Tuesday 31 March 2020

Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This absolutely magnificent novel was yesterday declared the overall winner of the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize, the first work in translation to be thus honoured.

I read it some months back and am now reading it again because this Friday I'm hosting (though not chairing) a conversation between the translator Frank Wynne, Sam Mills (one of the prize judges) and Neil Griffiths, the novelist and founder of the prize.  I shan't say much about Animalia here as I want you all to tune in to A Leap in the Dark. I will say, though, that the last time I read a French novel that so completely clobbered me was Michel Tournier's  Le roi des aulnes (1970). I want everyone to read this, if only to confirm my bleak view that the French beat us hands down in the 1970s when it came to novels, architecture, movies, the lot.

The conversation on Friday marks the start of an open-ended series of online gatherings of singers, musicians, poets, novelists, performers who will come together twice a week, on Friday and Saturday evenings between 8 and 8.30pm, to share new work with an invited audience. If you'd like to join the audience see here.

And a tip of the hat to Jacques Testard, who founded and runs the mighty Fitzcarraldo Editions. As it happens I reviewed their first ever publication for the TLS in 2014 - Mathias Énard's Zone. This isn't available on the new-look TLS website, so you'll have to take my word for that. But here's a thing - it was reading my review that prompted the novelist Neil Griffiths to read Zone which (he reckons) is just about the greatest novel ever published, and then led him to investigate the brave new world of indie publishing, which in turn led to him setting up the Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2017. I know this because he told me when we first met. The prize is now an established part of the literary calendar and has done a great job in promoting and supporting small presses and their authors. More, it has led to a friendship with Neil, which is the best thing. (He's a remarkable novelist - I'll be writing about his most recent novel soon in an example of what might called blog-rolling).

Buy Animalia from the publishers here.

Monday 30 March 2020

A Leap in the Dark

The last thing you need in these dark and uncertain times is an invitation to a live online broadcast in which musicians, poets, authors and performers gather for thirty minutes to share their latest work.

But that's what this is.

As a loose-knit group of writers and musicians and performers we want to share our work with you and with each other, to spread some light and possibly even joy. Because that's something we can do, and something we all need to do, now and in the future, until the current crisis passes, and after that.

There are no constraints on the contributors (apart from time) and no telling what will happen when we go live. The first three gatherings:

Friday 3rd April live music followed by a conversation between Neil Griffiths (novelist and founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize), Sam Mills (Dodoink publisher, author and one of this year's prize judges) and Frank Wynne (translator of Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia, announced today as winner of the 2020 Prize). It's an absolutely stunning novel, brilliantly translated from the French (and the first time a work in translation has won the Conchy). Audience members will have a chance to win a pristine copy of Del Amo's novel, courtesy of the publisher and RoC organisers.

Saturday 4th April live music followed by the world premiere of Spring Journal by the author and poet Jonathan Gibbs. Prompted by Autumn Journal (1939) Louis Macneice’s great poem about the early days of the Second World War, Jonathan’s poem is a work-in-progress thoughtfully navigating and responding to the social and political changes of the current crisis with sharp wit and a keen, humane eye.

An extract from Macneice's original and the first section of Spring Journal will be read by Michael Hughes.

Friday 10th April a live transatlantic exchange with the Vancouver-based Irish writer Anakana Schofield (author of Malarky and Martin John) with readings from her latest novel Bina, reviewed in The Guardian here.

After that we intend to broadcast two live thirty-minute programmes on Fridays and Saturdays for the duration, although that may change. Everything may change. Possibly for the better. You never know.

For practical reasons access will be limited to 75 registrations and, to avoid prankster hacks, by invitation only.

How to join the audience:

You'll need to contact me as the organiser, so either

a) leave your email details in the comment section at the end of this blog or

b) DM me your email details on Twitter @davidcollard1

You'll then be added to a group of invitees on a first-come, first-served basis. Your details will not be shared.

To see and hear what's going on you'll need the Zoom app (it's free to download: https://zoom.us) and I'll be sending all invitees a password on the day. 

There's no charge, but we suggest a donation to your local food bank or equivalent.

Future confirmed contributors:

June Caldwell - Irish author (Room Little Darker)

Susanna Crossman - Anglo-French writer of fiction and non-fiction

Tim Etchells - author (Endland) and founder/creative director of Forced Entertainment

David Hayden - publisher and author of Darker with the Lights On

Amy McCauley - poet and performer, author of OEDIPA and 24/7 Brexitland 

Dan O'Brien - American poet (War Reporter) and playwright (The Body of an American)

Simon Okotie - author of the Harold Absalon trilogy

Alex Pheby  - author (PlaythingsLucia and the forthcoming Mordew)

Paul Stanbridge - musician and author (Forbidden Line, The Encyclopaedia of St Arbuc)

Isabel Waidner - author (Gaudy Bauble and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff)

                                            Other names to be announced!

