Category Archives: influences

No mere bagatelle

This blog is mostly about writing and this is the 24th post. It is also the fourth draft, a bad sign. Initially I had thought this would be a kind of swan song, a farewell to the difficulty I have had with the French writer Celine, ever since he first burst into my consciousness in the 1970s. Discovering that one of Celine’s three “anti-semitic” pamphlets had been translated into English, I reckoned that at last I would be able to make up my own mind about what he was on about, to consign him to some pigeonhole or other, and move on.

It hasn’t worked out like that. Reading Bagatelles pour un massacre, translated (anonymously) as Trifles for a massacre, has not settled Celine into a comfortable spot in my spirit, even a little bit. Instead this “pamphlet” – it is nearly 350 pages long – set my mind on a wild ride; yet again this exasperating man has challenged me about  fundamentals: about writing, about thinking, ultimately about life itself. I suppose I was foolish to imagine it would be otherwise, that he would not find a way to get under my skin.

There is some sort of explanation for this: Celine used his life as the source material if you like for his fiction, and the life he led put him “out there” – exposed with all his idiosyncracies to very, very public view. The result was a blend of fantasy and reality that is at the very least spectacular. There was nothing easy about him; many of his opinions weren’t just unfashionable but were highly objectionable, offensive even to his adoring public and friends. The painter Gen Paul, a long-time comrade, was so stung by his thinly disguised portrayal in the post-war novel Normance that he was unable ever to trust Celine again: it was almost as if Celine relished the ostracism his writing provoked, yet he complained again and again about how badly he was treated.

Despite the anti-semitism, Celine’s reputation has otherwise recovered in the past generation.

Of course his stature is relative: most people have never heard of him. If you google his name you will get many more hits of Celine Dion. Yet Celine’s rehabilitation if not complete has been nonetheless wholesale: almost all his works have been translated from the original French into English and other languages, he has websites devoted to him, there are photo books of his tumultuous life; you can buy the t-shirt with his photo on it. In his last book he wrote that “in two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school” but perhaps he won’t have to wait that long. Some of his work has been translated as obvious university study material, with English on one page and the original French on the facing page.

Is he worth it? Does he deserve the t-shirt? Until a few years ago, that was impossible to say for anyone reading him in translation, and almost for any Francophone: the writing that caused so much trouble during his life, and had by the deliberate common consent of the literary establishment, in France and elsewhere, been regarded as outside the pale, was no longer easy to get in its original editions and was not (and is not) reprinted, though it is available online.

Now that Bagatelles is available however anyone can see what the fuss was about  without taking anyone’s word for it, even if the other two “anti-semitic pamphlets” –  Les Beaux Draps (The fine mess) and L’ecole des cadavres (School for corpses) –  are still off the menu. Bagatelles is enough to see the basis for Celine’s ostracism. Though he has also been criticised for his activities during the war, in particular letters and interviews he wrote and gave, he denounced some of the material appearing under his name at the time as deliberate forgeries aimed by Germans and collaborators at tying him into support of the Nazis, and pointed the finger at his accusers for collaboration. Notably he gave Sartre, who had once championed him (his first novel, La nausee [Nausea] was prefaced with a quotation from Celine’s play, L’eglise, The Church), a very rough time: his reply to Sartre can be found on the net.

It is also true – though it doesn’t say anything for or against Celine – that collaboration was widespread in France during the German occupation, that  protest was at best muted when Jews were deported to be slaughtered in the camps, and that attacks on collaborators and alleged collaborators have more than a tinge of a guilty conscience.

Celine answered the charges against him after the war with characteristic invective and claimed in his last book that he was, and had always been, an anarchist, and it is hard to square his supposed support for Nazism with some of his remarks about Hitler and “Aryan baloney”.

In spite of all this, it seems to me to be a kind of sideshow, a distraction. What is proper with a writer is to look at her or his work as literature, to read it on its own terms, whatever these may be, before interposing judgment on even the most outrageous ideas. Judgment, to be fair, has to come later. So what my plan here is, is to treat Bagatelles as literature, to examine it, and its arguments, from that perspective. Celine was a genius without doubt, and to respond to his genius we really need to approach his work seriously, and not to dismiss anything at all out of hand.

On any level Bagatelles is an incredible book. It is often screamingly funny, and its many barbs are frequently sharp and pointed in the right ways: his attacks on French drunkenness and on the Soviet Union must have made uncomfortable reading for French intellectuals – indeed French people – when Bagatelles was first published, but for the first he makes a striking and well-documented case, and for the second its truth is now widely acknowledged.

