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Pensive Peter Salmon

Proof of Pudding

What discerning judges have said about The Coffee Story

'It's been a while since I read a first novel that felt as universally accomplished as Peter Salmon's The Coffee Story' - Toby Litt

'I was constantly intoxicated by a sense of desire & loss' - Jake Arnott

'Wild and raucous... an extraordinarily accomplished debut' - Niall Griffiths

'Reminiscent of Phillip Roth's Everyman. But it's much, much funnier' - Sydney Morning Herald

'An exceptional debut' - Martyn Bedford

Hard Sell

Against Prose

king lear tragedy“I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.” – Geoffrey Hill

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a second hand copy of King Lear: The Space of Tragedy by the director Grigori Kozintsev. Ostensibly a journal of the making of his outstanding 1973 film King Lear, it is also one of my favourite sorts of texts – a document which records an artist thinking.

The book ranges across huge subjects – Shakespeare, of course, but also Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Noh theatre, Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Shelley, Poe, Mayakovsky, the role of the artist, the role of the poet, the real and the imagined, the difficulties of realising one’s vision, and the glory of creating a work that operates outside of one’s own being.

Kozintsev, as anyone who is familiar with his work knows, is deeply suspicious of art that takes cohesiveness as its primary goal. Lear is, of course, a work that resists simplification in any case, but Kozintsev does not even want the sword fights to move with fluidity – all and everything is to be complicated, incomplete, gnarled and obstreperous. The viewer is asked to work, not to be led by the hand.

Kozintsev writes, “The unfortunate truth is we often interpret both prose and poetry too directly. Marina Tsvetayeva wrote ‘I will never believe in prose, it doesn’t exist. I have never met it once, not even the tip of its tail… When beneath everything, behind and above everything there are gods, disasters, spirits, fates, wings, tails – what sort of “prose” can you have? When everything is a revolving globe with an inside of fire?’”

We live at a moment where ‘prose’ is becoming more prevalent and more insidious. People seem to have forgotten that prose – however prosaic – remains a created thing, a way of telling. In the recent EU referendum, simple slogans like ‘Breaking Point’, or sentences where the first and second clauses had no relationship to each other, such as ‘We are over-governed, because of the EU’ appeared as truth, simply because they had narrative coherence.

More and more I feel that the role of the artist must be to disrupt conventional thought, and to reveal that conventional thought is just that – a convention. Yes, Schoenberg said “there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major”, and there will always be room for a well written book to pass the time. But as Geoffrey Hill also said “We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other.”

We seem to be living in a time where to be complex is to be elitist. And, frankly, it’s not going well.

Wartime Notebooks by Marguerite Duras

durasIf I were told, “You’ll be fucked by ninety soldiers and he’ll receive a piece of bread,” I’d ask to be fucked by a hundred and eighty soldiers so he’d get two pieces of bread… Calculations like those – I make them three hundred times a day. A finger for a piece of bread; two fingers for two pieces. Ten years of my life to give him two more. Anything is possible since we know nothing…

Marguerite Duras is one of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century – one of the greatest writers of all time. We live in an era where the blurring of fact and fiction is one of the concerns of the age – think Knausgaard and Sebald – Duras gets there before them, and, one can argue, goes beyond what they achieve. In the transformation of her life into fiction, she reveals that fiction has access to truths that cannot be found elsewhere. Duras is a truth-teller, as confronting and harrowing as those truths can be.

These notebooks were kept by Duras from 1943-46, and not published until 2006. One wants to write some twaddle like ‘they are a valuable document of the time’ or of ‘the writer’s development’, containing as they do many of the ideas and episodes which would go into her later writing (The Lover in particular), her short stories (worked out and worked over throughout the notebooks), and her account of life under the Nazi occupation of France and in the time immediately after. This would be true, but they are more than that. In the juxapositioning of all of these element (the editors have remained faithful to the notebooks as notebooks) we see a replication of Duras’ mature style – events are told, retold, turned about, fictionalised, moved from character to character, interrogated from different angles, repudiated, and accepted. It is an astonishing book in its own right.

The most harrowing section deals with Duras’ wait to find out if her husband, Robert Antelme, a prisoner-of-war, has survived. She waits for him as the true horrors of the concentration camps become known. Her desperation is brutally rendered, as in the passage above. Duras is the most raw of writers, this is her at her most raw, and yet to be raw and write is not to transmit that feeling – the transmission of that feeling is the domain of literature, and it is at this point of transformation that Duras sets up her tight rope. It is exhausting. It is brilliant.

