10 September 2009

J. B. Priestley and Bradford, West Yorkshire

The writer J. B. Priestley (1894–1984) was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and his imposing statue, with coat tails flying in the wind, is on the outskirts of the city's West End, by the National Media Museum on Princes Way.

On the plinth is a plaque which states 'This statue of J. B. Priestley[,] O. M.[,] honorary freeman of the city[,] was commissioned by the City of Bradford Metropolitan Council and unveiled on Friday 31 October 1986[,] by his wife Jacquetta'.

The sculptor was Ian Judd, and the plaque continues with a quotation from Priestley's Bright Day (1946). He used to fictionalize Bradford as 'Bruddersford':

'Lost in its smoky valley among the Pennine hills, bristling with tall mill chimneys, with its face of blackened stone, Bruddersford is generally held to be an ugly city; and so I suppose it is; but it always seemed to me to have the kind of ugliness that could not only be tolerated but often enjoyed; it was grim but not mean, and the moors were always there, and the horizon never without its promise. No Bruddersford man could be exiled from the uplands and blue air; he always had one foot on the heather; he had only to pay his tuppence [two old pence, equivalent to 0.66p] on the tram and then climb for half an hour, to hear the larks and curlews, to feel the old rocks warming in the sun, to see the harebells trembling in the shade.'

In 1958, Priestley very publicly re-visited Bradford for the filming of 'Lost City' to record his impressions of how it had changed since he lived there in his youth. His guide, journalist Mavis Dean, joined him at Forster Street Square train station.

The documentary showed 5 Saltburn Place – in Manningham in the north-west of Bradford – where Priestley had lived and where he began writing. A plaque remembers his time here, although he never wrote about 'Bruddersford' here. He remembered making bookcases out of orange boxes and writing a poem about Atlantis.

Priestley remembered going to nearby Lister Park every Wednesday and Saturday in the summer months to listen to the brass band. The bandstand was much as it was in Priestley's youth, and is probably so today.

They passed by the imposing Listers Mill, a former silk warehouse now turned into flats.

But the textile Bradford was renowned for was wool. Priestley was hardly cut out for office tasks, although he worked as a clerk for a wool firm in Swan Arcade, Broadway, from 1910–14, and commented that he must have been one of the worst wool clerks ever. He detested the demolition of Swan Arcade.

Lister Park displays several cameos of various stages of the wool industry around the statue of the inventor and industrialist Samuel Cunliffe Lister (1815-1906) at the main entrance to Lister Park.

Priestley also saw the Bradford Playhouse in Little Germany, which he said had not changed a great deal since his youth, although today it is also a film theatre, has jazz nights, and is known as The Priestley:

During the making of the documentary, Priestley stayed at the Midland Hotel in Cheapside, where his attempts to make contact with the friends of his youth by telephone were unsuccessful. He remarked that many of them were killed in World War I.

8 September 2009

Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules

Philippe Delerm's La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997), translated as The Small Pleasures of Life (1998), is a fascinating collection of 34 generally unrelated two- or three-page observations on such subjects as: the first mouthful of beer; Sunday evenings; motorway driving at night; the moving walkway at Montparnasse station; kaleidoscopes; learning how to play boules; a new pullover for the cooler months; reading on the beach; or the architecture of a banana-split.

One special event is mentioned, and is held in the narrator's memory - as we all freeze such memories - at the very time that he or she is performing a particular action. Here, what is recalled is not the assassination of Kennedy or Lennon, or the 9/11 massacre, but the death of Jacques Brel, heard on France Inter on the car radio. For the narrator, Brel will always be associated with where he or she was at the time: on a motorway, speeding down a charmless valley somewhere between Evreux and Mantes-la-Jolie.

Delerm's gift for writing often transforms the experience of the commonplace into something striking - even haunting - by his use of metaphor, such as in his description of the 'alligator jaws' of an escalator, or wet espadrilles represented as 'a complete shipwreck'.

Sometimes, these brief pieces remind me of other writers, as in this description: 'Shelling peas is easy. Thumb pressed on the slit along the pod and, obediently, it opens its offerings. Some, not as ripe, are more shy - an incision with the index fingernail allows the green to be torn and we can then breathe in the moistness and the thick flesh'. It's not the sensuality of the language that I find particularly interesting here, but the detail of it, and I'm reminded of Nicholson Baker's paper clips and shoelaces in Mezzanine. Unlike Baker, though, Delerm doesn't deliberately labour the detail: shelling peas is just briefly mentioned as a simple pleasure, and no more.

