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The Door Handle is Depressed – Ten Years Translating the Nordic Crime Wave

5 Jan

At the end of the 1990s, the London scene for Nordic translation had lost whatever sheen it once had, which was never more than a flash of reflected light from the window of a passing car. Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” was one of the few Swedish novels that had actually entered into the English vernacular, evading the lethal tag of being an obscure or substandard translation. The Danish novel, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, also outgrew its imported status and was accepted as “an English book.” But apart from these two and a handful of others, there was a realisation that even the most glorious translations of Estonian poetry or Finnish experimental novels would never sell very well in England. Certain high-brow types bewailed what they described as English parochialism, until they understood that educated people all over the place, in all countries, were rejecting proper literature, which no longer seemed suitable for general consumption. By that, I suppose, I mean that it did not have an easily marketable quality except that it was very profound and important. The writers tended to be old, ugly, serious, decrepit, snowy-haired professorial types, or willowy left-of-centre rebels keen on sexual adventurism or demolishing authority wherever they saw evidence of it. Such authors were never going to appeal to marketing departments or the general public. What was needed here were slick operators who knew how to string a few words together in the correct order, keeping strictly to exciting and/or terrifying subjects. Of course we always had thrillers, but somehow the thriller which also used to be more simply known as “the bestseller” was out of fashion, and even Frederick Forsyth was little more than a funny old ex-secret service chap, in a Burberry raincoat, spouting on about the Cold War, which was long over.

Meanwhile, gawky translators were hanging about in bookshops or inundating publishers with letters in which they were forever “looking forward to hearing from” someone, learning as they went on that no one ever replies to polite individuals who look forward to being replied to. It’s one of the rules of publishing and, some would say, a fundamental rule of all commerce. And so it was that, by the end of the 1990s, if one entered a room filled with translators, one could faintly make out a background noise of whinging and moaning, also of grumbling bellies. Public money was the only thing that kept us alive in those days. Grants issued by the Swedish Arts Council were regularly doled out like disaster relief to any fool willing to have a go at translation.

Sweden, being a small country with a modest ego, appreciated from the very beginning that it had to export itself in the field of the arts no less than in industry. It had to become virtual and pervasive, and it had to define itself. England, while physically an even smaller country, had a very large ego and plenty of weighty history to compress its freedom of manoeuvre, but more important still, England felt that its literary heritage made translated imports an irrelevance at worst and a bit of fun at best. While its empire had certainly diminished alarmingly, the English language was still swaggering and showering spittle all over the world’s smaller nations and their piddling cultural output. And for all these reasons and more, translators were regularly wheeled in by the Swedish consular authorities, given a few medals, stuffed with prawn toast and gravlax and chicken satay sticks and sent home with jiffy bags containing free books, publishers’ catalogues and a sufficient quantity of smoked cod roe to keep them alive for a few weeks. Mid-range wine was consumed in large quantities at these functions, while ambassadors and cultural councillors shook hands and surreptitiously checked their watches. The translators, their heads spinning with glory, were sent back to their dingy suburbs, where another year would pass locked into the intricacies of translating 1940s Surrealist poetry or perhaps a classic nineteenth century novel about iron ore mining north of the Arctic Circle?

The English public had a resistant view of Nordic literature in those days. It was considered earnest and slightly unsophisticated, like a wooden clog in a museum – either too folkloric or too politically aware. Scandinavia had not yet been changed by the digital era. Its countryside was a farmyard, and its cities were meat markets. Its young peasants were not yet smart or technological, more about hubcaps than Apps. In the background, if you strained your ears, you could just about make out the creaking sound of a rope in a kitchen, where a hanged man swung gently in the draft. Even more distantly, a faint, anodyne beat was thumping from a nightclub where happy, buxom blondes had danced the night away and were now going back for a sauna with a few chosen males. Plenty of uncomplicated sex was on offer, of course. And here was the strange marriage of Sweden: the depressive streak affectionately holding hands with hedonism. The wild club dancers had one pocket full of condoms and the other stuffed with Prozac. How was literature ever going to appropriate such extraneous territory? The only way, as we have seen, was by sticking religiously to genre, because genre is a narrow corridor through which we see everything – or even the long lens of a telescope, picking out the required details at the expense of all else.

