some even ridiculous. Young and vigorous they looked, different one from the other, as they wheeled into the square their diverse coloured bicycles, made by the same maker at different dates, and they seemed, by the expression on their faces, already in thought upon the moorland road which was to lead them to the frontier miles away, where very few of us had ever been, and those few shook their heads with a hint of dangers to be met, saying nothing but doubting much, as the rest of us doubted, whether the brothers ever were destined to achieve the purpose which they all, though very indistinctly, had in view.

1930s Reading Project
April 21st, 2008

I’m going to try and finish the books I’m already reading for the rest of April (some of them, at any rate), so I can keep up my book count (27 at the moment, so I need to finish another 6 to keep on target) – and then I thought to start May I’d engage in a little project of reading books published in the 1930s. What’s more, they’re all going to be originally in English – so maybe there’ll be a chance people can comment on them. (Then again, considering the list…)

Anyhow, there’s ten of them and I thought, in the interests of suspense, I’d just give their initials: DB, HD, FP, RW, DJ, SS, WL, JH, MA & MB. (To be fair, one was published in 1928, another in 1981, and another in 1990 – the last, due to its suppression). (3 are American).

Blogging Pseudonymity – Part II
April 18th, 2008

Just to take apart a few more of the viewpoints which were annoying me amongst the comments on this Guardian article:
The word ‘pseudonym’, or its various derivatives, was used 8 times in the discussions following this article, by a grand total of 3 posters; whereas the word ‘anonym’, or its various derivatives, was used 56 times by many different commenters – sometimes, it has to be said, correctly. Now, I don’t wish to get too pedantically semantic about stuff, but the difference between the two does seem to me to be pretty significant in this particular discussion: namely, that with pseudonymity more than one post can be attributed to the same person; whereas real anonymity would require that no one post could ever be understood to be from the same source as another.

I acknowledge that the opportunities provided with pseudonymity can allow the possibility of anonymity: one can after all merely make one comment per pseudonym, if one should wish; and I guess pseudonymity can easily be abused: one can rant and rave under a certain name and then, once that has created too much trouble, one can kill off that personality and start again. But I feel these are the rare exceptions on internet-based fora, where it is more people’s wish to cultivate one distinct personality, if only for a natural human need for a sense of belonging and a sense of self. As soon as one becomes part of a community under an individual pseudonym, it is very difficult to cast aside that identity and the relationship-building which has gone with it and start again (if a new pseudonym is necessary – perchance it might even be one’s real name – users tend to signify the relation between old and new, so that the cache of their old identity can thereafter continued to be attributed to them) .

Little communities, then, develop, which, looked at by outsiders, may seem like a collection of anonymous entities. One could perhaps compare this to the anonymity of a group of people sitting at a table next to you in a restaurant: you do not know these people’s names, but it is clear that they have them and that they know each other and are probably aware of each other’s names and the identities that go with them (but we find the loud boisterous noise they are making all the more annoying because we don’t know them, and perhaps we are sitting on our own trying to have a quiet meal). The difference, however, with an online community is that it’s not at all obvious at first that there are these connexions between the various pseudonyms: one has to wait a long time, like with some noctural mammal perhaps, for their social behaviour to become apparent (and, to consider the Guardian booksblog in particular, these individuals tend to speak to other only obliquely in any case, which makes the connexions  harder to perceive).

As I said, I don’t think the distinction I’m making is idle, since it invalidates all of the following arguments (I’ve tried to weed out ones where the word “anonymous” is simply being misused in place of “pseudonymous”):

That authorship in blogs is not attributable to any individual; that one cannot go back through that individual’s previous work to compare earlier statements he may have made, as one can in printed media. [Indeed, one’s inclined to suggest this is a whole lot easier on the internet, and happens all too regularly].

That named and known individuals lack the opportunity for a right of reply against commenters who are anonymous, since their anonymity does not allow their lack of consistency to be highlighted.

