Sunday, 28 July 2013

Week Twenty-Nine - Jeanette

Blaugast: A Novel Of Decline by Paul Leppin (c. 1933)
Recommended by Harry

There are two styles of books that majorly push my buttons.

Number one: a hefty, often depressing, English Victorian novel.
Number two: a brief, always depressing, European novel of the interwar period.

When I asked my friends for their recommendations, the request came with just one coda. ‘Please don’t make it too long,’ I said in various pubs / texts / emails. ‘I do have to read it in a week.’ Of course, a few chose to ignore this request and recommend me doorstops anyway (albeit with some cute justifications, e.g. Lizzie: ‘It’s five books, yes, but they are children’s books’; Geoff: ‘It looks thick, but on some pages there are only a few words’; Barry: ‘Well, at least I’m not recommending you Ulysses’). Anyway, I wasn’t expecting (and I didn’t get) any lengthy Victorian novels. But I was hoping to get at least one succinct slice of degenerate continental misery.

            Are you interested in catastrophes?


Blaugast: A Novel Of Decline is the final novel of the Prague German Paul Leppin. Unlike his near-contemporary Franz Kafka, there has been little posthumous celebration of this author; Blaugast, unpublished at the time, is still a very niche work (this edition, the first commercial English translation, is from 2007 on a small Czech imprint). I’d certainly never heard of Leppin, and he seems unknown to even the keenest readers of European modernism.

This is a terrible literary injustice. For my money, Blaugast ranks as one of the lost masterpieces of Mitteleuropa.

Engulfed by disasters, which he sought in vain to understand, he found himself hopelessly adrift, surrounded by an enemy that no-one ever called by its name. But its presence was irrefutable and cruel. It made itself known in faltering discussions, ejaculations, and dissolute jokes, in the cracks of doors and within the corners of rooms.

This is our anti-hero, Klaudius Blaugast. A directionless middle-aged clerk, at the start of the novel he randomly meets an old schoolfriend, Schobotzki. What, Blaugast cheerfully asks, has Schobotzki been up to since school?

‘I’m going to seed,’ he said casually. […] ‘It has to do with the research I’m involved in.’

Blaugast, intrigued, follows Schobotzki to his ‘laboratory’ where he meets Wanda.

Her eyes, serenely cold, flickered like a candle’s flame just before its death.

Prostitute and emotional sadist, Wanda soon brings Blaugast under her powerful influence. He is directionless no more. He becomes obsessed with Wanda and performs ever more humiliating acts upon his own body and psyche. Physically, it leads to syphilis; socially, it leads to financial ruin and homelessness; psychologically, it leads to complete debasement.

A novel of decline, indeed.

Yet Leppin does more than chart one person’s degradation. His unflinching portrayal of wider society mercilessly goading the fallen man is an equally strong (and even more morose) aspect of Blaugast.

The spastic goosestep of his uncontrollable legs, the result of the disease now consuming his spinal cord, his face, altered by the rigid dilation of his pupils, and the solemn rags he preferred as his wardrobe, earned him the moniker ‘Little Baron,’ which he would acknowledge with an awkward bow. The epithet was most commonly used by the children who ran behind him and by the habitués of the beer gardens and pubs, who welcomed the patient beggar with jeers and jokes.

Leppin particularly singles out the malice of the bourgeoisie. Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good And Evil that all high culture is based on cruelty*, and perhaps Leppin is making reference to this. Leppin’s gloomy point that everyone has a propensity for sadism as long as the victim is socially marginalized is well made via one especially ugly episode. ‘Little Baron’ has been beckoned into a wine bar.

After downing a few glasses of schnapps given him, he was ordered to masturbate onto a plate in the presence of all for the succour of a meagre fee.
I’ve quoted from this book so much because Leppin made me gasp on every page with his inventive prose. Look, look, at how he describes nervousness:

A rat’s tooth, voracious, bespattered with carrion, gnawed at his intestines.

If I ever wrote a sentence like that, I would just stare in the mirror for about a week, grinning at my own brilliance.
This is my second favourite book of the project (after The Underground Man). But unlike The Underground Man, which I’m sure everyone who reads this blog would enjoy, I’m far warier of pushing Blaugast on people. Although there is some redemption within, it is nevertheless a pretty nihilistic work, and certainly the kind of book you have to want to read. Next year I will explore the other works by Leppin: Severin’s Journey Into The Dark sounds incredible!

I’m interested in hearing of how Harry acquired this particular taste and discovered Blaugast.

