Saturday 16 November 2013

Translated Texts vs the Originals: When Language Becomes a Problem

Tim Mackintosh Smith, author and translator.
His work with the writing of Moroccan traveller
and writer Ibn Battutah has earned him deserved plaudits
Unless we happen to be some kind of superhuman polyglot, all of us are going to read a translated text at some point. Of the thirty highest ranked novels in The Guardian’s much lauded/argued over “Top 100” list, eight were written in a language other than English. Meanwhile, novels translated into English repeatedly bother the upper reaches of bestseller charts, proving that literature truly is a beast that transcends geolinguistic boundaries.

The work of novelists such as Norway’s Jo Nesbø and Sweden’s Stieg Larsson have proved phenomenally popular in Anglophonic countries, and the English translations of texts such as “Crime and Punishment”, “Madame Bovary” and “The Dangerous Liasons” continue to shift copies many generations after their original publication.

So, does it matter that the book we are reading is perhaps not the one envisaged by the author?

There are several schools of thought on this, the most popular being a pragmatic one: of course we should try to read works of literature in the language in which they were written, but we should also recognize that this will not always be possible.

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of birth of Albert Camus, an event that went almost unnoticed in the author’s homelands of France and Algeria, but caused the global blogosphere to explode into life. Between the tributes and the reminiscences on the author’s career, a discussion opened about the comparative merits of reading works like “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger”) or “The Plague” (“La Peste”) in English or in the original French.

Lexical cross-pollination is rife between English and French; both languages are peppered with words that have hopped the Channel and nestled snuggly in the dictionaries of their neighbours. As a result, the division between our two tongues is a fluid one: your average Marseillais would probably be able to order a beer in Birmingham, while a Geordie would be similarly at ease in the bars and taverns of Bordeaux.

However, getting to grips with a novel – with all its nuance, subtlety and hidden depth – is another matter entirely. Such a feat is likely to be beyond the linguistical abilities of most readers (myself included). As the discussion raged online, an unpleasant level of snobbery began to arise, belittling the experiences of people who had read Camus’ novels in English compared with those who tackled the books en Français.

Is this snobbery ever justified? I suppose it can be argued that the very action of translating a text involves straying into a dangerous area. By translating a text, particularly a text by an author who is no longer around to oversee it, we are transposing our own judgment onto the words of the original. In doing so, we run the risk of adding our own graduations and variations in content, style and tone.

Barthes’ famous “Author” did not suffer death just so another one could come along and project his or her own vision onto a text; we should remember that a text is very much alive and open to interpretation, and so all tinkering and translating must be done with the lightest of touches.

A light touch becomes even more necessary when we encounter words that are unique to a certain language. These so-called untranslatable words provide something of a quandary for a translator: should such words be translated as literally as possible – creating occasionally clunky and awkward sentences but preserving the original meaning – or should more weight be placed on retaining the author’s intentionally streamlined prose style.

Milan Kundera – after writing “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in his native Czech tongue – oversaw its translation into French, adding an entire chapter devoted to explaining the Czech word litost, roughly meaning a psychological state of self-torment followed by a desire to equalize matters through physical revenge. Writer Dilshan Boange describes litost asa state of emotions that is rooted in the individual feeling himself to be a singular entity in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and a painfully evident helplessness.”    

Kundera’s litost is by no means the only example of a word whose meaning does not bridge the social-cultural boundaries of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Waldeinsamkeit” uses 12 stanzas to explore the depth and complexity of its title; a German word that is can be tentatively translated to English as a ‘solitary oneness with – or an abandonment of oneself to – nature’.

Another example – picked at random, but a concept that many empty-headed internet keyboard warriors would do well to employ – is the Catalan word Enraonar, meaning “to discuss in a civilised manner, using meticulous reasoning.”

These words, and the thousands of others that proliferate across the globe, serve as proof of the richness and diversity of the human consciousness. In a world where culture is in increasing danger of becoming homogenized and contained in order to fit with the lingua franca of accepted global thought, these words provide refreshing new perspectives, allowing people of all cultures to think outside the constraints imposed by their own language.

German academic, Thorsten Pattberg recognizes this. In a recent article for The Shanghai Daily, Dr Pattberg warns against Western media outlets “coercing their authors to hold back non-English words or eliminate them from their submissions” in an attempt to retain the purity and readability of their newspapers. Pattberg also calls for an end to “irresponsible translations of foreign key terminologies” and urges us to “work overtime to find the untranslatable words in each language”.

