writing

THE LORD CHANDOS LETTER BY HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL

Dear Lord Chandos

This is not a review, of course; nor is it a letter, for what is the point of writing a letter to someone who cannot reply, who would not reply even if he were a real man, and not a fictional character? No, it is more a confession masquerading as a game. [How tedious these games are, the games I have so often played in order to distract myself from myself]. On Friday night I was in a pub with two friends. I had invited them there in order to seek their advice, and I had confessed to them too, which is to say that I talked about myself with the same lack of enthusiasm I bring to almost all human spoken interaction. And, rather absurdly, I tried to explain this, this state of mind, this near-constant feeling of being behind glass, such that having a chat in a pub with two friends strikes me as a chore and my confession more like a duty.

In your letter to Francis Bacon you state that you want to open yourself up entirely, or words to that effect, which seems like rather futile effort, in light of your issues and problems. Perhaps you feel as though you owe Bacon something, in return for his concern regarding your mental paralysis? [Go to the doctor’s, I was told, and tell him everything. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony]. You write about your previous achievements, and how you now feel distant from them, and from any future work. The phrase you use is an unbridgeable gulf. You cannot write; you will not write. How I envy you this [voluntary or involuntary] renunciation. I do not believe in words, I do not understand them either; they are, to me, like an oppressive frame, a border, a barrier; they are a large sheet of glass upon which I unenthusiastically claw for appearance’s sake.

‘And there were other projects I toyed with. Your kind letter brings these back too. They dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time, each of them engorged with a drop of my blood.’

You once lived in continuous inebriation. Drunk on intellectual stimulation, you might say. Yet there was, for you, no difference, at that time, between the spiritual, or intellectual, and physical worlds. The pleasures were equal. Therefore, your admission is that there has been a kind of breaking down, that something within you has given way. [Which is a sign of mental illness, of course]. Indeed, you write about how it came to be that words ‘disintegrated’ in your mouth ‘like rotten mushrooms.[Which is a lovely image, even to me, a man who does not believe in words]. In this way, your letter could be interpreted as something like a cry of anguish, a requiem for something precious that you have lost. It need not, as such, be directly, or solely, applied to language, but to any important object or thing that inexplicably loses its lustre or meaning. One of the most unfathomable, truly distressing aspects of human experience is the death, or extinguishing, of a passion.

ludwig-wittgenstein-swansea.png

[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Isn’t it this passion that highlights the inadequacy of language? You do a very good job throughout your letter of giving voice, of applying words, to your feelings, and yet to what extent do they capture your inner life? Isn’t that the issue? Poor exhausted words; let them sleep, for they are over-taxed. Words, like time, is a cage we have voluntarily built around ourselves. I hate. I love. I want. I need. What nonsense. ‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued. I would argue we don’t, and can’t, understand each other; we stand, each at opposing ends of an unbridgeable gulf, shouting absurdities into the wind. We are a Spaniard and an Italian, who believe that they are conversing, that they are coming together, because certain of their sounds are vaguely familiar. Games again; always games.

Yes, the passion is important, to you and to me. Or let us say the feeling, the moment of transcendence, as experienced when in the presence of ‘a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard,’ these ordinary things that take on ‘a sublime and moving aura.’ How hippyish, your vast empathy, your harmony! And yet I too feel – although it is impossible to say that what we feel is the same thing, of course – the tremors of the supernatural. I was once, one early evening, sitting on a bench, in Rotherham bus-station, and within me there was a sense, an overwhelming, indescribable, sense of well-being. The irony, of course, is that this hippyish empathy, this melting butter oneness, does not lead necessarily to peace, but, just as likely, to frustration or bitterness or despair. These experiences are, alas, fleeting, and, once gone, one is left in the unenviable position of being completely unable to express, to others, and even to yourself, what exactly you have experienced.

So, what is the point of writing, the purpose of which is communication, when it will inevitably end in failure? Why did you write? Why am I writing now? I wanted to end this piece [for it is not, as stated, a letter, nor a review] with an expression of gratitude, for I was, prior to this, myself close to the point of abandoning for good this so often unpleasant activity. And yet this has reminded me that there is something in the grasping, if not for me then hopefully for someone else, someone who may read this and find some level of pleasure in it, as I did in your work.

February 2016

[P]

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EXERCISES IN STYLE BY RAYMOND QUENEAU

Thoughtful

My reaction to books like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is comparable to my reaction when faced with certain works of conceptual, or modern, art, such as, for example, Martin Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein. What I mean by this is that the enjoyment I derive from them is superficial, is immediate but not long-lasting; in fact, I tend to find equal or greater enjoyment in the concepts or ideas being described to me as I do in experiencing them myself.

