Oh Shillings!

Original creative and critical writing by Scott Morris

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth: The Legacy of Derek Jarman

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I’ve reported on the launch of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, Derek Jarman’s sole poetry collection which has recently been republished by the wonderful Test Centre.

If Jarman’s cinema is devoutly poetic, tonight’s panel are in agreement that his poetry is singularly cinematic. The collection is extremely visual, from Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photo of a prepubescent boy adorning the front cover, to the postcard images printed alongside all but one of these short poems (the missing postcard depicted a nun pleasuring a priest, which the original printers refused to include). These images, washed in green, come from Jarman’s personal collection, mementoes from places he visited and places he would have liked to visit. In some instances, they complement the poems; in others – such as the Black Madonna or the card divining the ‘feminine virtues’ of ‘Your Ideal Love Mate’ – they wilfully disrupt, they answer back.  In poetry as in film, word and image are inextricably intertwined for Jarman. However, this conjunction of poetry and cinema still ‘upsets people’ in this country; British audiences, Mayer maintains, are terrified by ‘the dangerous inversions and hallucinations that word and image can effect on each other’. As such, experiments in this vein have more commonly been continental (take Cocteau or Pasolini, filmmakers and poets both). In Britain, perhaps Jarman’s only identifiable comrades-in-arms are Margaret Tait and Sally Potter.

Read the full report here.

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Test Centre: The Museum of Loneliness LP Launch

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Over at The Literateur, I’ve written a report on the launch of Chris Petit’s new LP, The Museum of Loneliness. The night featured readings from Petit and Iain Sinclair, as well as a screening of their brilliant collaborative film, Asylum.

It’s a dizzying examination of the ways in which we curate and reorganise ourselves, an exercise in self-stacking, you could say. “Live long enough, and you have a thing called an archive,” Iain Sinclair says by way of an introduction, something that could just as equally be applied to The Museum of Loneliness. Both are projects of obsessive sorting, of reworking; like the clownish figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, we see Petit and Sinclair revisit, time and again, their own records, their own traces, relentlessly, ceaselessly editing ‘versions’ of their work, tentatively proposing some kind of continuum at the same time as radically undermining the prospect. Essentially, they are building upon the legacy of another subversive double-act: William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s tape experiments from the 1960’s pioneered the use of recorded voice as a disruptive weapon. “You are a programmed tape recorder set to record and play back,” Burroughs concedes in The Ticket that Exploded, but “you don’t have to listen to that sound… you can program your own playback”.

Test Centre are the masterminds behind the project, one of the recent crop of brilliant, bold small presses that are finally making publishing exciting again. Find out more about them and order the LP (among other things) here.

The White Review Short Story Prize: Towards White, 1975

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I am very pleased to say that I have somehow made the shortlist for The White Review Short Story Prize. My story, ‘Towards White, 1975’, takes its title and basis from a conceptual piece by Romanian artist Geta Bratescu (above). You can read the full story, as well as the other (great) shortlisted pieces, here.

Brutalism

 

Read my story ‘Brutalism’ in the new issue of Myths of the Near Future (a splendid magazine it is too).

‘The Immigrants’ in Flash Magazine

My short piece, ‘The Immigrants’, features in the new issue of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (Vol 5. No. 1 April 2012), published by the University of Chester. The story is not available online, but you can buy the issue for a fiver direct from the Flash website.

Television – Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The protagonist of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s fifth novel, Television (2005), has given up TV – “cold turkey, once and for all, never to watch another show, not even sports”. Why? He’s not entirely sure, though he optimistically believes he can devote his newly liberated time to academic work: a monograph on Titian, inspired by an apocryphal story of Charles V handing the artist a dropped paintbrush in his studio. Throughout the course of the novel, however, he never progresses beyond the opening phrase, “When Musset”. He spends hours arranging the objects in his study, only to leave the house and go swimming, or flying with a friend’s student across the Berlin cityscape. He claims these leisurely adventures to be part of “a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind”, but he’s fooling nobody. This is not a book about withdrawal or obsession or society’s addiction to television. It’s a book about something that anybody who has ever tried to do anything for any period of time will have sympathy with: procrastination.

Indeed, the narrator’s relationship to television, monomaniacal as we might expect it to be, is constantly and comically undercut by Toussaint. Halfway through the novel, when we assume the hero to have been valiantly resisting temptation for months, he mentions in passing that it has almost been 24 hours. He phones his pregnant wife – holidaying in Italy with their son – and announces his resolution, only to receive an indifferent reply: “Yes, we don’t watch much TV here either”. Toussaint makes it clear that the act of abstinence is not nearly as epic as the narrator might consider it; the viewing habits of the book’s characters never resemble the pathology obvious in Videodrome or Baudrillard, say. In fact, the narrator is a pretty half-arsed philosopher on the subject of television. His musings on collective behaviour, simulacra and simulation are intermittent, underwhelming, hardly profound. His later diagnosis of TV as a “disease” doesn’t hold much water: no character is portrayed as addicted or malformed as a result of owning or watching television.

