Sunday, July 28, 2013

Literary Prizes, Literary Envy

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

“The book of my enemy has been remaindered,” Clive James once wrote, going on to end his ditty with: “And I rejoice”. Literary schadenfreude – and envy, the other side of the coin – shows up every once in a while in fiction too, with books about novelists struggling to write, brooding over the success of others and letting rip on the publishing industry. There was Martin Amis’s The Information, for example, which dealt with a middle-aged writer consumed with plotting the downfall of another. More recently, in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, a writer rants over the state of the novel, of publishing and the bestseller list. (Nice to see that novelists, like the rest of us, aren’t immune to water-cooler bluster about colleagues and the work they do.)

The latest addition to this subgenre is Filippo Bologna’s The Parrots, ably translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. A satirical take on writing and publishing that often enters the realm of farce, The Parrots is about three writers – simply called The Beginner, the Writer and the Master – vying for a prestigious literary award. Representing stages of a writing career, the three of them variously brood, connive and fret over which one is going to win.

Bologna’s writing style is dry, detached and omniscient, cutting between events in the lives of the writers, pronouncing on their past, present and future and dwelling on their petty stratagems, spoils and skeletons in closets. “In Rome strange things happen that can only be explained by the fact that they are strange and happen in Rome,” is a typical example of his sardonic take, as is his definition of a bunch of flowers: “Pointless, wonderful, scented tributes to human frailty”.

While he reserves his bile largely for the state of his fictional novelists and their discontents, Bologna isn’t above taking swipes at other aspects of the writing industry. Literary blogs, for example, are places where “all the losers who can’t get their books onto bookshelves badmouth each other and which are the equivalent of a soya beefsteak for a carnivore forced to subsist on a vegetarian diet”. Ouch. Parodying the way books are described, he has a publisher comment: “Yours is a very special book, almost a kind of prose poem, with an epigrammatic, fragmentary quality that somehow magically recreates unity”. Elsewhere, the fashion for providing a long list of acknowledgements in a novel is compared to the end credits of a Hollywood film. It’s a point of view you could call jaundiced had it not been for the fact that Bologna is clearly having a lot of fun pricking inflated literary balloons.

Delightful as much of this is to read – Bologna takes careful and considered aim at his targets and their peccadilloes – as The Parrots progresses, one can’t help but note that, on many occasions, the twists and turns of a somewhat implausible plot bring the pleasure down a notch. (Even Google Street View has a small part to play in one such turnaround.) Rants, after all, are much more fun when they’re loose and unstructured. Many times, though, this pays off – in a richly farcical and very funny scene, the Master, who, like Nathan Zuckerman has been diagnosed with a prostate problem, is left with no choice but to read out a section from a medical diary containing the time and frequency of his urination to an audience expecting to be regaled by a poem. All goes well, however: the Master’s reading is described as “an attempt to convey the tragic nature of existence, in a classical form invigorated by postmodernism, which recovers and recycles heterogeneous material”. (Thomas Bernhard, who himself ranted at literary awards in his My Prizes, would have grinned.)

In a week in which literary news has been dominated by the announcement of the Man Booker longlist and the reactions to it, reading Bologna’s The Parrots is a palate-cleanser of sorts: a reminder that though such prizes certainly have their uses, to treat them as the be-all and end-all of artistic merit would be a mistake.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Writers And Alcohol

This week's Sunday Guardian column

Ted Hughes once wrote that the progress of any writer was marked by “those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system”. For many, one way to hoodwink the cops was by liberal doses of CH3CH2OH – in other words, alcohol. Writers from America have been particularly susceptible  – as Lewis Hyde tells us, four of the six Americans who have won the Literature Nobel were alcoholic. In her new book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing sets out to show “what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself”. She does this by looking at the work and lives of six of the most well known: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver.

The resonant title is from Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Echo Spring is the nickname one of the characters gives to his liquor cabinet, from a brand of bourbon it contains. Symbolically, though, Laing writes, “it refers to something quite different: perhaps to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.” Laing isn’t here to censure or proselytise, but to understand: “it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge.”

The book is also a personal exploration, as Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, seeing at first-hand what liquor can do to lives. In her quest, she travels to many of the places her six writers were associated with, from New York to New Orleans, from Key West to Port Angeles. A travelogue, a memoir and a close reading of some key works: A Trip to Echo Spring combines these ingredients to create a somewhat uneasy though potent mix.

Most of the authors she writes about were connected in various ways: "They were each other’s friends and allies, each other’s mentors, students and inspirations." Of the famous liaisons between Cheever and Carver in 1969 at the University of Iowa, the latter was to recall: “He and I did nothing but drink. I mean, we met our classes in a manner of speaking, but the entire time we were there . . . I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” There are also tales of the friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and Laing delves into the differing accounts that both offered later, in works such as A Moveable Feast and The Crack-Up.

"Write drunk;edit sober"
This is not to say that Laing romanticises their lives. She details the ravages of alcohol on mind and body; the accounts of John Berryman and Tennessee Williams are especially harrowing. Laing also takes some half-hearted detours to explain, in neuroscientific terms, how alcohol creates its effects, as well as the workings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was of considerable help to some of those she writes about.

She’s at her best in her scrutiny of the roots of alcoholism, and though she mentions its genetic component, she’s more at home in a neo-Freudian analysis. One of the key moments is her recollection of one of Berryman’s Dream Songs: Hunger was constitutional with him,/wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need/until he went to pieces./The pieces sat up & wrote. She associates this with “the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they’d managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world”, speculating on the relationship between drinking and writing: "both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it – to give it fitness and shape, in Cheever’s phrase – and to deny that it was so.”

The question remains whether these writers would have -- could have -- written the way they did without the crutch of alcohol. Liquor exacted a ruinous toll on their health and relationships, but these six, in Laing's words, managed to produce between them“some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen".

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stanzas For Vikram Seth

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Reflections on the recent Vikram Seth-Penguin Random House imbroglio -- in Pushkin sonnets, a form that Seth has had some success with.

A writer's life is hard they say
The words they come, the words they go
Scribble, scribble, every day
The reading public doesn't know
The toil and stress behind each line
The time it takes to make it shine
There's no accounting for the Muse
Some even turn to pills and booze
The daily grind can get too much
Hours fly by without a page
The writer's room can be a cage
A dungeon or a rabbit hutch
That's why when faced with a schedule
You shake your head, you break the rule

 Publishers on the other hand
Follow dates and calendars
Deadlines are theirs to command
Objections kicked aside like curs
Your stammering and stuttering
Will not accomplish a thing
Profit, not loss, is their goal
It isn't that they have no soul
Their hands are tied, they face a block
It’s elementary, you see
It's all about double entry
That's why your schedule they will stalk
The House of Penguin Random
It cares about your fandom

 Be it a girl, be it a boy
Suitable or otherwise
Be it May, June or July
Meet the deadline, come, be wise
Recall the contract that you signed
Break it now and you’ll be fined
In this race you can’t be sick
They want you to be prolific
Roll that boulder up that hill
Think of the Booker and the fame
All yours if you play the game
Think of Oates, Joyce Carol
Buck up now that’s what we say
Think of Faulkner or Hemingway

 The libretto will have to wait
Start that novel once again
Otherwise, get this straight
No more toasts with champagne
There is a way, mark my words
Don’t proceed by halves and thirds
Look them in the eye and say
You’re working on more Shades of Grey
That will earn you a second chance
 In front of you they'll start to melt
And that will be your lifebelt
To ask them for the next advance
Lean back now, gloat awhile
Their throats are yours, Saatchi-style