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”