Review of Reviews 2014

As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.

What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.

This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.

The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
Reader engagement
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
Fictive suspension/flow
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
Sewing up
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.

Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart (Haruki Murakami)

As a first time reader of Murakami, the overall affect of Sputnik Sweetheart is one of ambiguity and ambivalence. This is a novel that is at once readable yet frustrating, promising but clumsy. Ultimately, this is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details. The Vintage Books copy reviewed here has, on its back cover, a journalist’s line which states: ‘Sputnik Sweetheart has touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything I’ve read in a long time.’ (Julie Myerson, The Guardian) — alas, closer analysis of Murakami’s writing leads to other conclusions.

The plot of Sputnik Sweetheart (Vintage Books, 2002, translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel; originally published by Kodansha Ltd, 1999) involves three main characters: the young, first person narrator (known only as K., a teacher); his friend, Sumire, who he fantasises over; the enigmatic Miu, she who acts as a catalyst for Sumire’s disappearance. Murakami initially draws the characters well enough and Sumire’s somewhat grungy, bookishness bodes well in the potential of the pages to come. However, the first seeds of doubt are sown in the reader when it becomes apparent that Murakami either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.

The title of the work is, in part, set up via a somewhat contrived conversation when Sumire (in her early twenties) meets Miu, who is in her late thirties. Bookish Sumire expresses her penchant for the writings of Jack Kerouac and Miu manages to confuse the word Sputnik with Beatnik. Kerouac exits the pages following a brief pause on a quote from Lonesome Traveler, his purpose for the most part now spent. Murakami attempts to imbue Sumire as an exponent of being Beat, but even before the plot demands her transformation, Pygmalion style, towards an altogether more becoming young lady in the service of Miu, Murakami seems to have forgotten that Kerouac even walked her way.

Other motifs enter and depart, or return briefly without any great insistence of depth. It is to this depth that the reader is in expectation of reward, but the writing never fully reaches the level it is presumed to be aiming at. Murakami takes a sudden turn, a good way into the book, when he relays the reported story of Miu, earlier in her life, having had an experience of great personal epiphany in which she essentially split into two: we can read this in something akin to magical realism terms or we can read this in the analogy. Murakami doesn’t clarify his writerly intentions and it is this vagueness that we must suppose is the attempted insistence of depth.

Before this episode, the story flows well enough: Sumire, confused at her sexuality, gradually falls for Miu and undergoes her transformation into a more cultured being (though the suggestion in the reading is that the bookish girl is already somewhat open to the finer arts); she agrees to accompany Miu on a business trip to Italy and France (Miu is in the business of importing wine), and the two end up on a small and remote Greek island, in holiday detour mode, following the chance meeting with an extremely sketched and ridiculously stereotyped Englishman who happens to own a rent-free villa there. There are bumps such as this along the way, but on the whole Murakami writes easily enough for superficial comprehension.

It is perhaps indicative of works translated from other languages that English versions are left wanting: I will never know the grammatical nuances of Japanese; however, Sputnik Sweetheart’s English translation is peppered with incomplete sentences. At first these can perhaps be overlooked as something akin to quirky idiosyncrasy; however, the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying. The same can be said for Murakami’s penchant for clumsy similes, which are also often combined with his habit of incomplete sentence writing. He writes, as a new sentence, for example: ‘Like smoke.’

On the Greek island, Sumire disappears. Miu eventually phones K., the narrator, for his help even though she doesn’t know him. Murakami concocts an explanation as to why Miu hadn’t phoned earlier (Sumire had been missing for several days) — the substandard local telephone system — and, later, a reason why Miu hasn’t phoned Sumire’s parents instead. It is all as if Murakami is self-consciously trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on. Indeed, this is even more curious when considering another of Murakami’s neglected motifs: that of writing about writing. The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece (Paul Auster also suffered, more directly, as author-character in The New York Trilogy), and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless. Murakami’s writing is far from faultless: he even has the audacity to have K. instruct Sumire (a would-be writer herself) on another of Murakami’s motifs to float away — the ‘metaphor’ in the story of Chinese gates and bones and fresh dog’s blood. Suffice is to say that there is no god or devil, whatever your flavour, in the detail.