That the situation with blog commenters is comparable to a governmental white paper where the authors are nowhere named [no, not even with pseudonyms]

That “some anonymous blogs” – but this is not the case for simple commenters on blogs – develop an authorship through continual postings [though this is getting towards the idea]

That anonymity can lead to “bullying without boundary ownership” [indeed, to bully someone, you’d have thought it’d be useful to maintain a specific pseudonym – it would be hard to do it anonymously; – the point being that, bullying pseudonymously still has a certain about of “boundary ownership” – the person is attributing the role of bully to his name; – besides, someone who bullies on the internet, how unlikely is it that they are bullying out of character.]

The last argument with the corollary that “it’s all about egos” [anonymity is all about egos?!]

That the anonymity of commenters allows people to take up “positions that aren’t genuine and can’t be tested in the way that we do either in our face-to-face relationships or with the referencing systems in academia”

That the anonymous commenter cannot be put under the same scrutiny as the original *named* poster, in relation to questioning an invididual “right” [presumably, “authority”] “to say this or that”.

That anonymity implies unquestionability – that it is a diktat from on high [again, from the government white paper analogy – but the analogy is false and so – quite clearly – the conclusion: how could the comments of anonymous people on a blog be considered unquestionable or diktats from on high; – indeed, in the analogy it is clear that they become unquestionable and diktats *because of their combination of authority and anonymity*].

That anonymous comments “lack something vital that authored comments will always possess” [commenter here goes on to say “they need to come to us from an identifiable person, not via some shadowy pseudonym” – it is a human need perhaps – as much as speaking to people face-to-face is preferable to using the telephone – but I find the humanity or otherwise of, say, a work of literature doesn’t require acquaintance with the individual who wrote it, nor with the particulars of their life, nor even in the case of a few pseudonymous works (e.g. A E Ellis’ The Rack), with the writer’s actual name

I suppose my point being, in essence, that blogs and the pseudonymous comments that go with them aren’t all that far from how we interact in the real world – with its latent suspicions, its incipient friendships etc. – Is it also possible that the problems *celebrities* find when they enter blogs aren’t all that far away from the problems *celebrities* find when they are recognised going about their daily lives?

Bonhomie among BritLitBlogs
April 15th, 2008

In order to ingratiate myself with the BritLitBlog crowd, I just thought I’d give my tuppence worth on the little spat being fought out by the grandees here and here. It’s just, I was thinking the other day about the litblogs on the list, and it seemed to me that they really fell into two categories:

the theory-based modernists (mostly male) who want to argue about the whys and wherefores of literature

and the people who just like reading books (mostly female) and want to express in some way what they like about them
and I can’t help thinking that one of these groups (and I’m not going to say which) has a certain amount of contempt for the other; – though they are probably trying to hide it very well under the facade of their egregious erudition.

(Well, yes: now I’ve said my piece, I think I’ll return to that Eugeniusz Kabatc story I was reading).

Orange shortlist
April 15th, 2008

The Orange shortlist is out. Obooki has read none of the authors on it. – In fact, now he thinks about it, Obooki is not sure he’s read any book which has ever been long-listed (or perhaps entered) for The Orange Prize during the history of its existence.

POLL: Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction
April 15th, 2008

Yes, I was at a loose end this evening, having given up the notion of ever getting any writing done, and somehow it entered my mind that there was bound to be a way of doing polls on my blogs: – so I went onto WordPress’ webpage and lo and behold there I found a plug-in which I could download; so I downloaded it and after a while of tearing my hair and rending my clothes and screaming “Why doesn’t the *##*##* appear!”, it appeared on my side-bar.

So I thought, since the Orange shortlist is going to announced tomorrow (expect Guardian coverage), I’d put in a little pre-emptive poll of my own. It’ll run till 3rd June 2008, the day before the final announcement.

(n.b. Neither Anne Enright nor Scarlett Thomas were shortlisted, but in the great tradition of bookmakers, I’ll leave them up there so you can throw your money away on an impossibility. You never know, they might, like Denmark, get mysteriously reinstated).