We aim to create an online equivalent to 'A Leap in the Dark', a Dadaist gathering held a lifetime ago on 29th February. It took place in a dilapidated former Conservative Club in Paddington. It was unheated but there was plenty of whisky and cocoa to warm the cockles, and proper sandwiches. And the performers all blazed with a hard gemlike flame.  Here are some pictures:

Get involved. Stay well!

The Pale Usher

Sunday 29 March 2020

Round About Town by Kevin Boniface (Uniformbooks)

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The haunting final lines of Larkin's great poem 'Aubade' nag at me as I sit at home in this calm city, awaiting the postman's knock.

Kevin Boniface  is an artist who works as a postman in Huddersfield and Round About Town, eight years in the writing, is a collection of observations made on his early morning round. It's been my bedside book of choice for the past year or so.

What makes it unusual - unique, even - is that it's the perfect book to read first thing, on waking up. There's a snug (and smug) pleasure in reading about somebody who has already started their day, sometimes in foul weather, as one remains tucked up and toasty.

His book, with its many close encounters and interactions also recalls a time both recent and remote when we were not all socially isolating and living in fear and dread, which gives it an added value the author could never have anticipated. Boniface's writing connects us with what used to be taken for granted - hundrum normality

He's a one-man Mass Observation Movement. On his walk from the sorting office to the streets nearby Boniface is alert to every detail, both natural - wildlife, types of the daylight, birdsong - and cultural.

Saturday, 15 November

6.15am Dancers and bouncers share jokes and cigarettes outside the strip club. The dancers are wearing their 'standing outside' uniform: white faux mink coats, suspenders and heels. The bouncers wear black suits and patent shoes.

The man behind me on the bus to the hospital has a loud hacking cough. I get off where a group of builders with hard hats over their hods are smoking in. huddle outside the house with the empty Cheese Curls packet and the pile of dog shit underneath the trampoline in the yard.

There's a lot of pre-recession Ground Force decking around her and it's slippery and treacherous at this time of year; the old man with butter on his nose advised me to watch myself after I slipped on his.

In the street, a young man with a shaved head and tracksuit is vacuuming his brand new Vauxhall Corsa while he listens to Robbie Williams quite loudly.

The settings are usually urban with rough pastoral moments as we head out of town and onto the surrounding moors. Much of what happens is bleak and downbeat in a particularly English way - we're in an underpopulated literary spectrum occupied by the likes of Cold War Steve, Tim Etchells and Barney Farmer (he of Viz Comic's Drunken Bakers). Nothing escapes Boniface's attention and he records his observations in prose that is clear, precise and deadpan. He is very funny, but I'll leave you to find that out for yourself. The effect is cumulative and immersive.

I dip into it very sparingly most mornings because I never want it to end, and when I get to the last page I know I'll start again. Postal workers are heroic at the best of times, and these are not the best of times.

Buy a copy from the publishers here.

Uniformbooks (sic) is based in Axminser, Devon and run by Colin Sackett, who describes his press as an "independent imprint for the visual and literary arts, cultural geography and history, music and bibliographic studies." The website is full of wonders.

Saturday 28 March 2020

Private Paris by James Patterson (and Mark Sullivan)

What follows first appeared as a blog in April 2016. I recycle it here to prove that I don't confine my reading to brilliantly innovative and original literary fictions published by plucky independent presses and am no snob (although clearly there are still some things worth being snobbish about). Here we go:

On James Patterson, authors

How best to express it? 'James Patterson are a writer'? 'James Patterson is writers'?

In any consideration of the work of this spectacularly successful American author (born 1947), Rimbaud's Je est un autre ('I is another') comes to mind because Patterson is not so much a writer but a brand - he contains multitudes. He published his first book in 1976 and over the past forty years has published, alarmingly, 147 novels, although that number is likely to have risen by the time you read this. Sales to date are well over 300 million. Three. Hundred. Million.

His approach is collaborative. Patterson works with a cohort of co-authors including Maxine Paetro, Andrew Gross, Mark Sullivan, Ashwin Sanghi, Michael Ledwidge and Peter De Jonge, all of whom I am sure make a good living from their second billingPatterson admits, with bracing candour, that he is "simply more proficient at dreaming up plots than crafting sentence after sentence." 

Fair enough. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst don't hand-craft their artworks, leaving such afterthoughts to studio assistants; David Beckham doesn't distil and bottle and distribute his male fragrance; actors have stunt doubles. We all of us need a hand to do whatever it is we do.

