ReadySteadyBook: All a literary site ReadySteadyBlog en-gb Copyright 2002-2016 All rights reserved. (Mark Thwaite) (Lee Kelleher) RSS.NET: Being in Lieu on Stephen Mitchelmore's writing

I first came across Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space on one of those long, anxious evenings, when the only thing that was going to settle me was to read something new about one of my favourite writers. This was also around the time when I had become tired of being the only one I knew who liked the books that I liked. As soon as I tried to explain to my good friends that a particular book didn't interest me at all, no matter that it was 'profoundly moving' or 'fascinating', it would always seem, in contrast to what they had just said, that I was also admitting to my own pathetic diminution as a person, and I started to think that the little corner of my room where I stacked my favourite books (which were mostly written by dead people -- even I could see that) was a kind of morbid, crusted-over lair...

It's become clear to me that any very patient, generous and creatively intelligent attempt to write about any of this, in the way that Stephen Mitchelmore has done in his blog and now in his recently published book This Space of Writing, enlivens the world that we live in so much more brilliantly and immediately than many of these apparently 'moving' or 'hard-hitting' or 'fascinating' novels. But how can that be? Perhaps it's the work of the writing that does it: the very process and experience of writing that demands that we stay attentive -- not only to the words themselves (which are so often at the point of escaping us) but, as with so many inexplicable aspects of our existence (our dreams, impressions, fleeting thoughts), also to exactly how the writing has affected us.

Read more of this lovely review piece over at Jen Craig's beinginlieu blog. (Mark Thwaite) Fri, 22 Jan 2016 13:24:47 GMT
The Sleep of the Righteous Wolfgang Hilbig's The Sleep of the Righteous

Right, time to get down to some proper reading, and Wolfgang Hilbig's The Sleep of the Righteous (out from Scott Esposito's Two Lines Press) sits atop the TBR-pile. (His novel "I", described as the "perfect book for paranoid times", out from Seagull Books, is waiting in the wings too.)

László Krasznahorkai tells us "Hilbig is an artist of immense stature" and LARB suggests he writes as "Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany."

Enough to intrigue, for sure... (Mark Thwaite) Thu, 21 Jan 2016 12:54:57 GMT
Breathless: Over and over (Mark Thwaite) Tue, 18 Aug 2015 21:48:02 GMT This Space of Writing

Well, I've waited around a long time for this, and I couldn't be more thrilled... Zero Books have announced the forthcoming publication of my wonderfully talented friend Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space of Writing:

What does 'literature' mean in our time? While names like Proust, Kafka and Woolf still stand for something, what that something actually is has become obscured by the claims of commerce and journalism. Perhaps a new form of attention is required. Stephen Mitchelmore began writing online in 1996 and became Britain's first book blogger soon after, developing the form so that it can respond in kind to the singular space opened by writing. Across 44 essays, he discusses among many others the novels of Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the significance for modern writers of cave paintings and the moai of Easter Island, and the enduring fallacy of 'Reality Hunger', all the while maintaining a focus on the strange nature of literary space. By listening to the echoes and resonances of writing, this book enables a unique encounter with literature that many critics habitually ignore. With an introduction by the acclaimed novelist Lars Iyer, This Space of Writing offers a renewed appreciation of the mystery and promise of writing. (Mark Thwaite) Mon, 03 Aug 2015 10:44:26 GMT
Ben Harper: Fade into you (Mark Thwaite) Sun, 02 Aug 2015 21:50:56 GMT Wakeful sleeping

Those of you who notice these things will have noticed that ReadySteadyBook has been very quiet for a very long time now. Recently, Stephen Mitchelmore wrote: "The main reason I still write this blog is to maintain a contact with the need or condition that drove me to read and write in the first place; a need often misdirected in pursuit of what the industry is talking about. Long silences here report stout resistance to the temptations of disinterested reception. But what is this need?"

My "resistance" is fully compromised, as I work in the industry to which Steve refers; my "long silences" report only that I'm busy elsewhere (currently at Foyles) doing my best to champion the kind of books I first started writing about here thirteen or so years ago. I'm loath to close RSB down, however, as I'm sure I'll soon have the time and energy to report again on what really matters. That horizon keeps receding, but those books that feel vital, axes for the frozen sea inside, remain the reason to maintain this space, and will be the only reason to return back to it. (Mark Thwaite) Mon, 29 Jun 2015 15:09:06 GMT
PEN seeks linguists

PEN Translates "seeks expert linguists with good knowledge of the publishing field to help us assess books submitted for a grant. Assessors are paid £140 per assessment. For the current round, we are urgently seeking assessors in the following languages: Occitan (Gascon), Portuguese (Brazil) and Danish."