Thinking about writing something
April 15th, 2008

As some of you may have noticed, this blog was set up – partly at least – as an account of my endeavour to complete my novel – and it may have occurred to you that there’s been singularly little about writing so far. The reasons for this I shall save for another post, but tonight was the first time (in a few months) that I actually sat down with the intention to write something. Not that I did, of course – though I did end up, as is my wont, making a few adjustments to the word order of a few sentences I’d previously written and deleting a couple of superfluous phrases.

I was thinking though tonight that I’d write a short story – and, thinking this, I thought I’d look at a short story I’d started a few months ago, just to see whether that one had been any good: – and to my horror I found that, no, it had certainly not. – How could I ever have written such a terrible beginning to a story; – and how could I ever have written such a terrible beginning and (I’m sure I recall, at the time) thought it any damn good. – Momentarily, losing faith, I thought I’d better have a quick look at my novel too – just to make sure everything about my appreciation of own writing wasn’t a mistake: – but thankfully it wasn’t, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. (No doubt it’s just one of those days).

But it’s strange, I think, that I could take up again on my novel exactly where I left off, and there might be six months since I last wrote a word of it, and yet I’ll carry on in exactly the same vein, with exactly the same worth (in my opinion) to the writing; – whereas, I can try and start something new, and suddenly I can’t find a voice at all or string two worthwhile sentences together, and the whole thing is just dreadful.

ACE Funding
April 13th, 2008

Since there was a small furore in the little world of publishing fiction in translation recently, and the withdrawal of certain public funds therefrom, I thought I’d see if I couldn’t find out which book-related organizations did get public funding. This is just for London (if you’re interested in some other region, you’ll have to check it out for yourself from their website):

Anvil Press – £89,831
Arcadia Books – £43,370
Arvon Foundation – £316,988
Book Trust – £333,515
Book Works – £140,288
Chipmunka Publishing – £56,485
English PEN – £73,792
Enitharmon Press – £47,492
Index on Censorship – £68,370
Inpress Limited – £142,500
Literary Consultancy – £65,389
London Review of Books – £20,725
Mute Publishing – £70,531
Poems on the Underground – £54,213
Poetry Book Society – £113,915
Poetry London – £35,616
Poetry School – £108,427
Poetry Society -£267,813
Poetry Translation Centre – £107,835
Spread the Word – £226,206
Survivors’ Poetry – £56,485
Wasafiri – £39,725

These are just the regular funding awards, but I also noticed in the monthly fundings for 2008:

£19,434 to Peter Owen “to launch four translated titles in the Modern Classics series, commission a translation and re-launch two overlooked English writers”
£38,200 for Penguin’s Sino-British Literary Translation Summer School
£28,000 to Dalkey Archive Press “to publish an annual anthology of fiction representing the best of modern fiction from all over Europe”
£22,620 to Profile Books “to translate four books, two by African writers, one by a Polish writer and one by a Spanish writer into English”
£10,000 to YouWrite.com
£14,150 to a certain Khamidjan Ismailov, to translate (or perhaps, have) his novel Comrade Islam (translated) into English
£23,860 to Bitter Lemon Press Ltd, for the “translation of four contemporary novels from the Catalan, Italian and Spanish
£5,440 to Iraqi Luay Abdulilah for the translation of a novel
Funnily enough I couldn’t find the one I was looking for, which was how much they paid out to the mysteriously named think-tank Institute for the Future of the Book.

Compulsive book-buying
April 13th, 2008

Here’s a picture of the top of my wardrobe (you should be able to click on it to get a much larger picture, so you can identify the individual books, if that’s your kind of thing – I certainly would, if it were someone else’s). The stuff on the top level, except the far right column, I’ve mostly read; the rest (and it’s about three books deep) I haven’t – and this is only a small corner of the books in my flat I haven’t read.