That is very far from all. Celine rips through the French literary establishment with customary vigour, and his analysis of global fiction is interesting and perceptive. His denunciation of the modern media is also, to paraphrase John Major, “not entirely without merit”.

Schematically Bagatelles is an advance on his previous novels because it takes the “novel as delirium” another step: whereas Mort a Credit retains the formal fictional structure of a novel, Bagatelles begins as a novel only to transpose into non-fiction – maybe. Ferdinand becomes Celine, becomes Ferdinand. This is artfully contrived.

All this however skirts around Celine’s core themes. As the title suggests Bagatelles sees the coming conflict with Germany and seeks to persuade France to avoid it, to refuse to become embroiled in war with Germany. (As an aside, when he “lost the argument”, he volunteered immediately and became a ship’s doctor on a vessel that was sunk in the early days of the war.).

And it does this from a perspective that is both astonishing and alarming. It turns out that there is a global conspiracy, and that the French aspect of this conspiracy has the Jews undermining everything in a grand plan to take over the world. Everywhere he looks, Ferdinand/Celine finds the dread hand of  the Jew…not just finance, but communism! not just politics but film, not just film but the editorial policies of newspapers and book publishers, not just that but the vineyards debauching the French nation, not just that but…there is nowhere the Jew is not judging, scheming, conniving, thwarting…thrusting France into a cataclysm with Germany, when if there is an enemy, it is the Soviet Union. He has been there, and seen what it is really like, and it is not pretty.

And the greatest undermining of all – of the ethnicity of the French people. What scheming wee creeps can’t achieve, sex will…later in his life, Celine imagined the Chinese taking over (“the Chinese in Brest”) and achieving the same magical result: no more France, no more French (he then called the French “Vrounzais” to show the bastardisation of “French blood” by immigrants).

Celine constructs this argument far more cunningly than I have managed to make it seem here. He has a Jewish friend to show that he does not conflate every single Jew with the “Jewish conspiracy”, and even has this friend slagging off “the Jews” with the same invective Celine will later employ; his Jewish boss in the League of Nations gets equal measure of brickbat and bouquet: he takes care, that is, to distinguish the individual, the personal, from the “ism” even as he mocks this view, and mocks himself for holding it!

The friend shows true friendship too, and ends warning Ferdinand/Celine of the consequences of his irrational attacks on “the Jews”, just as does his non-Jewish artist mate.

To Jewish people what is not highly offensive about this is not worth thinking about, but those who should be most offended are the French. Indeed, whatever crimes Celine may find to lay at the door of the Jews are as nothing compared to the weakness and uselessness of the French people. So the Jews are in control of the alcohol industry? Who makes French people drink it? (Celine became a teetotaller at some stage).* The Jews are in control of the French novel, of French literature and literary journals, and the international fiction markets? Who makes anyone read the output? See the films? Go to the theatre? The ballet? Celine goes on and on and on about the fecklessness of the French, their hopelessness…their uselessness…the truth as he recounts it is that the French are too weak to resist. It is already too late.

And this is the contradiction in Celine’s account of reality: the massacre he seeks to avoid is already pre-ordained, and the plea he makes is already certain to be ignored, by his own testimony.

Worse, the vision he evokes to avoid the impending slaughter is in itself flawed. Who are these “French”? There is no static “French nation” any more than any other “nation”; the France of Celine’s time had a different ethnic mix and geographical extent than fifty years before, and fifty years before that and before that…One can find maps of “France” stretching to the banks of the Rhine, and if one looks back far enough, maps of France taking in England! That is to say, the “French people” have been a mixture of peoples more or less forever, so what is the big deal with adding new elements? Er, none whatsoever. Celine claimed, over and over, that he didn’t mind Jews as long as they stayed out of France. He saw Jews as “negroid” people, and he said he didn’t mind blacks on the same basis. He had a great time in Africa and the only thing he didn’t like was “tom-tom” music (presumably referring to the jazz of his time); he just wanted Africans to stay in Africa, and Jews to stay in Palestine.

People don’t behave like that and it is impossible not to think that Celine knew this as well as anyone. Later he described warfare as “movements of peoples”, and his “Chinese in Brest” remark was more aware than anti-semitism allows.