To my mind, the most basic pre-requisite for any good novel is that once you’ve picked it up it makes you want to continue reading it. However, Exercises in Style did quite the opposite: it implored me to put it down. The preface has it that ‘[The author’s] purpose in the Exercises is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language.’ A profound exploration into the possibilities of language? Come on. It’s clever at best; a Nabokov wet-dream.

Professional journalism

Raymond Queneau’s critically acclaimed novel, Exercises in Style, is like Martin Kippenberger’s Wittgentstein dancing the mazurka with Vladimir Nabokov, while trapped in a lift.

Sarcastic

Oh it is really great. Absolutely thrilling too. I cannot think of a single book that has entertained me quite as much as Exercises in Style. Didn’t bore me at all, oh no.  Made me think of Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, which is the highest compliment I can pay anything, because that shelving unit is mind-blowing. I mean, just…wow. I could stare at it for hours, while contemplating the meaning of the universe. That’s how profound a statement it is…a shelving unit, painted grey. Well, fuck me sideways. Nabokov would probably have got a huge kick out of it. I know he liked Exercises in Style. Vlad had impeccable taste. He hated Faulkner, for a start, who was obviously rubbish. Old Bill could only have dreamt of writing something with as much substance as Queneau’s novel. What is The Sound and The Fury? Complete pap, obviously. He should have written a book in 99 different styles, and then maybe he would have the same lofty reputation as the author of this masterpiece.

Auditory

Gay Erotica

I fondled the cover, pressing lightly with the tips of my fingers, before gently pulling the book apart until it opened wide. I entered it slowly, almost tentatively sliding inside, trying to control my breathing. As I found my rhythm, I worked my way in deeper and deeper. Metaphorical!, Raymond screamed. I quickened my pace, pushed on harder and harder. Free verse! Sweat appeared on my brow. It rolled down my face and dripped onto a page. Ah-ah-ah-asides! I was starting to think Raymond was enjoying this more than I was. I thought of Martin, that difficult German with whom I’d once had the briefest of flings.

Tweet

@RaymondQueneau Just finished your book #shit

Poetry

O Raymond, Raymond Queneau,
I read your little book, y’know.
I wish I hadn’t bothered though.
O Raymond, Raymond Queneau!

O Raymond, Raymond Queneau,
Should’ve learned my lesson long ago,
For I’ve never been a fan of Oulipo.
O Raymond, Raymond Queneau!

Telegraphic

RAYMOND QUENEAU STOP

Horror

I was once lost in the dark, foreboding corridors of a German art gallery. My heart beating with fear, I turned a corner and there saw, not a genuine work of art, but a shelving unit…painted fog-grey. O Martin Kippenberger! What monstrous urge compelled you to create such a thing? What madness? I stumbled before the great grey beast, which loomed over me like a nightmare…and then I ran, sure that it was chasing me, and ever gaining ground.

As the years passed I put my experience in the German art gallery down to an overactive imagination. Until the night I opened Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. There is was again! The grey shelving unit. O of course it wasn’t actually there on the page, but it was still there, don’t you see? The shelving unit leapt from the book and bore down on me, like an ugly old house, in which something evil lurks, something horribly reminiscent of…boredom. I tried to clap it shut, but my hands would not move; there was a resistance coming from the book itself. Suddenly a voice rang out in my room: You must finish it! It is a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language!

Pictorial

csm_Wittgenstein_e8802d3657

Formal

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you regarding my recent experience of reading Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. I had been promised ‘a profound exploration into the possibilities of language,’ which this product entirely failed to deliver. Therefore, I consider it my duty to compose a review of the book in question in order to highlight its many faults. In doing so I hope to warn other potential readers against making the kind of rash and ill-informed purchase that I did myself.

Yours sincerely,

[P]

Crude

This book is fucking shit.

Crude [third person]

He thought the book was fucking shit.

THE POLISH COMPLEX BY TADEUSZ KONWICKI

Dear aliens,

It is Christmas day, and I write this while at my parents’ house. A few moments ago, I was sitting by the window, which I had opened in an effort to tempt a Bengal kitten into joining the forces of evil, when above me I saw a bright light, and I thought of you. Or should I say, I thought of you in the hope that you would think of me. Which means that I, and this is typical of our species, acknowledged your potential existence only in so much as I would like you to acknowledge my actual existence. In short, I wondered what you would make of me, of us, down here. Normally, I write these reviews for my fellow human beings, and it is often the case that I will start with an anecdote, one that relates to me and my life or past life; and I think that more often than not I give the impression of being haunted by the experiences I relive. Which is not really the case. I am simply trying to understand myself.

When I was a kid I did not identify myself as working class, or northern, or even English. I was, I thought, a child of the world, not of one small part of it. I considered myself wonderfully cosmopolitan. And then I moved away from the north, away from a true working class environment, first to university and then into various jobs, and I realised that I am absolutely, terminally all those things that I thought I was not. Let me provide you with an example. While I was at college I won an award for something I wrote, a little piece, and the award was to be presented to me by some semi-famous poet. But I didn’t go. And the reason I didn’t go, although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, is because people like me don’t pick up awards, they don’t go schmoozing and smiling at award ceremonies.