Yes, I’ve got something of a book-buying problem, and I’ve had it for about ten years. That I recognise I’ve got a problem doesn’t seem to help either: I know perfectly well I’ve got 500 books or so I haven’t read, but it won’t stop me from buying more. The only achievement I’ve managed recently is to become a bit more discerning about what I’ll actually purchase – as in, these days I only buy books I’m actually going to read. (I don’t feel any more I can justify buying books that I might read). So now I buy about 5 books to every 1 I read, rather than 10 or 20.

The Hare, by César Aira
April 12th, 2008

César Aira certainly seems to provide grist to the critic’s mill, if – that is – you’re feeling after reading it that you want to take the novel apart. Apparently something of a Dadaist enfant terrible back in Argentina, I read (after finishing The Hare) that he doesn’t bother much with editing his manuscripts or thinking them through properly beforehand: he is one who is happy to go off when a tangent occurs to him and leave it at that. – Well, yes, I suppose: and so he does from the outset here: we start within the mind of the Argentine strongman Rosas and I’m thinking we’re going to be treated to one of South America’s favourite literary genres: the Novel of the Dictator; – but two chapters further in we’ve forgotten about Rosas altogether, and the novel turns out to be about an English naturalist – except (and here we come to the first of the criticisms which we aren’t really putting forward because we aren’t much concerned with these kinds of thing) he doesn’t really seem in the remotest bit interested in naturalism; and while he’s apparently come to the pampas to track down the hare of the title, he never really seems very interested in achieving this end, or even to know anything about the hare (it is nowhere remotely explained why the hare should be of interest to anyone, least of all that a naturalist should travel all the way from England merely to observe it). One is certainly left with the impression that the plot hasn’t been entirely thought through, or characters’ actions justified, which one can simply ignore if one is so inclined: for the truth of the matter seems to be that the character’s motivation is simply that he came to the pampas so that he could fulfill the various functions Aira wishes of him (I really don’t think Aira could be arsed beyond this). Other characters appear with similar spurious motivations, and the plot descends further and further into ludicrous absurdity, with many remarkable coincidences piled up at the end in the great tradition of New Comedy.

On the whole, though, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I suppose, since I’ve just read it, I’m inclined to compare it with Ignacio Padilla – both of them tended towards a glorious ridiculousness in their plotting; yet the Padilla was tightly-plotted and its ludicrousness was in its complexity, whereas the Aira is a sprawling mess, and I can’t help coming away from the books – perhaps just for the sake of this – with a much greater impression of the Padilla. While The Hare is well-written and has a lot of good scenes, there is something essentially trivial about it, and in the end I don’t know how it helps that this is probably Aira’s intention.

L-AM magic realism rating: 2/10 (certain episodes may have magic realist elements, but these will be contained within digressions on mythology and indigenous Indian culture)

Here’s an interesting alternative opinion.

International PEN conference
April 11th, 2008

There’s a PEN conference going on and I was wondering whether I should go along to any of the events. I’ve never been to any sort of literary festival: – I’ve only been to writer’s readings when I’ve been dragged. I guess I just like reading books and the rest of it’s never meant much to me. Anyway, I’ve missed the Alaa al-Aswany already – it started about half an hour ago (though perhaps it’s just as well, since I still haven’t got around to reading his book – on which note, I’ve been thinking of a small 2007 publications reading project in the near future – I reckon I’ve got about 7 or so, and it’d make me seem really up to date) – but the Alberto Manguel and the Francisco Goldman seem quite interesting. – What’s people’s opinions about the matter of attending literary festivals?