The reason for this blog is that I've just read my first Patterson, which was co-written with (or by?) Mark Sullivan. The book was left behind by an American guest on her way to Paris and (surely no coincidence, as she clearly wanted to read up on her destination) it's called Private Paris. I'm sure I'm not the only reader to mistake that title for Private Parts. Glance at the cover and you'll see what I mean:

Image © Little, Brown and Company

The first American edition was published on March 14th this year. Private Rio - trailed at the end of Private Paris - has appeared since, and there's no shortage of cities yet to appear in a series that already includes Private London (2011), Private Berlin, Private L.A. (both 2013), Private Sydney, Private Vegas (both 2015) as well as many other 'Private'-prefixed titles (including 2014's snigger-inducing Private Down Under). The series (one of many bearing the Patterson brand) is unlikely to run out of steam any time soon, although it will be a few years before we get to Private Hull

I approached Private Paris without preconceptions or prejudice. Really. I  suppose I expected, and indeed looked forward to, the literary equivalent of 'a major motion picture event'. Nothing too demanding, intellectual, formally ground-breaking or even particularly credible. I wanted entertainment, diversion, distraction. What did I get?

Here's the blurb:

When Jack Morgan stops by Private's Paris office, he envisions a quick hello during an otherwise relaxing trip filled with fine food and sightseeing. But Jack is quickly pressed into duty after a call from his client Sherman Wilkerson, asking Jack to track down his young granddaughter who is on the run from a brutal drug dealer.

Jack's envisioning proves unreliable in this instance and fine food takes a back seat. One thing leads to another and the Wilkerson case elides into a sinister plot to destroy French society as we know it (or at least as Patterson knows it) with an apparently Islamist group known only by the graffiti tag AB-16 picking off the nation's 'cultural elite": the director of the Paris Opera is strangled by a stage curtain rope; Rene Picus 'arguably the greatest chef in all of France' is drowned in his own chicken stock; Lourdes Latrelle, 'one of France's foremost intellectuals and best-known writers' is smothered by a pillow in an orgiastic night club; a famous fashion designer stabbed in the heart with a six-inch leather awl. The French culture minister gets off lightly and is merely shot. Their corpses are left hanging upside-down, as inverted crucifixions. 

This, let's agree, is a terrific idea for a Houellbecquian satire with lashings of Guignol. But Patterson and Sullivan are no Houellbecqs and what we get is what I expect the publishers would call 'a white knuckle ride'. In fact a theme park roller coaster has a lot in common with this novel, and is about as susceptible to criticism. Roller coasters have a superficial texture of danger and excitement but are (theoretically) safe, offering punters a controlled, stylised sense of achievement, a quick thrill and an adrenaline rush.  Nothing wrong with that, and if EuroDisney is your idea of France then Private Paris will certainly melt your butter.

Patterson and/or his co-writer Mark Sullivan make it easy for a new reader to join a long-running series that already runs to more than a dozen novels. The hero, Alex Morgan, ('athletic, blond, hazel-eyed') runs an international security agency called simply Private - 'the Pinkerton's of the 21st century' - and has a combat background, having served with the US marines in Afghanistan. His training kicks in at appropriate moments and these moments come thick and fast, then thicker and faster. Confusingly Morgan's ability to speak and understand French  comes and goes as the plot requires, although it hardly matters as there's barely a word in French throughout. Morgan, who has the cultural gaucheness of Donald Trump turned down to 11, is astonished to meet a bilingual woman ('I shook her hand, wondering bow she could speak both languages with such perfect accents'). An art professor and graffiti expert, Michele Herbert is 'beyond-belief good-looking and off-the-charts smart and creative. And yet she didn't seem to take herself too seriously'. She has a chic bob and a tiny mole. They exchange no more than a chaste kiss in the final chapter (admittedly she's coming round from surgery after being shot in the stomach), but if the novel contains one surprise it's the fact that she and Morgan don't become an item. 

At other times he is more self-assured. 'This is the school for artists in France, correct?'. Morgan's brisk interrogation tells us all we need to know - and all we'll ever know - about L'Académie des beaux-arts. I wish I could write this badly so well. 

Although there are unlimited Private resources at his disposal, Morgan is never happier then when chasing baddies on foot between bouts of supernatural intuition. Alternate chapters cut between his first-person narrative and third person accounts of the bad guys (Major Sauvage and Captain Mfune, two French soldiers who are the real villains behind the AB-16 campaign). Morgan doesn't know the names of these two so he calls them respectively 'Whitey' and 'Big Nose'.

All this unravels in a Paris made navigable for American readers by a process of rigorous demystification - a city with sidewalks not trottoirs and consisting of no more than a handful of iconic locations. Morgan's surprising familiarity with French-set Broadway musicals (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) also gives the reader entry level access to culture, and even stretching a point to French culture, but most of what happens might just as well take place in Manchester, Detroit or Bucharest.  

At moments of exposition Morgan's employee and sidekick Louis Langlois speaks fluent Wikipedian, as when he introduces Morgan to the Institut de France:

'On a practical level, the institute oversees about ten thousand different foundations concerned with everything from French historical sites to museums and castles,' Louis said. 'The five academies within the institute were formed back in the days of Louis XIV, and designed to preserve and celebrate the French culture, language , arts, sciences , and our systems of law and politics, The members represent the best of France, and must be voted in.'