And the thing is, no one really understands that, unless they too are one of my kind; they don’t see how it would have been impossible to go. How silly! I hear that a lot. You are being silly. Usually, it is my girlfriends who say this to me, lovely lighthearted, upper middle-class women. They cannot comprehend why I find it uncomfortable to sit around a table for family meals, either. Or why if someone buys me something, or pays for something for me, I can barely speak for shame. My being is as alien to them as it probably is to you, my intergalactic peeping toms.

I’ve written before that one of the joys of reading literature is that it makes the world seem simultaneously smaller and larger. This is another reason why I share my experiences, in order to be part of this phenomena. Anyway, I recently read The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki, and I was again so pleasantly surprised that I was able to find myself in a book that, one would think, would have nothing to do with me, for it is ostensibly about Poland and being Polish. Yes, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, in line at a jewellery store, and, sure, there are many people who can relate to an experience like that. But that isn’t what I am referring to. What I found surprising, and engaging, about The Polish Complex is what the narrator, who is essentially Konwicki [the narrator is called Tadeusz Konwicki and shares many biographical details with the author], says about the way that he is perceived.

Konwicki states that he always attempted to steer himself towards universalities in his work, that he would actively avoid criticising other nations. And, yet, despite this approach, this literary liberalism, he found that he was always described as a Polish writer, as, in fact, the most Polish of Polish writers. He found, like I have done, that he cannot escape who he is, that it infects everything he does, even when he believes himself to be turning away from it and opening his arms to humanity-at-large. Moreover, it is telling that he, as I am also doing here, is writing for aliens, for you. He claims that this is because he is bored with ‘communication with my fellow men’, and that might be true, but what is at the heart of this boredom is that he considers himself to be, or others consider him to be, incomprehensible to them. They – readers, critics, etc. – cannot understand him unless they have had his experiences, unless, specifically, they are Polish. Indeed, Konwicki shares an anecdote too, about being in New York and meeting there a ‘sickly old man with heartbreaking eyes’, a Polish man, who was unable to die at home in Long Island, because he was ‘constantly thinking of his distant Poland’ and the war in which the author also participated.

“I no longer strive to be understood. I no longer depend on your approval, your sympathy. Now I write only because I must. I do not believe that anyone will read what I write and understand it as fully as I did while struggling with the resistant, constricted, ephemeral words. I write because some strange sense of duty impels me to this paper, which in ten years will turn to dust. I write because in my subconscious there stirs a spark of hope that there is something, that something endures somewhere, that, in my last instant, Great Meaning will take notice of me and save me from a universe without meaning.”

So, The Polish Complex is about identity and communication, about the essential, regrettable differences between people, between nations. Yes, most countries have their own language, which makes communication problematic, but for Konwicki it goes deeper than that, it is about the difficulty of communicating ‘in the sphere of experience and the consciousness that comes from experience.’ In this way, writing the book for aliens is a kind of grim joke. If the majority of his fellow men and women don’t or can’t understand Konwicki, then of course you, my goggle-eyed, grey-skinned friends, sure won’t be able to. Indeed, it is amusing, and ironic, that almost every review of The Polish Complex that I have read has stated how alienating parts of it are, how these parts won’t mean anything to a potential reader unless they are Polish themselves or are a scholar or expert on Polish history. Yet, it is necessary to point out that the author is lamenting all this, this distance between us; he wants to be part of a brotherhood of man, so to speak, he wants us to commune with each other, to be able to relate to each other appropriately and fully.

In terms of communication it is, of course, significant that Konwicki is a writer. I am sure that people write for many reasons, quite often for money it seems, but certainly when I think about the act of writing what it suggests to me is a desire to communicate, to reach out to people. Therefore, the existence of the book, and the time and effort put into writing it, is almost another joke, one Konwicki played upon himself, i.e. he is attempting to speak, via his novel, with a world that he knows, in the main, finds him incomprehensible. Throughout The Polish Complex the narrator references his work, or other characters do, and on each occasion these comments are critical. His writing, he is told by Kojran, is ‘more poison than passion.’ It is bitter, defeatist, sad, sarcastic. Kojran also asks why Konwicki doesn’t write something to give the Polish people strength, rather than make them sadder than they already are. Kojran is an interesting character because he is, in a sense, Konwicki’s conscience, in fact, most of the characters play this role in the text. Their function is to allow the author to explore his feelings, and what he thinks are the public’s feelings, about his books. Of course, you might label this rather self-indulgent or egotistical, but it is clear to me that Konwicki took his responsibility, as someone for whom the rest of the world might view as representative of Poles-in-general, seriously.