Indeed, Television is a novel curiously lacking action or drama. If Toussaint is, in Tom McCarthy’s words, a writer of the “nouveau nouveau roman”, then in this novel he abandons the traditional strictures of plot – twists, tensions, a denouement etc – in a much softer manner than his radical Francophone forebears. The narrator and his wife are separated geographically, but not romantically; he encounters a possible burglar on the stairs of his apartment block, but his reaction is one of embarrassment rather than alarm. The greatest threats he faces are an old tutor encountering him swimming nude, or accidentally leaving a neighbour’s prized fern in the fridge. The result would hardly make for high-octane TV. However, as a study of scholarly timewasting, Television manages to exert its own captivating and comedic charm.

Satantango – László Krasznahorkai

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by Satantango. This long overdue translation of László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel is preceded for English audiences by Béla Tarr’s 1994 film adaptation (and one of Krasznahorkai’s many collaborations with the director). Over seven hours in length and shot in bleak monochrome, Tarr’s film has unfairly become something of a shorthand for European art-house cinema as endurance test, for a heavy type of art that people can only subject themselves to, god forbid enjoy (Peter Bradshaw, for example, writes in The Guardian that “compared with the Abu Dhabi section of Sex and the City 2Satantango zips past like an episode of Spongebob Squarepants“). At first glance, solid, unbroken chapter-slabs of prose and lengthy sentences might seem to confirm these fears, but it quickly becomes clear that this novel – much like the film – is sublimely beautiful, exhilarating and often wryly comic.

Krasznahorkai is constantly writing on the brink of something. The inhabitants of a failed, decaying collective farm in rural Hungary are expecting a sudden change in fortune, a possible return to a ‘golden age’, after hearing news of the reappearance of the mysterious Irimiás. His arrival is unexpected; he’s long been thought dead. His relationship to the farmstead remains ambiguous (like so much in this novel), but the villagers are adamant that he is “an angel of hope to hopeless people with hopeless difficulties”. This sense of promise, of impending change, infects even the language of the novel. Take the opening line, which almost trips over itself, racing ahead to a future version of the scene before reining itself back in:

“One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells”.

The ‘apocalyptic tense’ of Krasznahorkai’s writing has been much commented upon, but it carries with it as much expectation of salvation as it does damnation. His characters are goats who would like to think of themselves as sheep.

Tarr’s movie is all about single shots that stretch on for uncomfortable periods of time in resounding silence. In the novel, however, nobody shuts up. Those infamous, protracted sentences build a steady momentum, swallowing quotations, digressions and qualifications up and spewing them out in polyphonic parentheses. “The short sentence seems to me like something artificial, affected,” Krasznahorkai says in a recent interview with Guernica magazine, “When we speak, we speak fluent, unbroken sentences, and this kind of speech doesn’t need any periods. Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.” Indeed, you would think that this cacophony of narrative voices would be anti-divine by nature, anti-authorial, working towards Bakhtin’s “unfinalisable”, polyphonic truth. But there are occasional clues pointing towards a sinister, authorial presence lurking within the labyrinthine sentences (does a peasant woman, elsewhere consistently prosaic, really recall her lover in terms of “him beating at ‘the grassy cliffs of her consciousness like a roaring sea in a storm’”?), a central and containing force that in turn points towards the novel’s strange and structurally ‘ingrown’ ending.

In contrast to the momentum built by the sentences is the way each chapter in the book’s first half replays the same few hours of anticipation from different perspectives. We meet the Schmidts, Futaki the crippled existentialist, a doctor with a “pathological love of order” who keeps meticulous files on his fellow villagers, a cat-torturing child, an afflicted landlord. Their meticulously charted narratives are simultaneous, creating a sense of short-circuited restlessness, a stuck tape. After all, the tango of the novel’s title – which the villagers drunkenly perform ad nauseum(quite literally) in a central scene – is a dance that goes nowhere, each dancer moving back and forth but gaining no ground. The sections of the novel are accordingly choreographed, building from chapter one to six, only to retreat from six to one in its second half. Excitement is stalled, dissipated. As Irimiás notes, “We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks”. The story of a mysterious stranger entering and corrupting a community is a very familiar one (think of Hamsun’s Mysteries, Gogol’s Dead Souls, even Krasznahorkai’s own The Melancholy of Resistance), but this is a case of someone stepping back into the dance: a return, a repetition, a déjà vu, an actual Second Coming. Soon after Irimiás appears, he makes a grand, motivational speech, which inspires the villagers to begin smashing their houses to pieces on the strength of their renewed hopes for the future. Very rapidly, however, Irimiás proves himself a disappointing and deceptive Messiah.