How different everything is now from those primitive days! The lubrication of money shifted the axis of writing in Sweden. By 2011, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy had sold 65 million books worldwide. Henning Mankell was not far behind, although his sales were obviously spread across a larger number of books: and yet, total sales of 40 million books cannot be explained away. A pack of minor, though still massively selling authors, joined the irresistible tug of crime book production. Liza Marklund fought herself clear of lesser wolves, and “The Postcard Killers”, her recent collaboration with the bestselling American writer James Patterson, was the world’s first e-book to shift more than 5 million units. She was also the first Swedish woman to top the New York Times Bestseller List. One could mention other names such as Jo Nesbo (the “Harry Hole” series has sold more than 20 million copies) or Arne Dahl (“A-team” Series, 2.5 million copies and counting). The trend, when discussing the Swedish crime writing wave, is already evident in this brief introduction. We are not so concerned with the actual literary quality of the books. The accepted assumption is that books selling in such vast numbers must be good. Whenever one reads anything about crime writers, their sales are mentioned as credentials of their worth in much the same way as literary prizes used to be bandied about. Whereas “John Smith”, Winner of the W.H. Smith Prize, used to be an attractive proposition, we are now much more delighted to hear that he has sold almost so-and-so many million copies in 62 countries. Democracy has gone wild. Unfortunately, as translators know all too well, the assumption that excellence leads to good sales is often about as wrong as anything can be. Translators are frequently asked to convert ridiculous, superficial, hackneyed nonsense into another language, only to be challenged by publishers daunted by the sheer ridiculousness, superficiality and hackneyed nonsense of the property they have just bought. Experienced translators and publishers, on the other hand, rest assured: they know that crap sells.

The sheer impact of the gruesome imaginings of Sweden’s assiduous crime writers on the world’s reading public cannot be denied. Just as an English gentleman in many parts of the world is still believed to be a polite, well-mannered fellow in a tweed suit, so a Swede is increasingly considered to be an unshaven, hung-over police inspector at his kitchen table, possibly weeping as he/ she reads a frayed, old letter from his estranged daughter/ son, before getting into his car and driving off into a gloomy, punishingly cold morning. Somewhere, the reader knows, a person lies dead, bludgeoned, strangled, electrocuted, boiled, poisoned, extorted, cut into pieces, raped, drained of his blood, beheaded, drowned, plasticized or in some other ingenious way robbed of his/ her precious life. It’s unjust, it’s unreasonable. People deserve to be safe, people deserve better than death. But what are you going to do? There are dark forces out there. Swedes know the reason for this problem. The agents of darkness do not vote for the Social Democrats, nor are they concerned about the health service, maternity leave or global warming. They have private health insurance. Women don’t have children, they have careers, thank God. Global warming is not on anyone’s radar. These dark folk have simple goals; they either want to get rich fast, or they have an obscure need to get even with someone; and in many cases, worryingly, they are just ordinary folk pulled into the matrix of crime by circumstances beyond their control. Judging by the success of Swedish crime writing, we had better hope the Swedish economy keeps doing well. Imagine the potential danger of millions of impecunious Swedes? Crime would become our bread and butter.

My own view, fantastical though it may sound, is that Swedes made a decision at some point to revive their ancient Norse mythology; in fact, to demonise themselves. Sweden had been a secular society for years, and a time came when it seemed expedient to harness Old Nick to aid our cause. Frost giants are once again duelling over the hills; in still nights we can hear their mighty hammers. Below, in the valleys, law-abiding folk are eating sausage sandwiches and soured milk yoghurt and getting ready to go to their ordinary jobs in offices, warehouses, and factories. Soon they will sit down with their colleagues for their morning coffee and cinnamon buns. Their soft-spoken voices will relate what they had for supper last night, or how much they managed to bench-press at the gym. Such ordinary people are under threat, the world is crumbling around them. A greedy criminal is waiting to commit an outrage. He/ she is a representative of chaos, he/ she is a person intent on breaking the rules and making honest people’s lives miserable for no proper reason. If the criminal wasn’t so twisted, he/ she would just find an ordinary job and get on with taking snuff, eating soured milk yoghurt, going to the gym three times a week and the nightclub on Saturdays, then fornication? But alas, life is not so simple. In many instances the greedy usurper is simply a Capitalist intent on destabilising the reasonable and equitable social model that grew out of the looming poverty of the early 20th century, still remembered with a shudder all over Scandinavia. And so the problem of evil goes on, and has been going on now for thousands of years. We still can’t explain it. Where do these unpleasant people come from, why do they rape, maim, kill and torture, or exploit others? Why don’t they make love, heal, have children and give pleasure to others? Well, as any literary expert will explain, it’s because they’re either foreign, most likely Russian or Serbs or at least dark-haired people with guttural accents; or, they’re just very individualistic types who don’t believe in a caring society.

