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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

Pasolini in New Humanist

new humanistResearching the film Salo for an article in the summer edition of New Humanist (out now!) has sent me back to the films of Pasolini, in all their wonderful, exasperating glory. Pasolini is not a film maker of the mundane – his topics are meant to unsettle, his method of cinematography to provoke. He always argued that he was, first and formeost a poet – a point well made by Stephen Sarterelli in his terrific introduction to his The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini which came out last year through the University of Chicago Press – and that he chose film as a medium in order to reach the largest possible audience for his art.

It is a poet’s sensibility he brings to his film making. To take one powerful instance, in a key scene in his astonishing The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, he introduces a simple series of shots of Christ speaking words of the Gospel, and, by having the words spoken as emphatically and disjointedly as they are presented in Matthew, we feel both their force and their mystery. As a poet, Pasolini allows the disjunctures of the text to provide a sacred space, into which meaning rushes.

It is a point similar to the one made by Ricard Beard in his fine article on the power of the Gospels in the Guardian, here. As writers, so often the temptation is to overwrite, to fix meaning as precisely as possible. Sometimes this is necessary (insofar as it is ‘possible’). But art, including great writing, must press against this, and allow meaning to generate itself, and, sometimes contradict itself, if it is to have a chance at greatness.

Anyway, buy the New Humanist!

Pig Earth

John Berger

John Berger

‘I have never thought of writing as a profession. It is a solitary, independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority… Whatever the motives, political or personal, which have led me to undertake to write something, the writing begins, as soon as I begin, a struggle to give meaning to experience. Every profession has limits to its competence, but also to its own territory. Writing, as I know it, has no territory of its own. The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach.’ – John Berger.

I’ve been reading John Berger’s Pig Earth again as, I believe, any writer should at least every couple of years. Here is a book that acts simultaneously as a record of experience, a narrative about experience, and a lesson in writing. It is writing as commitment – political and personal. Berger’s touchstone is honesty – when you read Berger you notice all of the dishonesties and evasions in your own writing, all the places where ‘bad faith’ has crept in. This does not occlude the possibility of all the range of narrative tricks available to the author (after all, the last story in the book, ‘The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol’, is a narrative of ghosts, set the borderland between the living and the dead), but those tricks need to be used in the service of the story – the fictional truth which reveals experience.

That said, Berger being a writer of political engagement is, of course, no accident, and at a time when public discourse continues to narrow it becomes the job of any writer – if it wasn’t already – to attempt to disrupt this discourse, identify its limits, and direct our attention to who is favoured by this narrowing, what their power structure is, and who are its victims.

All writing is political, as is all art. Each artist has a choice as to whether they endorse or fight back against the prevailing discourse. Whether ‘swimming against the tide’ as Henry James put it, or ‘speaking truth to power’ in the words of Edward Said, all artists need to ensure that we continue to open a space where the human, in all its messy glory, continues to be given voice.

Victor Hugo, He Just Don’t Care

Hugo, on a rock, thinking.

Hugo, on a rock, thinking.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, a novel I was completely unaware of, but found in a charity shop. Published immediately after Les Miserables, and set on the island of Guernsey – where Hugo lived in exile from 1855-71, something else I didn’t know – this is a book by a man in his pomp. As a novel it is everything the gatekeepers of form abhor – shaggy; discursive; not only unafraid of, but positively drawn to, digression; and with heavy dollops of melodrama, stolen glances, deaths at sea, that sort of thing. It is writing with one’s belt unbuckled, and feet up on the desk.

Essentially, Hugo is keen to tell the reader everything he knows – there are 24 chapters describing the cultural, scientific and natural minutiae of the Channel Islands before he introduces any of the characters, plus long chapters that describe in loving and excessive detail the working parts of boats, the genesis and history of levers, the genesis and history of the universe (and man’s place in it), and, in one particularly memorable section, everything anyone knows about squids (a fair bit of which turns out to be wrong, according to the droll footnotes).

Underneath all of this is a rollicking tale of love, seafaring and a bit more love. Hugo pulls out all the stops and then, with them out, takes seventy pages to tell you some stuff he reckons about rock pools. All this, and one very good joke about vampires. Highly recommended.