Celine wanted to be judged on the basis of his “novel as delirium”, even when he didn’t mean it. It was clever, indeed ingenious, but in this sense a failure. He could say, “Bagatelles comprises the delirious ravings of a paranoid man and should not be taken seriously as argument”**, but there is far too much serious argument in it for that claim to succeed. The section on  drunkenness for example, is crammed with facts and shows evident research, and the sections on literature and fellow writers far from crazed. It is in this sense, ultimately, that Bagatelles is a failure: as literature. It was a bold and even courageous attempt to push ahead a theory of writing that Celine had already established as his own, but he allowed his real preoccupations to get in the way.

This supposed pamphlet is nearly 350 pages long, and many of the “arguments” in it are repeated, when the new versions add little if anything. Even the (very funny) jokes are repeated, embellished and elaborated, but too worn for effect. If Celine were writing today, using a PC with all the text editing tools available to anyone able to  “hunt and peck” on a keyboard and use a mouse, he very well may have delivered a much different text to his reading public. There seems to this reader to be a great deal of “draft” in Bagatelles, as if Celine was keen to get the thing out and couldn’t be bothered going through proofs and rewriting again and again. And it is precisely in those parts that are the most offensive that the most repetition is found – it is as if he couldn’t be sure which bit bit better so left them all in, hoping the teeth would not seem worn by the end.

After his excursion into politics, Celine’s writing became overelaborated; his impressionistic and emotional colouration became too much really. It took nearly a decade before he realised this wasn’t working and retreated to a more restrained style, that was all the more elegant and eloquent for it. Before he published Normance, the second part of Fable for another time, he seemed to believe that it would be welcomed by his public as a great literary advance. To me, it is almost unreadable.

Bagatelles is not unreadable. Its anti-semitic diatribes are unfortunate, in that on any level, from argument through to art, they fail. In my second novel, Evilheart, the protagonist argues that the “petit bourgois” foundation of anti-semitism enfeebles anti-semitic art and that writers and others’ anti-semitism shows through in their work as weakness, and never as strength. The argument traverses Wagner – a notorious anti-semite – and painters including Cezanne and Degas, both “anti-Dreyfusards”, seeing in the former a willingness to put this view aside when picking up the brush, and in the latter a more limited palette: Degas lost important patrons because of his refusal to stop propagandising on behalf of those who believed Dreyfus guilty.*** Celine started out as Degas, and finished, shall we say, as Cezanne. In a later interview he said he got involved in things that were none of his business, “to do with the Jews”.

But he did not resile, or recant; he never changed. He just left it out,  referring to the trouble he had got into, but not, as with the three “pamphlets”, foaming at the mouth over the Jewish cabal. Yet the anti-semitism and the amazing insights into life as it is lived by all of us, that “life of quiet desperation” as the American Thoreau put it, live cheek by jowl. They can’t really be separated in this man: where he succeeded as a writer he transformed this kind of hatred into a generalised hatred, and he transformed his beliefs into general ones, not about France, not about Jews, but about life. In these  passages, and these themes, and they are many, he remains one of the greatest writers ever.

Anti-semitism is a characteristic of the petit-bourgeois milieu in any society – those people who are not “workers” and who despise them, and who envy, fear and hate those above them. Celine mined these emotions in ways never before seen, and handled since but awkwardly.  Evilheart‘s protagonist has Celine’s characters ending up “at the wrong end of the pool cue”.  ass in the air and about to get reamed…in Bagatelles Celine frequently speaks of a gnat being reamed by an elephant…the way I feel about him, when he’s on about life he has transcended  his background to speak universal truth, and when he is on about Jews he has succumbed to it.

Bagatelles begins and ends with ballet scripts the author hopes to have staged.**** Later on, these and others were published with the tongue-in-cheek title Ballets without music, without dancers, without anything. So far as I know, no music has ever been written for them and they have never been performed. Not all of them are great, but the ones in Bagatelles are not at all bad, and it would be interesting to see them produced.

When I first encountered Celine, he was liberating to me, both in a literary and a personal sense. He stood up and took the hits for the most incredible ideas, and he could write like no one else had ever written. His sad verdict on life was tempered by a kind of perverse optimism – “So life is futile. What are you going to do about it?”

Celine’s paradoxical answer to that question is found in Bagatelles. It is a tragic  answer, futility piled on futility. His motives may have been sick, and even evil, but he gains full marks in my book for the courage he showed then and after. This has been a great lesson for me, and I am still thinking about it.

