Monday, 27 February 2012

On memory and imagining

Reading Perlmann’s Silence and, coincidentally, a recent LRB review* by Jenny Diski of Alison Winter’s “Memory: Fragments of a Modern History” makes us muse about the reins writers do or do not keep on their personal memories as they ride the beasts into the territory of imagination.  It’s a truism that many a first book is autobiographical, and we have experienced the difficulty of wrenching a memory away from the anchorings of “what really happened” to set it free in imagination to become a short story or a novel.  How do you take the “me”, with all its attachments and special pleading, out of such memories? Assuming that there is an autobiographic element in Anita Brookner’s many novels about introverted young women often involved in the art world, as Brookner is, it is a marvel that she keeps us interested, but she does.  So does Jean Rhys. Maybe it’s just a question of technique, of keeping at writing long enough to develop that second skin that lets you look quite coldly at your own experiences and at the same time still feel the surge, the bite, that tells you there’s a story in it. 
* vol 34 no 3 9 Feb 2012)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Penguin Books

It's on again, the Penguin call for submissions on the first week of the month. They are willing to receive whole manuscripts and say they will read them. (That's if the first page appeals.) I guess it's better than the slush pile.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Vale John Fairfax

One of the models for our character John Brow has left this life at the age of 74. His life was extraordinary, not everyone would want to row from England to Australia, but still  I think John Brow's exploits of dragging tyres across deserts, his waterless vegetable diet, and his policy of always standing give him the edge. And his mission is to change lives (for a while anyway) until he finds his protegees are too weak to live up to his rigorous standards. See Writing is Easy our second book.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Pascal Mercier

Don’t be put off by the less-than-enthusiastic comments by Amazon readers on Pascal Mercier’s Perlmann’s Silence.  It’s wonderful. For reasons of our own, we have also been reading a lot of A. S. Byatt recently – far too much A.S. Byatt.  What a difference there is between the self-regarding imagination of Byatt and the subtle, agile, humane imagination of Mercier.  We’re tempted to launch into wild generalisations about the difference between the British sensibility and the European – no, no let’s leave it at that.
Reflecting on the work of his unfashionable Russian colleague Leskov early in the book, Perlmann, a renowned authority on linguistics, thinks, “What was impressive was how good Leskov was at describing things, much better than most of the other people working in the field. It made one realise the extent to which, before any kind of theory, the important thing was to describe our experiences very precisely with language” (p. 51). Sounds simple, even simple-minded? Now the book takes you on a hair-raising plummet into the depths of that apparently simple thought. Perlmann is experiencing, to his terror, a dreadful emptiness at the heart of his being. The catalyst is the sudden death of his wife, but he sees that the emptiness, the absence, was there even before she died. He has, he finds, literally nothing to say, not on his work in linguistics, not to his daughter, not even to himself.  He has the impression that his memories of the past, even of his wife, cannot be relied on. Instead of preparing a paper for the linguistics conference at which he’s the star turn, he spends his time translating Leskov’s work, pursuing Leskov’s argument that our memory of the lived past is based around a self-image that is linguistically-created, by the telling and retelling of stories.  He pursues that self-image for himself by obsessively reading a “chronicle of the twentieth century” with pictures of the famous events of the century, through which, he thinks, he might “reappropriate his own life by imagining what had happened in the world outside while he was still alive.” (68) All this time, the deadline for his presentation is looming over him and the reader in a cloud of sick panic. Things get worse and worse. He plagiarizes Leskov’s work and then plans to murder Leskov when he turns up unexpectedly at the conference. There is a terrible black comedy in the description of his laborious planning of the murder and the banal twists of bad luck and coincidence that hinder him. From here on the book is a genuine thriller, the reader horribly engaged in the tortuous processes of Perlmann’s thought, his fears and his transient reliefs.
Music is a constant theme in the book, Perlmann having been a gifted pianist who abandoned his studies in a period of “irrevocable clarity about the boundaries of his talent” (86). Perhaps the best analogy for the book is that of a Beethoven symphony, full of anguish, tension and sorrow, but also of a rich and consoling humanity.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

We have been commenting on the Guardian Books page on a rather patronising article by a handsome young man. As usual we had information  at our fingertips that showed him not to be as au courant as he supposed