Please write to (Mark Thwaite) Mon, 29 Jun 2015 10:59:16 GMT
Stop Here

In the September 1874 Atlantic Monthly George Parsons Lathrop wrote in his essay, The Novel and its Future:

Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; to measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance.

Beverly Gologorsky’s Stop Here is a poignant novel of contemporary realism. Her primary emotional themes are loneliness, a yearning to change the past, small town ennui, and resignation that this is the irrevocable life one has to sort out and put to rest. What is masterful in this work is how she weaves characters lives through a desolate and lonely atmospheric Long Island town.

Gologorsky’s prose is much like an Edward Hopper painting. She stays true to the stark nature of her themes and characters without a “drop of color… yet they shimmer”. (A quote from a painter on the beach in the novel describing his own painting.)

The narration is told with simple words and the intense emotions underneath the narrative are not played up stylistically but left there on the page for the reader to read without linguistic trimmings. The power of the narration is an achievement that enters the reader’s consciousness slowly, like a cautious guest who has been invited into a place, which is, in part, forbidding. She takes on the ordinary and removes the “deceptive cloak, showing what is trembling below It.” as Lathrop wrote of realism. Though we might otherwise not actually notice these characters because they are so familiar to us, and the dialogue is so real, they could be sitting at the same lunch counter with us.

The novel illuminates the lives of a handful of characters, but one feels that the Gulf War is also a haunting lurking character. The lives of the characters are all connected to a Long Island Diner called Murray’s a twenty-four hour dive and the perfect frame for the telling of their difficult lives.

For example there’s Sylvie, the new wife of the successful diner-owner Murray, who is a Neoconservative, bullish man.

There’s Sylvia, a former actress, getting on in age and worried about a future without stability, she gives up a lot of who she is to gain the same. Left at home, as her husband goes to run his diner, she is bored, restless, and empty. Sylvie discovers an elderly artist appearing to be on the verge of death, living in a seaside lean-to on the beach. Their conversations, though sounding at first a bit meandering and strange, give us one of the most moving examples of Gologorsky’s realism, and how she, as an unobtrusive narrator pulls off what Laphor had said was ”the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, trace[ing] the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there.”

From a section of the novel we find the character, Sylvie, meeting up with the elderly painter on the beach:

He hands [Sylvie] a bunch of paintings as easily as if they were sandwiches at a picnic. Winter beach scenes. White, gray, silver without a drop of color, yet they shimmer. Could these be the landscape she finds so forbidding, cold, and untouchable?
She catches him staring at her. “Too bleak for you?” he asks.
“No. The opposite. Is that how you really see what you see out there?”
“There’s no metaphor for the ocean, only how I feel when I try to capture it.”
“In this one the waves are ferocious. They’re filled with warning...” “Because my fingers were stiff and my knees hurting, the waves spoke to me of what’s impending.”
“Was that depressing?” Is she probing?
“At my age death is a comrade, a way of leaving, an exit.”
“I don’t believe everyone your age feels like that.”
Nothing about him seems tired or worn, though he must be near eighty. “Maybe not. But there isn’t much I’ll miss. I love the beach, but I’m alone now. Do you have children?”
“I had a son killed in 1970, in that dirty war.”
The sea, the sky, his death, his son’s. He says it all in the same matter-of-fact way.
“How awful,” she (Sylvie) finally says.
“It was worse than that.”

With Sylvie’s story there are alternating stories of three other women. Each character is presented in alternating chapters but they also mingle inside all the chapters.

Ava, a woman who has been so devastated by her young husband’s death in Iraq is trying to find a new hold on life, one that will include some security for her son.  She meets a man whom she initially attracts her and she is quite taken by him but then discovers he had betrayed her, at the same time had bonded as father with her son.

Mila, whose husband is in prison, is very worried about making ends meet because her daughter, Darla, is ambitious and Mila wants Darla to make something of her life, which includes a good college. But Darla wants to enlist in the army to escape her mother and the claustrophobic town.

And there’s Rosalyn, who believes she can shape her own life, although she, too, comes from a poor background. She does so until she becomes ill. She was, also, augmenting her inadequate income from the diner by moonlighting as an escort.