* There is some evidence that Celine was an alcoholic, or had alcoholic tendencies, and that he stopped drinking as a result. In his second novel his character is shall we say led astray by drink, and by the time of Bagatelles Celine is anti-drink; in his last trilogy he says more than once that he drinks only water.

**This is me putting words into Celine’s mouth.

***Any good biography of Degas will recount his attitudes; Evilheart goes on about what it meant for his art.

****Naturally, the Jews stand in the way…in Paris as in Russia…

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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in influences, Uncategorized


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Or something like wit. This is the 23d post of this blog which is mostly about writing.

When I’m feeling defensive, which is not seldom, I say that my writing has “a serious purpose in a frivolous genre”. I mean that, but it would be possible to say that thrillers aren’t “frivolous” in any but a “not truly literature” sense. After all, they deal with death, with intrigue, with crime and sex, and those are pretty serious topics. What people mean when they say the genre is frivolous is only that the plots, and the characters are “stock” and fit into a formula, a format, that is shared with other thrillers.

There are other frivolous ways of being serious however – take Tom Sharpe.

For those unaware of him, Sharpe is an English satirical novelist; he manages to be viciously funny with an underlying serious intent, and because his novels are comic novels they are “by definition” frivolous. His first two novels were set in apartheid South Africa – he had been deported for “sedition” – and hilariously pull the regime to pieces. Some people say these were his best two books, but my favourite is The Great Pursuit, a novel that takes the stick to pretentious literary analysis and criticism of the F R Leavis variety. Possibly Sharpe was irked at not being taken seriously – if so, I understand that completely.

Well, whether he is a great novelist or not, Sharpe can be pretty funny. I’m envious of this wonderful talent that has an entirely different way of going about being “serious in a frivolous genre” than I have. I keep saying to myself that I should write a witty book, whether or not it comes up to the Sharpe edge of things, or has a different way of expressing what I have to say. But so far – I haven’t. And Kaos, the book I’m working on now, doesn’t seem to be making much room for the odd laugh. I’d like it to do that, but I find that sitting down and thinking up funny is entirely different from just being funny. The context of wit makes wit witty, and when I’m writing a novel, that context is usually not there.

Of course there are ways of going about this, and maybe that’s what I’m trying to get at: just dropping the way I do things now, and adopting those ways. Raymond Chandler’s advice in writing was “analyse, and emulate” and if one reads his books in that light, it is possible to see the emulation, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Having influences is fine – writers and other artists don’t just create out of their heads; they live in a society and respond to what is around them, and other writers are among what is “around them”.. Tracing that interaction is part of the joy of understanding them. Shakespeare had a huge range of influences and sometimes more or less copied them – he put slabs of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the North translation into his plays, just rendering them into blank verse from prose. He did the same with Holinshed’s Chronicles. Yet somehow the copy outshone the original..Shakespeare  couldn’t be pinned down. He could write it sad, he could write it mad and bad, he could make you smile. It is not easy to defy categorisation in this way as J K Rowling is finding out.

Where was I? Oh, yes, funny. The Russian writer Gogol supposedly said that he laughed so he wouldn’t cry – the Russia of his time being a pretty depressing place.  As a teenager I loved his short story about a nose that left its owner (who’d complained because there was pimple on it) chasing it round as it leapt from face to face. How I laughed! But there was more to this than a teenager might have noticed, that a writer a few years on does: that nose’s journey revealed Russians, Russia, real life masquerading as absurd, and while the nose raced around its catalogue of faces, the censor was avoided…

Well, Gogol even as a humorist was treated as a serious writer. Sharpe is not.  My sex thrills and chills romps are not either.

I set out to write thrillers as a means of writing about serious subjects for people who don’t usually read books with serious subjects in mind. I took this cue from er Shakespeare actually, who put bums on seats with tales of bloodlust, lust, intrigue, laughter, nastiness, wit, broad humour, and more. People paid the price of admission to have a good time, and they got it. Shakespeare was competing not just against other dramatists for the public’s shilling, but bear-baiting and similar amusements. He had to deliver, and he did.

Nowadays he is regarded as an untouchable icon but in his own time he was feted – by Francis Meres for example – because he could do what I would like to do: deliver serious themes in “frivolous” dress. Others were writing “serious” at the time, aimed only at the educated classes. Shakespeare showed he could do it with his sonnets. But what we remember him for was in principle always accessible by anyone.

