Relativity

Consider this. Follow
with your good eye

the knife moving relative
to the butcher’s mind,
particles skidding either side
of the blade, spilt like

blood, split like the brain
is split into marshy regions
without clear borders or
recognisable landmarks

lit dimly by the moon
which hangs like a mirror
in a small room,

to make it seem larger. Here
the sky, overwritten in wild
swirls of a foreign code
is collapsing.

>>>>>>>>>Synapse upon
synapse bursts underground,
old forgotten mines, relics
of imaginary wars fought

without purpose or prompt.
Its history forged, its trajectory
lost, the long knife falls forever

edgeless guillotine

moving over the waters
without parting them.

Advertisements

Seven Summations of Seven Novels

La Condition humaine

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

A chess piece placed, Alaskan white;
a Murder made in grid-black night.

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

You are in a small white room in which there is a bed, a toilet, and a sink.
Fill the sink.
Take out one eye, place it in the water, drain.
Don’t you feel better now?

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom

A moth drags himself bodily through the lounging air. In the mellow aged light the dust the people flake is about him, convocations of dust blending as though wishing to reconstitute the human shape of the past, which is impossible especially here, in the New World.

Tom McCarthy, C

“…so obviously contrived, so patently artificial, it challenges all credulity…”

“…and in so doing, throws open the closed circuit, trips it magnificently. The useless charge runs into nothing. The novel itself abrogated.”

“Yes… only it left a small resonance like tinnitus or the far clash of cymbals bouncing in the inner chambers of my ear…

SSSSSSSssss. Ssss. sss

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

My dear Daisy,
Just to say:
I’ve gone sailing, sailing
waters green under tidal night.
I want you to know I never
cared at all.
Jim.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The two armies advanced and with hard eyes and iron souls they considered one another. There was an implacable logic to the situation: they found themselves opposite each other and so they marched to fight. The wind tore in their streamers day and night, and the sun flew its course. They met across a river. Until this point each man had considered the other side the enemy. Now they saw only that the river was full and did not wish to cross it. The wind died. The day was maddeningly full of clouds. The world seemed too light to hold itself upright, as if some underpinning had collapsed, a crucial crosspiece removed. Nevertheless they fought, and the sun flew its usual course, and the wind tore in the streamers.

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

Abroad the swelling hills, the swollen sky, small-flecked with golden light he turned to the distance and said No. He said, I renounce the grim chimneys and crooked spires of your city, I shall run in orchards and I shall shake the cherry tree and burst her red cherries underfoot, and thus fallen and thus smashed I will know where next to go.

Les Nuits Tragiques de Paris

The moon hangs like a mirror in a small dark room,

to make the world seem larger.

A brief wind sheathed in silver drops from a height.

Our beds finely webbed and gathering dust.

*

Georges Gorvel

Movement in Time: Roy Fisher’s ‘A Furnace’

This is the introduction to an essay I’m writing for an MA application. Skip it if you’d rather read about an incurable romantic and a man who lives in trees.

*

A Furnace, published in 1986, is generally considered to be one of Roy Fisher’s most significant and ambitious works, a late ‘synthesis’ of sorts, the culminating text in what Barry calls a ‘composite-epic of urban material’, which includes other major works such as City. It is a remarkably dense, charged, meaning-laden poem, representative of some of the poet’s central preoccupations – most notably the city in general, and Birmingham in particular – and signals Fisher’s arrival at a complex and distinctive poetics. It is a memorial to a shared past, a personal history, something of an elegy; but is also a transcript of the forces that constitute what we see as the present. Fisher goes further than in any of his previous work to locate his poetry relative to the time and places he has lived in – to articulate how his imagination moves amongst things.
Indeed, A Furnace is fundamentally a poem in motion, in a constant struggle against stasis. The poem begins on a trolleybus, swinging through the industrial Midlands, and it is kept moving through space and time until its final transcendental image and, implicitly, beyond. Movement is a key motif in the poem, and an organising principle, but it cannot be said to signify anything specific or singular. It is a form of meta-language that enacts the various processes by which we, the readers, arrive at meaning through the text. It describes the structural forces that are at work, gathering things up, expelling them, and eventually depositing them in the shape of a poem. However, in exegesis, the presence of any sort of ‘movement’ raises necessary questions of intention and potentiality: exactly what is moving? What is it moving relative to? In which direction, to where, to what purpose? One way to approach these questions is through the Bakhtinian prism of the ‘chronotope’, which expresses the ‘connectedness’ of time (chronos) and space (topos) in all literature, whereby any movement through space amounts to movement through time. We shall see that A Furnace is an attempt to navigate an infinitely complicated personal and social history in which language has both a dissembling and a substantiating effect.