These four women and their everyday lives make up for most of the book, but they’re other characters there too. Each daily life struggle, though understated by Gologorsky’s simple telling feels like an epic. Interestingly, Gologorsky modernizes the concept of realism proposed as far back as 1874, by Lathrop. Another, more contemporary critic, William Harmon wrote: "Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence"

In a literary environment of post modernistic fancy and very little realism, it is rewarding to find a book that shows us the “here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequences” In this case I believe the Gulf War to be that action and the lives depicted its “verifiable consequence.” Even the sense of an impoverishment of spirit and money, is indirectly connected to the Gulf War and its impact on ordinary Americans.

Done artfully and authentically, Stop Here is a remarkable novel. (Leora Skolkin-Smith) Sat, 28 Feb 2015 03:10:20 GMT
An interview with TJ Clark: Picasso and Truth

Timothy James Clark, often known as TJ Clark, is an art historian and writer, born in Bristol in 1943. He has taught art history in a number of universities in England and the United States, including Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He has been influential in developing the field of art history, examining modern paintings as an articulation of the social and political conditions of modern life. His orientation is distinctly leftist, and he has often referred to himself as a Marxist (this cribbed from wikipedia, of course.)

Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Art History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton), The Sight of Death, and Farewell to an Idea, and the coauthor of (with Retort) Afflicted Powers.

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic based in London.


Daniel Fraser: I wanted to ask you about Picasso’s relationship to blue, a colour whose application certainly seems to shift in his post-Cubist paintings. What and how do you think blue functioned for Picasso throughout his painting, and how did it change?

TJ Clark: I would still consider the question on blue worth asking as the book does, particularly in the sections relating to The Blue Room and Three Dancers, discuss how Picasso's use of blue is important to what he is trying to express, but I thought it would be good to expand on the marked difference between its use in these paintings and those of 'the blue period' and his more overtly Cubist works.

I can’t remember which theorist of colour it was who talked about blue as the least ‘organic’ colour on the spectrum: the least associated with living things, with growth. Whether or not we agree with the idea in general, I think that blue is a colour whose ‘strangeness’ – its coldness, its ‘emptiness’, its distance from the world of persons and things – seems to have fascinated Picasso, and been a pole towards which his painting was constantly drawn. In the Blue Period it is exploited, clearly, for its emotional potential: it is the colour of emotional bleakness, melancholy, poverty, ‘bare life’.

During the years of high Cubism, blue doesn’t play a central role. Colour is vital, but the Cubist ‘monochrome’ works essentially within a range of browns and greys: its coolness and ‘detachment’ isn’t meant to carry (I feel) an emotional weight. Blue returns with a vengeance in the 1920s. The Three Dancers, or Figure by the Edge of the Sea (and many other canvases from the period), lean heavily on blue’s uncanny force and distance. But it isn’t, I think, a distance meant to carry ‘emotion’, exactly: blue seems more the sign of an invading or pervasive Otherness: a non-humanness, a dis-placement, a world robbed of familiarity or closeness. In the book I argue that the best overall term for this may be Untruth. Maybe – but at least I’m sure that it no longer stands for a state of mind or feeling, or even for an ‘analytic’ detachment.

Daniel Fraser: In terms of Picasso’s monstrosity, I always found in the post-Cubist ‘studio’ works (though had not seen the Tehran one previously) with their wire frame painters an almost mocking tone, a challenge to cubism and the space of the artist’s studio, like Manet’s deformed foot on the Dead Christ: but also as a withering of Cubism. I was wondering whether not you saw anything in this and furthermore if there was a difference for you in Picasso’s paintings between ‘room space’ and ‘studio space’?

TJ Clark: Two questions here. Yes, the monster paintings are often sardonic and cartoonish, seemingly trying for a kind of comedy; and certainly making fun of high Cubist seriousness. (This must have been more pointed a move in the context of the post-war Cubist academy in Paris, and the general portentousness of ‘rappel a l’ordre’.) But of course, as usual with Picasso, the capering, jesting, leering side of things leads back towards a strange form of gravity. The bone pictures of 1929 and 1930 swerve between weird erotic comedy and a celebration (I feel) of true simple solid stoic endurance, in the ‘alone-ness’ at the edge of the sea.

For me, what matters in Picasso is always the intimacy and proximity and ‘inhabitedness’ of the room. A lot of the time the room is a studio, since that is one kind of room Picasso is deeply familiar with. But I don’t feel that he makes a distinction between the place he paints in and the place he eats in, or makes love in, or sits in watching the sun through the window.