When Sumire disappears from the island, Murakami sets the story up as a form of detective mystery. We settle into the potential of an unfolding and ultimately illuminating narrative. However, Murakami’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration: please, Murakami, just say what you want to say, is the over-riding feeling. He takes this position in his first person writing, but also when he reports the expositions of Miu and of Sumire, the latter through two documents she’s written and saved onto disks (immediately also dating the piece).

Murakami starts to warm to his new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell) that is Sumire’s disappearance being linked to how she’s split herself, found a ‘door’ to the mystical other side. He draws parallels with Miu’s experience some years earlier of getting stuck on a fairground Ferris wheel and seeing herself, through binoculars (which he explains away the presence of, clumsily again), in her own window some way off, sexually engaged with a man of no real importance. Murakami interjects this tale only now, almost as an afterthought, as he does with the reveal that Miu actually has pure white hair, which she dyes, and which turned that way following this traumatic and strange event.

Sumire, we’re told, is lost forever and so, naively, we believe Murakami. Yet conveniently, she appears late again in the book and we don’t know for sure if she’s really there or if K. is deluded. The undertow of depth tries to coalesce into something but ultimately the tale is too fractured to serve this purpose. Murakami does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?

In keeping with the feel of this book, I can only conclude that (by way of introducing an idea in an unseemly place here), as readable in part as Sputnik Sweetheart is, it is ultimately somewhat lost (just like the occasional reference to the Sputnik satellite that Murakami also draws our attention to). Maybe that was Murakami’s point: just like the original Japanese though, I shall never know.

Book Review: Satori in Paris (Jack Kerouac)

Once, when I knew no better, Kerouac shone because I had discovered him and I was pleased with myself for doing so. After a time away, Kerouac leaves me somewhat disillusioned. Satori in Paris is, in short, a garbled concoction not becoming of its publisher’s billing of ‘modern classic’. This is a shame because Kerouac is still the writer of one of the most beautiful descriptions my reading memory holds (that of dusk and tangerine groves and ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road). Sadly, there’s scant reproduction of this example of writing in Satori in Paris (written in, or soon after 1965, following a trip to France, and some fourteen years after the original writing of his most infamous work).

Satori in Paris (Flamingo, 2001; originally published by André Deutsch Ltd, Great Britain, 1967; Grafton Books, 1982; Paladin, 1991) is a short 109 pages in length but plenty of this is also white space, so the actual text covers something in the region of 75 pages. The instigation of the satori (enlightenment) in question is attributed to a taxi driver, named as Raymond Baillet, who takes Kerouac to Orly airport en route back to Florida following his genealogical search in Paris and Brittany. However, Kerouac also attempts to obfuscate the moment by at first claiming that he doesn’t know for sure when his epiphany comes. This is both a ruse to get us to read the entirety of the book, one feels, but also, in fairness, does serve to reward the reader for the bloody-minded journey in trudging through the whole in order to get to the final line.

To clarify: Kerouac paints himself as a graceless, crashing bore of a drunkard; he’s a know-it-all in French dialect (by dint, he says, of his French-Canadian upbringing), but he’s also fixated on his name, as writer, on his ego as part thereof, and on his sometimes obscure references, some more easily comprehensible than others: Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, Nabokov, perhaps, but he asks of one character he meets late on in the book ‘did he read Nicholas Breton of England, John Skelton of Cambridge, or the ever-grand Henry Vaughan not to mention George Herbert — and you could add, or John Taylor the Water-Poet of the Thames?’

The final line of Satori in Paris alludes to this gracelessness; the entirety of Kerouac’s self-decanonisation as proffered in his tales of endless cognacs for the road, or at unbecoming early hours, or just waiting for his train to come in, and as shown in his grossly stereotypical American-abroad persona (perhaps a send-up, but perhaps not), and so on, all therefore goes some way to setting up the satori ‘a-ha’ moment he aims to show us. It isn’t such a kick in the backside, a shaking of the aura, as he might have wanted us to believe, in print; in fact, it’s a blessing to get to the end at all. The end justifies the means, Kerouac may well have been aiming at here, but it’s not a pretty means by any stretch.

Early on Kerouac is at pains to point out that he wishes to be known, in this book, by his real ‘full name in this case, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac’. Names form a central motif to the book and Kerouac studies the etymological links of his name to the Breton French, Cornish, Celtic and any other romantic whim that passes him in the ‘moment’ that is his, admittedly, planned trip to France (which transpires to last ten days). In the stereotypical perception of the American abroad, there is the relentless belief woven into the whole that Kerouac is Breton, or at least Breton enough, underpinned by the equally relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including French language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).

