Monday, 24 November 2008

Review – Greed by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, but I had never read her work before. One of her previous novels, The Piano Teacher, was apparently made into a film that won several prizes in Cannes in 2001, but I have never seen it. So I had little to prepare me for Greed, her latest work to be translated into English.

Greed is a kind of modernist crime novel. It is often quite difficult to understand exactly what is going on, but the gist of it is that the country policeman uses his position of male authority to satisfy his greed. This really is a novel about the difference between men and women, in which men are painted as beasts ruled by their penises who are ruining the planet, and women are portrayed as pretty damned stupid for allowing it all to happen. Jelinek (or at least, her narrator) has a low opinion of humankind. It was for this reason, I suspect, that whenever I put the book down I often found it hard to pick up again. There is a story buried away in there somewhere, in the same way as the murder victims are hidden in the woods around the country policeman’s village. There is also a surprising amount of humour in this novel, too. When I did bring myself to return to the book after frequent much-needed break, I usually enjoyed reading it. But only for so long at a time.

You can read my full review of Greed on the Bookbag website.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Society of Women Writers and Journalists

I was guest speaker at the south east regional meeting of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists in Brighton today. I had originally been invited simply to make up the numbers on their ‘panel of experts’ but as the day approached I was asked to speak about my experience as a man writing fiction for women’s magazines. The other speaker was the crime novelist Peter Lovesey. Peter’s first novel was WOBBLE TO DEATH in the early 1970s. WOBBLE TO DEATH introduced the redoubtable Victorian policemen, Cribb and Thackeray. He won the Gold Dagger Award in 1982 with THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW and in 2000 joined the elite group of people awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award. It was a real honour to share the platform with him.

Peter Lovesey, me, and SWWJ Chair Jean Morris

Friday, 7 November 2008

Deal Writers Anthology Launch

Despite the attraction of Martina Cole reading from her latest bestseller in neighbouring Sandwich, there was an incredible turnout last night for the launch of Deal Writers’ latest anthology, Another View from the Pier. Deal Library was packed, with standing room only for latecomers, and several authors read their work (including yours truly). An extremely successful night.

Copies of the anthology are available from Deal Writers, priced at £4.99 each.

Here’s a photo of me reading a story from the latest Deal Writers anthology

Thursday, 6 November 2008

What is good writing?

Here's the opening of a novel about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while trying to help his patients come to terms with their own problems:

Professor Martin Sturrock was feeling stressed enough already, even before the phone call from Simon telling him Aunt Jessica had died.
Is this good writing? Jenny Diski doesn't think so. It is the opening sentence of the new book by Alastair Campbell, who was once spin-doctor-in-chief to ex-prime minister Tony Blair. (I heard him speaking on Radio 4 this morning, by the way, in the wake of Barack Obama's election, talking about what it was like 'when Tony and I came to power' - but that's by the by). Campbell famously suffered from mental health problems himself, so he should know what he is talking about. But, as Diski says in her very entertaining critique of Campbells' novel in this week's London Review of Books,

suffering and even observation don’t necessarily make a person think and write with more subtlety . . . Subtlety may not be an essential quality in a self-help book, but it goes a long way to making a good novel.
Which is good advice for any writer, I think. Diski goes on to say,
The craft of fiction is not working out a plan that looks balanced on a spreadsheet and then clothing it with words. The trick about writing a good novel is to be a good writer.

I think Sally Zigmond might agree with that sentiment.
I haven't read Alastair Campbell's book, so I wouldn't want to comment on whether the review is a fair assessment or not. But the article itself is a gem in terms of what constitutes good writing. You can read the full text here.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Howard Jacobson at the Folkestone Literary Festival

I’ve had a highly cultural few days. On Thursday evening, the Secretary and I went to see the Donmar production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. The script by Tom Stoppard was a great improvement on the ‘straight’ translation, the set was spot-on, the acting (led by Kenneth Branagh) was excellent. Then on Friday we went to Tate Britain for the Francis Bacon retrospective. I’m not really a fan of Bacon, and the exhibition did little to change my view, but it was good to have seen it. On Sunday, we were due to see Carol Ann Duffy reading just down the coast from me in Deal. But unfortunately the Secretary was under the weather so we didn’t make it.

Yesterday, though, with the Secretary safely tucked up in bed, I went to Folkestone to catch part of the literary festival with my pal Mike. The highlight was undoubtedly the talk by Howard Jacobson.

Jacobson claimed to have been a novelist from the moment he was cast into the world. His father would ask him: So where’s your novel? But Jacobson Senior didn’t get the point. Being a novelist wasn’t necessarily the same as having to write a novel. It was a state of mind; a lifestyle choice. Jacobson Junior avoided writing a novel until he was well into his late thirties.

When he did finally write his novel, it was not the novel Howard Jacobson expected to write. He wanted to be the next Henry James, the next Tolstoy, but instead of writing heavily serious prose, he found he had a natural bent for comic writing. (My own favourite, The Making of Henry, is both witty and wise.)

In discussing the craft of the novelist, Jacobson said he wasn’t a great fan of the plot. Although I agree with his contention that characters are more important, I wasn’t entirely convinced by his argument here. But then, it’s in Jacobson’s nature to be contentious. He is an ex-university lecturer, after all. So although he argued that a reader wanted to know what happens next only because they care about the characters, in doing so he conceded a reader does want to know ‘what happens next’. Isn’t that plot?

He said he doesn’t have much time for J K Rowling or books for children in general. Give them adult books to read, he said. Don’t fill their heads with stories about wizards. What was worse was that these books were read by adults. We don’t read literature any more. Then, in a typically piece of Jacobsonian contrariness, he offered the following quote: ‘History is written by the winners; literature is written by the losers’. He said only losers needed to write (and read) about imaginary victories; the victors had success in real life so didn’t need to fall back on fantasy. Something happens at a formative stage in our lives. If we are losers in reality (e.g. in school sports in his case) we escape into the fantasy of literature. So, people who read (and especially write) are by definition life’s losers (in the nicest possible way!).

There was a lot of discussion about the nature of jealousy, the theme of Jacobson’s new book The Act of Love. The premise is that all men, either secretly or subconsciously, want their partners to be unfaithful to them. The book is also about words, and how words and literature and sex and relationships work. We give names and words to our actions and use the words to justify or condemn those actions. It is the word that distils and describes the action (for example: we made love; we had intercourse; we screwed – different words give a different complexion to the same action). As part of his research into the novel, Jacobson said he went to a sex club to ensure authenticity. It was a tough thing to do, but he went so we his readers won’t have to. And what thanks does he get?

With his tongue firmly in his cheek (or was it?) he claimed that all writers were jealous of each other’s success. When he brings out a novel, he said, he wants it to destroy all other novels. He might modestly say that he hopes his novel joins the Pantheon. Nonsense – he wants his novel to blow away the Pantheon. Jacobson claimed he gets jealous when he hears his wife laughing at the work of another author. It was especially hard for him to bear her laughing at Philip Roth.

Jacobson’s books often deal with Jews and themes relating to Jewishness, but his latest book does not. He was asked why that was. He half-closed his eyes and paused, as if he were giving the question great thought. Then said, ‘Because there are no Jews in it.’

A very funny, thought-provoking talk from an excellent, thought-provoking novelist.