Because, really, I know hardly anything about Harry, other than the reason why I asked him to contribute to Two Readers: that he has excellent taste. (Oh, and that he’s a prominent academic, and that two days ago he viewed the house of a former member of Brit girl group The Paper Dolls). He got in touch with me following Seasons They Change, we’ve nattered over social networks, and had one abortive attempt to meet up (trains and overrunning appointments stymied us).

I hope in the future our luck will hold for some facetime. It has to: I feel that, as time goes on, we are just stockpiling the many, many, many things we have to discuss. I’ll leave you with just one of them.

*N.B. I know I sound pompous here. However, my knowledge of this Nietzsche work comes entirely from Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Week Twenty-Eight - Jeanette

Martin Bauman: A Novel by David Leavitt (2000)
Recommended by Nik

                        What is your chief motivation for writing?
(a) Personal satisfaction
(b) Financial reward
(c)  Public recognition
(d) Desire to communicate
(e) Other (please amplify below)

What is my chief motivation for writing?
(a) Sort of, but I wouldn’t call it ‘satisfaction’. I remember after finishing Seasons They Change I wasn’t happy, as such (actually, I was decidedly miserable); but I was utterly fulfilled. This was a very peculiar feeling as, prior to then, I had always found fulfillment and happiness inextricably, and uncomplicatedly, linked.
(d) I wouldn’t couch it in those terms. I do believe that a writer, to exist, needs a reader but – and maybe it’s the legacy of all those critical theory texts (see last week) – I don’t see it as a simple relationship. The writer doesn’t pour communication libations into a reader’s hungry mouth.
(e) This is what I would plump for, as does Martin Bauman.

The only answer I could give to this question would be (e) other. Please amplify below, you say; all right, I will. But I must warn you, it will take more than a paragraph. Indeed, you may say this very novel is my amplification.

I might say that, on some level, this blog has become my amplification. At a time when my creativity is stuttering like a Geiger counter miles from radiation, I am using it a means to keep up a regular narration of my world.

Anyway. I talk to Nik a lot about writing. I talk to Nik a lot about everything. I see him virtually every week, usually at least twice; we’ve holidayed together, I’ve stayed with his parents, we’ve applied to be on Pointless (they didn’t want us), he made me the Madonna T-shirt in the photo, he’s my named next-of-kin… in short, I couldn’t imagine my world without him.

The first moment I really knew Nik and I would be close was during a visit to the West End. This pub was two doors down from our office and Nik, Noshee (she’s coming up in a few weeks) and I would often wander down for a drink after work. Nik and I played on the pop quiz machine.

What came up?

Name the Louise solo singles.

“‘Pandora’s Kiss.’”
“‘Naked’, of course.”
“‘Light Of My Life.’”
“‘Light Of My Life’ was crap, wasn’t it? Inauspicious start for her.”
“‘Undivided Love.’”
“Oh god, that cover of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.”

We smiled at each other. We’ve been smiling at each other for close on a decade now.

Nik, like Gary in Week One, often claims he’s ‘not a reader’ yet regularly scouts for book tips pre-holiday, loves certain authors (notably Alan Hollinghurst), and has always offered very fair and insightful criticism of my own work. He specifically picked Martin Bauman for me because it was about writing.

Baumann, a young Jewish gay man living in early 1980s New York, begins his story – that ‘amplification’ – with a creative writing course run by the monstrous ego of Stanley Flint. I have always been ambivalent about creative writing courses, and Leavitt’s portrayal of Flint brought out a lot of the reasons why. The hysterical diva-ishness of Flint shrouds a deeply insecure man who depends on the adoration of his class. He dismisses would-be writers on very little evidence.

            After less than half a minute, he put the pages down.
‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ he said, giving them back to her. ‘This is crap. You will never be a writer. Please leave.’

The guru complex is overt in Martin Bauman, but I’d wager a less extreme – and perhaps more insidiously psychologically damaging – version of Flint is rife in the creative writing teaching industry. Writers are notoriously competitive (Bauman himself certainly is) and a creative writing teacher is usually one only because of a painful failure to carve out his or her own full-time authorial career. This isn’t good seeding ground for impartial and supportive development of others’ writing, and Leavitt brings this out well.