Identity is key to the piece and this is appreciated. Kerouac explores names and connections to places (Lebris, we’re told has links to the people of Brest in Brittany, Le bris, where Kerouac travels to in search of genealogical information); however, the gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read. In retrospect, Kerouac does allude to self-awareness of the grating character of himself he offers up to us, and he repeats this refrain:

‘Why do people change their name? Have they done anything bad, are they criminals, are they ashamed of their real names? Are they afraid of something? Is there any law in America against using your own real name?’

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac and Jack Kerouac, writer, ‘King of the Beats’, ego post-On the Road (as tackled head-on in Big Sur, 1962) also meet here head-on.

A reader’s retrospective realisation, however, is not enough to fill the void left by Kerouac-as-caricature. The man-myth is a frustration in the short reading. Kerouac writes, for example:

‘This cowardly Breton (me) watered down by two centuries in Canada and America . . .’

‘I knew that . . . I had an additive name ‘Le Bris’ and here I was in ‘Brest’ and did this make me a Cimbric spy from the stone monuments of Riestedt in Germany? Rietstap also the name of the German who painstakingly compiled names of families and their scocheons and had my family included in ‘Rivista Araldica’?’

In the first and second instances, no Kerouac, you are an American, born in Massachusetts, admittedly of French-Canadian parentage and speaking English after French, but an American by early cultural inheritance, perhaps; at the very least, not watered down at all because what does it matter what several generations of our families were when it doesn’t change who we are now? In the second instance, also, Kerouac’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.

Indeed, this style is not the lauded fresh new Beat-extravagance once tolerated in his earlier works. Satori in Paris is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging. Swift and succinct editing could have cut this already short offering down by maybe half as much again without losing the impact with which the author may well have wished it be imbued.

A red pen can easily extract such obfuscations, for example, as Kerouac’s intellectual amusements on the mutual conversations of himself and a newly met other Lebris, one of many we’re told, in Brest:

‘But I’m home, there’s no doubt about it, except if I were to want a strawberry, or loosen Alice’s shoetongue, old Herrick in his grave and Ulysse Lebris would both yell at me to leave things alone, and that’s when I raw my wide pony and roll.’

It is this rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of Kerouac’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating. Undoubtedly there are some literary scholars who will attest to the artistic twisted in-joke unseen by the great unwashed (as seen in works, perhaps, of Dada-ism, or Tracey Emin, or the like). It is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes: Kerouac, drunk on cognac and his own writer-ego, not far short of his death in 1969, seeks to continue the man-myth whilst simultaneously trying to debunk the same. He fails unfortunately. The first lines of Satori in Paris read:

‘Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve [sic] changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more . . .’

Kerouac had four years to live. The illumination that can be read into the book as a whole is that a state of grace should prevail, gracelessness should be rejected, but Kerouac failed, and the illumination is, it transpires, only a satori moment for the reader, this reader, on a man who was mythical but got drunk on alcohol and himself.

The Shape of Settled Words

Words can settle. They’re sand and silt and then the hardened sedimentary layerings of the person, once, who wrote them.

Words often should be left to settle: all the immediacy of somesuch lack of grace leaves them, written into them as it can be. Here, the layerings are of tea strainings sitting out the winter, drying in the warmth and depths of the compostings. In the spring, or the spring after, when they’re good and forgotten, we may come across them. What’s left is the brittle crumblings that can be reassembled because there’s no immediacy of flavour to them.

I mix all my metaphors to find the shape of settled words.

Some words, of course, need no such settling: quite the opposite manner of formation takes place. Kerouac wrote never to drink outside your own home, or words quite like these; though out there in the world words of the very now can have the weight and ‘correctness’ of slight light alcoholic colouring. Some words feel immediately fine. These are rare but they happen.

On the whole though, I believe in the settling process. I sometimes come upon a piece lost in some depths and I don’t remember the me who wrote these fragile things. This is good. This takes me out of them and leaves them to their own breaths: I can crack the hardened silt and sedimentary layers of the person formed around them and I can find the truth or core of the piece within. Then I can reassemble them, if the will takes me.