*

I’ve recently read The Baron in the Trees by Calvino, about a young Baron called Cosimo who, after an argument with his parents at the dinnertable, runs off to live in the trees and doesn’t touch ground for the rest of his life. In one episode Cosimo finds a French Lieutenant called Pappillon, who has lost himself and his troops in the forest, in the middle of a glorious tirade, howling at the moon like a Jacobin Psalmist. I’ll leave you, wordless, with his impassioned declamation, something of a manifesto:

“O Moon! round as a muzzle, like a cannon ball whose thrust from gunpowder is exhausted and continues to rotate slowly and silently through the sky! When will you burst on us, O Moon, raising a high cloud of dust and sparks, submerging enemy armies and thrones, and opening a breach of glory for me in the compact wall of my fellow citizens’ distrust of me! O Rouen! O moon! O fate! O convention! O frogs! O girls! O life!”

Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee

Reading Disgrace is like watching coffee being spilt on a white tablecloth in slow motion; imagine your dismay spreading frame-by-frame, the culminating awareness of damage done, the irrevocable stain.

The story follows David Lurie – steady university job, entirely satisfactory sex-life – as he is rolled off the edge of a high cliff. We are told at the very beginning that his temperament is ‘fixed, set’ and watch as it is comprehensively dismantled. His disgrace is as precisely coordinated as it is complete. He is a sort of unsympathetic Job-figure: pestilence happens to him as a matter of authorial principle.

Lurie forces himself upon a female student, ‘not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’, and is hauled before a university committee. He is guilty, he feels a remote sort of misgiving as might someone who left the door unlocked and went on holiday, but he remains philosophical. He will not repent. He accepts the charges but not the moral baggage:

“Manas, we went through the repentance business yesterday. I told you what I thought. I won’t do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.”

This passage is at the core of the novel. Lurie is worldly, curt, highly literate and stupendously stubborn. He is an egotist and a misanthrope, as certain of the world’s inexorable decline as he is of his own magnificent flaws. Coetzee, one imagines, rather than caring overly about repentance in and of itself, is principally concerned with multiple ‘universes of discourse’ and what happens when they converge – or in other words, what happens when the real world impinges upon the worlds we invent for ourselves. There are as many ways to approach the novel, then, as there are discourses to find in it, and Coetzee is extremely thorough; be it postcolonial tensions, gender politics, sexual identity, religious identity – they all find themselves manifest in the seething bright dust of South Africa.

But though Disgrace is a wordly novel, it is not, I would say, a realistic novel. It is too organised and contains too many symmetries: too much a novelist’s world. It is a hyper-reality, the outcome of an experiment that was expected to produce measurable effects, an allegory of disgrace – though this is not necessarily a criticism. One of the many plausible interpretations of Disgrace is that it concerns the power of narrative to shape both the internal and external world and as such it is apt that it should be so conscious of itself.

After leaving his university Lurie retreats to his daughter’s rural smallholding. The second disgrace in the novel is inflicted upon his daughter, Lucy, when she is raped by a gang of black youths (note the symmetry). Lurie is confronted once more with the reality of his own disgrace. He feels himself to be disgraced in the fullest sense; de-graced, in the same way the Job felt himself to be betrayed by God, subject to His unconcern. He feels displaced, powerless, as if the carefully constructed tower he has lived in and observed the world from is being dismantled from beneath him (as it is). He fears being unable to effect change in his own life and its eventual, inevitable annulment.

Lucy, speaking to her father in the aftermath, says:

“You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”

And so two separate universes of discourse converge: David and Lucy, father and daughter, man and woman, rapist and raped. In fact, we might as well add writer and reader to the list, because as we all recognise implicitly, everyone tries to write their own life story and ends up feeling as if they’re reading what someone else has prescribed them. Lurie has tried harder than most – his grand narrative depends upon the principle of self-reliance – and accordingly he advises Lucy not to “humble [herself] before history”. But Shakespeare was wrong: the world is many stages, rings upon rings of them, infinitely stacked in every possible dimension, and all contingent on each other. Lurie cannot see past the stage he has set for himself and this, in the end, is his disgrace.

On reading ‘Cloud Atlas’

And then I woke up on a cloud.

I can tell you, it’s like being suspended by your eyelashes and bathed in troposphere.