The other aspect of the writer’s life deftly tackled by Leavitt is the shift in American publishing and the collateral damage it wreaked on writers. As the Reagan era really chomped down, publishing changed from a supportive literary enclave to an aggressive free-market. Bauman, writing saleable ‘gay stories’, initially benefits from this. His work is snapped up and expectations are high. Bauman’s first book, the story collection The Deviled-Egg Plate, gets ‘favourable to mixed reviews’ but his next work, the novel The Terrorist, critically bombs. Bauman hadn’t changed his style or his subject matter much, but his name no longer offers the shock of the new. If one lives by the zeitgeist, one dies by it, too.

More poignantly, since Bauman is writing about gay life in the early AIDS era, his position is a problematic one (and emblematic of the different issues writers outside of the straight white male canon face). Bauman is a naturally personal writer and focuses on love, eroticism, and family, but some see this as an avoidance of political responsibility.

Seamus Holt complained in Queer Times that [my] ‘wan, watered-down portrayal of gay life’ amounted to ‘the worst kind of assimilationist nonsense.’

Holt, whom Bauman meets, is considered by most in the gay community as a bore intent on curbing people’s fun with his incessant AIDS harangues.

Thunderous before a mob of perfectly coifed, elegantly employed young men, he would thrust out his finger like a demonic preacher, and scream, ‘In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead. In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead. In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead, dead, dead.’ […] In the end, of course, history did prove him wrong, though not in the way his enemies would have predicted: five years later, not half, but three-quarters of the men in that room were dead.

This aspect of Martin Bauman brilliantly evokes the terrible human tendency for collective denial in the face of impending cataclysm. Holt-like voices that speak of the real danger are ignored or ridiculed. I’m reminded of one of my favourite works of modern non-fiction, Simon Garfield’s The End Of Innocence: Britain In The Time Of AIDS, and its accompanying 1995 TV programme. These works, which I highly recommend, chart the condition’s social journey, including the way AIDS was both minimised and exaggerated.

[Blogger will only let me embed Part Four of the documentary. Part One is here, and you can find the other parts on YouTube, too.]

Martin Bauman is a book of strong ideas rather than a captivating story but – as our narrator noted – that’s its point. He’s trying to find out his chief motivation for writing. Does he? Perhaps not.

Have I found mine, within this blog? Certainly not. Yet am I, through writing this particular blog entry, glad to remember that moment at the pop quiz machine, Louise’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, and her Tarantino-baiting video? Damn right I am. Indeed, perhaps this is what I have found via this blog: that picking those delicate wild flowers from memory is as creative as scoping out the big existential angst.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Week Twenty-Seven - Jeanette

Beyond The Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad And Arts After Cage by Brandon W. Joseph (2008)
Recommended by Max

As part of my English Literature degree, I had to take a ‘multidisciplinary unit’. This was to prove I was a well-rounded learner (or some equally questionable notion).

I chose Psychoanalysis.

In fact, I enjoyed Psychoanalysis so very much that I voluntarily chose to take another ‘multidisciplinary unit’, Psychoanalysis 2. The sequel was actually better than the original. Whereas the first unit focused on Freud and Jung, Psychoanalysis 2 went into the mad orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich, the complicated but very rewarding French psychoanalytic feminisms of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and the linguistic crossovers of Jacques Lacan. Écrits by Jacques Lacan was a supremely difficult book, and I recall one of my classmates asking the lecturer why Lacan had to be so damn obtuse.

‘Lacan believed he was expounding very intellectually demanding ideas,’ the lecturer replied. ‘He wanted the language itself to reflect that, too.’

My lecturer’s reply, which I probably hadn’t thought on since a week after she said it, popped into my mind when reading Beyond The Dream Syndicate.

From the perspective of the infrastructure of control within which The Flicker may already be seen to be functioning, the operative distinction is no longer subversion against sovereign form or autonomy against the strictures of the disciplinary institution, but rather the connection of biopolitical forces to either hegemonic apparatuses of normalization of heteronomous apparatuses of countercontrol.

You see why this book took longer than a week to read.

Who is Tony Conrad? Prior to reading this, I had heard of him very, very, very slightly due to his connection with the kosmische musik band, Faust.

Beyond that, I guessed that The Wire magazine love him, and that there’d be tape loops in there somewhere (both true, as it turns out). I’m not super-keen on minimalist, atonal modern classical or hyper-experimental music. I have tried. But mostly I think one may as well listen to the central heating fire up.

Beyond The Dream Syndicate is not biography of Conrad, nor even a straightforward critique of his work.

Although what follows will give some measure of Conrad’s activities during the 1960s and beyond, fleshing out a startlingly diverse but underresearched figure […] the text will diverge for long periods from any linear narration of Conrad’s development, exploring the contiguous networks and connections of the downtown New York scene.

