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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

A Fortunate Man

fortunate manIn light of recent events, this passage from John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, has been playing over and over in my mind. Quoting it in full probably doesn’t count as fair use, so if everyone could do me a favour and buy the book I’d feel I had done my bit. Plus, it’s a truly great book.

“There are large sections of the English working and middle class who are inarticulate as the result of wholesale cultural deprivation. They are deprived of the means of translating what they know into thoughts which they can think. They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. Their spoken, proverbial traditions have long been destroyed: and, although they are literate in the strictly technical sense, they have not had the opportunity of discovering the tradition of a written cultural heritage.

“Yet it is more than a question of literature. Any general culture acts as a mirror which enables the individual to recognize himself – or at least recognize those parts of himself which are socially permissible. The culturally deprived have far fewer ways of recognizing themselves. A great deal of their experience – especially emotional and introspective experience – remains unnamed for them. Their chief means of self-expression is consequently through action …

“The easiest – and sometimes only possible – form of conversation is that which concerns or describes action. It is then not the experience of the speakers which is discussed, but the nature of an entirely exterior mechanism or event – a motor-car engine, a football match, a draining system or the workings of some committee. Such subjects, which preclude anything directly personal, supply the content of most of the conversations being carried on by men over twenty-five in England today.”

Much to think about.

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.