Dr Pattberg is correct; as lovers of literature we must welcome anything that broadens the scope of writing and reading. We must admit that language is, and forever will be, only a limited tool of expression, and so must embrace any methods that can decrease those limitations, both in an artistic and in an anthropological sense.

However, the fact remains that literary translation is a vital and invaluable endeavour. It democratizes literature, removes it from the preserve of the few and hands it to the many, while also facilitating the spread of ideas and debate around the world. Translation is as much an art as authorship; it requires patience, skill and an astounding amount of selflessness to produce a successful translation.

Many translations have been derided as failures, while others have been criticized as diluting the power and impact of the original. However, the work of translators such as Michael Glenny – whose adaptation of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” into English was particularly lauded – and Giovanni Pontiero, who was concerned primarily with translating Portuguese texts into English, introduced the British book-buying public to spell-binding editions of some of the cornerstones of our global literary heritage.

The key is to find a balance; to embrace the heterogeneous nature of language and literature while also promoting the lightness of touch and lack of egocentricity required to produce a truly masterful translation.

In the coming weeks I plan to have a crack at Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 novel "Imārat Ya‘qūbiān". As my Arabic is not fully up to scratch (read: nonexistent) I will have to rely on Humphrey Davies’ translation. And still the world keeps on turning. 

Click here for more information on untranslatable words.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Happy Birthday Albert Camus!

Collar up, cigarette lit, hair neatly
slicked back: Camus is still ready to
roll at 100.
It was always unlikely that Albert Camus was going to live to see his 100th birthday. Had he not died on that roadside in northern France in the January of 1960, then it is likely that the endless stream of cigarettes he liked to be photographed with would have caught up with him in the end. And then there were all the rumours of Soviet agents plotting against his life.

No, Camus was a man who was always going to live fast and die young, but in his 46 brief years he managed to become one of the 20th century’s most striking philosophical and literary voices.

Born on November 7th 1913 in what was then French occupied Algeria, Camus never forgot his homeland. He penned lovingly crafted essays on the place – most notably “Summer in Algiers” and “Return to Tipasa” – and two of his best known pieces of philosophical fiction - “L’Etranger” and “La Peste” - are set in the North African territory.

It was these works that helped cement Camus’ reputation as a fascinating critic of the absurd.

While some philosophers despaired at the entropic uncertainty of the world, its apparently barren moral landscape and lack of overarching meaning, Camus reveled in it.  In “La Peste” he explored the human capacity for altruism and selflessness, even in the face of apparently overwhelming opposition, while “L’Etranger” saw Camus questioning the arbitrary social conventions that decide our validity as modern human beings.

Along with Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, published in 1942, these texts provide the clearest picture of the great man’s groundbreaking take on absurdism, and perhaps offer an insight into his acrimonious philosophical falling-out with friend and fellow thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre.

But enough about the philosophy, what about the trenchcoat? Yes, Camus was the poster-boy for philosophy in the late 20th century. His snappy dressing, intellectual Gallic drawl and ubiquitous cigarettes made his image a regular fixture on the bedroom walls of college students all over Europe and the US. He was the James Dean of existentialist thought, and probably appreciated the absurdist sentiments contained in Dean’s picture “A Rebel Without a Cause”.

To put it simply, Camus is cool as hell and not a man to let a little thing like being dead stand in the way of his status as a philosophical maverick. Happy birthday Albert, many happy returns!

Monday 28 October 2013

Gallacher Might Not Be a Fan of Literature, but Nick Cave Knows a Thing or Two About It

Last week I wrote a post on this blog about Noel Gallacher’s recent comments to Danny Wallace in GQ magazine. Over the course of the interview, Gallacher branded literature a “fucking waste of time”, before claiming that people who write and review fiction only do so to look down on others.

It was an odd rant, I’ll be honest. At times Noel Gallacher has shown himself to be a truly excellent lyricist, and for a proponent of one artform to pour scorn on those who practice another for no apparent reason seems baffling to me, not to mention a little mean.

But don’t worry, not all musicians have been so scathing about literature, some have embraced it as their own. Some have even done it well! Introducing, Nick Cave.