Ah! And now it all makes sense as to why Max recommended it to me.

My friendship with Max is another wonderful connection that arose from Seasons They Change. It was Ptolemaic Terrascope’s Phil McMullen who put the two of us in contact. Max was writing an academic paper on free-folk music, communities and gender (published here), and Phil thought Max and I might like to know of each other. Like me, Max had interviewed a number of artists involved in what The Wire called ‘New Weird America’:

Max and I first met when he visited the UK (he’s Austrian); I don’t think I was any use at all to his academic pursuit, but we had a lovely chat over lovely beer. As well as the musical output of free-folk, he’s interested in the dynamics and structures of a ‘movement’; its power relations both within itself and in relation to wider cultures. Talking to Max about his work certainly added another dimension to my thoughts on free-folk (and on genre labelling in general, which has endured far beyond the writing of Seasons They Change).

Brandon W. Joseph’s scope for Beyond The Dream Syndicate is similarly expansive. He begins with exploring the early output of, and musical relationship between, Conrad and La Monte Young in a post-Cage landscape. I struggled here, chiefly because my knowledge of formal musical language is rudimentary at best: Conrad and Young were doing complicated things, and I grasped on with my fingernails to them as best I could. Nevertheless, the more abstract notions of hierarchy and control between audience and composer interested me, as did (on a more childish level) how amusingly bigheaded all this lot could be. Here’s Conrad:

Though I find my own oeuvre impeccably consistent and directed, its diversity (I realize) obscures the plane of this consistency from all but the most careful analyst.

And Young?

Always extremely confident in his abilities, Young already held Trio For Strings in particularly high esteem, lauding it to Conrad the next spring as one of the best works of music ever written.

That's not on YouTube, but here's something from only slightly later:

I’ll have to take your word for it, La.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and enjoyed the book a great deal more, when it moved into territory I at least know my way around a little: the New York rock, art and film avant-garde of the 1960s. In the most fascinating section of the book, Joseph traces the pre-history of The Velvet Underground and in particular The Primitives, a made-up group ‘formed’ when Reed was a hack songwriter, that released the satirical and really rather awesome dance-craze song, ‘The Ostrich’ in 1964:

‘There was something very liberating about the whole rock thing,’ Conrad said. He moved in with John Cale (clearly the best Velvet) and Primitives sessions were recorded in the loft.

Johnson also points to the links with cinema, in particular the commercial blockbusters of Jack Smith:

Flaming Creatures was a concatenation of seemingly poor technical choices that added up to a hallucinatory new aesthetic vision. Filmed entirely on the secluded rooftop of the Windsor Theatre during the summer of 1962, Smith’s film was an ecstatic homage to the North African-themed features of the 1940s.

Conrad himself branched out into film, most notably with this:

There was initially some controversy as to whether it could be considered a film at all. Other possibilities included ‘optical experiment,’ ‘medical text for the eyes,’ or ‘a detector of the photogenic migraine’.

The chapter on The Flicker was excellent. I do enjoy reading of these visual experiments and found I was able to contextualise Conrad and Smith’s work with my knowledge of Fluxus, and with other performance artists and filmmakers.

This is a long book, and it isn’t easy to read; without wishing to invoke a La Monte Young-style arrogance, I do know my theories of the text (see House Of Leaves) yet, even so, I often found it hard to accurately interpret what Joseph meant. But I can understand why he adopted this approach. The prime audience for this book is appreciators of Conrad, Young or Cage – very smart cookies who won’t want the thing dumbed down for beginners. And I’m quietly smug that Max thought I had enough in common with these very smart cookies to recommend me this book.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Week Twenty-Six - Jeanette

The Underground Man by Mick Jackson (1997)
Recommended by Anna

I’m halfway through my fifty-two books!

Arbitrary milestones like this demand a bit of stock-taking. I’ve read some absolute blinders, and particularly rated Italo Calvino's Invisible CitiesStella Gibbons's Westwood, Chester Brown's Ed The Happy Clown, Shauna Singh Baldwin's What The Body Remembers and Teju Cole's Open City. All of these are brilliantly realised achievements in themselves plus (and importantly, for the project) each expresses something about the friend who recommended the book.

I’m so pleased with myself for embarking upon this resolution, and thankful to all my friends who have stepped up to the oche with recommendations. I’m missing Jude, of course – I hope she’ll be back when the time is right – but I kind of feel she’s here with me anyway. After all, to blog about the project was her idea. I’d just have sat in my room and read ‘em.