Here's the original Wikipedia entry, by way of comparison:

The Institut de France […] is a French learned society, grouping five académies, the most famous of which is the Académie Française. The Institute, located in Paris, manages approximately 1,000 foundations, as well as museums and châteaux open for visit. 

Patterson, or Mason, or perhaps Langlois himself, subtly increases the number of foundations managed by the Institute by a factor of ten - those European republics with their centralised governments and spendthrift socialist economies! 

But enough already. Private Paris cannot be criticised as a novel because it really isn't a novel at all. It's a wordy storyboard for that aforementioned 'major motion picture event'. It's a relentlessly headlong, painstakingly chronological
 narrative with most chapters given a precise location and time of day (MONTFERMEIL, EASTERN SUBURBS OF PARIS, 10 P.M.). The action consists largely  of breathless those chases punctuated by lurid murders, shoot-outs, snatched naps, shaving, litres of strong black  coffee, showers (lots and lots of showers). Between showers the continuity is perfunctory, the twists and turns preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, and nobody involved - including the Parisian police, especially the Parisian police - seems to have the faintest understanding of anything procedural. Langlois, who never amounts to more than a device and is seldom even that, has an unlimited cohort of specialists on tap who serve to keep things bowling along. When he injures his knee he admits, almost bashfully: 'I have an old friend, Megam, who specialises in knees'.

I suppose a defence of this approach is that at great speed one doesn't feel the bumps, and to be fair the plotting is so erratic and slapdash that it attains a serene meaninglessness, keeping itself afloat in an ocean of random coincidence and happenstance. But when, as here, the plot is all bumps then speed is no longer an option, and we are presented with the dogged but inconsistent disposal of logic, character or plausibility. The chase scenes repeatedly reminded me of that endless corridor along which the Scooby-doo characters run, passing the same chest of drawers and lampshade every few yards. In fact the whole novel, in its fragmented incoherence, has a cartoon feel.

Patterson adds to this a shrewd top-dressing of current political and social malaise - the Charlie Hebdo murders are referenced, and there's a good deal of anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by a number of the French characters (though not by Morgan). The tough eastern banlieus where young migrants eke out impoverished and marginalised lives are evoked with a degree of sympathetic understanding that passes in a flash as the real business of running around and letting off firearms takes over.

Is it a page turner? Oh yes, and very much so. The chapters (of which there are no fewer than 111, spread over 410 pages) rarely exceed four pages in length and it's difficult to resist the temptation to read just one more, then another, and another. In this respect and no other Private Paris has something in common with Melville's Moby-Dick. 

The prose is brisk and utile with only a few oddities: 'Startle' as an intransitive verb ("I startled awake") occurs three times, at each use of which I startled too. There's the new (to me) adverb 'hostilely'. The dialogue aims at a laconic, world weary tone but is never more than merely weary. Morgan is no Philip Marlowe because Patterson is no Raymond Chandler. After staying awake for more than thirty hours Morgan unsurprisingly needs some sleep or, as he puts it, 'some much needed sack time'. This is typical of Patterson's approach, which never really amounts to anything as distinctive as a style: the mundane gets the fancy treatment (cellphones are constantly 'punched' and 'stabbed' and, while you or I might simply pull a gun from our pocket, Louis Langlois 'yanks a Glock'), while the dramatic is presented in a downbeat, off-hand manner:

"Merde!" Louis shouted at one point. "Hold on!"
    Cars skidded and honked all around us.
    Cars crashed all around us.

I admired that (and we can leave it to the movie people to flesh out the details, at great expense and inconvenience to residents in the Paris quarter where the thing is perpetrated). 

Would I read another Patterson, or Patterson? Yeah, sure; but when to find the time? Would I re-read Private Paris? Of course not. Would I watch a movie based on the novel? Hell yes. But only in a hotel, or on a plane. Not at home and certainly not at the cinema. And ideally with Jack Morgan played by a woman. And the setting changed to Vancouver or Sydney or anywhere but Paris. And the whole thing played for laughs.

As a boy I gobbled up the novels of Alistair Maclean - he of Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles dare, When Eight Bells Toll, The Guns of Navarone and many more. He doesn't have a dedicated website - surely now the only sign of literary afterlife. Is he even in print now? Patterson sees himself, with good reason, as a brand and is happy for books by other writers to appear under his name What will endure of Patterson's huge oeuvre isn't likely to be any individual novel but his ability to oversee, to endorse, a steady supply of the kind of thing that the people who enjoy this kind of thing like. 

Quotations © James Patterson / Mark Sullivan / Little, Brown and Company.

Friday 27 March 2020

Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge (Galley Beggar Press)

I wrote yesterday about the range of e-books newly available from the Norwich-based independent Galley Beggar Press, and this prompts me to recycle the following blog about Forbidden Line, the debut novel by Paul Stanbridge published by them a hundred years ago, in 2016.