Born in Victoria, Australia in 1957, Nick Cave has become one of the most unanimously revered musicians on the global ‘alternative’ scene. His onstage persona as a wide-eyed, finger-jabbing deranged preacher of the Southern Gothic gospel have earned him as much affectionate parody as respect, but his undeniable sonic artistry has been enough to land him critical acclaim in spades, as well as legions of fans, and, I dare say, a fair amount of cash.

Anyone familiar with the dark poetry, the biblical obsessions and the murderous wit of Nick Cave’s lyrics will be aware that his lyrical fiction is already not too far removed from literary fiction. Disturbing vignettes are woven together with the intricate, detailed eye of a novelist, while the rich and complex characters he conjures are placed in environments to match.

Take Lottie, the sweet, green-eyed, 14-year-old narrator of “The Curse of Millhaven”, taken from Cave’s acclaimed 1996 record “Murder Ballads”. Lottie tells us about the series of horrific tragedies that have befallen her hometown of Millhaven, until the narrative tone suddenly becomes confessional.

Then the dark side of little Lottie’s character quickly makes itself known. “My eyes ain’t green and my hair ain’t yeller,” she tells us. “It’s more like the other way around.[...] The last thing that [Mrs Colgate] said before the cops pronounced her dead was 'my killer is Loretta and she lives across the street'".

It’s this kind of smart characterization and cunning way with a narratorial arc – evident throughout his extensive catalogue of work – that makes Cave’s music so rewarding to listeners.

It will, therefore, be of no surprise that Cave is an accomplished novelist. Published in 1989, Nick Cave’s first foray into the world of novel-writing was the sprawling southern epic “And the Ass Saw the Angel”, in which ideas raised by Cave’s lyrics were explored in more depth.

Writing like a sort of nightmarish Faulkner, Cave leads his reader through his own version of the great man’s Yoknapawtha County: an encapsulated microcosm of the American South upon which the author is able to unfold his tragedy. The novel reads like an extended play of Bad Seeds’ song "The Carny", a dark tale of a travelling circus stalked by death and disaster, which draws as much from Tod Browning’s "Freaks" as from Edgar Allen Poe’s Southern Gothic.

True to Cave’s esoteric song-writing style, he plays fast and loose with language in his prose too. In an effort to create a total – “perfect”, in his own words – isolation for central character Euchrod, Cave set about constructing his own vernacular for his protagonist, as explained in an interview with Bomb Magazine’s Lindzee Smith;

“I wanted to create an alien language. That was one of the reasons I made Euchrod a mute. He didn’t use language to communicate. Language was an abstract thing to him. Although he would not know these words, I wanted his way of speaking to be… difficult for the reader to understand.”

The result is a fascinating study of a man adrift in a frighteningly violent world, a study of the darkest machinations of the human psyche, and the roll that religious and societal constructs play in these machinations. At times, “And the Ass Saw the Angel” makes for tough reading, such is the density and luridity of its prose and subject matter, but the rich, visceral world that Cave builds for his marginalized characters makes the book a must-read for those who like their literary kicks that little bit darker.

Thursday 24 October 2013

“A Fucking Waste of Time”: Noel Gallacher Does Not Mince His Words When It Comes to Literary Fiction

Noel Gallacher, looking unimpressed. Presumably with a book.
Quite what Noel Gallacher thinks he is doing when he sits down to pen lyrics for High Flying Birds is beyond me, but, according to the man himself, it certainly ain’t writing fiction.

Speaking to GQ’s Danny Wallace, Gallacher described fiction as “a fucking waste of time”, and as a way for “people who write and read and review books [to] fucking put themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us”. This from a man who, in his day, could confidently count himself amongst the pantheon of great lyricists born out of the Manchester indie scene.

But Gallacher is obviously confused. Even as he sets about levelling his pot-shots at the world of literature he manages to betray his past as master song-crafter with some natty turns of phrase:

“You can substitute any word,” he says, discussing the esoteric nature of the titles read by Gallacher’s wife, something that has so obviously got the man’s goat.

“It's like a Rubik's Cube of shit titles - it'll be entitled 'The Incontinence Of Elephants'. And I'll say "What's that book about?" And she'll say, "Oh it's about a girl and this load of fucking nutters..." Right... so it's not about elephants, then? Why the fuck is it called 'The Incontinence Of Elephants'? Another one: 'The Tales Of The Clumsy Beekeeper'. What's that about? "Oh it's about the French Revolution."”

“A Rubik’s cube of shit titles”. The man is a genius, and I’m having that one for myself.