In this soggy landscape of ruined estates, Krasznahorkai lays on the doom and gloom thickly. He depicts its inhabitants “watching helplessly, day after day, the plaster falling off the walls, the walls cracking, the roofs sagging”. A sense of menace is captured perfectly in George Szirtes’ translation (his third translation of Krasznahorkai’s works), in which acacias are described as “panicking”, a pub is full of “terrified larval faces” and the air is saturated with the “demanding wails of babies, their cries sliding off into the tin-smell of dusk”. Young girls prostitute themselves in a church attic, while their still younger sister meets a particularly desolate and tragic end. There is all manner of immorality and futility, exploitation, betrayal, greed, jealousy, grimy lust.

And yet, in spite of this, the book is an absolute joy to read. Biblical or existential angst is rescued from excessive heaviness by an irrepressible humour and irony. We are always on the brink of laughter, as well as of apocalypse. The sexually frustrated landlord covertly turns the heating up in his bar in the hope that Mrs Schmidt will continue to shed more layers of her clothing. The villagers’ faith in Irimiás and his accomplice Petrina as saviours is shattered as soon as we are introduced to them, ridiculously twiddling their thumbs in a police station corridor, as if Beckett had suddenly cut to Godot leafing through Ideal Home in a dentist’s waiting room. In an especially brilliant chapter towards the end of the novel, we are shown an office of clerks charged with the task of transcribing Irimiás’ notes on the villagers, bathetically sanitising his overly gloomy and melodramatic language (“wrinkled drink-sodden dwarf” becomes “elderly alcoholic of small stature”), as if Krasznahorkai is poking fun at the pretensions of his own prose, bursting his own bubbles of mud. These episodes never undermine the book’s more solemn, more awful moments, but they do show the way in which life must often involve a combination of the two. As Petrina remarks, “jokes are just like life… Things that begin badly, end badly. Everything’s fine in the middle, it’s the end you need to worry about”.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

 

In Lydia Davis’ ‘The Center of the Story’, a female writer struggles to find a focal point to her work. She reasons that

‘if she takes out things that are not interesting, or do not belong in the story for other reasons, this will give it more of a center, since as soon as there is less in a story, more of it must be in the center.’

Davis’ hefty Collected Stories gives the lie to this rationale, containing as it does so many remarkable examples of one-line, one-sentence, one-paragraph micro-stories that are distinctly lacking in centres. ‘Certain Knowledge from Herodotus’, for example, reads in full as

 ‘These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:’

 That concluding colon is no typo. Rather, it emphasises how typically skewed, off-kilter these stories are, strategically ‘incomplete’ stories that appear to sidestep conventional narrative meaning, pushing it offstage. These are stories set starkly in the middle of so much blank space, and that blankness can be intimidating, off-putting. Short, they may be, but easily digestible, they are not.

The paperback edition of Collected Stories will be a long overdue introduction to Davis’ work for many UK readers, most of whom will have heretofore only really encountered her translations of Flaubert, Blanchot or Proust. Davis has described her very short pieces as ‘a reaction’ to the long, verbose sentences of the latter, which made her ‘want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke’. While some, like ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’ (‘Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging’), do indeed read as literary one-liners, they are in the company of an incredible stylistic diversity. This is a heady collection of aphorisms, monologues, thought experiments, unashamedly facetious word games, domestic fables, celebrity sketches in the tradition of Barthelme and Coover (‘How W. H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House’, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’) and psychological and ethical quandaries explored with an satirically obsessive logical correctness (‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’ smacks of David Foster Wallace, in a good way).

However, for all their formal experimentation, Davis’ stories return again and again to the same themes and issues. There are lots of stories about food; lots of stories about houses in the country; lots of stories about growing old. There are a tremendous number of stories about animals, both domestic and exotic, which prod at the mysteries of our companion species; how, Davis asks in a story like ‘The Old Dictionary’, does a relationship with a dog compare to or influence a relationship with one’s own child? Most evidently, there are stories about family relationships – recurring themes of marriage breakdown, emotional alienation and childrearing that, for all their stylistic oddities, can feel uncomfortably autobiographical. Refuting that notion that postmodern experimentation is always empty and disconnected from real feeling, these stories often seem as if Davis is forcing herself to replay painful, personal moments from many different vantage points and voices in an attempt to articulate them better. In her first collection,Break It Down (1986), Davis writes a series of pieces on family members as abstract, self-contained objects, including the brilliant ‘The Brother-in-Law’ (‘Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or where he came from, or if he would leave’). Funny as these pieces are, they also betray a serious concern with the exact roles of mothers, husbands and great-grandmothers within the modern family.