I'm forever recommending this wonderful comic masterpiece because it's Wodehouse-level funny, and boy do we need such writing  now.  I'm such a fan the author may need to take out a restraining order.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Forbidden Line - an Essex epic

The Only Way is Essex is a rowdy reality television show which does not, let's agree, represent my home county at its best. This begs the question: what does? 

John Betjeman's 'sweet uneventful countryside' of silted creeks and farms and drowsy villages under high East Anglian skies offers a bucolic alternative:

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

That Essex, home to John Fowles, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Coventry Patmore, Ruth Pitter, Jilly Cooper, Sydney Smith, Warwick Deeping, Sabine Baring-Gould and Joseph Conrad, is a calmer, stranger and admittedly duller place than the makers and viewers of TOWIE will ever be likely to explore. Which version of Essex is echt and which ersatz will depend on your cultural priorities.. 

In the Middle Ages the county was so renowned for the quantity and quality of beef calves dispatched to London meat markets that 'Essex Calf' became the slang term for a native. The sassy types caught on camera living life the Essex way, simultaneously exploiting and exploited by the medium within which they appear to flourish are, one hopes, savvy enough to avoid becoming calves for the slaughter. They all seem to know and like and even understand what they're doing.
Essex traditionally gets a bad press and has not, as far as I'm aware, provided the setting for a major literary novel. Until now, that is.

Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge is published today by the Norwich independent Galley Beggar Press. The author's first book is a breathtakingly ambitious attempt to re-purpose Cervantes' Don Quixote for our times. The adventurous contemporary pair are the maniac autodidact Donald J Waswill (Don) and his doltishly engaging companion Isaiah Olm (abbreviated to Is, which never fails to look like a typo and I had no idea how this should be pronounced until it's made clear after several hundred pages). The duo set off on a shambolic adventure from Don's Colchester base in the colossal Victorian water tower known locally as Jumbo (and you should Google this extraordinary structure).

What Forbidden Line immediately brings to mind is the great short story by Borges - 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', originally published in 1939. You'll know this, I expect, and if not can read it here (and it takes about 15 minutes). This single story anticipates and demolishes the more absurd tendencies of literary post-modernism. Menard's grandchildren crop up briefly in the later stages of Forbidden Line in a seriously hilarious hospital episode featuring one Ian McEwan, who is clearly THE Ian McEwan.

Stanbridge's Don is every bit as deranged and single-minded as his Spanish prototype - obsessed with a baffling metaphysical phenomenon he calls 'the hyperfine transition of hydrogen' and in thrall to Lady Chance, a capricious secular deity who dictates his every random move. He and the shrewdly cloddish Is set off on foot together to undergo a series of downbeat, farcical encounters with the contemporary world - our world. These are beautifully rendered and as funny anything in Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet or Beckett's Mercier and Camier (two abiding favourites, both of which feature incompatible male compadres navigating the wide world and beside which Forbidden Line confidently takes its place).Don and Is make their way slowly to London, running into drunks, crusties, Chelmsford dignitaries, the Essex constabulary and feuding locals. They repeatedly destroy a hefty home-made case containing Don's Encyclopedic life work, which repeatedly reappears with its contents miraculously intact. Is cannot read or write (unless the plot requires him to do so) but has the same gift of total mental recall as Funes the Memorious (another Borges link, from the Ficciones) and becomes Don's lumpen recording angel. Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl are among the intellectual shades who accompany the travelling pair.

What grips at once is Stanbridge's beautiful, stately, eccentric and richly rewarding prose. He never lets up, never falters. The lyrical descriptions of backwater Essex are consistently lovely, providing a backdrop for mesmerisingly erudite riffs by Don on every subject under the sun, while the hapless Is offers a stalwart comic foil subject to no end of painful indignities. There's a deeply satisfying and sophisticated philosophical undertow, lots of very good jokes, lavish digressions, pointless repetitions, countless literary references,stretches of dialogue in Greek and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, sudden violent reversals, dazzling rhetorical flights and, throughout, a sense of unalloyed authorial joy in the whole project. His sole concern is all for our delight and, while he is unafraid to court tedium when the fancy takes him (generously inviting the reader to skip such passages), he has the rare gift - vanishingly rare - of making one laugh out loud, and regularly. Chapter 27 reduced me to a giggling puddle of contentedness: at one point therein Don and Is discuss what they respectively pronounce as 'déjà vu' and 'deja-vu', leading to a wonderfully mad mis en abyme in which simultaneous hypothetical déjà vus (or deja-vus) are embedded within one another. leading inevitably to 'an eternal stasis of the hyperfine transition of hydrogen'.

                     - What you are saying is so far over my head, said Is, that it has ice on it.