So am I going to set about exploding Noel Gallacher’s rather controversial theories about literary endeavours? Maybe I would have, but he does it himself later in the interview when Wallace asks him about his favourite film, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

“Well, you’ve presented me with a dilemma there,” he says, hopefully squirming in the plush leather wingback that they I imagine they provide for interviewees at GQ towers.

“I don’t want to have to invent the character Clint Eastwood plays, I just want to watch him.”

Fair enough.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Somerset Maugham’s China: The Painted Veil

Shanghai's French Concession in the '30s. A clash of West and East.
The regularity of my posts on this blog has been a little out of whack in recent months. I have an excuse, and it’s a fairly good one.

After 26 years of living in the British Isles, travelling around intermittently but always impelled back to the UK by that centrifugal force of home, I decided to up sticks and move away. A long way away, it turns out; to China.

But this blog is not about me, it is about literature, and so I will shut up about myself and get to the point. Finding myself in China with limited reading material, I decided to re-read a novel that had had a profound effect on me when I initially read it last year: "The Painted Veil" by W. Somerset Maugham.

Maugham’s novel, published in 1925, deals with the events and repercussions of socialite Kitty Fane’s affair with colonial administrator Charles Townsend. When Kitty’s husband – Walter, an eminent bacteriologist – discovers the affair, the acrimonious couple leave the comparative safety of the European enclave of Hong Kong for the Chinese interior, moving right into the heart of a cholera epidemic in the fictitious village of Mei-tan Fu.

On reading the novel back in England, I found that it posed some interesting questions about nationhood and race, two themes that I covered to an extent in an earlier post. Maugham paints a picture of Hong Kong at the tail end of the colonial era as a sort of transplanted European city, full of the sorts of functions, social activities and airs and graces that would not be out of place in Tolstoy’s imperial ballrooms, or Austen’s Netherfield Park.

However it becomes a sort of community in limbo, existing neither truly in China or in Europe, and is held together by arbitrary associations such as geographical origin and class. This is highlighted by an assumption at the heart of the book’s narrative; the assumption that Walter will never bring a scandal upon himself by confronting the socially superior Charles over the affair.

This anachronistic social naivety backfires on Charles and Kitty, when the relatively lowly Walter plays the hand that he is dealt. As Maugham was putting pen to paper, the Chinese Communist Party, recently formed by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxio in Shanghai, was entering into an uneasy alliance with the ruling Kuomintang party. The red flag was already flying high in parts of China following bloody strikes in Beijing and Hunan, and the stage was being set for the bitter struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists.

Intentional or not, Maugham’s foreshadowing of the political tumult unfolding across China is one of the things that makes the work so compelling. Charles and Kitty make their moves in a feudal chess game of class-posturing and chivalric-maneuvering. It backfires and they fail. Karl Marx would have been proud. If only Walter had been a brickie.    

The awkward nature of Hong Kong in the 1920s is highlighted when the narrative shifts beyond the walls of the citadel to the beleaguered village of Mei-tan Fu on the Chinese mainland. Maugham paints Hong Kong’s decadent grandeur as archaic and inflexible, an anachronism in a world that is rapidly consigning its colonial past to history. However, once we slip outside these walls, the voice changes.

Here Maugham shows his readers a China in transition, displaying the effects of the political unease and turmoil that was gripping the country at that time, and would continue to do so for much of the 20th Century.

While Maugham put the finishing touches on “The Painted Veil”, Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China was gradually succumbing to the cancer that would kill him shortly before the book’s publication in the UK. Meanwhile, his successor – China’s future Generallissimo, Chiang Kai Shek – was waiting in the wings, preparing to remodel the Kuomintang around his own ideas.

Nationalist fervour was rising in China at that time, largely unbeknownst to the Western Emigres in the ivory tower of Hong Kong. The violent scenes depicted later in the book illustrate this, helping to contextualise the position of the Fanes as two people in isolation, adrift in a world that seems all too ready to reject or harm them.

However, the book is far more than mere period drama concerned with intrigue at court. The themes of isolation, of nationhood, of moral and political ideology, and of sacrificing oneself for ones beliefs still ring true today. I sat down to re-read "The Painted Veil" out of necessity; I finished it for different reasons.