'The Motorway at Night' reminds me of Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), especially the poem of the title. In Raine's poem, we see everyday objects with fresh eyes, such as the car, of which he says 'a key is turned to free the world / for movement, so quick there is a film / to watch for anything missed.' In this piece, Delerm compares the car to a spaceship, and then says 'In solitude's padded silence, it's rather as though we're in a cinema seat: the film passes before our eyes'.

This is my first taste of Delerm, and I look forward to his latest novel, Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby.

My other posts on Philippe Delerm:
Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville
Philippe Delerm: Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby

6 September 2009

Éric Chevillard – Au plafond | On the Ceiling

Éric Chevillard's Au plafond (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1997 / On the Ceiling (trans. Jordan Stump, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000)) is odd: a young person, frightened of the outside world – so much so that he curls up into a ball from it – is prescribed, by his family doctor, an inverted chair to wear on his head so that he can walk straight. This he does, but he meets a great number of problems, such as discovering the limits of his existence with such an increased height, how to avoid elderly people wanting to sit on this extension of himself, and sheer prejudice: how can such an outsider survive, find fellow beings to relate to?
One of the unnamed narrator's new friends is Kolski, who was originally so smelly because unwashed that almost everyone avoided getting anywhere near him. Apart from the narrator, of course, who finds someone suffering from the same public rejection as himself. Soon, the pair find a disused refridgerated warehouse, and the cleaned-up Kolski hangs about – bat-like – on meat hooks.

Assorted oddball friends join the party, and soon they all move in to the house of the parents of Méline, the narrator's girlfriend. As the parents aren't ideal folks to live with, the group of friends move to the ceiling, where life not only looks different, but much more convenable. What's going on here?

To his translator Jordan Stump, Chevillard 'is fascinated by the imperous need we all feel to make life bearable, and by the lengths to which we are willing to go in that pursuit'. It's the world that's out of joint, and Stump enlarges on this by mentioning Chevillard's Le Caoutchouc, décidément (1992), in which, among other things, there's a plan to shrink the pain-sensitive area of the human being to the size of an eye to reduce the extent of pain, or, as in Pre-histoire (1994), a plan to re-create a paleolithic cave in which to live protected from the outside world. Interesting stuff. Why hasn't this kind of writing caught on in England, I wonder? Why is the USA more interested in experimental writing? OK, we know the answer, don't we?

My Éric Chevillard posts:
Éric Chevillard: Oreille rouge | Red Ear (2005)
Éric Chevillard: L'Explosion de la tortue (2019)
Éric Chevillard: La Nébuleuse du crabe | The Crab Nebula (1993)
Éric Chevillard – Au plafond | On the Ceiling
Éric Chevillard: Le Désordre azerty
Éric Chevillard: Dino Egger
Éric Chevillard: Le Vaillant Petit Tailleur
Éric Chevillard: Le Caoutchouc décidément
Éric Chevillard: Palafox
Éric Chevillard: Un fantôme
Éric Chevillard: Du hérisson | Of the Hedgehog
Éric Chevillard: Démolir Nisard | Demolishing Nisard

The Man Booker and La Rentrée Littéraire

The English blogosphere is full of reviews and speculation on this year’s Man Booker longlist, which strikes me, in the main, as very predictable. We may have three first novelists represented – Ed O'Loughlin with Not Untrue and Not Unkind, James Lever with Me Cheeta, and Samantha Harvey with The Wilderness, but we also have previous two-times Booker winner J. M. Coetzee, Booker winner A. S. Byatt, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and Sarah Waters, for instance. The one in this list that interests me is Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze – a second novel, which follows his debut novel The Truth About These Strange Times – as anything to me about Dr Matthew Allen and his High Beach asylum in Epping Forest is of interest, especially with its associations with John Clare (and, of course, Allen’s financial fiasco with Tennyson). But I digress. Why can’t the Man Booker, like the French Prix Goncourt, have a policy of only allowing an individual author to win only once, and in so doing, one hopes, put lesser known writers to the forefront. And surely there are more interesting novels in the (non-American) English world of letters apart from some of these?

Or is it just that the French-speaking world produces more interesting books? I shall not be in France this year, but the rentrée littéraire looks very interesting. There are some novels from widely known writers – Pascal Quignard’s La Barque silencieuse, Laurent Mauvigner’s Des hommes, Lydie Silvayre’s BW (named after her partner Bernard Wallet), Marie NDiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes, and Jean–Yves Cendrey’s Honecker 21, for instance.

