27 October 2008

Gilbert Adair's Buenas Noches Buenos Aires

I saw a copy of Gilbert Adair's Buenas Noches Buenos Aires in an Oxfam bookshop this weekend, and I'm glad I didn't pay the full price: it's now in the trash can.

The book is almost a disaster. It’s a coming-of-age novel from a gay perspective, concerning a shy young Englishman (Gideon) who teaches EFL in Paris in the early 1980s; he is also the (possibly unreliable) narrator. The reader could expect a novel of this nature to be obsessed with the sexuality described, but unfortunately this is almost all that is described: the overwhelming emphasis is on appearances, and the internal life of Gideon is preoccupied with agonising over how he looks to others. His sex life consists almost entirely of masturbation, so to save face in the predominantly homosexual staff room he invents a wild sex life and so (sort of) becomes one of the superficial lads. Unfortunately, the book is equally superficial.

The French language and explanations thereof are a major problem. Like many cookery articles, Adair liberally sprinkles his novel with French phrases and sentences, often translating even quite simple things. And, OK, it’s perhaps amusing for non-French speakers to learn what ‘bite’ means in French: I once taught English in France for a few years and well remember a large group of French teenagers I took on holiday to England rolling about the coach with laughter on seeing a billboard which called a Mars bar (or something similar) ‘The Big Bite’. But then why doesn’t Adair also translate ‘mes semblables, mes frères’ on the final page of the novel? Perhaps because Gideon/Gilbert would then have to explain that this is a slight mis-quotation from Baudelaire and… No, that would be advertising one’s cleverness, pasting it on the wall for all to see.

In the end, it’s the tedious (and very unfunny) jokes that destroy the book: if we generously suggest that they come from the timid Gideon himself, desperate to impress with his perceived sparkling wit, then one or two jokes would have been enough; but as I feel that it’s Adair’s sense of humour we’re reading, this is a more serious matter. What kind of readership is Adair aiming at with this novel? One of the jokes that, er, stands out for me is the gay club called 'The 400 Blow Jobs', a pun on Truffaut's famous New Wave film The 400 Blows. Tee-hee, snigger, but surely he wasn't imagining that early adolescents would read this? And presumably he didn't give the French because the joke doesn't work in translation: an example of what Gideon would perhaps have called 'having your gâteau and eating it'. As another example, an encounter with a short-tongued beau is pondered on afterwards: ‘Was I sexy, though? Wath I theckthy?' This is just one of a number of 'witticisms' based on the way people pronounce words, and the novel would not so much better – but less bad – for their omission.

21 October 2008

Pre-Election Warm-Up, Main Street, Carbondale, Illinois, September 2004; or, Lionel Britton and Barack Obama

On this side of the road stand the Republicans, on the other the Democrats. The former hoped for a second Bush term; the latter (as the buttons yelled) hoped to 're-defeat Bush'. Many Democrats woke up with sore heads after the result.

On the flight back from Chicago to Heathrow, I sat next to a university librarian: my precious hand luggage was crammed with photocopies from the Lionel Britton Collection at Southern Illinois University, whereas he was hoping to bag a number of books by obscure Scandinavian writers. He was reading an autobiography by a guy I'd never heard of: Barack Obama. Senator Obama was wowing them in Chicago, I learned, but I was very dubious about the president thing. 'Do you really think America is ready for a black president?' I asked him. He did. I now believe he's right.

So let's hope that America gets it right this time. Although – as I've suggested way down below somewhere – I hope too that, after a possible two terms, history really will be kind to Obama and see him as far more than a symbol of change.

Delyte Morris, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale 2004

The statue above, of former SIU President Delyte Morris (after whom the library below was named), is by the scultor Fredda Brilliant, the wife of Professor Herbert Marshall, who was a good friend of the writer Lionel Britton. It was Marshall who had all of Britton's literary effects shipped from Margate, after Britton's death, to Carbondale, where he was working. Brilliant sculpted many busts, most of them of Russian writers, although her bust of Lionel Britton seems to have gone astray.

Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale 2004

This is what happens when you forget to take your camera with you, of course: you have to buy a throw-away-after-one-use type, and the result is inevitably crap. Anyway, this is the Morris Library in Carbondale the first time I visited it. Here, you can access the Lionel Britton Collection: 45 cubic feet, in 90 boxes, of the working-class writer Britton's correspondence and unpublished manuscripts from 1885 to 1971, the year of his death.

Many thanks to all at the Special Collections Research Center for all your help both in 2004 and 2007. Threat: I may well be back sometime.

16 October 2008

Fredda Brilliant's Bust of Lionel Britton Appears at Last

The long missing bust of Lionel Britton – sculpted by Fredda Brilliant – was sold via Live Auctioneers on 13 April 2009 for a remarkably cheap $350. The bust is signed and 16" tall.

Georges Perec's La Disparition (1969; trans. Adair as A Void, 1994)

A Sort of Parody

This is an odd book with a missing mark, a loss shouting loudly about its own lack, a howl of an orphan child, full of many words from many lands, along with slang words and gros mots, in short a hotchpotch of lingos fighting it out, so many words with so many strings of consonants all looking for this unknown thing.

To a lot of us it is possibly a tad mad, but Mr P. is in control of his work, showing us a vast array of humans, guiding us around his story – whilst avoiding a profusion of pitfalls – with circumlocutory facility.

On many occasions I thought that this book was slightly sagging, that it ran risks of imploding into its own loss; a vital thing is missing, an important 1 in a row of 26: fifth along, that is to say.

