Friday, 27 February 2009
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Today I am very pleased to hand over the Blog to Craig Nova, author of Incandescence, which we are reissuing in July. Craig offers some thoughts on politics in literature.
In the current age, when passions are so keen and when distortions are so omni-present, it is a good idea to remember that there is a difference, and a profound one, between a novelist and a propagandist. Where the novelist’s work is concerned, politics corrupt, and an absolute concern with politics corrupts absolutely.
Political content fails in a novel for three reasons. The first is that the novelist is almost always concerned with those aspects of humanity that differ from what we expect people to be. Perhaps it is best to think of this inside out, or in its most extreme opposite form. Socialist Realism was a good example of the foolishness of writing novels that are concerned with “political truths” as opposed to actual ones. This, of course, was a reflection of the Soviet notion that a writer, just like any other worker, was there to do strictly utilitarian work, and that meant glorifying the state. In practice this meant accounts of Worker X in Shoe Plant T-24, who had met her quota for the month with an almost orgasmic satisfaction. Now, in this case a novelist (as opposed to the propagandist) would be more interested in her fury at being confined by rules and regulations, her secret temptations to commit sabotage, her meeting with her boyfriend in the glue room, or, perhaps, her lesbian affair that, if it came out, could get her sent to nut house. And, of course, these and other such activities are precisely what the Socialist Realist writer was forbidden to include.
The right wing version of this, I hasten to add, is not so much the production of works that glorify a state, but the suppression of works that are found politically unacceptable.
Now, Socialist Realism is an extreme example, but the inherent contradictions in it (that is, not writing about what it is really like to be human) plays into the next reason that political content fails in a novel. In most political visions, there are good guys and bad guys, and that is that. The political vision is not interested in doubt or complexity and the intricate workings of an interior life. One’s political opponents are always cynical manipulators and one’s political heroes are always driven by mystical purity. To say that this is dull is to put it mildly. The corrupting aspect of political content in a novel is this: sooner or later there will be a conflict between what the political belief demands and what the novelist knows about the human heart.
The next reason that such novels fail is that the political vision is not interested in humor. While it is true that political figures are funny now and then, they are rarely aware of it. Humor, by the way, almost always has to do with a delight in surprises, and this is another item that the political vision abhors: there are no surprises in political beliefs. If you have problem A, then the solution is to do B + C + D. Humor and unintended consequences are not even on the radar screen. And yet, if you are interested in what it is really like to be human, these items are absolutely essential.
In fact, a good novel investigates those aspects of being human that are filled with surprises, just as such a book explores the tragic aspect of life, and there is no place in politics for the tragic: we can not say, politically, that there are some things we can do nothing about.
This sounds like a pretty thorough condemnation of the novel, and, as a novelist, I would be horrified if that is all there was to it. But looking at “the lower layer,” as Melville called it, I think there is another aspect which compensates for all of this. A first rate novelist will explore the moral impulse that is at the heart of facing up to any issue. Albert Camus, for instance, was profoundly concerned with politics, but his books are investigations into the facts of the human condition. We live. We die. And we are all in the same boat. So what are our obligations to one another? It is this aspect of the novel that redeems, and, in a profound way, makes it critical to the modern age, since a novelist worth anything is interested in what it is like to be human and how we know right from wrong. It is this knowledge that drives not only our personal lives, but our political ones, too.
Quotation of the day
"By definition a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more." Albert Camus.
Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Sunday, 15 February 2009
One section of the book describes how the female narrator, conscious of an intense but unstated romantic attraction between her and a male colleague, applies a strategy she learned from a female acquaintance in order to inspire the male to kiss her, namely "'Just stand close to a man', the woman had said, 'very close, as close as you can without touching - he will kiss you in one minute or two. It's inevitable'".
This (successful) advice reminded me of a Fay Weldon short story I read many years ago, in which a woman seduces a man she knows is attracted to her by brushing her breast against his arm as she walks by him. This again is touted as an infallible device by the narrator.
All this raises some interesting questions: are men so easily and predictably directed?; is there a secret book, possibly begun at the dawn of time and copied and distributed to women around the world containing these and other devious manouevres (and if so, how did Mr. Boyd gain access to it?); (and also if so, what else is in it?).
Answers on a postcard, or by clicking the Comments tab, welcome.
Quotation of the day
"'He had a dream' I says 'and it shot him.'
'Singular dream.' he says." Mark Twain, from Huckleberry Finn.