The trick to it all though is knowing when to crack open forgotten pieces, when to know they’ve settled long enough: perhaps we know it’s time when chance takes us to their sand- and silt-filled rooms again.

I mix my metaphors to find the shape of settled words.

On How to Write Poetry and Prose

At the risk of confusing the search bots out here on the wondrous wide web, there follows a duplication of two short articles I originally wrote for a beta blog site some months ago. Of course, I go against what I’ve been taught in reproducing them here (for the aforementioned reason of confusing the poor nano-trawlers), but I found that the words still spoke to me. So, here they are:
How to Write Poetry . . .?

Rhythm, meter, assonance, etc., might well form concrete components of a poem, but these portions won’t form the essence of the whole. Poetry is, of course, impossible to define. How do we write something that cannot be defined? How can we analyse such an abstract construct? We can only be objective about our subjectivity. In phenomenological terms, we seek the essence of the experience: others’ objectivity of their own subjectivity chimes here with mine . . .

Poetry is what gets lost in translation (Robert Frost). Or maybe language is surrounded by languages we don’t know how to speak. Too many words here may well pop the bubble. Language is surrounded by the space: ohne Wort. Write delicately, even when with harsh pen strokes.

In a poem the words should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind (Marianne Moore). In the cold harsh delicacy, clarity of sound will manifest. We should strip away all the mud and straw that muffles this. Write as you hear it, but do not be afraid to scratch out and re-write, re-write: it is the search of cold crystal quivering on your skin.

Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the colour of the wind (Maxwell Bodenheim). All the senses hasten: we’re human and bedevilled by these. We can’t escape this, so we should write embracing their constant pleading at us.

Literature is a state of culture; poetry is a state of grace (Juan Ramón Jiménez). We should serve our senses with words; we should not gripe or bemoan our ineffectiveness at finding perfection. Write with love or lament, but quietly so, knowing that words are greater than you.

I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words (Theodore Roethke). There is little as distasteful as spoiled words: write carefully, though from the well where ordered thoughts don’t often reach.

Writing poetry can only come from unseen places. They are places of quiet grace, despite the chattering and the pleading of our senses: make us cold by perfect words. They are places of potential and of utter clarity, where what is written is a shiver on the whole of you. What is ‘written’ may not be what is contained in actual letters: it may be in between the words, or it may be — in essence — elsewhere.
How to Write Prose . . .?

How do you write prose? How do you write prose? Listen to the way words susurrate. Listen. Why use simple stones of words — lumps — when there are so many better ones out there? Stop here. Pause for a moment with me. Others have listed their rules and techniques, commandments and reflections for writing: they write about writing in general, the life of the writer, and ways of thinking; here we’ll find a small selection, interpretations, on how to write prose.

Neil Gaiman’s first rule of writing is ‘write’. It is a simple instruction, but simplicity often needs spelling out. Words won’t write themselves. Beautiful prose (it is this that this article is concerned with) is not stitched by elves and pixies under candlelight. Write. Out of your gruel and grey slurry, you can pick the small shining jewels.

Treat ‘language as a found object’ (Susan Sontag). Wipe clean the jewels you find; let them settle on the windowsill, on the desk, or in the drawer. Once, when you return to them, look on them with wonder if they shine. Know that you have created these: they may not be worth a penny to another, but you have created these jewels. Look around for more.

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied (Zadie Smith). If you treat your life as in ‘treat, sweet’ and as in ‘treatment, application’, regarding your looking, you still may never find the most beautiful of jewels. You should not let this stop you from looking. Writing is looking: feel it.

Something that you ‘feel’ will find its own form (Jack Kerouac). In the looking, sometimes we just cannot see. Sometimes we will find the things we have lost, or the things we didn’t know were there, right at our feet. When something is ready to be found, or formed, it will manifest itself. Be ready to let it flow from you.

Flow and rhythm can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material (John Steinbeck). Words are part of you: even the gruel and grey slurry.

So, how could you write prose? Embrace all that flows in you, because this is a part of you. Feel the flow of words in you, and they will find their own shape. Some shapes, however beautiful, will not be the shapes of absolute wonder. Be fine with this and keep searching: your already-found objects of language, in the meantime, will continue to settle as you continue your search. This search must be written out, in all its gruel and greyness, and your jewels may shine when wiped clean. Words can susurrate here. So, how do you write prose?