Kolejka

[A queue in Poland, a common sight in the shortage economy in the 1970s and 1980s]

The Polish coat of arms features a white eagle on a red background. Apparently, this is because the founder of the country saw a white eagle’s nest and decided to settle in that place. However, the eagle is or has become also representative of freedom, and certainly this, the notion of freedom, plays an important role in the book and, in fact, in the history of Poland. First of all, when Konwicki states that he no longer wishes to be understood he is appealing to just that, the freedom to do as he likes and not worry about other people’s reactions; to be creative one has to feel free. More importantly, Poland was for a long time under the control of Russia. There were, during this period, attempts to gain independence, including The January Uprising of 1863, to which Konwicki devotes around forty pages of The Polish Complex. After WW2 Poland was forced to join the Eastern Bloc, to become a kind of Soviet satellite state, under the control of Joseph Stalin. It wasn’t until 1989, years after this book was published, that Soviet control over Poland ceased. Therefore, it is no surprise that, as previously mentioned, Konwicki gives over so many pages of his book to The January Uprising, because the fight, or the desire, for freedom or independence is, of course, part of the Polish identity, or was in 1977 at least. It is also no surprise that he takes frequent, and not so subtle, digs at the Russians, or the Russian presence in Poland, most notably when, instead of jewellery, it is samovars that are delivered to the store. Indeed, one lucky person wins a trip to Russia with his purchase.

As with many novels written by earth men of a certain generation, the worst aspect of The Polish Complex is the ludicrous sex scene that takes place between the narrator and a much younger [they are always much younger!] woman. I don’t know how you would feel about it, my space pals, but I had a hard time getting on board with the inter-generational nookie. It just seemed incongruous, or out of place, in a novel so impassioned and intelligent. I do not want an author to be making my chest beat with sardonic rants about national identity one moment, and then waffling on about nipples the next. This is not to say, however, that this scene cannot be justified. One must bear in mind that Konwicki the narrator is old, very ill, and eager to die, and that he has admitted to feeling a kind of sentimentality for his homeland and for his youth. So, this young woman is, in a sense, a kind of memory, a living memory, is a last taste of his own youth or of the purest joys that life can throw up. Moreover, as noted, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, a time of miracles [Konwicki openly declares that he is looking for a miracle], and, taking that into account, one might even doubt whether the liaison is meant to have actually taken place; or, if it did, then the author is at least acknowledging that it is a unlikely, miraculous event.

And…well, that’s it. Oh sure, I could write more, it is always possible to write more, but I feel as though it is unnecessary. I am done. I hope this has been instructional, or entertaining, my bulb-headed amigos. Certainly, I feel better. Because, that’s the thing, even if someone doesn’t understand you, it is still good to get things off your chest, to at least try to make sense of yourself and to at least try to make a connection, no matter how tenuous or doomed to failure it is.

Yours sincerely,

[P]

P.s.

Merry Christmas. Or Alienmas. Or whatever.

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

favela

[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.

LOST ILLUSIONS BY HONORE DE BALZAC

For me there are a great many things that contribute to a rewarding reading experience, an almost ineffable series of qualities that a novel must possess for me to be able to enjoy it. Indeed, these things are what I am looking for when I am sat on my bed losing my mind for days on end, surrounded by shaky towers of books. Yet there is perhaps a single, fairly straightforward thing that elevates my favourites above the others, which is that I see something of myself in them. The more of myself I see, the more I cherish the book. I imagine most people feel that way. There is, however, one book that feels almost as though the author was possessed of the ability to see into the future, to fasten onto some kid from northern England and follow his progress, or deterioration, over the space of around twelve months. That book is Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac.

I don’t, of course, want to make the entire review about me [again!], but I find it impossible to think or write about Lost Illusions without referencing my experiences, without putting my gushing into some context, more so because the book is certainly flawed if I view it dispassionately, so let me tell a little story and get it all out; let my story serve as a kind of introduction. When I was nineteen I met and fell for a model who lived in London. Until I met her I was pretty uninterested in girls; I mean obviously I liked them and all, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t really know that girls could be as elegant and beautiful as this particular girl. The more I liked her, the more time I spent in London until I was pretty much living there. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely; the girl was on the cusp of success and took me to lots of parties and events. I adored London. I was starstruck. If you’re a working class kid from Sheffield and you have this gorgeous girlfriend who is fawned over everywhere, and you yourself, for being with her, are fawned over also it is difficult to maintain perspective.