Flight to Arras, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
April 10th, 2008

This is another of those books I enjoyed the first three-quarters of, and from then on until the last page found it a terrible struggle of the will to complete. It reminded me strongly in this respect of the Juan Goytisolo novel I read a few months ago: an interesting situation is described – here, de Saint-Exupéry (or the narrator, I cannot now recall) is sent on a semi-suicidal reconnaissance mission as the Germans invade France during the Second World War: the narrative describes his thoughts, both about the mission and about the fate of France (defeated from the start, in the narrator’s view – or even before); – these sections are well-told, with a nice balance between story and philosophical reflection; but as we come towards the end (and, sadly, the mission itself ends some forty pages before the book), the tenor of the work changes, and becomes instead a long philosophical monologue about Man – not without interest ultimately, but so hard-going in comparison to the rest of the work, so abstract all of a sudden, that I’d soon lost interest and was almost inclined to cast it aside.

It makes me wonder, though, whether it is a good thing that writers don’t (or can’t) sufficiently distance themselves from what they write. Both novelists – Goytisolo and de Saint-Exupéry – turn to philosophical speculation seemingly because they are so involved in the matter of their story: – for Goytisolo, it’s the death of his wife which he seeks to come to terms with; for de Saint-Exupéry, it is the defeat of France and the problem of what the human race has descended to (the novel was written in 1942). It is clear these things mean a lot to these writers, and that they have given much thought to the causes: – and it is thus perhaps that they have come to feel that the vaguely-philosophical narratives with which their works began are not enough; that they must give up these narratives and turn merely to abstract speculation. There is a sense, I feel, about them both, that narrative is in a sense too trivial.

New York Novels
April 8th, 2008

The Literary Saloon today points out NYmag’s canon of 26 books about New York. Obooki is sad, however, because he’s currently reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and it’s not there. When he looked through the list he was so certain it was going to be there. Obooki doesn’t understand why it’s always Don DeLillo and never Paul Auster. He shakes his head.
What other New York books are not on the list?

World Literature Forum
April 7th, 2008

We could all go over to World Literature Forum and discuss things there too. I shall certainly sign up soon myself and comment on some stuff. I like the idea of it, but it’ll probably only work if it can attract a lot of people. I’m acutely aware myself of how reviewing obscure books or writers doesn’t get you many comments (not just here, but you can look at the Guardian pages too, or any other related websites), and therefore doesn’t instigate much argument. My motivation here has never been to root out the esoteric for the esoteric’s sake (as perhaps I may sometimes come across), but it derives from a far greater need I feel within myself, on enjoying so much of this bewildering mass of foreign fiction I read, to reach out to people and express that enjoyment and in some way to try to share it.

Shadow without a Name, by Ignacio Padilla
April 7th, 2008

I thought I’d stay on the pseudonymity theme of the last post and say something about Ignacio Padilla’s Shadow without a Name, which I finished the other day. As I said before, Padilla is one the “Crack” group of Mexican writers, whose main impetus seems to be to make a break with current trends in Latin American literature (particularly the “orthodoxy” of magic realism) and reconnect more with the great literature of the past.

Padilla’s contribution to the group’s manifesto I thought appeared the most abstruse, yet his novel is nothing if not easy of access. It’s a marvellously constructed and insanely complex thriller, at one level to be taken none too seriously, yet at another a meditation on the nature of honour (or the lack of it). Wonderfully fast-paced, enchantingly bewildering, it recounts a series of identity thefts (or at least appropriations) against the background of the decimation of the two World Wars – in which it was (in Padilla’s perception) all too easy to lose one’s self in the anonymity of death and the precariousness of life. For the most part it is only too difficult trying to keep account of which character is which (especially when the story is told in separate parts by separate characters who are themselves not privy to everything), so that I came out the other end, sensing that I understood what had gone on, but not quite sure, and feeling perhaps I should read it all again.