That’s the attraction of humorous writing to me too: that you can treat quite serious, even complex, subjects, in ways that are accessible to people who wouldn’t want to know otherwise.

Ben Elton has written a number of books like this, but unlike Sharpe, I think his books – the ones I’ve read – are failures. They betray their seriousness too much, and end up not being really funny. Then the focus is on the argument, and the argument can’t be as well-put as a non-fiction argument, and it’s just a bore anyway. Sorry, Ben. Fiction needs to affect to be convincing, not convince to be effective. There are (non-humorous) exceptions to this, at least in their own time – Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is perhaps the most notable, though a contemporary novel of the type is The Celestine Prophecy, a book I have never been able to bring myself to read.

So as I struggle away on Kaos, a book that is too serious by half, I would like to put some humour into it, to make people smile and even laugh. It would be nice to do that. But underlying that always, my “serious purpose in a frivolous genre”.

If you’ve got this far give yourself a treat…go to the fridge, check it out, have a snack…or do a wee dance of the sort you would like to do when no one is looking…a true Fonteyn or Nureyev! Thanks for reading.

Posted by on October 19, 2012 in influences, my writing, Uncategorized


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Trying to get Celine out of my system is a bit like having a stubborn virus that just won’t give up, that keeps coming back and annoying you just at the time you thought you’d finally got over it. Lugging that madman around in my spiritual kitbag is a nuisance I can assure you, dear reader. While I am trying to find some other little nugget of wisdom to guide me through my day and my life, out pops the crooked grin of that very, very crooked fellow leering up at me…

“Will you go away, please?”


“Well, I am just going to ignore you, you dirty old man.”

“I am the elephant and you are the gnat. Here is a jar of vaseline to help you through the experience.”*

“Thanks ever so much.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

“I will come back to you, later…when I’ve done this, and I’ve got some time to kill.”

“You always will…”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “greatness” – in literature, and any other way. Partly this was prompted by a remark in a comment on one of the posts to this blog that Shakespeare is “over-rated”. That made me think. To me Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, and I have felt blessed by the fact that he wrote in my native language. Unlike Celine, who wrote in a French argot already passe by the time he picked up his pen, Shakespeare’s English is recognisably the English we use today.

That’s misleading, and it matters both for our appreciation of the man and his work, and for our understanding of what greatness is and is not. Shakespeare’s English is recognisably but far from precisely our English. Language changes over time in lots of ways – in the words we use, in their meaning, in grammar and punctuation when writing, in accent and more when speaking. Chaucer’s “English” is unintelligible to us today, or nearly so – and may have even been to Shakespeare, who was born less than two hundred years after Chaucer’s death.** So it is quite natural that about four hundred years after Shakespeare shuffled off, his English is quite a bit different from ours. Most editions of Shakespeare “modernise” the poems and plays, and the skeptic is not wrong to say this opens a door to changing our perceptions in ways that editors may not have intended and that would astonish any Elizabethan or Jacobean including the Bard himself.

But the fact is that we want to understand Shakespeare, which is why we go to all that trouble to make him “accessible”. And we want to, because something in his work has an appeal that goes beyond even its limitations, whether of language, or other aspects of his work.

Here is a very current example that has been in the news in the past week. In Leicester, in England, the bones of the last Plantagenet English king, Richard III, have apparently been discovered under a carpark. Richard was the subject of the concluding part of a cycle of eight plays by Shakespeare***, and his character all these years later is indelibly associated with the play. We do not know whether the real Richard was all that phyically deformed as the hunchback Shakespeare made him; if he was really so evil as all that; if he caused the two young boys under his protection in the tower of London to be murdered; if he had his brother “drowned in a butt of malmsey”…there are many legends surrounding this last Plantagenet whose death in battle marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty and symbolically the English renaissance.

Whatever the truth, Shakespeare’s version is OUR version. He has so coloured our imaginations that no “real” Richard can ever crawl out from under the blanket of evil tossed so artfully onto his crumpled corpse.

Richard ruled for only a few years; Macbeth, whose reputation Shakespeare similarly set in concrete forever, ruled for 17. The evidence for Macbeth’s villainy is dubious, and for Duncan’s saintliness, equally suspect.