Books that I find of interest, though (apart from Thierry Hesse’s Démon, which has been compared in part to Matthias Enard’s Zone), include Gérard Oberlé’s Mémoires de Marc-Antoine Muret. A friend of Ronsard’s, Muret (1526–85) was a humanist and poet who was imprisoned for sodomy, but later found more tolerance in Italy and Poland.

Véronique Ovaldé’s Ce que je sais de Vera Candida begins on an imaginary island off the coast of South America, where the pregnant character of the title strives to break free from her female destiny, from her past.

Philippe Delerm wrote a fascinating book of very short stories, La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997), where great importance is attached to tiny, ostensibly banal things in life. His latest novel is Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby, which obviously takes its protagonist’s name from Herman Melville’s quietly anarchistic clerk in Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), who famously ‘would prefer not to’. Arnold Spitzweg (who has already appeared in Monsieur Spitzweg s'échappe) is not a particularly intelligent person, and by external appearances by no means an interesting one. He is a postal clerk whom life has more or less passed by, apart from a brief dalliance with a fellow worker. But he discovers that he has one gift in life: he can write a good blog, and becomes very successful. And that, of course, is the problem.

Of first novels, of note are Vincent Message's Les Veilleurs (which has already won the Prix Laurent Bonelli), and David Boratav's Murmures à Beyoglu.

3 September 2009

Susan Cheever Quotes her Father John Cheever

In a wonderful book that I seem to recall finding at Hay-on-Wye on the Castle site and putting a silly sum such as 50p in a metal box for, Susan Cheever delves into her father John Cheever's journals, letters, etc, and finds a very interesting observation, written in 1968, by a man who has for many years scrupulously avoided any scatological language in his work: 'Donleavy, Mailer, Roth, Updike, some of the most important men we have are writing about cocks and cunts and arseholes while I describe the summer dawn.'

In an excess of hyphenation, Susan writes of her father's concealment of his homosexuality: 'As long as he was the Ossining squire, the father of three, the dog-loving, horse-back riding, meadow-scything, long-suffering husband, there could be no doubt in the public mind about his sexual preferences, and perhaps less doubt in his own.'

But then, immediately afterwards and in the same paragraph, she notes: 'After his heart attacks and his collapse and his decision to live, he seemed to come to better terms with himself. Falconer, the novel he wrote after he stopped drinking in 1975, is peppered with scatological language and centers on a tender and homosexual love.'

Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

2 September 2009

E. Phillips Oppenheim and, er, Lionel Britton

The combination of E. Phillips Oppenheim and Lionel Britton seems a very odd one indeed – the former a highly successful writer of thrillers and romantic novels who lived in this luxurious house, which now a pub – The Cedars in Evington, Leicestershire – and Lionel Britton, who lived in and wrote about squalor. But Britton's protagonist Arthur Phelps reads him – not for the story, of course, but to pick up tips on how to attract girls. It's also, inevitably, a great excuse for the narrator to have a rant:

‘Love had something to do with it. It was also considerably furthered by Mr. Phillips Oppenheim. Love, however, came first.

‘Novels are not much use to you. The convention is that they’re amusing, and you can’t afford to refuse to try anything at all that promises to make life a little lighter, so you’d had various goes at them. I suppose they satisfy prime ministers; I suppose they satisfy archbishops, ministers of education, - that sort of person; newspaper critics; anything seemed to do for them; lord mayors. It’s all very depressing. But sometimes you may find you like a novel for reasons which have nothing whatever to do with what the critics tell you you ought to like it for. Mr. Oppenheim’s thrilling and stirring stories and all that - I doubt very much whether you ever really troubled yourself much about them: you know, saving the heroine, and all that. But there was something, I remember it very well, which interested you, and that was Mr. Oppenheim’s interest in clothes; I think it must have interested him too. There comes a time, I suppose, when young men do begin to get interested in clothes, like cock birds in their plumage; and old Oppenheim notices the scurf on the shoulder, and the suit that was cut in the East End by a Socialist friend; all that sort of thing; and you begin to imagine yourself learning points and getting on in the world. Appearances count for so much; if you could find out how to do it. And there was, of course, the love of women. Cockadoodledoo!

‘Well, one has the form of the species; primary and secondary sex characters, endocrine glands, and all that; one lives in a civilisation made by publicans, lawyers, greengrocers and so on, and one keeps one’s sex characters what they call decently covered up, and one what they call decently interferes with the proper working of the endocrine glands, - exocrine, too, for that matter. And in the resulting bodily discomfort and soul atmosphere of veiled suggestion and nasty suppression they offer us religion, morality and romance as a substitute for the joy of life; black fog and dustbins, instead of the sun and the hills. Would you like a little light reading, now, to pass the time? Soon be dead.