Wherever you find yourself, however far you are from home, Maugham’s 1925 work is certainly worth delving into.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

NottsLit: New bookshop to open in city centre

NottsLit: New bookshop to open in city centre: Exciting news! Nottingham is to have its first independent bookshop in the city since 2000. Opening in mid-November   - at 14a Long Row, ...

How Nietszche Ruined My Life, and Why I Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way

Today is the 169th birthday of the man who ruined my life.

Born on this day in 1844, Friedrich Willhelm Nietzsche has delighted and confounded thinkers, writers and philosophers in equal measure. He has been described variously as a visionary, a nihilist, a genius, a misogynist and a proto-fascist. George Santayana called him an egotist, while Adolf Hitler reportedly took great influence from Nietzsche’s writings, although probably never read a single word of them.

Largely ignored during his own lifetime, Nietzsche’s work may never have reached the wide audience it enjoys today if it were not for the enterprising, bizarre and thoroughly misguided efforts of his younger sister Elisabeth – although that is a story for another time.

I am not setting out to explain the finer points of Nietzschean doctrine (or anti-doctrine, depending on your viewpoint); my lack of seven PHDs and a lifetime spent poring over Nietzsche’s impressive back catalogue renders myself unqualified to do so. Instead, I’d like to pay tribute to a man whose writing ruined my life.

As a fairly happy teenager with a passing interest in philosophy, I was misquoting Descartes with the best of them. Cogito Ergo Sum was my jam, I guess I quite liked the idea that one could only rely on oneself, that that was the only constant in history, and that the concept of the self was irrefutable.

Then I read “Beyond Good and Evil” and the bottom fell out of that world. In the early chapters of that work, published in 1886 when the author was in the full flush of his creativity, Nietzsche sets about exploding the preconceptions and conventions that his philosophical contempories were basing their work upon.

The very ideas of moral truth and falsity are turned on their head in those early pages, as Nietzsche shows us just how arbitrary the concept of the self is, and how its use as a sort of philosophical building block, a moral basis that cannot be questioned, is not so much disingenuous as downright dangerous.

Ever the iconoclast, Nietzsche was busy laying the course for a paradigm shift in the landscape of philosophy, and paving that course with the rubbished reputations of his predecessors. He died in 1900, on the dawn of a new era in critical thought and philosophical theory; an era in which scholars would apply the uncertainty and esoterica of Nietzschean thought to a rapidly changing world.

No one knew it at the time – except for possibly Elisabeth and Friedrich Nietzsche themselves – but the works of this shadowy figure from Prussia would replace those of Descartes and the later Entlightenment thinkers as the go to texts for young philosophers seeking making their own mark on the world.

Of course, elements of Nietzschean philosophy are somewhat less inspiring. The vitriolic ramblings against women that pepper his work, for example, are of little interest to me, although they may be of some interest to psychoanalysts, particularly in light of the strong evidence that Nietzsche died a virgin.

However, the bulk of the man’s work offers a fascinating, refreshing, confounding and often contradictory look at the problems beset by us all, as co-experiencers of the human condition. Don’t look to Nietzsche for a solution, think of him as a conduit… oh, and expect to be met with as many questions as answers.

It will ruin your life but it will also expand your mind. And when you finally think you fully understand it, the next page will throw you a savage curveball, casting you back down into the depths of doubt.

Just try to enjoy the ride.

“He who speaks a bit of a foreign language has more delight in it than he who speaks it well; pleasure goes along with superficial knowledge.”

Friedrich Nietzsche – “Human, All To Human”

Sunday 21 July 2013

Re-imagining Nationalism in Literature

Samuel Selvon's "The Lonely Londoners"

There can be few more contentious topics than nationalism. In the UK – or, more accurately, in England – nationalism is seen inextricable from racism, zealous hatred and kneejerk reactionarism. Ask someone to describe a nationalist and they will likely describe an EDL member, a staunch opponent of immigration, a white supremacist etc etc. 

It has become a sort of Nietzchean slave morality – a belief defined completely by an opposition to another, and therefore an unsubstantial one. It creates an ‘us v. them’ scenario – those within the haven of our national boundaries (with justifiable reason to be there) versus those without.

This highlights the arbitrary nature of modern nationalism, specifically English nationalism. During World War Two, when Britain was under a real threat of invasion by the forces of Hitler’s Germany, such nationalism became almost a practical necessity, if a sometimes unpleasant one. Nowadays, with most of the world connected in an open forum of information exchange, it feels archaic and redundant.