The photo-with-the-book was also Jude’s invention. And, on that note, have another look at the one above. Two thumbs up. That’s because The Underground Man is FUCKING AWESOME AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ.

And it’s all thanks to Anna. Sweet Anna, one of the people I know less well in this project but, nevertheless, a key part of my Sheffield world. Exceptionally passionate about ecological and animal issues, keen walker and allotment-owner, she’s got her feet planted firmly in South Yorkshire soil; and, as a talented designer, her brain is bubbling with creative cells. You know what? I think this unique book is going to bring us closer together.

The Underground Man concerns the fifth Duke Of Portland, a real-life Victorian aristocrat. The Duke (referred to as ‘His Grace’ throughout the book) was a figure of some public fascination in the middle nineteenth century. He was an extreme loner, and his enormous wealth allowed him to indulge his introversion to its logical conclusion. Few ever saw him, so wild rumours built up about his behaviour and his physical appearance. His most famous eccentricity was constructing a web of tunnels underneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire.

Mick Jackson takes these points of His Grace’s life as the starting point, and etches out the imagined thought processes behind them. He invents the demons that drove His Grace to such a peculiar routine, sympathetically analysing the thoughts and actions of a man who is getting older and finding life increasingly painful; a man who, on some level, knows that he is mentally crumbling, and is all at sea with how to react to a mind increasingly not his own; and, especially, a man who is extraordinarily, disastrously, heartbreakingly, all alone. His choices have condemned him to a life without touch, without perspective, without the steadying hands of trusted friends or family.

Each lung is in fact a tiny inverted tree with the base of the trunk coming out at my throat. When I breathe in, leaves appear on the branches. When I exhale, the leaves disappear.

The first third of The Underground Man is bathed in memorable images like this, conjured up by His Grace, showing how florid his mind has become while his body has retreated from the world. He is a refined writer (most of The Underground Man is in diary format) and can express himself perfectly in his own script. Yet, awkward and shy and too conditioned to solitude, he can never translate this to the real world. He relates an incident where he speaks to a man with psoriasis; His Grace has asked how it is treated.

‘You drink coal tar, man?’ had popped out of me, in a voice so loud and clear that the fellows who had recently returned to their digging immediately stopped again and stared.
The big chap looked me over very coolly, his eyes narrowing to two tiny slits. When he spoke it was as if he was addressing a backwards child.
              ‘Not drinks it, sir. Wipes it on.’
No doubt while I sit here recording the embarrassing event, that same labourer holds court in some nearby alehouse, telling anyone who cares to listen all about the mad old Duke who suggested drinking coal tar to cure his psoriatic scabs.

Those tiny confusions, they happen to all of us. And some of them simply won’t settle, continuing to wreak a terrible, very disproportionate, power over the mind. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that captures this so perfectly.

As His Grace’s physical complaints multiply, he tries increasingly spurious treatments. One, towards the end of the book, is especially shocking and upsetting (Jackson’s powerful body-horror prose in this sequence is even more disturbing than the skin-peeling in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). His Grace’s sense of what is reasonable and what is extreme has completely disintegrated; and it is this, rather than the graphic nature of the medical procedure, that makes this section so very frightening.

In his quest to find refuge from his pains, His Grace can also be tragicomically bizarre. Many, many times during The Underground Man I giggled, and found myself welling up at exactly the same point.

Called down to Mrs Pledger, asking for more bacon – as hot and greasy as it would come.
When Clement arrived with the bacon I grabbed the plate and slid the rashers straight under my shirt. Buttoned it back up to keep the fellows in place […] I marched at the front, proud and barefoot, my bacon-epaulettes now showing through my shirt.

But sometimes there are simply no laughs to be found. Although, mostly, His Grace doesn’t directly address his own mental anguish, when he does, the words are raw:

She nodded at me, then mercifully turned and left me to suffer my distress alone. And as the door closed behind her I felt the bubble finally burst and I fell, as if my legs had been kicked from under me. I fell and continued falling and was at long last engulfed in my own tears.

The sway this book wielded over me in these last few days has been incredible. I thought about it incessantly, and I ran over passages in my mind as I walked around Sheffield. When I read that His Grace believed this…

All I’ve done with my life is take countless melancholy constitutionals and grow apples by the ton.

…I wanted to tell him, with a whisper piercing the impossibilities of history and fiction, that he has done something more, at least for me. He has touched me on a level that only about five or six other characters ever have.

Read this book. Seriously, read this book. I already want to read it again.