31 January 2011

Georges Perec's Les Choses (1965)

Les choses: Une histoire des années soixante (Things: A Story of the Sixties) is about er, things, and - as if peripheral subjects - Jérôme and Sylvie, who are psycho-sociologists. This is just a highfallutin term for market researchers, and doesn't pay them much, leaves them longing for things, for so many might bes, could bes, which become might have beens and could have beens, and lead to literally neverending discontentment, desires that are never accomplished, lists of things to do that will never be done.

So they leave the Parisian world of constant lack for Tunisia, but of course that just leads to more desire, and more lack. In Tunisia, they could have had, but of course didn't, so go back to Paris, where - needless to say - they can't have what they didn't have the first time.

Les choses was Georges Perec's first published novel, and earned him the Prix Renaudot. Many saw it as a criticism of Gaullist consumer society, which annoyed Perec, because it couldn't have been: it was about things promised but never granted. But after so many obscure years, Perec's name was now known, he had money coming in, could do things, could have things...

However, the next year Perec followed through, as it were, with Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? (Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?), which sank almost without trace: even David Bellos, the author of the huge biography Georges Perec: A Life in Words (London: The Harvill Press, 1995), thought that the novel written in the manner of Raymond Queneau was a good joke for only a few pages. But Perec wouldn't (couldn't) compromise his art for the things that money and popularity would bring him (in fact he found popular books positively suspicious), and went back into the shadows for several more years, when things turned out better for him, although not for long, as he died when he was still 45.  Ah, he could have...

25 January 2011

Céline and the French Government's U-turn

Frédéric Mitterrand*, the French culture minister - under pressure - backed down last Friday and decided to remove Louis-Ferdinand Céline's name from the list of 'national celebrations' this year. Although undoubtedly a great and influential writer most noted for his novels Voyage au bout de night (Journey to the End of the Night) and Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan), Céline still carries the stigma of the three savagely anti-Semitic pamphlets he wrote.

A number of people - notably the writer Philippe Sollers - have expressed their great disappointment at the French government's U-turn.

*Mitterrand - nephew of the former French president François Mitterrand - is himself no stranger to controversy. In 2005, he published La mauvaise vie (The Bad Life), an autobiographical novel containing revelations of his love of paying young Thai boys for sex. And he has been a strong defender of Roman Polanski, the film director wanted in America since 1977 for, among other charges, the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl.

23 January 2011

Reynolds Price (1933-2011)

'GAY SOUTHERN WRITER DIES'
Well, maybe some time ago that would have been the headline, but not today. But there's still a problem with the 'Southern' ghetto tag, and the function of the word 'gay' too is still often not a mere identifier, but an emblem of stigmatization, or reduction at best.

To typecast Reynolds Price - a writer of many underrated novels, and a number essays - as merely 'Southen' or 'gay' would be to cram him into a straitjacket that he refused to conform to, to reduce his works to the regional and homosexual, when they are clearly universal and polysexual.

Price writes about the continuation of genetic elements from generation to generation, and of the individual either attempting to overcome the negative inheritance, or simply succumbing to it. He was a great writer, but essentially a realist, even in some ways a naturalist, at a time when others were gaining fame for their experimentation. His voice was largely drowned, but his time will come again.

Reynolds Price was born in Macon, North Carolina and taught for 50 years at Duke University, Durham, N.C. Rather depressingly, he is called 'a voice of the South' in his New York Times obituary. No, he was the voice of everyone, of all races, and his work bears that out.

22 January 2011

Roland Camberton's Disappearing Act

Roland Camberton (1921-65)  was born in Manchester, England as Henry Cohen, and was educated in Hackney, London. He published two novels: Scamp (1950), which is set in grim Soho and Bloomsbury of the 1940s, and Rain on the Pavements (1951)set in Jewish Hackney in the 1930s. After that he disappeared without apparent trace, but Iain Sinclair has spent 30 years discovering what became of him, and one of his findings involves Camberton  meeting William Burroughs once.

New London Editions, an imprint of Five Leaves Publishing, re-published both books last summer, and Scamp includes an Introduction by Sinclair. Both editions use the original illustrations by John Minton.

The story of Sinclair's search - published in the Guardian 30 August 2008 - is here.