Johann Gottfried Herder first coined the term “nationalism” in the 1770s while developing his philosophical concept of the “Volksgeist”, or “spirit of the people”. Seventy years later, another prominent German writer, Arthur Schopenhauer, would pour scorn on the concept, and on people who hold nationalism up as a defining facet of their character;

“The cheapest sort of pride,” Schopenhauer wrote, “is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud.”

Schopenhauer was writing over 160 years ago, but his comment on nationalism and national pride still stokes the fires of debate today. The truth is – speaking from my experience as an Englishman – the majority of English people would readily distance themselves from the “nationalist” tag, while simultaneously attempting to renegotiate some semblance of national pride from elsewhere.

For example, you may cry when England lose a penalty shootout, you may proselytise about the unparalleled beauty of the Peak District or the Lakes, you may feel a flush of pride when watching footage of the Olympic closing ceremony – but are you a nationalist? No way!

Nationalism is an increasingly awkward concept, particularly now that transnational borders are becoming more fluid and global mobility is more readily accessible. It seems to me that a person should align their pride to their surroundings and to their community – on as wide a scale as they may wish – rather than practice a simple, blind loyalty to a sovereign state.

Literature thrives off this awkward pairing of the individual human soul and the arbitrary groupings of nationality. Passages in Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” , for example, act as symphonic love letters to the Czech capital Prague, but are told through the eyes of exiles and neurotics, each dislocated from the city in their own unique way.

Another example is Salman Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. In his 1995 novel, Rushdie deconstructs what is supposedly a key aspect of nationalism – language; exposing it as the organic, polymorphous beast that it truly is, all the while in the midst of a Portuguese merchant enclave in India, and later in southern Spain.

The blisteringly brief, but nonetheless brilliant novel “The Lonely Londoners” by Samuel Selvon is amongst the most immediate examples of negotiated nationalism in literature. Penned in 1956, the novel charts the life of a group of West Indian immigrants who arrived in London following the British Nationality Act of 1948, the parliamentary bill that effectively ushered in the first waves of migrant workers from the Commonwealth.

The book examines the different cultures emanating from distinct Caribbean islands and their transplantation into a metropolis on the cusp of the next stage of its evolution, cultures that become unintentionally homogenised as the émigrés clamour to find their place in a new society. In the eyes of the indigenous Brits, this gaggle of lonely Londoners are refugees from only one nation: “Black”.

Trinidadian, Jamaican, Antiguan, Barbadian, even Nigerian; none of these distinctions matter in the eyes of the racially suspicious post-war Britons that Selvon’s characters come into contact with. It is this aspect that makes the novel one of the most fascinating critiques of modern nationalism and identity in twentieth century literature.

As the global community continues to develop, and artistic inspiration ceases to be limited by parochial geographical locale, the debate surrounding nationalism – and the great art and literature that springs forth from it – can only become more fascinating, more discomfited and more vital to our sense of human identity, than ever before.

Saturday 20 July 2013

A Writer’s Hangover - Literature and Alcohol

Today an interesting article appeared on The Guardian’s website entitled “Why Do Writers Drink?”. Penned by Blake Morrison, the article discussed the relationship between alcohol and literature, examining the drinking habits – and, obviously, the writing habits – of some of the best loved authors of the past two centuries.

On reading the piece, I began to question what it was about the article I found interesting. At its heart is a generalisation, and one that I found troubling: writers, by definition, like to drink.

As with most generalisations, this is perhaps unfair, although history does record a long line of writers who looked for success in the bottom of a bottle, as well as a long line of drinkers who looked for a way out in the written word.

Morrison’s smart conclusion sheds some light on why this may be.

“Most [great authors] get there despite the drinking, not because of it,” he writes. "'Drank like a fish, wrote like an angel,' would make a pleasing epitaph. 'Drank like a fish, wrote like a fish' is more likely.”

Writing is an exercise in exposing oneself to the world. While writers are self indulgent in what they create, no one sets out to write a novel that no one is going to read, and as such they are preparing their souls for a thorough going over whenever they sit down to work.

This takes courage, not to mention temerity and fortitude. Human beings, as a species, have been known to turn to liquor in search of these qualities. This might explain the link, and why writers are susceptible to this kind of substance abuse, but to imply that it is unique to literature in any way is disingenuous.

In my own experience, drinking and writing in tandem has produced staggeringly variable results.  I drink, very often I drink too much, but nowadays I ensure that my drinking and the mechanical process of actually putting pen to paper remain separate.