Forbidden Line is very, very silly and as wholly and profoundly serious as Cervantes' original. It's a rich plum pudding of a novel, but a plum pudding with antlers.
For the first time in my ramshackle career as a literary hack I sent the publishers an unsolicited encomium (in case they needed an early blurb). In it I said that Forbidden Line was "breathtaking, magisterial, uniquely demented and hilarious - a lavish comic masterpiece". It really is. You can, and certainly should, buy a copy from the publishers here. Read it in the dog days between Christmas and the New Year.

If my enthusiasm isn't recommendation enough you might like to know that the novel has been long listed for the first Republic of Consciousness Prize the founder of which, Neil Griffiths, has this to say:

A modern day Don Quixote channeling early Wittgenstein and late Heidegger, and the events of the Peasant’s Revolt, Forbidden Line take us on a picaresque journey through Essex and London in what must be the most exuberant and maximalist novel of ideas ever written in English. It really shouldn’t work, but it does so with a kind joy and comic panache that few writers possess. It’s an achievement to be admired, relished, and loved. Not only will there be PhDs written about this novel, there will be fan-fiction and meta-fiction, and I won’t be surprised if very soon there are clubs and secret societies dedicated to unravelling how the ‘hyperfine transition of hydrogen’ permits a chest of papers continually to appear after many determined destructions. This isn’t magical realism – it’s so much more mysterious and profound than that. 

Make that two restraining orders.
You can buy Forbidden Line direct from the publishers here. 
Paul went on to create the trailblazing online novel The Encyclopaedia of St Arbuc, which I expect I'll be writing about soon.

Thursday 26 March 2020

On e-books and Galley Beggar Press

And we don't have a winner! At least, not yet.

The outcome of the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, due to be announced this week, has for  some reason been postponed. But the organisers have decided that the prize pot should be divided equally between all five shortlisted authors and their publishers. That strikes me as a Very Good Thing.

The prize, as I'm sure all readers of this blog will know, rewards the best fiction published by small independents (defined as those with fewer than 5 full-time employees) and the focus is on "hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose".

The prize founder, the novelist Neil Griffiths, borrowed that resounding phrase from the Norwich publishers Galley Beggar Press, home to some of  today's very best writers. Earlier this week as a response to the times Galley Beggar launched a dozen of their novels as e-books at the bargain price of £2.50 a pop. It's a dazzling list,  featuring some of the very best fiction published in English this century. How about this:

Patience and Wrestliana by Toby Litt

Playthings and Lucia by Alex Pheby (I reviewed the latter for the TLS here)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

How to be a Public Author and Writer in Residence by Francis Plug

Feeding Time by Adam Biles

Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge

Randall by Jonathan Gibbs

We Are the End by Gonzalo C. Garcia

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

The White Goddess: an encounter by Simon Gough

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman (I wrote about this magnum opus for the Literary Review. It costs a quid more because it's over a thousand pages long and if there's more essential reading in a lock-down I can't think what it might be)

You can order all these e-books here. Or dig around on the GBP website - there are treasures galore. I'll be revisiting a Galley Beggar Press novel in tomorrow's blog.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)

On the strength of both its author and her publisher I'm about to recommend, unreservedly, a book I haven't read yet. This may strike you as an abdication of the critic's role, and you'd be right, but as we're all living through paradigm shifts on a daily basis I'm intensely relaxed about that.

I first became aware of Sara Baume's writing in 2014 when she won the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award for 'Solesearcher1', an account of what I suppose you'd call extreme angling. It was immediately impressive and (much as I dislike the mimsy phrase) 'a new voice', bright and clear. The following year I reviewed her very impressive debut novel spill simmer falter wither for the TLS. This tale of a solitary misfit and his one-eyed dog living together in a car and aimlessly navigating the Irish countryside was equally impressive. It struck me as a kind of unplugged fiction - fresh, strange, confident - a 2015 highlight. If I had any minor reservation it was with the voice of the man, which seemed to me at times to be not fully realised. But that opens a can of worms when it comes to an author's inhabiting another gender. I think only Iris Murdoch has ever fully pulled this off, in her first novel Under the Net, and this prompted my comparison between Baume and the late Dame. 

Baume's second novel, A Line Made by Walking (2017), featured a troubled young woman called Frankie living alone in her late grandmother's cottage in a remote part of Ireland who, as a form of emotional and intellectual consolation, rehearses to herself examples of conceptual art from the recent past. (This aspect of the novel was an education - it sparked an interest in the subject, and the appendix detailing the cited works sent me scuttling for more work by artists entirely new to me). It was a fearless exploration of depression and isolation and, at this point in our history, A Line Made by Walking comes high on any list of fictions about isolation and solitude, and is one of the best novels about art and artists I've ever read.