To sum up, Sweden, one of the safest countries in the world, has become synonymous with brutal crime. The more you think about that, the odder it gets. A Mexican, Brazilian or Honduran crime writing wave would make far better sense – though it might also seem too obvious. It is far more shocking when Sven, not Pablo, whips out his gun and mows down a few innocent bystanders. The underlying reasons of this discrepancy are one of the subjects of this book. But I have also made myself the subject of it: a simple translator far from his country, separated from both snuff and soured milk yoghurt. More than ten years have gone by since those meagre days when no one had heard of Inspector Wallander – and I walked down to Piccadilly to spend my last money on a very expensive Norwegian-English dictionary.

These days I sit at my desk, sighing forlornly as I check my deadlines, and then sneakily escape my duties to set down these thoughts. There is no possibility to rest any more, or to choose. The question is no longer “What book deserves to be translated and published?” but rather “What book can we publish and sell as successfully as the last one?” There was something heroic, if also cute, about the first. Sometimes I miss those days of penny hunting, of canned tomatoes, the crucial oil and garlic, and, naturally, the coarse Merlot, all of which gave one the strength – but only just – to go on a little longer in search of a masterpiece.

Maybe I am being overly confident, even arrogant, but I believe my insights into the Scandinavian fiction crime wave may help put an end to it. Why should I wish to do such a terrible thing? Am I also a criminal, an agent of darkness? Yes, I suppose I am. You see, I have a pin and there is a very large balloon before me. Inside, I see a lot of floating publishers, agents, writers, and translators, all dancing and singing and shaking their hair, or hopping into top-of-the-range Volvos and even the odd Porsche; or boarding their speed boats; or lying on beaches. It’s a fine moment for puncturing a bubble.

I want to see them all covered in sticky gum. I’m vengeful, you see. I believe in art and culture and better things.
When I hear a police car screaming down the road with its flashing lights, I ask myself, “Why doesn’t someone arrest those noisy bastards and put them in prison?”

I don’t like cops, I don’t like crime, I can’t see the point of dwelling on it. In spite of this, like so many other people, I can’t deny that I have cashed in without any compunctions about “proper literature” and the necessity of staying true to the pursuit of masterpieces, unicorns, and the Holy Grail.

But let me begin with a telephone call, thirteen years ago.
I was at home, in London, toasting some stale bread discovered at the back of the freezer and confirming to myself that my efforts at being a translator had amounted to not much. I had recently finished writing a book of my own, an elaborate historical novel set in the wilds of nineteenth century Sweden. It had taken me six years to finish it and I had been quite convinced that this was my masterpiece, until forty-three publishers rejected it. I was fairly sure that none of them had even read it, which made their rejection even more mystifying. And yet, maybe not? My book had not a single crime in it, no one was run through with a scimitar or tortured with hot candle wax and pliers. No women removed their brassieres only to finish off their lovers with sharpened paper knives. No men were seized by a roguish desire to start Biblical cults, set fire to churches and/ or capture wild swans and also set fire to them before releasing them to streak across the sky as a warning to non-believers. There were no hackers or deranged psychopaths with customised torture chambers, no drug-taking nymphomaniac women intent on flashing their underwear, no goggle-eyed drug dealers frenziedly pummelling old ladies with titanium dildos. In my book, not a single drop of blood or any other bodily fluids hit the floor in over four hundred pages. Although no one ever managed to read it, I did not draw the logical conclusion of this, and I never considered editing my book to make it more conducive to the modern mind. Possibly, the problem was that the modern mind had not yet understood its desire to buy tens of millions of paperbacks about criminal Swedes being hounded by depressive, recently divorced and/ or terminally ill detectives. The late nineties were a confused time in literature, a time in which there were some vague longings still in place for the old world, high culture and other such notions. The internet had not taken over, there was no information highway, only primitive dial-up connections that spent minutes buzzing like telephone calls to Botswana.