ADDENDUM: Well, I wrote this some time ago, before I'd read Ian Monk's criticisms of this translation, and I certainly wouldn't be writing a praise of it now. There were a number of things Adair missed in Perec's book, and I'm not talking about all the 'e's. He missed a common French pangram, for instance, and consequently made a complete hash of this sentence. In fact, the translation is something of a mess itself.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa's The Pelcari Project (1991; trans. Bowles, 1991)

Published in 1991, The Pelcari Project is a novella by Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa which is translated by Paul Bowles. It concerns a state that takes its (probably mainly politically dissident) prisoners from death row and, via sophisticated brain surgery, turns them into happy work slaves in the forest.

Most of the story, though, emerges from one of the prisoners – we’ll call him Yu(1) as 'Yu' is the only sound he can make because they’ve all had their tongues cut out – who finds a notebook and pencil and discovers that, in spite of total long- and partial short-term memory loss, he can still write a diary containing highly intelligent thoughts. He slowly begins to make sense of his world through his pencil.

After the work day, the slaves are chained to a tree for the night, although Yu(1) manages to escape unseen up into the branches of his tree and is replaced by a new slave – Yu(2), let’s say. The two strike up a clandestine friendship in so far as that’s possible; Yu(2) can also write, and he too is struggling to understand what has happened to him.

The Pelcari Project is concerned with the relationship between language and thought. The surgeon’s (now way out-of-date) computer tells us that the story is fairly contemporary, and although there’s no specific mention of place, it’s not too difficult to understand that writing is a metaphor for resistance against an oppressive government, and that Rey Rosa has Guatemala in mind.

15 October 2008

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and the Man Booker Prize 2008

I've not yet read Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, although it sounds promising. But this is only the fourth debut novel to win the Booker Prize, and here's a sobering thought: second novels are often difficult, but if you hit the jackpot first time round the task is particularly daunting. After twenty-three years, Keri Hulme (The Bone People, Booker Prize 1985) still hasn’t produced a second novel; after ten years, Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, Booker Prize 1997) last year announced that she would be starting her second novel; D. B. C. Pierre (Vernon God Little, Booker Prize 2003) soon came out with a second, but I have the impression that most reviewers thought he’d just stuck two chunks together from material he’d been working on before his Booker winner. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Aravind Adiga.

12 October 2008

Georges Perec Versus the Local History of Hucknall, Nottinghamshire? No Contest when the Sun Comes Out in Mid-October

The statue of the poet Lord Byron, in a cage to protect the public from its falling on the head of any unfortunate, in the Market Place, Hucknall.

A derelict building celebrates the Hucknall-born composer Eric Coates, and Byron's daughter Ada, after whom a computer language was named in remembrance of her pioneering efforts with Charles Babbage.

A representation of Lord Byron with his dog Boatswain and what looks like a cross between Newstead Abbey and Hucknall parish church in the background.

A representation of Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord Byron.

A representation of the composer Eric Coates.

The same as below.

A representation of a miner, now an extinct animal in Hucknall, and virtually everywhere else in Britain.

When they see the sun out on a Sunday, all Nottingham culture vultures (and there are vast numbers of us, of course) put the foot on the mushroom and try and find out what's what. Penny and I only made it about ten miles up the road to Hucknall – well, we'd only originally gone out for a loaf of bread, but you can't resist exploring remote parts in the fascinating East Midlands – and there are some endearing areas.

Not everyone, perhaps, is aware that the poet Lord Byron was buried in the parish church here, minus a few organs that some people wanted to keep behind before his final journey back from Greece (where he's still a hero), ending in an amazing rock-and-roll ride through southern England to his final destination in Hucknall (then Hucknall Torkard), during which many people lined the route to pay their last respects.

The Red Lion pub in Huckall has a plaque outside its entrance informing the curious that this was a rent house of the Byron family in the 18th century; the poet Byron was to inherit nearby Newstead Abbey, although he spent very little time there, and sold the place not too long after inheriting it.

Hucknall is also the birthplace of Eric Coates, the composer who is unfortunately still best remembered for the Dambusters theme, music as they (the public) once worked.

Hucknall has always been a working-class town, a place of framework knitters and miners, as various placards and other things remind us. These industries are now gone, of course, as is the lively atmosphere I remember in this town only a few decades ago.

This is just one of the many places in Britain that Margaret Thatcher and her slavering sons, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, ripped the heart out of.

9 October 2008

Jacques Brel (1929–78)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Jacques Brel, who was a poet as much as a singer. Also an actor, Brel turned almost every song into a powerful drama. He wrote many brilliant songs, of which 'Les singes' is perhaps my favourite.

'Les singes' begins with a few lines that describe (in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner) a pre-lapsarian world, but we very soon plunge into a Fall brought about by religion, governments and warmongers in general: civilisation, in fact, is seen as far from civilised. Brel's anger burns through the verses.

Brel was also at his best when singing of the unfortunates of the world. In 'L'ivrogne', he empathises with the plight of the alcoholic, and in 'Les timides', that of the shy, a large (self-)repressed and usually invisible minority.

David Foster Wallace at Pomona

A copy of David Foster Wallace's 2005 Course Syllabus at Pomona College, Claremont, CA – where he taught –has just come to my attention. The choice of reading is interesting, and often his use of language is rather unconventional, as in 'half-assed ad lib lecture' and 'here's a somewhat sexier riff'; A+ is the top grade, which he describes as 'Mind-blowingly good'. And yes, of course there are footnotes.