Baume is herself an artist and handiwork (lower case sic), her third book and first work of non-fiction, is launched in Dublin today and officially published by Tramp Press tomorrow. It's about her own artistic practices as a writer and artist, and I look forward keenly to reading it. In October 2018 I enjoyed a small exhibition of her work called Devotions, Keepsakes and Talismans at the Morley Gallery in South London, and was impressed - her small-scale pieces have a quiet presence in the world but come with great conceptual heft. I like conceptual art which is clever, and generally recoil from the brash, garish, shallow and noisy, the 'one-look' stuff that (sigh) 'challenges preconceptions'. The worst conceptual art tends to bristle with challenging ideas but seldom with good ideas. Baume, as a cerebral artist and writer, has good ideas in lavish quantities and makes work that speaks to an audience with a taste for the thoughtful, the reflective, the inward-looking and the well-executed.

From the publisher's website:

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

I look forward to reading this.

Order handiwork from the publishers here

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte (Cōnfingō)

Perhaps in these strange times you're looking for fictions that navigate solitude and isolation.

Robinson Crusoe may snag your attention, although you'd do better to read Charles Boyle's ferocious deconstruction of Defoe's novel and its malign cultural influence. You can get a copy of Good Morning, Mister Crusoe here. Recommended.

Another recommendation is Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte, translated from the French by Nicholas Royle. It's published by the Manchester-based indie Cōnfingō.

I reviewed this book for the TLS here. It's a striking exercise in guignol and will appear; to anyone with a taste for the grotesque. The setting is la Phare de Cordouan, situated in the mouth of the Gironde estuary and known, for good reason, as 'the Versailles of lighthouses. Look it up on Google images - it's a marvellous setting for a place where all hell is let loose.

Order your copy (postage-free) from the publishers here.

Monday 23 March 2020

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (Istros Press)

On my desk as I type this is a copy of The Complete Saki, the collected short stories of that perverse Edwardian genius H. H. Munro. 

Contents aside - macabre social satires with a whiff of the belle époque, the missing link between Wilde and Wodehouse - what snags my admiration is the marvellous blurb on the dust wrapper, provided by the American author and critic Christopher Morley. The best blurb ever, I reckon. Here it is: 

"There is no greater compliment to be paid the right kind of friend than to hand him Saki, without comment."

There aren't many books like this, and there aren't many friends (of any gender) like this either. 

But here's one book that would offer the same kind of compliment to the right kind of friend, a book I've so far passed on three times to date (admittedly with a comment or two). It's Doppelgänger by the late Daša Drndić,  translated from the original Croatian by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Press.

I came across the writer for the first time last year, when Doppelgänger was submitted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. It knocked me and my fellow judges for six and was unanimously chosen as one of six books making up an exceptionally strong shortlist. The prize was awarded jointly, and rightly, to Will Eaves for Murmur (CB editions) and Alex Pheby for Lucia (Galley Beggar Press), both superb novels. If the conventions governing literary prizes were more flexible I feel Daša Drndić could have been a third winner (has that ever happened?) but she had died in 2018 (see her Guardian obituary here). This, I have to say, counted against her when it came to the final deliberations.

But I urge you to read Doppelgänger and I can't resist breaking Morley's Saki dictum to add the following comment:

The title offers a commentary on the novel's structure - the book is made up of two separate stories, each navigating the space between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. The first, 'Arthur and Isabella' is a brilliantly uncomfortable and transgressive account of a sexual encounter between Arthur and Isabella, an elderly couple who meet on New Year's Eve in the snow; the second, 'Pupi', about an eccentric and cultivated old man who spends his time watching rhinoceroses in the city zoo and attending gallery openings. The two stories reflect one another awkwardly and together produce something naggingly unforgettable and far more than the sum of its parts. Think of Harold and Maude, remade by Béla Tarr.

If that snags your interest you can buy Doppelgänger direct from the publisher here.
Find out more about the author here.

Sunday 22 March 2020

The Golden Rule by Ernest Noyes Brooking (Boatwhistle Books)

If he were a painter Ernest Notes Brookings would be classified as an outsider artist, and an important one.

He's not part of any group or movement and unknown beyond a circle of devoted admirers. Few poets are so immediately recognisable (usually within a line or two) and so engagingly inimitable. He's in a  class of his own, and magnificently so. Readers unacquainted with his work may write him off as a William McGonagall-type eccentric, an amusing oddball. That would be unfair.

I first became aware of his work in the 1980s as a regular reader of The Duplex Planet, a cultish American magazine founded in 1979 by David Greenberger. The magazine exploits a single, brilliant idea - it consists of transcribed interviews with the elderly residents of nursing homes and so-called 'meal sites' in the Massachusetts area which are illustrated by some of the world's best graphic artists.

This combination of authentic geriatric speech and contemporary images was and remains utterly beguiling. The voices are real, the memories intense and vivid, the tone candid and unrestrained.

Ernest Notes Brookings - Ernie - was born in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1898. He served in the US Navy, studied engineering at MIT and settled in Springfield, Vermont, where he worked as a designer of machine parts.

In 1979 Greenberger was employed as the activities director in in the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston where he first met Ernie, who was then in his early eighties.