An Atomic View

Be mindful of the moments: like atoms, they make up everything.

If we cannot capture moments, we cannot write. We can write an epic vista over the massive wastelands, but if we don’t catch the moment of the wind blowing a strand of hair across the eyes, we’re not writing.

How many times have I dug up old Jack Kerouac here? He’s just a ghost who’s squinting in the sunlight, already on his slippery slide, sat in the chair just next to me. Years before, he wrote a moment I can’t ever shake from my head:
Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the colour of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.

(Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957)
Of course we can always also sentimentalise, caramelise our feelings, because when we feel struck stuck, what else can we do? I refer to what we often term as ‘love’, or words we use that might approximate this. There are love stories to be told in atomic ways:
You keep our love hidden
like the nightdress you keep under your pillow
and never wear when I’m there

(from Love Story, Adrian Henri, Collected Poems 1967-85)
Of course we can always write from the iron tasting otherness, where it’s devoid of sugar and where we’re driven differently. We’re honeyed and we’re rusted, both, and all textures in between:
We made love in Sissel’s copious, effortless periods, got good and sticky and brown with the blood and I thought we were the creatures now in the slime . . .

(Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites, 1975)
How many moments have we truly really felt? Of course there’s no way to tell; yet, what we know is often more about the scene we’re in than the realisation that this, here, is significant. Do we know and feel the slime we occupy, the significance of the absence of an object or another, the fragrant air?

A strand of hair falls across the eyes as they scan the epic wasteland vista . . someone is mindful of the moments, knowing that atoms make up everything.

Interview by Nick Wale

I return from my travels with the possibility of words forming. Until they do, however, the following is a majority excerpt of a recent interview I gave to Nick Wale. Nick helps promote books via his site Novel Ideas and contacted me a few weeks ago through my Facebook writer page (see the link in the side bar here). He’s helped me and I’m happy to help him in his venture by publicising links on my blog. The direct link to the interview below can be found here.
Q) So Joel, why did you become an author?

A) It’s a compulsion, a drive, I suppose. When you write you just need to keep on writing.

Q) What does a compulsive drive to write feel like?

A) It often feels like blocking out, locking in, sinking in. You know? Some days it’s a rush. Some days you read and re-read and it’s like you’re looking at something that shines (or might shine) and you want to keep that, show that, have that, always.

Q) Do you ever find it hard to stop yourself from writing? Is it like a daze or a dream you can’t break from?

A) Physically writing (or typing), yes, I suppose. I mean, it can be extremely immersive, as many writers will know. However, that immersion also plays itself out in the day-to-day, pen not in hand, computer not on. Words (or the possibility of them) are everywhere.

Q) Words are your thing as a writer? So what is your favourite word?

A) What an excellent question! A barman asked me what my favourite book was recently (your question reminds me of that): how to pick one? You can tell by the long pause that this has given me cause to think. I can tell you what my most recently learned word is (and, by extension, a current favourite): tenebrous.

Q) Tenebrous? So what does tenebrous mean?

A) It’s to do with the obscure, the dark, as I understand it. This isn’t a reflection of my writing; rather, the word has a sort of rhythmic quality to me.

Q) Well, you have to learn something new everyday! So, lets reflect on your writing. What do you like to write about? Tell me about your writing.

A) In all its forms, long and short, my writing is intended as a means of finding the small gems of this world. There are hidden things in between what we just see on the surface — there are textures and layers to relationships, subtleties, moments. I’m looking for the moments that also linger. There are ‘objects’ of beauty, even in the laments, in many places.

Q) It’s interesting that you write about ‘beauty’, as everyone’s definition of beauty is so different. What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written about? What is ‘beautiful’ to you?

A) Well, beauty is subjective, of course, but I’m sometimes taken aback by how things turn out. It’s unexpected. There are moments that happen which I read time and again because they still have some power over me. In one of my stories, a child’s brief interaction with the narrator takes me in every time; in another piece, it was something I wrote in a female voice because I needed to do this more, I was there with her, as her, in Venice because the words were in that flow state; poetry is a vanity, but there are lines of colour and there are lines that sink me sometimes. Questions such as these are like choosing between children!

Q) If you could write anywhere in the world, where would it be? What landscape would really incite your creativity?