It is said that poetry is best read in coffee shops with ostentatiously crossed legs, and atlases under the drawing room table, and that espionage novels should only be opened in the evening rain – I prefer to read in bed. Which is lucky, for having finished Cloud Atlas it was necessary for me to lie down.

My emotions at this time are now curiously hard to place. Certainly, I wondered how on earth I had come to be so far above it. Nevertheless I soon turned to my memories of land, the elbowing hills and full voluminous lakes, and to the peculiar seething of the wind behind the moon.

People seem to have reacted to Cloud Atlas in various different ways. Eithne Farry was pleasantly ‘boggled’, AS Byatt was ‘enticed’ onto a ‘rollercoaster’, Wayne Burrows’ mind was ‘bent’. I fell asleep.

“… a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the whole world came to an abrupt end”.

It’s true that this was probably not the reaction David Mitchell had in mind. I had the most fantastic dream, though – clouds, all the mysteries of the universe revealed to me, say no more – and in some ways it is quite apt, a very succinct appraisal of a mesmeric, exhaustingly pleasurable novel. Pleasurable, because it is demanding but not at all leaden; an airy, unburdened peregrination through nonetheless uncertain territory.

Oh no – entirely painless. I scanned the roof of the sky with all the scope of my two wide eyes until they dropped to the horizon – at which point something was severed from me as if guillotined.

Cloud Atlas is an intricately tessellated sequence of six separate narratives

“an infinite matrioshko doll of painted moments…”

that link to each other in curiously indeterminate ways, enfolding each other. The novel considered as a whole is an extraordinary feat of versatility and eclecticism: a strange meeting of nineteenth century diary, thriller and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

I saw immediately that the great muddy revolving sphere underneath me was moving independently of the clouds in our second sphere, and the comets were chasing their tails above, and that there was no music. My thoughts moved in silent formations, like ants on a plate of glass.

In its own way, Cloud Atlas circles some Big Tiring Issues (eg. Power, Death, Time),  but only irresolutely, with a wary and suitable ambiguity.  If I were to write a proper review, I’d mention the sense I got that Mitchell is aware of how little can be written convincingly about this these things , that accordingly he refuses to complete the circle arbitrarily.  Structurally his book reflects the impossibly complex connectedness of life, which after all is only the accretion of moments that we attach meaning to.  Mitchell is awake to the dream of it all. He’s written my favourite book, I think, of the last decade.

Breathlessly I saw also how the clouds moved without moving and all at once I realised the utter imposibility of ever recording this, but I was somewhat comforted by the chiming of a clock somewhere behind my eyes…

“We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me like a heartbeat.”

Louder, and still louder.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

In the snow it is best to read a book by someone long dead.

With this in mind, yesterday I read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; a whimsical, lyrical, melancholy thing. It was never published in O’Brien’s lifetime (see how accurately the snow accumulates?) despite his admirers including Joyce and Beckett. It is, as reads the most perfect blurb I’ve read for some time, ‘A murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable of unending guilt.’

The novel’s first sentence is a measure of what is to follow:

Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Having murdered with some success, our narrator (unnamed, orphaned, an unemployed scholar) is surprised (in truth, he is somewhat shaken) to discover his victim alive and not a bit accusatory. It is altogether an ‘insoluble pancake’. He is nonplussed to find that his soul is an irascible fellow called Joe. He will later come upon an lonely constabulary that contains two policeman who know the road to eternity, and will take him there; he will learn of a postman who is at least 75% bicycle and meet the leader of a deadly gang of one-legged men.

The snow piles quite imperceptibly.

The Third Policeman is a remarkable novel, an almost-allegory of purgatorial eternity and an expertly conjured vision of absurdity. O’Brien is a superb lyricist and writes frequent passages of unexpected beauty; he spirits the languid airs and heaths and bogs of rural Ireland into existence with ease. And he can be very funny: the novel is peppered with footnotes pertaining to the obscure theories of De Selby, a man of ‘many ingenious if not convincing’ arguments including for the ‘accretions of black air’ of which he thinks night is chiefly composed. O’Brien excels at these deftly ironic, mock-academic asides.

The whole novel is written in a sort of verbose, aloof, aphoristic chatter (which I find entirely suits the twilit impossibility of snowed streets) – it is the bewildering exposition of a virtuouso eccentricity. It is trivial, delicate and weighty separately, and then is all three at once. O’Brien succeeds in sustaining a totally absorbing, constantly inventive, disconcerting, morbid, surreal narrative, and in transcribing what appears to be the occasional whitterings of an estranged second cousin of profundity. Recommended.

And after all it is best to read in the snow of the dead.