However, after a while things started to go awry. I began to notice that the people around her, and around me, who I had trusted were actually only looking out for themselves. Almost one by one I realised this. The scales falling from my eyes was a painful process, so much so that I almost went down with them. It was, I came to understand, impossible to have friends in London, or in those kinds of fashionable circles anyway, that the people who smiled at you were likely plotting to stab you in the back. Slowly I started to pick up their habits, to become cynical and two-faced and manipulative, because I thought that the only way to survive. Before too long I was living in a moral vacuum, where cheap sex, drugs and social climbing were the norm. It wasn’t until I returned home, back to Sheffield, that I came to understand how much I had changed. I lost something in London, something that, I guess, everyone loses at some point in their life. What had I lost? My illusions.

Lucien Chardon’s story arc is eerily similar to mine. He is a provincial poet, who moves to Paris, thinking that he will find fame and fortune. What he finds, instead, is that people in a big city will happily crawl over your carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires. He finds that everything, and everyone, in Paris is false, even if they appear absolutely to be the opposite. Lucien, like myself, is green and in the end Paris swallows him up. Of course, this kind of story is not particular to me, or Lucien, but you have to credit Balzac for nailing it. It shouldn’t, but still does, amaze me that human beings have changed so little over hundreds of years. The funny thing is that at the start of Lost Illusions I scoffed at Lucien Chardon. I inwardly belittled him, judged him harshly, and, quite literally at times, rolled my eyes at him. I suppose the reason for that is that not only was his story like mine, but his character also, and that embarrassed me. I even put the book down two or three times, actually abandoned it, because, I realised later, I wanted to distance myself from Lucien. Chardon is psychologically, emotionally, at war with himself. Part of him is thoughtful, artistic, sensitive, and another part is ruthless and ambitious and self-serving. This is what makes Lucien human to the reader; he knows what the right thing is, and feels drawn to that course of action, and yet, because he is so self-obsessed, is able to convince himself that what ultimately serves his own desires is the right thing and will, in the end, produce the best results for everyone, even if he has to trample on them in the meantime. This is, I would guess, why Balzac chose to call his protagonist a name that resembles the most seriously fallen, the most humanly flawed character in literature: Lucifer.

“I should do evil, with the best intentions in the world.”

Structurally Lost Illusions is really clever. In the beginning, Lucien plays court to Madame de Bargeton, the fashionable matriarch of Angouleme, and thinks, when he wins her, that he has done all the hard work, has won the finest victory, has raised himself to the top, only to find when they move to Paris that his victory is worthless, is nothing, and that there is a much greater, more difficult, war to fight: the fight to bring Paris under his heel. It’s a little bit like when playing a computer game and you destroy what you think is the end-of-level boss/bad guy, only to find that actually it was just some minion and the real boss is waiting for you around the next corner and he is fucking huge. What unravels after the opening section is, as noted, a tale of treachery and double-dealing of Shakespearean proportions, but I do not want to linger over all that. It’s great, of course, but I have written plenty about it already and any more would lead to serious spoilers. There are, however, numerous other fascinating ideas and themes present in the book.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is that of money; indeed it was Balzac’s most persistent theme, the one that found its way into nearly all his work. Lucien is of low birth, and so has barely a franc to his name. Yet his ambitions require capital. One needs money to make money. One needs money to grease wheels; one needs it to convince others of your worth. So it goes. As well as Lucien’s story Balzac gives some space to David Sechard, Lucien’s brother in law. David enters the novel as the son of old Sechard, the bear, who is engaged in selling his printing press to his progeny for an exorbitant price. David agrees, even though he knows the press isn’t worth what his old man is asking for it, and ultimately ends up in a dire financial predicament. Balzac, it seems to me,  was torn between trying to show the evils of money, while showcasing its absolute necessity. Many of the characters in Lost Illusions do horrendous things for it, yet the most kindhearted, most sympathetic suffer horribly from want of it. Related to what the author has to say about money is the idea that there is a tension between art and commerce. Lucien at one point in the novel has a choice to make between being an artist or journalist. One will require hard work, but will lead to artistic fulfilment [and perhaps fame and fortune eventually], the other will lead to quick and easy gains but artistic bankruptcy. The author appears to be suggesting that it is near impossible to be an artist in a world so obsessed with money, that the lure of money will lead genius astray.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, is what Balzac has to say about old and new approaches. In discussion of the paper business and journalism, he makes the point numerous times that things are becoming cheaper, of lesser quality. Indeed, David is an inventor and he embarks on experiments in order to create a cheaper, lighter kind of paper. It’s not just paper either, but, Balzac points out, clothes and furniture are not as well-made as they once were, will not last as long. Even artwork is being downsized, made more readily available. It is a kind of cheapening in step with the times, in step with the moral character of the people. Even professions are not what they once were, with journalism being derided as a fully corrupt occupation, when it could, in fact, be a noble form of employment. Once again, I laud Balzac’s insight, his prescience, because isn’t this exactly how the world is these days? Everything is plastic, crap, will fall apart after a couple of days; and everything is up for sale. And aren’t the press a bunch of talentless hyenas, who praise and condemn with one eye on their own purse?