18 January 2011

Alexandre Vialatte and Amélie Nothomb

In several of her novels, Amélie Nothomb mentions Alexandre ('I'm a notoriously unknown writer') Vialatte in passing. He was certainly unknown to me, but the fact that he was the man who introduced the French to Kafka and translated nine of his works makes good Nothombian sense. He also wrote a number of imaginative works, which according to editor Pascal Sigoda make the re-discovery of the 'kingdom of childhood' remarkably vivid. Yes, very Nothombian.

Experiment, and Contemporary English Literature

Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? was published last July, although TLS didn't review it until this week. In this article, Bharat Tandon challenges Josipovici's contention that modernism has all but disappeared in British literature, stating that there is no mention of B.S. Johnson's Albert Angelo (1964), Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981), and Ali Smith's The Accidental (2005). It's rather odd that Tandon singles out just one work by the three authors, and three novels over such a time are insignificant, but let's be fair to him: he could also have mentioned Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Niall Griffith's Grits (2000) and Sheepshagger (2001), etc. But Gray, Smith, Trocchi, Kelman, and Leonard are all Scottish, and even if Griffiths was born in Liverpool, the Welsh have with good reason laid claim to him.

But what happens if we limit modernism to English literature alone, and extend that tricky term 'modernist' to 'experimental'? How many names could we come up with if we scratched about some more?

We already have Johnson firmly in the experimental bag – and we can add Ann Quin, Rayner Heppenstall, Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Stefan Themerson, Angela Carter and Anthony Burgess – but what of other relatively recent writers? Nicola Barker maybe? Certainly there's Stewart Home (several of whose novels are a pastiche of pulp novelist Richard Allen), Daren King, two novels by Tom McCarthy, and work by the very young Ben Brooks, but after that the struggle becomes more difficult.

Anna Kavan was English, although she was born in France and lived in several other countries. And Christine Brooke-Rose (the writer of such wonderful bizarre novels as Out (1964), Such (1966), Between (1968), and Thru (1975)) has lived in France for many years. And Ian Monk – the only (ever) English member of the experimental literary group Oulipo – also lives in France.

So here is the essential difference: literary France has experienced symbolism, modernism (and let's not forget that James Joyce was influenced by Édouard Dujardin's Les lauriers sont coupés), surrealism, the nouveau roman, Oulipo, and many contemporary works can be described as experimental - in fact, it wouldn't take long to compile a very long list of experimental French writers. But where is all the literary experimentation in England since, say, Virginia Woolf's death in 1941?

Bharat Tandon suggests that instead of disappearing, perhaps modernism has made a sideways movement. That has a clever ring to it, whatever it means, but unfortunately Tandon doesn't elucidate.

On closing his article on Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Tandon notes that Kosipovici was much better analysing Georges Perec's La vie: mode d'emploi. Well, well.

13 January 2011

Aimé Césaire and the Panthéon, Paris

Aimé Césaire - who is perhaps most noted for his key role in the négritude movement - was born in Martinique, where he died in April 2008 at the age of 94. Moving his remains to the Panthéon in Paris was discussed, but it was thought in France that that would be seen as a 'manifestation of neo-colonialist arrogance'. So a compromise has now been reached: he will be remembered by a plaque in the Panthéon this April.

Probably Césaire's best known work is his forty-page narrative poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939), translated as Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, which is a surrealist rebel yell that stirred André Breton.

This is Césaire's obituary in The Times, and this a useful biography from The Poetry Foundation.

11 January 2011

David Foster Wallace in 2011

This is a very well informed article, entitled The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace by Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is dated 6 January 2011. Interesting that it mentions Stephen Burn's David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide, which suggests that Wallace is moving literature to a third level of modernism, to a more human face.

And while on the subject of Wallace, this article by Wyatt Mason, on David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, appeared in a July 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books: Smarter Than You Think.

Where, indeed, would Dave Eggers and McSweeney's, or George Saunders or Zadie Smith, be without Wallace?

10 January 2011

Lee Daniels's Precious (2009)

Precious is only the half-title of this movie, whose sub-title reads Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: quite simply, the other title was adopted to avoid confusion with a contemporary movie also called Push. This is therefore a (highly acclaimed) film of the book by Sapphire (or Ramona Lefton), the first and until later this year the only novel by this poet and performance artist who was born in Fort Ord, California.

On the face of it, a small budget movie concerning an obese, illiterate 16-year-old young woman with a child with Down Syndrome and another child on the way - both the product of years of rape by her father - is perhaps not the subject of average feel-good cinema. Add to this the fact that the Protagonist - Claireese Precious Jones - has a psychologically abusive mother and that much of the movie is set in insalubrious areas of 1987 Harlem - and it begins to look even bleaker.