Greenberger noticed that Ernie enjoyed reading poetry and suggested that he should write some of his own. This Ernie began to do, and with tremendous gusto, providing he was given a subject. In the remaining seven years of his life he wrote nearly 400 poems and there was nothing he couldn't tackle with alacrity, from power tools to after-dinner mints, from Vermont in winter to the death penalty. An online index of his published works confirming the astonishing range of his interests can be found on Greenberger's excellent website.

Ernie's very distinctive poems unvaryingly consisting of punchy four-line ABAB stanzas with erratic rhythm and a wondrous sense of discovery and delight and the urge to explain, were a regular highlight of The Duplex Planet (named after the nursing home) until his death in 1987. The bouncily assured verses were accompanied by illustrations which sometimes served to reflect the content, sometimes to subvert it. The result is irresistible - poignant, hilarious, challenging.

Here, for Mothers' Day is a typical piece:


Female parent of animals and humans
Found on all parts of the earth
Partially people like Truman
Increase in size soon after birth

At home around the dinner table
Mother's prayer God bless this food
There may be cows in the stable
But generally nothing crude

A prize cow pedigree sought
Hide vary colored, has short horns
While feeding calf, muscles are taut
When over, turns her head and yawns

Cat feeds her little kittens
While they hiss and meow
Never wore any mittens
What for and how

A white sow ponderous and plump
Feeds her litter all day long
Without a rest or slump
Until all are grown and strong

A mare feeds pony at leisure
During when a slight neigh
She never had a seizure
But enjoys crunching hay

A bird in tree nest
Waits until eggs hatched
Thought: these are the best
Wait until the door is latched

A hen on eggs in nest
Cackles when hatched
God will do the rest
About six in a batch.

I was delighted to discover at a recent book fair that a small indie outfit called Boatwhistle Books, 'a London-based publisher of singular books for singular readers' publish a generous anthology of his work. Here it is:

It's an American classic to set alongside Whitman's Song of Myself. Seriously.

You can order The Golden Rule direct from the Boatwhistle here. Prepare to be dazzled.

Saturday 21 March 2020

The Blaze of Noon by Rayner Heppenstall

In 1939 the author Rayner Heppenstall (1911-1985) published his astonishing first novel The Blaze of Noon. This brilliant debut was critically acclaimed and sank without trace.

The outbreak of the war in September was a distraction and the author, Yorkshire born and bred, had a German-sounding name which may have counted against him. Heppenstall's career picked up after the war but it was an odd one by any standards - see his erratic bibliography here.

Heppenstall is interesting - a minor author certainly, but a huge influence on a generation of experimental writers in the middle of the last century. He was a close friend and mentor of B. S. Johnson (a fact curiously overlooked in Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of the latter). A well-connected 'man of letters' and a close friend of George Orwell, he was also a self-confessed cannibal, but that's another story for another time. The Blaze of Noon is a really outstanding novel, and I never tire of recommending it, but it's fair to say Heppenstall's reputation was never to match this spectacular debut.

I think of Heppenstall's stalled career whenever I see another book launch cancelled. My heart goes out to any author being denied their modest moment in the spotlight and the chance to sign some books. They are jolly occasions and for many of us as close as we care to get to the social whirl. It's a chance to gossip and trade horror stories about agents.

Having said that, I hope that book launches (when they return) will become more  . . . ambitious. Not just a bunch of people mingling as the drink kicks in, not just a modest speech followed by a reading, accompanied by tepid publisher's plonk and Kettle crisps. There should be live music, readings by actors, perhaps a performance - an event, in other words, with a seated audience, proper booze (spirits are better than wine) and some decent grub. You also need somebody with plenty of chutzpah to bellow persuasively at those gathered to buy copies on the night - that's what it's all about. Make it a proper party - the kind of thing I've aimed to offer audiences attending a recent series of literary cabarets I organised in London.

The most recent event I organised is likely to be the last of its kind for a while. A Leap in the Dark was held on February 29th in a derelict Conservative Club in Paddington with a wonderful cast featuring Melanie Pappenheim (singer) Helen Ottaway (musician/composer), Tim Etchells (performer), Amy McCauley (poet/perfomer), Michael Hughes (novelist), Aea Varfis-van Warmelo (actor), Anna Aslanyan (author/critic), Neil Griffiths (author) and Natalia Zagorska-Thomas (fabric conservator and gallery owner). We had music and poetry, performance and discussion. Plenty of whiskey and sandwiches and cake, and a very convivial evening. We could have launched a book if there'd been a book to launch . . .

Here are some pictures:

'Propositions' by Amy McCauley, performed by (l to r) Aea Warfis-van Warmelo, Alexis Coward and the author

Melanie Pappenheim performs a troubadour song

Melanie again, perfuming with Helen Ottaway

That kind of gathering is, for now, a thing of the future. But we can still gather online, and I'm planning a series of similar shindigs to link performers and a live audience. I'll tell you more when I know more.

Stay well.