‘God, according to the archbishop, gave you your body; and the archbishop, having a superior sense do decency, has ordered the job to be covered up. Prime ministers being in charge of our civilisations, if you want to succeed you must have a good clothes appearance - what’s inside them doesn’t matter much, because prime ministers don’t know what the human is. A syphilitic penis or vagina doesn’t matter to them so long as it’s covered up. Love being one of the most glorious of the emotions of mankind you must provide yourself with a dirty mind when you think of your sex organs - the pastor will see to that - and make your appeal for feminine favour by covering up what looks human about you with a bit of rag. That is how, Arthur my boy, you and I are going to get on in the world: to find a high place to help in its work: to feel the glory and delight of the sweet sex interchange of love. The butcher and the publican have seen to that. Pastors and masters. House of Lords.

‘Well, as I say, your gonadic maturity and Mr. Phillips Oppenheim between them, aided by the underground influence of all the other blighters, turned your attention to clothes; Love, - you know; and getting on in the world. Not that I suppose it would have made much difference but for that couple of bob. Two bob a week is a big material difference in the substratum of reality, and all these other things are merely an appearance or reflection on the top: love, and romance, and success in life. The two bob vanished so fast you might have supposed, as soon as you got used to it, that there was no more there than there was before. It was like the square of the odd bit of calculus: you could pretend it wasn’t there, and it didn’t make any difference. Or so you might think. But it was there, all the same. And it did make all the differnece.

‘Romance and love - many a soul has starved upon them; while a pail of horse-dung would have kept them alive. You can stand behind a shop’s counter and grab profit for the shopkeeper who owns you, while love and beauty and romance pass you by, but at least you will keep your cells together, and dream: if you feel so inclined. The earth is yours…to dream about …so long as you keep your cells together. If They don’t find you out.

‘Two bob, then, was the material basis; and over above it was the dream. Having the material basis you began to take a practical interest in Mr. Phillips Oppenheim, 3d. apiece, Foyle’s, 2d. on return; how so-and-so pinched a look at the inside collar of the shabby but distinguished-looking overcoat of a certain valet, arguing that it was too distinguished to have been made for the valet. And having got the name of the big pot’s tailor (it being easy to get done in the eye if you went by the outside appearance of a tailor’s shop) and of the tailor’s customer (since you would get no attention without a recommendation), you just strolled in and ordered a few hundred poundworth of clothes - lounge suits and hunting suits and dinner suits and fishing suits or whatever it is they wear, and don’t look at these things I’ve got on; Sir So-and-So, you know, the big pot, and all that. Ah, ba gum lad, and he was a big pot too. And the shopkeeper, or whatever they call themselves in these big establishments, impressed partly by the magnitude of the order - one never asks the price, you know - and awed by the name of the big pot, saw about it, and very nearly said Sir, and let on to being a tailor although there was no trade on the brass plate.

‘So that - that was how it was done. You’re underdog. All these people had the advantage of you right away. They put on their distinguished appearance in the morning and took it off again at night to prevent it from being creased. You can see at a glance they’re superior: lord! look at our trousers….If now, you had somebody to press your trousers and keep them dry-cleaned for you, and could afford good cloth and a swanky tailor with no trade on the brass plate, and professors at the university pumping understanding into you whether you liked it or not - where’d be the difference? They didn’t even have the trouble of wanting to be human. The valets and professors did it all for them. Name on headstone when they’re dead. Here was a man? They’re your masters.

‘But as for you - tuck you shirt in, for God’s sake! - you do want to be human. You don’t know what it means, any more than they do; but the desire is in you blood. For all you know these people may be human. Whether it’s because they look better in a nice suit of clothes or whether their appearance has helped them to more human environment and given them a chance, and whether it’s the shabbiness of your clothes that keeps you down or just the natural manginess of your soul, you don’t know. But they may be human, for all you know: though sometimes you have doubts. Surely,- they can’t have any hand in keeping you down? Look at the slums, my boy: the human race…

‘So you read your Phillips Oppenheim. And you scouted round the various tailor’s shops, evading the touts as well as you could, comparing models and prices. Some of them were as much as three guineas [£3.15]. But they were your rulers. There was that chap who was the only man in the street who had ever earned £12 a week as foreman cutter. Blimey, some of ’em were as much as £5 apiece. But that was quite out of it’ - Hunger and Love, pp. 128-31.