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Monday, 9 February 2009
Nonetheless, I felt this was all the pretext I needed to list some of my favourite work in this genre, namely:
The Death of Grass - John Christopher. Typically elegant and imaginative (and now relatively neglected) outing from the 'Tripods' author.
The 'Plague' trilogy - Jean Ure. Extraordinary tour de force, especially the choice of themes for a children's series, which tackles the social, personal and religious dimensions of biological apocalypse.
Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban. The Ulysses of the genre, in which language and culture have decayed and evolved into forms the understanding of which provides the reader with a highly stimulating and complex puzzle.
Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut. I'm cheating here, as this is an apocalypse without a 'post', but I had to get him in somewhere. A playful but as always profoundly wise romp through family, religion and science. Galapagos is a more authentic choice.
Actually, another link would have been to say that these are some books in which it is hard to keep alive (see our motto, gentle reader).
One or two citizens have, however, begun to spread dark rumours that the mysterious white cloud is returning. We look to the skies and pray....
Quotation of the day
Sunday, 8 February 2009
This brought us on to the discovery that he has recently - due to the fiscal belt-tightening necessitated by about seven people in the world becoming insanely rich while running banks very badly - returned to using his local library, a pleasure which I, for much the same reason, also restored to my life a few weeks ago. We created a touching moment over the bacon, eggs and beans by sharing our wide-eyed wonder in the renewed realisation that one could walk into a building full equally of books and very nice, knowledgable people and walk away clutching an armful of literature of many varieties at absolutely no cost. Our only regret was that we had banished this readily available magic from our lives for so many years, lulled away by bookshops with their alluring, shapely dumpbins and gaudily made-up books surrendering themselves to us cheaply or for free. The brother-in-law observed that he had seen an advertisement in his library wittily promising "Buy none, get 8 free".
I must emphasise that the missing link between the first and the second topics was my sister-in-law observing that a rather different handling regime would have to prevail with those books belonging to the local authority.
It is now frequently reported that the death of the book has been frequently reported, and it will be interesting to observe how much and how quickly the e-reader is absorbed. I hope I'm not consigning myself to the luddite or old fogey departments when I predict that enough people will continue to find what has been castigated as the 'dead tree format' the most comfortable and pleasurable way to read, to enable the paper book to continue.
Quotation of the day
"No wise man ever wished to be younger". Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, to be published by Capuchin Classics in May, with a new introduction by Jeremy Paxman.
Friday, 6 February 2009
Thursday, 5 February 2009
Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Monday, 2 February 2009
I'm David Birkett, and I joined the Capuchin team recently in a Sales and Marketing role, and thus inherited the blogging mantle. My intention is to add a blog each day, which will reflect some aspect of the book world, be it specifically related to titles or activities at Capuchin or otherwise.
Bouncing into the Capuchin maternity suite recently came four new children, each bearing the healthy green, white and black pallor of their sixteen siblings. We have (very much non-identical) short story twins - H.E. Bates' Love in a Wych Elm & other Stories and Leo Tolstoy's Tales of Sexual Desire. These are, respectively, explorations of rural England and the darker landscape of violent sexual desire. Hugh Walpole's Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill exemplifies the fine British tradition of powerful writing about public school life and culture, while Charles Morgan's The Voyage, set in the Charente region of France, beautifully describes one man's quest for love. Stylistic and geographical contrast are on offer in this newest batch of books which we are proud to add to the Capuchin family. Our Capuchin Classics website has full details of these books, our previously published list and some forthcoming titles.
Publishing Cliche #24
It is indeed a small world. Readers of the delightful Alma Books blog will know that we had the pleasure of lunching Alma's co-founder Alessandro Gallenzi recently. Alessandro's description of that event made reference to my colleague Max Scott resembling Hugh Grant and speaking in an unintelligibly refined accent. We would like to state for the record that not only is Max's diction a model of clarity and intelligibility, but that he's much better looking than the Grant chappie. Our conversation took me back to the days when I worked for a sales agency - Troika - which helped introduce Alessandro's first British publishing project, Hesperus. Troika also represented many other fine independent publishers, and its work included being involved in the launch of another two new ventures that, through wonderful content, design and editorial passion and expertise, continue to enrich the publishing world today, namely Maia Press and Gallic Books.
It was exciting and fulfilling to watch and assist these projects become reality, and equally so to have become a part of the Capuchin team which is celebrating and restoring works of enduring literary value. As ever, it was also a pleasure to share Alessandro's company.
Quotation of the day
"There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God's finger on man's shoulder." Charles Morgan.
Best wishes -
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