For Duras, here and always, writing is an exploration of of how one is to live, and of what it is to be human. She is not unique in this. But Duras goes further – she starts with no template, with no received notions of being or of morality. The act of self creation is the only given, but what each human may become (in extremis, in the quotidian) cannot be predicted, and our post hoc evaluations are a smoothing out of a process which at every moment is in, or prone to crisis. In his war notebooks, Sartre reflects on a breakdown he had experience before the war, and the realisation that ‘anyone could become anything’.

Duras more than any other writer watches what happens, and reports back, without flinching. Or, when she flinches, she reports on that too.


My Top Ten Books of 2015, Numbers 1-5

Yup, here they are. Reverse order again. No peeking.

flaubert letters5. Flaubert’s Letters

One of my guiltiest secrets as a reader, and as writer and as a man, is that I have never enjoyed or admired Madame Bovary. Again and again I have picked it up, marvelled at the hat that Charles Bovary wears to school on page two, and then felt the book get heavier and heavier in my hands until I am able to drop it a couple of hundred stultifying pages later. So it was quite a revelation to fall in love with his letters. From the frankly obscene letters of his early twenties; to those concerning his (mutually) crap love affair with Louise Colet, through the letters of his maturity in which he sets out his artistic ideals; to the grumpy letters of his dotage, railing against the idiocy of the individual and society, these letters read like an eloquent version of what goes on in the head of any intelligent person, by which I guess I mean me (I do tend to rail against idiocy). Means I will have to read Bovary again. Dear God.



iliad4. The Iliad by Peter Green and Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

I had the good fortune to come across the writings of Weil for the first time while writing a review of this new translation of the Iliad… and if that sounds like a plug, it is: here’s the review… http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/the-iliad-homer-peter-green/ But self-promotion aside, Weil’s ideas continue to haunt me – I find myself agreeing with her passionately, and then disagreeing with her just as passionately. At her best she is inspiring, at her worst – has there ever been a more annoying writer? I think in the end she is completely wrong, but wrong in the most interesting way I have ever encountered.



flanders3. The Flanders Road by Claude Simon

This brilliant novel is not so much a book to me these days as a totem. I keep it beside me while I write as a sort of incentive. Whenever I am writing and I think I can’t do something, this novel laughs in my face. It is a book of absolute conviction and absolute audacity. Simon uses language pushed to its limits – this is no affectation, but a revelation of the torsion between language and thought. It is exhilarating.





migration2. Migration by W S Merwin

There are some books it is best not to read just before bed. This is one – a collection from W S Merwin which, like the Claude Simon novel, eschews punctuation unless absolutely necessary – in Simon’s case very occasionally, and in Merwin’s case, never. This produces small nodes of surprising meaning in the Merwin – he is able to shape several meanings simultaneously, or deliver one with what appears to be absolute clarity, before it begins to vibrate with ambiguity moments later. Merwin’s recent work has drawn itself closer to nature – there is solace there – but his earlier works come across to me as wounded, worried. And, because his verse is so open, the reader cannot help but start searching for concordances, and new ways of thinking. And then it’s 3am…



wisdom1. The Wisdom Books – Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; Strong as Death is Love – The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel; Ancient Israel – The Former Prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings by Robert Alter

Without a doubt, Robert Alter’s ongoing translation of the Bible has been the biggest revelation of the year for me. Going back to the roots of the text, Alter provides both a terrific, poetic rendering of the narrative, and provides – running parallel to the text, a commentary that concentrates on the books as ‘literature’. Thus he brings both the skill of a literary critic and the erudition of a linguist to the task. The Bible becomes a living thing – that it became a collection, and that the collection became a holy book, becomes more and more baffling and more and more intriguing. One comes to the conclusion that this is as much down to the genius of words as to the genius of religion – so little of the Bible is moral proselytizing, so much of it thrums with ambiguity. And the notes are a marvellous source of tid-bits, from the quotidian – did you know the etymology of ‘restaurant’ is restorant? – to the sublime – David’s son, Amnon, in love with his sister Tamar, says in English “Tamar the sister of Absolom my brother I do love”  which Alter points out is, in the Hebrew, a “series of gasping sighs – ‘et-tamar’ ahot ‘avshalom ‘ahi ‘ani’ ‘ohev”, the opening vowel sounds of each word panting out his desire. I haven’t read Alter’s Five Books of Moses yet, but they are next on the list. I believe they start with a bang…