Blogging Pseudonymity
April 7th, 2008

Encouraged in my thinking by an article on the Guardian blog, which perhaps went a bit off-topic among the comments, I found myself wondering why it was that the internet (even the better controlled and respected parts of it) encouraged people to involve themselves in interactions pseudonymously. Most communal sites, when you sign up to them, will not merely allow you to operate pseudonymously, but in a sense actually encourage you to. (You might well argue it would be very difficult for them not to). Considering though that the web began as a way for academics to swap articles and information (presumably in their name) among one another, I was wondering what the historical basis was for this prevalence of pseudonymity. – All I managed to come across though in the literature I accessed were what seemed to me justifications after the fact, and even then more or less special cases: work-based whistle-blowing, bloggers living under oppressive regimes (I know, it is only my western European prejudice that this latter is a special case, but the blogs I am talking about are dominantly European / American both in origin and in usership); – and I felt myself none the wiser. (Any answers?)

For my own part, as I mentioned before, I first used the pseudonym Obooki on internet poker sites, and if I had to assume now why I chose a pseudonym rather than playing under my own name, it would simply be because I perceived it was the done thing: I went on the site, I noticed that pretty much everyone else used pseudonyms, so I thought I’d follow suit. – I can’t see now how it would have made any difference to me if I’d be compelled to play poker under my own name (which in this case, since you are required to give your bank details anyway, they could have enforced).

When it came to commenting on the Guardian, however, I feel my motivation changed. That I retained the same name shows how to a certain extent I carried over my poker practices to the litblog, but I also think it brought out a general sense of secrecy and shyness which has always been part of my character; and perhaps even more than that, it brought out the authorial perfectionist within me, who has long been afraid of having any texts or opinions attributed to his name which aren’t long worked-over and to which I haven’t a committed belief. And I think too of the small boy at school who’d never put his hand up to answer a question for fear of making a fool of himself. – Suddenly a pseudonym becomes safe: a man bound by timidity can now make a fool of himself, and then – once the shame and embarrassment has worn off (which might take a few months) – the pseudonym can easily be discarded and a new one taken up. Not, of course, that I feel I have made much a fool of myself (or only occasionally) – and so I’ve stuck with Obooki (which is not, in truth, a role I am playing or a different persona I have adopted – although I might at times kid myself about it and like to play up the idea – but is by and large myself) and I find I don’t mind now if Obooki comes to be identified alongside my actual name: – indeed, when the Great Publisher comes for my Book and publishes it, I find myself now toying with the idea of prolonging the pseudonym. – I even feel – as perhaps is evidenced by the many failed blogs on this site, and the sense of reticence sometimes now to comment (even to write the comment, but then think better of it and not post it) – that Obooki is slowly losing his unnatural confidence and becoming cramped again by my own uncertainties, just in fact as he did as a poker-player and was forced to give up that respected profession.

Book Reviews
April 6th, 2008

Since my last book review got so many comments, I thought I’d try to review a book a day this week. I think the writers are likely to be Ignacio Padilla, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Abel Posse, Isak Dinesen, Gert Hofmann, Emmanuel Bove and “a mystery guest writer” (as they say when they haven’t anyone in mind).

The Life of the Automobile, by Ilya Ehrenburg
April 4th, 2008

I really had to fight with myself to finish this book, and possibly it wasn’t worth the effort – but you get so far, it seems a waste to give up (especially since it then won’t count towards your yearly target).

A long time ago now it seems to me I started this novel and for a while, maybe 40 pages, I believe I even enjoyed it. This possibly coincided with the time when I imagined that it was some sort of fast-paced Futurist-Expressionist paean to capitalism. Gradually, however, Ehrenburg’s politics began to intrude their ugly features; gradually this capitalist dream was turning sour – and not just for one person (me, the reader): no, it seemed this growing fashion for buying and selling – for unrestrained competition – was going to redound to everyone’s misery.

Ehrenburg’s work is the type that seeks to transform a slice of history into a narrative, leaning in this case more heavily on the history and interspersing it with little exemplary stories of men’s lives and how they are affected by these momentous changes. (The blurb on the back bizarrely compares it to In Cold Blood and Schindler’s Ark: though I’m sure you can see the critic’s train of thought). In Ehrenberg’s world, capitalism makes everyone miserable – workers and producers alike: they are all caught up in its vast mechanism, apparently without time to think or to fall in love. These points are made relentlessly throughout its 157 pages, and despite the occasional set-piece, the book has a tendency to descend into simplistic propaganda. At times it even seems entirely to oppose the world of modernity and hark back to a simpler world where people had simple, understandable occupations like farmer or fisherman.