William Wordsworth wrote about poetry as taking its “origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I find that this is mirrored in the Hemingway quote that Morrison uses in his piece: 

"What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?" asks Ernest, presumably while pouring himself a straight.

When you’re drunk, ideas come pouring forth from you. Probably only one in every 100 will be of any use to you, but maybe – just maybe – one might be the key to unlocking that tricky part of your novel, or creating a satisfactory closing stanza for your poem. However, I can think of few worse states to be in when applying the necessary finesse to those raw ideas than blind drunk.

I found this out to my detriment in the early days of my writing. Reading back over poems and prose composed drunk in my late teens and early twenties is like being first on the scene of a car accident: terrifying, horrifying and instantly humbling. Mind you, so is reading most of the stuff I produced sober in those years.

I must admit that, like many young writers, I was seduced by the idea of Kerouac with his winesacks and his desolation angels, or of Fitzgerald and his Pernod in Parisian cafes. Fitzgerald died aged 44 of a heart attack, while Kerouac was 47 when he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. A relative of mine – also a writer, also seduced by that imagery – was around the same age when he died of a similar illness to Kerouac’s. This is not a sustainable way to be.

I’m not here to moralise. I like to drink, I like to write. Writing is all about experience, without experience you can’t write. Where you find that experience is up to you. Just try to be sober enough for it all to make sense when you write it down in the morning.

Monday 15 April 2013

Thatcher's Legacy in Literature: The Miners' Strike 1984/85

When the Notts coalfields were a battleground

This was a tough one. As a literature blogger it makes sense to remain as apolitical as possible – despite the temptation to do the exact opposite – but at the same time, is it not the place of literature to reflect and explore political and philosophical questions? And therefore is it not the place of a literature blog to follow suit?

This is a debate I’m going to save for a future post. In the meantime, I’m going to forge right ahead.

So the funeral of Margaret Thatcher is upon us. The final send off for a woman who has inspired love and revulsion in seemingly equal measure (although I suspect that the true ratio is not quite as evenly split as the mainstream media would have us believe).

I’m not going to get into an argument about the legacy of Thatcherism; such questions are for the “Politics Blog” that I have yet to – and probably will never – create. Instead, I’m going to take a brief look at the literature that sprung from one of the key moments in Thatcher’s 11-year tenure as prime minister: the miners’ strike of 1984 to 1985.

Having been born in Mansfield and brought up in Nottingham, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I am descended from miners, but only on my mother’s side. As my maternal grandfather had three daughters and no sons, I am two generations removed from my mining lineage, but still engaged with my heritage.

For this reason, the novel “Notts” by American writer William O’Rourke has always fascinated me. Due to a lack of a publication deal in Great Britain it has always eluded me. But its premise – not to mention its title – is something that has inflamed my interest.

The novel follows an American college professor as he journeys to England and becomes embroiled in the civil unrest between the miners’ unions and the government/police in the mid-1980s. On his journey he witnesses the strike first hand in places like Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, viewing the struggle alongside a young labour organiser from the US who has come to England to lend support to the strikers on behalf of American mineworkers.

While researching this article, I found my fascination growing, not least because reviews of O’Rourke’s book describe it as lending an international perspective to what is often seen as a definitively British struggle.

I haven’t read the book, and therefore cannot engage in any sort of analysis of it, but the fact that it exists at all is a testament to the far reaching cultural impact of the strike on the international literary stage.

Some reviews of “Notts” compare it to a book that I have read – and re-read – on more than one occasion: David Peace’s “GB84”.

I read “GB84” after struggling with “The Damned United” – Peace’s follow-up to his 2004 work – a book I expected to appreciate a lot more, given the subject matter. So, I approached “GB84” with a degree of trepidation.

This book, however, blew my socks off. Offering a scathing, furious and – above all – complex reflection of the events of 1984 and 1985, Peace comes closer than anyone to getting to the very heart of this fascinating but traumatic chapter of British history.

The book has dazzled some and infuriated others. Plotlines tumble over one another and Peace’s scintillating, dark prose zips along at breakneck speed. This is no factual document – don’t go expecting a history lesson on the standoff – but it is a pure and ferocious literary evocation of an era that left vast scars on the East Midlands and the English north.

Scars that, in some cases, have refused to heal; even two and half decades later.