A) On a beach, in the mountains, in a forest, all of these. Specifically, though I’ve done my fair share of overseas travelling, I’d come back to the west of Cornwall. Standing on the cliffs overlooking some of the little unknown coves down there, the sea and the wind in your hair and on your face, that huge sky (it really is huge, like they say in their tourism promotions), makes words just come in for me. The artists there laud it for the light; I just can’t get enough of the energy.

Q) I understand that you’re published so others can enjoy your creative energy. Which of your works are currently available?

A) I’ve got a collection out at the moment (Disintegration and Other Stories). I loosely label this as literary fiction (though that term can be interpreted in many ways). DaOS is out in ebook and print. This collection came together in an odd way: I didn’t realise that there’d been a thread running through some of my writings for a number of years. It was like seeing invisible ink slowly become visible. I’m working on a collection of micro fiction, which will be a first volume (Four Kinds of Wreckage) to be added to. Micro fiction is much misunderstood. Away from fiction, I’m also published in the field of what’s known as ‘playwork’ (a particular way of working with children). I’ve had writings taken on by the national/international playwork publication for the sector, as well as credits with the organisation concerned with psycholudic playwork practice. (Now though, I fear I’m stepping into the jargon of my other calling — though writing is also a big part of this, too).

Q) So tell me, Joel — why did you want to be interviewed by me?

A) You do a good job of finding writers, Nick. When I became aware of your work I came over to your blog, and yes, I like what I see here. What you’re doing is exactly what writers need — a way of getting their words out there.

Q) Thank you, Joel. One of my stock questions is to ask — if you could be any writer from any time who would it be?

A) As far as writers are concerned, I have a range (as we all do probably): Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Jeannette Winterson, Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, Adrian Henri. There are others. I wouldn’t want just one small list to define me, though we start somewhere with questions such as these.

Q) Characters are important to you. What makes a good character for you?

A) The unusual wrapped up in the usual. Subtlety people often might not see. The strangely put. Love in odd places, ways; perceptions of this. Someone who aches in some way.

Q) It has often been said that ‘repeated readability makes a book’. Would you, as an author, agree with that?

A) Yes, I think I would. Who was it who said that journalism is read once, whilst literature more than this? Something like that. Anyway, it’s the sentiment here that counts. There are books on my shelf that I come back to time and again; there are passages on some pages that just astound me. Kerouac wrote about ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road. I come back to that time and again.

Q) You strike me as an intellectual — someone striving for the beautiful things in life. Would you agree with that?

A) I don’t know about intellectual! I certainly am on the search for the beauty of the world though. That’s in words, in moments, in art, in love and lament, in the play of children, in the play of us, in nature.

Q) What would you personally deem as ‘ugly’?

A) There’s nothing so ugly as not wanting to see, perhaps. Ugliness is also wrapped up in the politics of power, greed, deceit.

[End of excerpt]

On This Subjective Idea of Beauty

Continuing my recent theme of objects of beauty, I’m thinking on a word that could describe such things collectively. That is, whilst absolutely acknowledging that the idea of beauty is entirely subjective, how can I describe how certain objects are for me? Is it their ‘feel’, their ‘texture’, their ‘weight’? By these words, I don’t mean the physical properties of dimensions, roughness/smoothness, heaviness/lightness, size, density, etc., necessarily. These properties do come into it, of course, but I want a word to describe objects of beauty in the abstract manner.

I don’t know if there are any more appropriate words: the feel of this book, the texture of the writing, the weight of the whole, for example. For reasons that link to all of this, I’ve decided to reset the release date of my next (micro fiction) ebook collection. This isn’t the main reason for this post (as I say, I’m in a themed thinking mode at the moment regarding art and creativity). I have been watching the counter tick down in the box to the right (regarding the release of Four Kinds of Wreckage). I set this a few weeks back precisely to focus my writing and editing energies. Everything’s written, but it just needs a little time in settling. I won’t put anything out there unless I can see it as, potentially, an object of beauty. FKoW is being given another month.