As i am sure is obvious by now I passionately love Lost Illusions, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is not without flaws. David, for example, is excruciating. He’s a complete nincompoop. No matter what Lucien does he stands by him, like the craziest kind of put-upon girlfriend. It’s fucking infuriating. No one, unless sex is in the mix somewhere, is that bloody gormless, that forgiving. Balzac took Dickens’ saintly women archetype and furnished it with a penis and even less good sense. Secondly, this being a novel written in the 1800’s, and it being Balzac in particular, Lost Illusions is a melodrama. So, if people constantly wringing their hands and bursting into tears every two pages over absolutely nothing grinds your gears then you might want to re-think reading it. The melodrama didn’t bother me though, it never really does; Shakespeare is melodrama too, let’s not forget. Finally, Lucien, we are led to believe, is a potentially great poet, even potentially a man of genius, and, well, what little of his poetry is presented to us is, uh, shit. That’s a bit of a problem. I did wonder if Balzac was portraying Lucien as a great poet in jest, bearing in mind much of his novel is concerned with falsehood and how the least talented often prosper [which Lucien did at one stage]. However, having read around the book a little, it does not seem as though that is the case, that Honore was in earnest about Lucien’s greatness and talent, even though to my mind it would have been better had he been intentionally rubbish. In any case, none of that compromised my enjoyment too much. For a novel concerned with writing, with talent and greatness, it is quite apt that it is itself a work of genius.

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

I have felt a compulsion to write for most of my life, or at least since I was in Junior school. I remember being eight and starting my first novel; I would add a chapter a day, with some help from Paul Williams, a classmate. I call it a compulsion because I don’t appear to be able to stop, regardless of where I am or what I have to hand. I have drawers full of scraps of paper, bus tickets, and post-it notes on which I have scribbled lines or ideas; my mobile phone has more notes stored on it than numbers; the space on my computer is almost entirely taken up with word documents. I don’t like to delete or throw any of this stuff away because, in a way, it is the story of my life, they document, albeit indirectly, who I was at the time of writing. Part of my reason for wanting to review was to be able to bear witness, to keep a record of my experiences. All of these things, if you compiled them, would, I guess, make up a bildungsroman for the modern age.

It was a running joke when I was on Goodreads that my reviews would begin with a lengthy personal anecdote, which I would, eventually, in a wildly tenuous fashion, eventually link to the book at hand. I guess this review is no different. I Served the King of England is also a bildungsroman of sorts. According to the narrator, Ditie, it was written for the same reasons that I write: as a document of his experiences, so that he can have a record of them. Like my writings it is a fragmented narrative, it is a life told in moments, or episodes; it is not a complex, detailed story. I Served the King of England is, in fact, what we call a shaggy-dog story. This is something Hrabal excelled at, at creating faux-naïve, simple-hearted characters that hop, skip, and occasionally stumble from one adventure to the next.

At the beginning of the narrative Ditie is a busboy at a hotel; by the end he is a road-mender. In between he becomes rich and a Nazi-sympathiser. Really, though, none of that is particularly important or engaging. What is great about I Served the King of England is Hrabal’s prose, Ditie’s voice, and, in particular, the often beautiful flights of fancy. Despite some darker moments the tone of the novel is mostly lighthearted, chatty and colloquial, like a more worldly-wise [i.e. base] Walser or less acerbic Celine. However, while Hrabal’s prose is easy to read, is seemingly straightforward, it is quietly, unassumingly sophisticated and sometimes poetic. It’s a really neat trick. Hrabal is what I would call a first-rate prose stylist. His novels are not always engrossing, plot-wise, but they are always brilliantly written, are enjoyable to read if you value craft and wit and insight and memorable lines over an exciting, fast-paced story.

I’ve seen numerous times, in reviews all over the internet, that people often prefer the second half of I Served the King of England, which deals with Ditie’s marriage to a German girl and subsequent involvement with the SS. However, for me, it’s the least successful part of the book. This is not because it is less stylish or less amusing than what came before, but because it is when Hrabal’s weaknesses as a writer are most apparent. Transitions are a problem; they are clunky and too random. Somehow the author has to make us believe that Ditie can go from being a wide-eyed hotel worker to a Nazi sympathiser, and yet Hrabal cannot pull it off. Our narrator just kind of does, without any real, or psychologically sound, justification.