We can know that Shakespeare had his own reasons for casting these two monarchs as evil. Richard was head of the competing house of York for the crown of England held by the Tudors who ruled for much of Shakespeare’s life in the person of Elizabeth I. Macbeth was the loser of a struggle for the Scottish throne, whose victor’s family came to London to rule Scotland and England as James I for the last fifteen or so years of Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare plainly had very strong  reasons for writing these plays the way he did. The politics of his time made pleasing the powers that be important for many reasons including life and limb. Yet knowing this doesn’t reduce our appreciation of Shakespeare; if anything, it enlarges it, or so say I. We can be aware of the dodgy history and enjoy the portraits of Richard and Macbeth even more: these are universal, they reach from some cultural substrate so deep that they touch and affect all who encounter them. If Richard wasn’t the evil man Shakespeare made him, some man, somewhere, was, is; we feel it in our souls.

Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew he was “one out of the box”, a unique sensibility whose writing would last and last. Jonson’s remark that he was “for all time” was a summary of what others thought. There was something, that is to say, that in his own time set him apart from the other poets and playwrights whose work crowded bookstalls and the theatres: Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster and Tourneur…these were writers who were gifted, who jostled for attention with Shakespeare, who knew him, collaborated with him, and competed with him for attention, favours, patronage, audiences…Scholars and people who are really into it – yes, that includes me – read these others today, but talented though they were, they did not match the Bard, they knew it, and so do we.

This case, for Shakespeare, only puts flesh on bones that are as yet unidentified. If we say that Shakespeare was a great writer, what are we then saying? What is this “greatness”, not only of Shakespeare but of any person we call great, of any writer?

In classical times – meaning the Greeks and Romans – if anyone ever thought that a writer, or indeed a philosopher, would be considered “great”, I haven’t known about it. Then greatness was pretty much military, and was about “honour” – dying in battle, even in a lost cause, that was great. And it was desirable…die in battle, conquer the known world, and your memory would live forever. Writing a dialogue on love that would be read two thousand five hundred years later, or a play about the love of a wife for her husband so fine and noble she would die for him, that was not great, though the gesture was.

In classical times the literature that remains to us shows many men aiming for greatness, and by it they meant a lasting memory in the world at large. Over time, that basic idea has stayed but we now  pass out the gong*** of greatness rather more broadly, and more easily, as we do “genius”. As one of the characters in my novel Evilheart says of contemporary Germany, “There are so many geniuses!” Greatness in the arts is a given; great painters, poets, sculptors, film-makers, musicians, composers, and writers surround us with a healthy regard for their talents.

Yet if we take “greatness” to mean “lasting” and “popular” there aren’t that many great writers, and the crowded landscape of 20th century literary greatness bestowed by critics acting as self-appointed holders of the right to invoke “common consent” is likely to be seriously depopulated by the time the 22th century rolls around.

Does it matter? Well, I reckon it does matter. We need – and want – scales to judge merit, and “greatness” just happens to be at the top of the scale. Yet we discover the acme too easily.

Sadly, the top end is getting crowded by the new technology combined with human nature, and the market. Evilheart was in fact prescient – there are so many geniuses! E-publishing – like this post you are reading – means anyone who can string two words together can write a book, and that probably means, write a novel. And nearly everyone has friends and they will review the novel and give it five stars or whatever the maximum is, and shazam! another great writer. You can’t go higher than the highest can you? This phenomenon has become a problem in that anyone who might review books on a more sensible basis risks hurting the author because so much lesser quality work gets the highest mark possible. My way of dealing with this is to give five stars to anything I like, and not review anything I don’t.

Greatness as I’ve already said in literature is about “lasting” and “popular”. “Lasting” implies value – that it is worth something, so people keep reading and/or seeing it in the case of say drama. And “popular”, when combined with “lasting”, implies something more too – that the value that is there is accessible. So a great writer reaches us, the common herd, and affects us, reveals things about reality, about life, about what is important, that we had not realised, and goes on doing it. When Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare that he was not merely of the age but for all time, he was saying that – that Shakespeare had somehow penetrated the mysteries of life and come back to tell us about them, and that repeated exposure to him yields more clues to the mysteries.

We don’t know much about Shakespeare the man. His life story isn’t a complete blank, but the “facts” don’t really yield much about what kind of person he was. Jonson – again – referred to him as “gentle” in such a way as to imply he was known as a very decent chap. But that’s about it. What we get about him from his plays  is his sensibility, his way of looking at the world, through the language he uses, the plots he chooses, the heroes and villains he uses and abuses.