Now, all this thinking on beauty (subjective though it is), leads me to needing to ‘show and tell’ on objects I’ve found. I want to ‘show’ you five things, but I’m a writer so I want to write them to you. They’re not all books, but they do all affect me in some way.
Sa Femme (Emmanuèle Bernheim)

I have a small 1994 copy of this beautiful little book, translated from the original French and published by Viking, sat at the end of one of my bookshelves. It fits in the palm: a gold and black simple dustcover to its hardback. It’s slim, elegant, and was found somewhere, once, perhaps, in some old bookshop nobody really knew about. It must have been this way because this is the way with all the books I have that fall into this category. Somehow, generally, the books bought from the big bookshop chains don’t seem to have a similar ‘feel’.
Leave Your Sleep (Natalie Merchant)

In 2010, one of my favourite recording artists — Natalie Merchant — released this absolutely exquisite collection of songs on double CD on the Nonesuch label. The songs are all poems about- for- or by children, and they’re collected from various sources and spanning centuries. What makes this collection special is the craft and love that seems to have gone into the detail: the collection comes with its own book; Natalie spent several years building up to the project, working with over a hundred musicians across a range of styles. I keep this collection very safe.
Blank Notebooks

Hand made paper, smooth or textured; a leather hard casing; empty pristine space that part of me doesn’t want to blemish. I think for a long, long time on what to put in pages like these. Words or drawings there have to do the notebook justice. I have some notebooks that have stayed empty for many years.
Collected Poems, 1967-1985 (Adrian Henri)

I hadn’t heard of Adrian Henri before finding him, or rather this collection, in a bookshop something like fifteen years ago. We need to rummage in bookshops (the proper ones with creaking floors and several stories winding up narrow staircases to quiet, unmanned little rooms somewhere up and up). We need to rummage because we never know what we’ll find. I found a collection of love in many forms here. I found the way that Adrian used and fused words in new and odd ways, and the way that he made poetry out of lists of Nivea cream and other discarded cosmetics. There are snippets and prints and photos and longer pieces and it all builds up to a significant body of work.
Heaven and Other Poems (Jack Kerouac) and Letters to a Young Poet (Rainer María Rilke)

These two books I relate as one here. They’re both slim (there’s something about ‘slim’ that seems to translate to some form of beauty in books); they’re both odd but in different ways, though ‘odd’ here is perhaps more to do with being ‘not contemporary’; most importantly though, they were both sent to me, out of the blue, by an artist friend in Kansas. It is this that imbues more of a sense of ‘special’ in them. One person has taken the time to think, find, and send a book, twice.

Objects of beauty are beautiful in many ways, though I don’t know what could describe them all.

Shining Moments

Inspired by a recent post from LilyPetal, I’m thinking about moments of beauty that have stirred me to write. Happiness breeds happiness, and words can shine from one writer to one reader. What are the moments that shine?

Once, there was a girl who said ‘I love you’ and she whispered it, and she knew it; children played in between the jets of fountain sprays, on the huge display of metal squarely put down, on a plinth, at the airport; a winter morning burned the frost from the fence panels, up in slow graceful coils; at the back of the Greyhound bus (like Kerouac, I told myself), spiderwriting bouncing along, one Sunday, sliding into Manhattan, looking up at the silvertooth-tipped Chrysler building, thinking ‘this is easily the most beautiful building I have ever seen’; two kittens tumbled over one another, up the stairs, sat on the bed where one swiped the other, distracted, sneaky as it was; those places where we sat and talked, or the places where we just sat and looked at one another because words were impossible, or unnecessary, or too dull — on the beach; in your small kitchen where your children darted around like fish between our feet; in the field, years before, which I later wrote as an ocean, where you kissed me because that was all that we could do, under the sea; that delicious closeness, that dangerous proximity, with you, another you, on that bus in a foreign country, waiting, waiting, we both knew; earlier, your body sang, you stretched but not because you were tired; that short small letter, mis-spelt as children sometimes tend towards, pressed into my hand, that evening in the garden when we said goodbye, and this was how you said ‘I will miss you’, sadly but beautifully now; one evening, once, before you called me ‘love’, or words to say not ‘Love’ but ‘I see you’, I walked in and you stood there, your hands together at your thighs, and you smiled and I knew about you there and then; a mother took her child to the rose beds and there they smelled the flowers — she bent one down for the girl to press her nose to; one man stopped me on the street, saying ‘I’m the street poet, let me give you poetry’; a child, who didn’t talk, stood with me in the garden of the nursery, and we looked down for time that may have been all day, perhaps, looked down, smiling, laughing, the two of us, at the cracks between the paving slabs . . .

All of this and more. Everything that shines embeds itself inside, is love of its own accord, becomes a story in itself: each finds its own form. I tell the stories time and time again.