These are, however, minor quibbles; and it is more satisfying to focus on the positive, which is why I will return to those flights of fancy. It is not oft mentioned by others but to my mind Hrabal was a surrealist or, if you prefer, a kind of magical realist. His work is, indeed, closer to Garcia Marquez than to his compatriot Kundera. Early in the novel there is a fight between some gypsies at one of the hotels where Ditie works; it is a random fight, without prelude, in which a great amount of blood is spilled and flesh lopped off. Hrabal describes the glinting of the knives used in the flight as like golden flies flying around the Golden Prague, which is oddly beautiful. There is, too, Ditie’s fetish for adorning the laps and genitals of his lovers with flowers, one of whom, while visiting him at work, pours grenadine over herself and walks out to an accompaniment of sugar-thirsty bees. I loved all of that stuff, and there is a lot more of it, but I won’t ruin the surprises for first-time readers by revealing more of them.

To conclude, then, although I Served the King of England does engage with serious issues, with politics and death, and the meaning of life, its greatest accomplishment is to be itself full of life, to be charming and funny. That is, for me, a more significant statement, is more important than anything Hrabal could have said about Czech life during the war, etc. There’s a character in the novel that has an uncanny ability to know things, to intuit things. Whenever he is asked how he, for example, knows that someone will order a soup just by looking at them, his reply is: because I once served the king of England. Hrabal, too, just seemed to know, to get it, to understand what life is about, what is important, what makes it beautiful or worthwhile; he must have served some pretty high-ranking people himself.

THE COUNTERLIFE BY PHILIP ROTH

With every action, no matter how banal, with each passing second of your life, you make yourself, your world, your future. Many people live with a sense of restriction, or limitation, and yet human life is limitless, at least in theory, is capable of going in an infinite number of directions. If you think about how you found yourself in whatever situation you are currently in, even if that is sitting on your arse in front on your computer reading this review. A whole shit-tonne of stuff had to happen, a shit-tonne of other possible lives were discarded [consciously or unconsciously], for you to end up there. Multiple lives. We shed lives like a cat sheds fur; it just happens, we can’t control it. In a way, it’s a huge tragedy, because who knows how incredible some of those lives might have been, how much more successful, rich, or cool those alternate yous. Shit, at least one of them would be getting laid right now, not reading a book review.

I find this kind of thing fascinating, and so, if The Counterlife is anything to go by, does Philip Roth, because it is a book that is, structurally and philosophically, concerned with the idea of alternate, or multiple, lives. However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a kind of sci-fi novel, that Roth is interested in exploring the concept of potential or parallel universes. He is more concerned with personal identity and what it means to be you, and how people re-create themselves, how people create each other and how novelists create their worlds, their work. Roth uses all of the characters in the book to explore these ideas [and others], but focuses, most of all, on two brothers: Nathan and Henry Zuckerman. Roth aks, what does it mean to be Henry Zuckerman or Nathan Zuckerman; what does it mean to be a husband, a father, a man, a writer, a Jew?

The book is split into five parts, each of which deals, in principle, with a different Henry Zuckerman and Nathan Zuckerman, different lives that they might have led [and, at times, their resulting deaths], different roles they may have played, based on the choices they made. In part one Henry has a heart problem and dies after surgery, in part two he survives and moves to Israel, in part three that story is continued briefly, in part four is it Nathan who has the heart problem and dies, and, to complete the cycle, in part five he is healthy and moves to England. I feel fine with revealing each part’s basic action to you, because this isn’t a normal novel, it does not tell a story from start to finish – The Counterlife is, essentially, what we call a novel-of-ideas – so there is, really, nothing to spoil, plot-wise. However, there is a framing story or concept, one that ties all the separate parts together, which is revealed in part four. I’ve tried as much as possible in this review to write about the book, and the individual sections I focus on, in such a way as to avoid compromising your experience, to prevent you from missing out on the ah, now I get it moment.

Of the five sections the first two are the best, and yet they are the ones that you could say contain the customary Rothian shortcomings. Part one is certainly the funniest as it deals with Henry’s anguish at not being able to get a hard on. Yeah, I know you might think that it can’t possibly be all that funny, that Roth must surely be all out of good cock jokes by this point in his career, but trust me it is and he isn’t. My favourite passage is when Nathan is said to be haunted by the thought of erect dicks, and Roth describes how he fantasises not only about his girlfriend sucking off huge dongs, but himself as well. Seriously, I lolled for a good thirty seconds. Having said that, I would also say that part one is the most moving. This Henry is just an average schmo, who lacks imagination and guts. In a way, he is a proto Swede Levov, a conventional man whose comfortable, button-down existence starts to come apart. The crucial difference is that it is Henry who is responsible for what befalls him. What I found moving about it is that Henry takes little stabs, little prods, at changing his life, at escaping what he feels is a humdrum unhappy existence, but he can’t quite manage it, psychologically he just isn’t equipped for such a manoeuvre. So, instead of leaving for Switzerland with a woman he loves, he ends up taking on a drab young American dental assistant as a lover, as a kind of compromise. This what I mean about a lack of guts and imagination, he knows what he wants and what will make him happy but plumps instead for a clichéd all-American, middle class, version of rebellion, of infidelity. The upshot of not being able to take the plunge, of not being able to make the change, to recreate himself, is that he loses his mind.