Yet accessibility has its limits as a definition of greatness. Shakespeare put bums on seats in the theatres – he had something for everyone. But part of that something was a secret, coded message or messages that only initiates in the cults of the time Shakespeare was presumably part of or at least aware of would understand. Ted Hughes wrote memorably of this in his amazing book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but there are other takes on it: that he was a closet Catholic the most prominent, but also a “Rosicrucian” British imperialist, or a member of pagan cults sprung up as a result of the translation of the great Greek writers…People argue about this now, but what seems to me to be important is that Shakespeare delivered even on this level, without leaving the “groundlings” who just wanted a good story, out of the loop. It’s all there for you – you don’t have to do anything but sit back and enjoy the most superficial story unfold before you. But if you want more, there is more – always. The measure of Shakespeare’s greatness is that there is always more; he was not just “the spirit of the age” but also “for all time”.

There have been other writers who captured the flavour of their time, and beyond, people recognised at the time: Balzac in France, Mark Twain in the United States (“the Lincoln of our literature” another writer called him, and truly), Dickens in England…Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia. Others were perhaps less lauded in their own lifetimes, their worth discovered only later, sometimes much later.

In our time? Perhaps I am jaded, but I don’t see many novelists who have emerged since 1945 with that sort of cachet apart from two of the “Celinists” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass – and Solzhenitsyn. With the 20th century barely receding over the hills at the back of our consciousness, the writers who were lionised in their own times have for the most part fallen away. In my mind there are few post-war writers, in any language, who will be read in a hundred years. Yet at the same time, we find five star greatness virtually everywhere we look.

This evident contradiction is partly, I think, because of cultural changes. Poetry, for example, has become rarified, inaccessible to most people. The truly popular “poets” work as musicians, and it is likely that Bob Dylan’s work and possibly Leonard Cohen’s will be listened to for generations. Dylan is the one artist of our time whose work has something of the cachet that Shakespeare had in his time – someone who is recognised by his peers, writers and public, as expressing “the soul of the age”. Yet Dylan, whose art is partly based on a conscious artlessness that throws his words into focus, is often treated with contempt by the “educated” and ignorant.

I know that my books aren’t “great” and I don’t think that in two hundred years, as Celine was so certain he would be, I’ll be “helping the kids through high school”.  My aims in writing are to entertain and to provoke interest – in Shakespeare and  Dostoevsky among others, but in lesser known characters I think people might get something from: Berdyaev, Giordano Bruno, the whole renaissance “white magic” movement. There’s moral force, too, of a sort, and my interest in evil, what it is and what it means – the obverse of greatness.

My wee list of great writers troubles me – so many of them had personal foibles that set them apart too. Celine and Dostoevsky were virulent anti-semites, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice plays to anti-semitism too. Tolstoy was more than a bit of a nut. Solzhenitsyn had, shall we say, very unusual political views of the “Great Russian prejudice” variety. Balzac? A reactionary. Twain and Euripides seemed on the side of the angels – unless you count Twain’s Mysterious Stranger…it does matter: if we say that greatness involves deep penetration into the “meaning of life”, how can we square the wisdom with the weirdness?

We are back to the beginning and that ratbag in my kitbag.

“In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school.”^^

This is the first post I have written on wordpress but the twentieth of this blog, which is mainly about writing. The posts will be copied back to Goodreads, or they’re meant to be. But if they aren’t I will copy them myself.

You are a great reader if you’ve got here – ha! How many stars would you like? Forty-three? It’s a good number – take them. You can get them in any shape you like from the star shop, spray paint them new colours if you like, and stick them  in delicate patterns on the door of the fridge.

Thanks for reading.

*This is a joke deriving from Celine’s so-called pamphlet that is the subject of my previous post.

**Shakespeare wrote a play, Troilus and Cressida, that was also the subject of a long narrative poem by Chaucer, so it is assumed the playwright was familiar with the poet. But there is little if anything of Chaucer in Shakespeare’s version.

***gong: British empire expression for award.

^Machiavelli through his analysis of statecraft, The Prince, had become a synonym for evil by Shakespeare’s time – he died about forty years before Shakespeare was born – and he is referred to in that way by the Bard on a few occasions. But the Italian was also a poet and playwright and arguably wrote the first renaissance play, Mandragola, and a second, Clizia. Both are sex farces. Machiavelli was not the great writer that Shakespeare was, but then neither was anyone else.

^^From Celine’s Rigodon, his last book.

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Posted by on September 15, 2012 in influences, random chatter


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