Daniel Fraser: When he did allow his figures outside, his monstrous creatures were so often depicted on the beach. I always got the sense of the beach being a 'place where flesh is shown' in a very real sense. It too provides an outlet for blue but I wonder what else is it about the beach? Is there an element of the slippage of the binary oppositions of true/false into 'play' being expressed? Is it even ‘the beach beneath the studio’?

TJ Clark: Yes, the beach is the edge of the ‘serious’ world (the world of practical life, of a True-and-False established constantly by ‘common sense’). It’s the place of play and display. Clothes come off. The sun is God. And yet ‘play’, on Picasso’s beach, doesn’t turn out to be exactly ‘playful’, does it? Play takes on monstrous form. ‘Let’s play at hurting ourselves’, as the Little Girl says in Picasso’s ‘play’ a few years later. The ultimate beach colour is blue – not the yellow of sunshine or even the pink of flesh. If the beach IS a wonderful ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’, it is one still full of a Homeric barrenness.

Daniel Fraser: The focus the book has on a particular concept of space, a space which is not only depicted but inhabited, and particularly your use of the word ‘dwelling’ and being-in-the-world reminded me of Heidegger particularly ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’. And the conception of space which has a readiness-to-hand also implies a Heideggerian sensibility of sorts. But he is not mentioned. I just wanted to know if there is an analogous thought for you there or if his exclusion was a deliberate distancing from, or opposition to, those comparable concepts?

TJ Clark: Yes, I know that my line of thought intersects with Heidegger. But I know this ‘at a distance’, and I want (maybe wisely, maybe unwisely) to keep that distance. As I understand it – and again, I may be wrong, just because of the distance I’m keeping from the detail of Heidegger’s texts – the concepts you point to cannot be dissociated in Heidegger from notions of rootedness, of profound and enduring ‘familiarity’, of a ‘world’ made (essentially by hand) always in the image of an older one. That I have nil sympathy with the politics informing such notions is obvious; and that I think it possible to maintain a notion of being-and inhabiting, of ‘grounded’ experience, without such a politcs, ditto. But more important, I believe Picasso thought much the same (in practice, in his painting). One simple way of putting it would be: Picasso was a Bohemian. His ideas of intimacy and ‘belonging’ are always entwined with ideas of liberating impermanence and fecklessness. He sure wasn’t a ‘dweller’ in the world of the ‘age-old’ and tried-and-true. A guitar is different from a spade or a sabot.

Daniel Fraser: One of the major conclusions you draw in the book is that despite the definite Nietzschean struggle with the concept of truth, Picasso’s art even at its most monstrous does not go beyond good and evil, it has a grounding in truth. Do you think this abandonment of truth has now fully come to pass? If so how for you has it manifested itself pictorially?

TJ Clark: A huge question, Daniel – which I don’t think can be answered without the kind of big ‘culture gesture’ that the Picasso book tries not to make (tries to provide an alternative to). I guess if I were going to work on your question, I’d begin by thinking about recent photography, and in particular the effect of easily available digital ‘manipulation’ (even the word here, with its roots in handicraft, may be wrong) on photography’s notions of, and ways of producing or admitting, ‘immediacy’, ‘reference’, ‘objectivity’. Gursky would be an obvious case to take up. But his interest for me would lie, I think, in the continuing tension in his work between a concern to show us a world that he seems to consider ‘imaginary’ now ‘all the way down’ – fully captured, fully ‘made’ by a machinery of mediation – and a stubborn survival in his actual work of an aesthetic of the lens, the recording machine, the ‘world appearing on the plate’.

That would lead to the question of his debt to his teachers the Bechers – to their commitment to camera ‘objectivity’, and their profound immersion in an older (distinctly UN-postmodern) world of production. The Bechers, if you like, are the Truth-tellers of high industrialism. Gursky may (or may not) feel that the world we now live in has ‘bracketed’ Truth. But his means of showing the bracketing – of giving his ‘showing’ any real authority – still depends utterly on the Bechers’ belief that the camera, as the child of the machine age, has a privileged access not just to the look of things, but to their ontology. And I suppose I’d say (or do I mean hope?) that any serious art will go on being caught in – animated by – just such a to-and-fro between solipsism/scepticism and ‘exposure’ to the facts. (Dan Fraser) Mon, 26 Jan 2015 16:22:28 GMT
Larmousse: Static Phase (Mark Thwaite) Fri, 09 Jan 2015 15:02:32 GMT