Here’s his views on motorcars:

“The automobile works honestly. Long before its birth, when it is still just layers of metal and piles of drawings, it diligently murders Malayan coolies and Mexican laborers…It shreds flesh, blinds eyes, eats lungs, destroys minds. At last, it rolls out of the gates into the world which, before its existence, was known as ‘bright’. Instantly, it deprives its supposed owner of his old-fashioned piece of mind… The automobile laconically runs down pedestrians. It gnaws into the side of a barn or else, grinning, it flies down a slope. It can’t be blamed for anything. Its conscience is as clear as Monsieur Citroen’s conscience. It only fulfills its destiny: It is destined to wipe out the world.”

Yes, he can be amusing at times in this way, but – as I say – it becomes relentless.

At some point, I happened to read a comment of Nabokov’s: “As a writer he doesn’t exist, Ehrenburg. He is a journalist. He was always corrupt.” Of course, Nabokov is never too happy when politics obtrudes its way into a work of literature, even if it happens to be wearing a disguise (as is hardly the case here) – yes, our fabled writer had a bit of chip on his shoulder over something; but I can’t help feeling he’s got a point about Ehrenburg. There’s far more propaganda here than art. And as I may have implied in a previous post, we’ve got used to history being presented in a little less prejudiced way than this.

If you want to read a potted biography, you can find one at Sovlit, with its pleasing tagline: “Works of Soviet Literature summarized for those unable or too lazy to read them in the original.”

On Slugs
April 4th, 2008

Every morning, when I wake up recently, there have been slugs trails around my flat – and they’re becoming more adventurous; but as yet I’ve seen no sign of a slug. Even following the trails to their conclusion is no help: the trails just suddenly stop, as if the slug has vanished or taken wing.

On Spam
April 4th, 2008

I got my first spam comment today. No, it didn’t take long; – if, of course, it is spam, and not merely someone who goes around making vague compliments on people’s websites. Here it was, for what it’s worth:

“Your blog is getting better and better! Previous posts were good, but this one is just FABULOUS.”

I know, it looks harmless enough: there’s no product placement, no hyperlinks: – a man of more self-confidence might easily be taken in by it. What leads me to be suspicious (apart from past experience) is its astrological vagueness: it could be appended to any post on anyone’s blog and be in context; – and besides, I’ve been hanging around the literary pages too long to be taken in by so much excessive praise.

(p.s. Sorry if it’s anyone’s genuine comment.)

Crack writers
April 1st, 2008

I see (at least, as far as I understand) that CNL mention Eloy Urroz’s got a new book coming out, called Friccíon (even with my poor Spanish, I feel there might be a play on words here). Urroz says: “Fricciones, más que un libro, se convierte en un juguete para adultos” (something like: “Frictions, more than a book, turns into a game for adults”). We like the idea of fiction as a game for adults here, and have something to say on the subject in our novel (or at least the narrator does, with whom often we find ourselves agreeing):

“Literature was a vast game, I conceived at the time, an elaborate cerebral exercise played out by two men, whose rules were known and understood by even the smallest boy; whose strategies and tactics were many and various and yet defied all formulation; and which became all the sweeter, more subtle and elaborate the more one involved oneself in this simple activity of reading.”

We shall be getting around to reading some Urroz soon – there is a book of his upon our shelves. He is one of the “Crack” group of writers from Mexico: and we are currently in the middle of two others (neither, strangely, mentioned amongst books of 2008), Ignacio Padilla’s Shadow Without A Name (which we are enjoying) and Jorge Volpi’s In Search of Klingsor (which we’re finding quite hard-going).


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