But Precious is also about transcending apparently impossible obstacles, about hope and care, friendship and opportunity.

At the beginning of the movie we learn that Black American Claireese 'Precious' Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is living alone with her abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who survives on welfare and believes Precious should do the same as she will learn nothing from  books or the education system.

Precious's father is only seen from the waist down, unbuckling his belt and in the act of rape for a few seconds: this is not a film of explicit violence despite its subject matter, and lingers more (perhaps slightly too much) on Precious's fantasies of being a singing star, which is her survival mechanism. A similar process, but more intense because the physical survival element is less clear,  is in Tori Amos's a cappella song of her own rape, 'A Man and a Gun' from Little Earthquakes, where she speaks of what she thought of at the time of the actual rape:

'you can laugh
it's kind of funny
things you think
times like these
like i haven't seen BARBADOS
so i must get out of this.'

Against her mother's wishes, Precious enrols in the 'Each One/Teach One' program in a special school, whose aim is to push the students through to reaching the G.E.D. (Gereral Educational Development) level necessary for them to enter high school. In the class are other members of the walking wounded similar to herself, and through her very sympathic tutor, Blue Rain (Paula Patton), Precious's interest and her writing ability improve greatly.

During a Christmas scene with Blue and her lesbian lover, the heterosexual Precious feels secure, far from the incessant round of eating, washing up, suffering abuse, and virtual non-stop television she is subjected to at home. But it is still an incomprehensible world where people have real conversations, and hang on the wall such cultural trophies as a poster for Ntozake Shange's play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Precious returns home with her three-day old son Adul to receive further abuse from her mother. She escapes from her definitively, and although Precious later learns that she is HIV positive from her father who has died of Aids, the ending is surprisingly more upbeat than it could have been.

7 January 2011

Reginald Ernest James Britton: What Lionel Britton Was Up To

When I first began studying Lionel Britton, and having some knowledge of his family background, it rapidly became clear to me that his only published novel Hunger and Love (1931) is to a certain extent an attack not just on religion, war, the monarchy, the business world, and the judiciary, but also on his own family who represented most of those institutions. I knew nothing of his half-uncle Reginald Britton, although Lionel must have, and at least part of his venom must have been aimed at him: it would be difficult to imagine a better representative of the Establishment than Rex, as his family call him.

I've named the sub-title of this post 'What Lionel Britton Was Up To' by way of an ironic comment on a chapter in Hunger and Love: 'What Evolution Is Up To'. It would have been ironic to Lionel because he would not have associated his half-uncle's life with evolution - quite the reverse, in fact. To say that Lionel was the black sheep of the family somehow doesn't say enough, but it'll have to do until I think of something better.

Reginald Ernest James Britton was born in Alcester, Warwickshire, England, on 4 June, 1887, to John James Britton and his second wife, Maud May (née Coward). He went to Osbourne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, England, where he later taught seamanship, the future King Edward VIII and future King George VI being two of his students. King George even sought his former teacher out on a visit to New Brunswick.

After serving in the forces in the Mediterranean and the Middle East for six years, he worked at St Andrews Mission at Sunny Brae, Moncton, under the auspices of the Rev. Canon W. B. Sisam of Monckton. He later went to King's College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, and became a lay reader in Devon, New Brunswick.

During World War I, he joined the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion, then the 25th Battalion until being seriously wounded (almost being forced to have his leg amputated) at Hill 60 at the Battle of Ypres, after which he had to return to Canada. He received various decorations.

Rex returned to King's College after the war, where he gained a degree in Divinity, and was ordained at Christ Church Cathedral. He worked in many places in New Brunswick, and was a lifelong member of the Royal Canadian Legion as well being active with the boy scouts.

He was made honorary canon of Christ church Cathedral in Fredericton had encouraged a large number of men to join the priesthood.

During his retirement, Rex lived on Claremont Road, Nashwaaksis, Fredericton, and his hobbies were fishing and communing with nature.

In February 1980, in Saint John Regional Division Regional Hospital, the Bayview Legion, Branch 22 in Grand Bay - after a ten-year search - awarded Canon Britton his 50-year membership pin and his 50-year service medal. He was 92.

He died the following year. His wife Ada Gabriella (née Clements) had died before him, and he left a son, John E. C. Britton, and two daughters: Florence (Mrs Reginald Brown), and Ruth (Mrs Murray Armstrong).