This volume comprises the four collections that Davis has previously had published in the US, and so gathers together material from 1986 to 2007. Undoubtedly the most accomplished of these collections is 2001’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant, which includes some of Davis’ most hilarious (‘Companion’), bizarre (‘My Husband and I’) and poignant (‘Betrayal’, ‘The Old Dictionary’) writing. Davis is seemingly allergic to direct dialogue, always preferring to narrate in a removed, essayistic manner, creating stories that often read as summaries of stories rather than stories themselves. Ben Marcus has diagnosed Davis with a ‘nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter’, which, while capturing the clinical quality to her writing, nonetheless overlooks the beautiful and circuitously moving heights that Davis’ prose regularly achieves. For the most part, her detached technique successfully expands the possibilities of the short story form, but in some instances, detachment leads to an unintentional flatness, and stories like the long ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ are more admirable in conception than in execution. Still, this collection is an invaluable overview of Davis’ career, and proof of the extreme malleability of the short story form, in the hands of one of its masters.

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

Listen to Maternal Voices

Heather’s friends never tired of telling her what a lovely neck she possessed. They used words like shapely, elegant, swanlike, words enough to make a self-conscious woman blush. Heather had always considered herself more a giraffe than a swan, but she was willing to a humour an inter-species adaptation of the old ugly duckling tale. For her fiftieth birthday, a colleague bought her a charming Tudor ruff. The colleague said it was about time she started showing God’s gifts off to the world. Heather gratefully wore it to her birthday party, the first time in over ten years she’d left the house without a turtleneck jumper. The shape, length and girth of her neck received compliments from men and women throughout the night, seemingly without envy or hostility. A young European man followed her to the toilets, where he pressed his lips against every inch of her neck. He took her home in a cab. For the first time in her life, Heather glowed with confidence. But as she lay back on his bare mattress, she could hear something unexpected, something undead, interrupting his exotic, whispered syllables. It couldn’t be – but it was – the voice of her long deceased mother. “He must be half-blind – or stone drunk,” the dry old voice said, from somewhere behind the European’s wardrobe. “You look like a Tudor tart. You look like gum stretched from a shoe. You look like a slut of the savannahs.” The European ignored Heather’s hysterical screams for a further twenty minutes. When he was done, he locked her in the bathroom. After escaping through the window, she waited almost an hour for a cab to pass, all the while fingering her ruff, which was by now crumpled and stained with drink, her wet sobs, hot, European breath.

The Boxer

The pub was called ‘The Boxer’, named after a famous boxer who drank there regularly back in the fifties. The walls were covered with framed black and white photos of boxers. Most struck the same pose: a quizzical, barechested look at the camera, gloved hands raised hesistantly at their unorthodox opponent. Not one of the staff members could tell you which one was the boxer, the guy the place was named after. He was there somewhere, they said.

Neither Adrian nor Diana had drunk there before, making it a perfect place for a second date, they both agreed. Adrian used to frequent a wine bar just round the corner, behind the station, he was telling Diana. But he had never been here before.

His sister had been here before, he said. She isn’t really one for pubs, alcohol makes her gag, she always says, he said. Even the smell, so a recommendation from her is never to be taken lightly. Not that she recommended the place, he said, she just mentioned it.

His sister rarely comes this side of the river these days, she has a thing for transport. Going underground, he said, she can’t help imagining the tunnels caving in and flooding and going over the bridges she says she can’t put her faith in the whole thing not simply collapsing and drowning her, either way. She has a thing for things manmade, doesn’t trust the lot of them, he said.

That rules out quite a lot, Diana said.

Yes, he said. She also doesn’t like tomatoes. It’s an allergy, she says, he said.

Oh well that rules out quite a lot too, Diana said.

The bar manager looks like a boxer, like he might have stepped foot in the ring in his time. He seems too old for it now, but you have to wonder. Wonder if he has ever, or wonder if he was hired on account of looking like he has ever.

Not something I buy regularly either, mind you. I buy potatoes, onions, courgettes, occasionally green beans or mange tout. And that’s it, he said.

Not peppers, Diana said.

Oh, plenty of green and red peppers, he said.

In the gents toilets, a pair of red boxing gloves hangs above the two urinals. There are no photographs in the toilets, but there are a couple of old posters, also framed, advertising boxing matches from the twenties and thirties, matches between fighters like Big Sonny and Mushy Callahan and the like. You have to wonder if these were here when the old boy, the boxer, used to drink here, and you have to wonder if he liked boxing, if he was into it, before drinking here, or if drinking here got him into the game, what with the posters planting ideas into a young head that may or may not have had a few.

I can honestly say that I have never once bought a lettuce, he said.

Not carrots, Diana said.