However, part one does suffer from some of the problems that tend to plague Roth’s sexually-focussed work [like, for example, the half peerless genius-half fucking stupid and cringey Sabbath’s Theater]. Roth is capable of impressive writing about sex, mostly when he is being funny, and yet he is also frequently a terrible writer about sex. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing [because the kind of sex writing I hate does seem to come from authors who started publishing around the late 60’s], but some of the passages in Part one make me want to murder something, passages such as when Henry tells his lover after they have had anal sex that this now means that they are married. Yeah, you read that right: anal sex marries them. Like, spiritually or some shit. My face also pulled some unpleasant expressions when reading the scene where Henry’s wife turns up to meet him in public wearing a big coat, while underneath she is dolled up in suspenders and flashy knickers. It’s essentially a lame middle-age-fantasy cliche; surely no one ever actually does that? Nor do women, and believe me I have had a lot of dumb crap said to me during sex [and have said loads myself, no doubt], say things like it’s been years since you’ve fucked me like a woman. When I read stuff like that I do genuinely start to wonder if the author has ever actually fucked a woman in his life.

Part two I found exhilarating, but, I imagine, it is perhaps where some readers may lose heart, or at least their enthusiasm for the book. Your enjoyment of Part two probably rests on how interested you are in politics, particularly the Jewish-Muslim conflict, and whether you find enthralling racial/religious philosophy. Of course, I’m not talking about the rigorous philosophy you would find in a text book, or even a novel like The Man Without Qualities, but, still, Roth does spend pages and pages discussing and debating Jewish identity and responsibility. As with The Ghost Writer, the question what does it mean to be Jewish? is centre stage.  Following successful surgery this Henry has moved to Israel and has joined a group of militant Jews, who believe that it is one’s duty as a Jew to return to and fight for one’s homeland. Nathan, [the narrator] on the other hand, is a fully assimilated American, who feels no pull from Judea and is fully opposed to, what he sees as, religious or political fanaticism; so, the intellectual fireworks, the tension, is created by these two opposing viewpoints and lifestyles coming together, butting heads.

As already noted, The Counterlife is on one level a book about writing, about how authors create characters, and how they can mould them and use them in different ways. If you’ve read any of Roth’s Zuckerman novels you’ll know that Nathan is meant to have written a novel, Carnovsky, that led to him being estranged from his family; he is a writer who used his own family in order to create, and it cost him. Throughout The Counterlife we are part of, have access to, Nathan’s [and Roth’s] process as a writer. In the opening section we are actually shown some of his notes, notes relating to Henry, that Nathan talks about having written in order to use for a novel. So, we have Nathan, the man who wrote a controversial book about his family, writing a book about his family [his brother], using his brother for his fiction. We also have Roth, a genuine, real life, author, writing about an author writing about the authorial creative process. Furthermore, Roth and Zuckerman, it’s safe to say, share certain biographical details; their stories, their lives, their personalities, are similar. Meta shenanigans everywhere!

However, although I found all that stuff fun enough, I would have enjoyed the book just as much without it. I was far more taken with what Roth had to say about his characters, and by extension humanity itself. Yes, The Counterlife explores a lot of  issues, such as masculinity, family, religion, and so on, but I was particularly interested in the theme of escape, which runs through all the stories. The main characters, in [almost] all their incarnations, are trying to escape from themselves and their lives. They are all striving to be other, to be someone or something else. This is where the meta aspect of the novel really impressed me, because The Counterlife shows us different, alternate lives, and yet in these lives all of the main characters want to escape into something else. That’s a powerful, perhaps depressing, message: that we are never wholly satisfied with our lot, regardless of the life we are living, that we are always either in flight or fantasising about flight. And yet, I don’t think that is what Roth wanted us to take away from the book, or it certainly isn’t the message that I took away from the book. There’s a line on page 239 in my vintage copy that I felt went some way to summing how I saw The Counterlife, what most resonated with me:

Anyone can run away and survive, the trick was to stay and survive.

___________

One last thing: I pretty much detested part five of this book, the part set in England. I haven’t included this in the review because, well, maybe it is simply native touchiness. However, I think it is fair to say that Roth approaches England and the English like a Simpsons on holiday episode i.e. he throws in just about every cultural, national cliche he can come up with. My dear Philip, being English does not mean reading Jane Austen, talking about furniture, eating bland food, an obsession with class and status, and off-the-cuff, well-articulated racism. One might say that it is not Roth, but Nathan who sees the English in this way, and that’s fine, but it’s still rubbish and not engaging to read. Furthermore, Roth can pull a lot of things off, but star-crossed lovers isn’t one of them.