One distinct advantage of Sweden as the source of the crime phenomenon was its status as a leading producer of paper pulp. Thus we controlled the entire supply line. We had the trees, we had the paper mills, we had thousands of willing writers, and we had the Foreign office to help market our books all over the world. In spite of our proud custodianship of the Nobel Prize and other distinguished institutions, Swedes proved to be remarkably untroubled by any notions of literature. We are a simple people, believers in egalitarianism and therefore, by definition, convinced that books are, in essence, products written by anyone, no one writer so much better than another – unless it’s Stieg Larsson, of course; Stieg Larsson is the Jim Morrison of Swedish literature. If someone is a nice, switched-on person, and their book is pretty good, then why not read it? This sort of reasoning has now taken off everywhere. Any person with the initiative to sit down and write a book is worth a round of applause in Sweden. The concept of sneering, as practised in England, is not highly evolved in my country. Possibly, cultural journalists may look down on an artist for being uncool or wearing the wrong glasses or shoes, for not having an appropriate music taste or supporting the wrong football team. The worst sin of all is to be elitist and/ or rich. Swedes, with their love of meatballs and boiled potatoes, woke up at some point and understood that this was also how they liked their books: nice chunks of ground meat fortified with breadcrumbs, egg yolk and onion, steaming piles of mashed potato; the whole thing drenched in thick creamy gravy, holding it all firmly in place, without unnecessary slippage in the mouth.

If Henning Mankell and Stig Larsson had not stepped forward with their simple, rugged approach and their instinct for pleasing the gallery, Swedish writers would still be out there in the wilderness, reading poems about stillborn goats or romantic tales of matrimony between gravediggers.

The failure of my historical novel seemed to suggest that I must press on with the side-line of literary translation. Except there was no side-line; there wasn’t a line, and certainly no sides to it either. In fact, the signs were already there of the coming revolution. Kerstin Ekman, in “Blackwater”, had invented the idea of the detective as an ordinary person, the crime story as a focus on common-or-garden folk trying to go about their daily business. She also managed to create a sort of fascination for the Swedish way of life, which everyone now knows is based on the kitchen table and all that passes around it: family niggles, worries about electricity bills, and the repetitious ingestion of black pudding and sour milk yoghurt, washed down with boiled coffee. Or is that just another crime genre cliché taking hold of me? In all the hundreds of books, excerpts, and scripts I have translated, I have always found myself back in the same place, my buttocks soundly on a hard kitchen chair, listening to the sizzling of butter in a cast-iron pan where pancakes, black pudding, or cured pork are being fried, while some nervous old woman wearing compression stockings talks of her fears of excessive electricity bills this year; then, as a slight digression, moving on to a discussion of how to brew a proper cup of coffee and bake cinnamon buns; then an oblique comment on how the streets are not as friendly as they used to be; followed at last by a reference to a spate of murders in the area…

Listening to the signals of that telephone echoing in my cold flat on that fateful morning, I did actually sense a slight rumbling of destiny in the air. I dragged my feet across the kitchen floor, and before I answered, noticed my big toe sticking out of my left slipper.
I heard a brisk, efficient voice at the other end of the line. A secretary. She wanted to know if I could meet the executive producer and co-owner of Yellow Bird Films at the Soho Hotel in Charlotte Street. Tomorrow morning. In the restaurant. Ten o’clock sharp.
No film executive had ever invited me for breakfast before. But, I should add, I had been hired by Yellow Bird about a month earlier as a translator of a new series of ten Kurt Wallander films. Each script would go through a development process of five drafts, which effectively meant that I had fifty scripts to get through over an eighteen month period.

And this was really the beginning of my personal revolution. I see now that my life has very accurately reflected a certain phase of our history, because my fortunes were advanced by the world’s fascination with the spilling of Swedish blood.

I will tell you how it happened. I’ll try not to libel anyone. But I will tell the truth.

Stay tuned for more installments of “The Door Handle is Depressed”…

Please click here to read more about my novel “The Maggot People” published by Dzanc Books.

eBooks or noBooks?

8 Sep

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

This morning as I sat down to quickly scan through 851 Twitter updates, it was like listening to a large flock of parrots in the leafage. An astonishing number of people had retweeted an article by Henry Porter in the UK Guardian: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.”  Oh, and guess what. “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” And finally: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” You know what?  I’m starting to believe that Jonathan Franzen is not wrong. I’m also wondering if anyone actually read Henry Porter’s article, or did they just skim it and think it looked like useful tweeting material?

Guiltily I peered at my Kindle, into which last night I downloaded a copy of Lucius Seneca’s essays and an edition of Monkeybicycle magazine. I must have read at least fifteen pages from each of those two. Which makes me better informed than I was before, better read and more intelligent. Right?

Currently I have about twenty-five books in that small grey slab of battery-driven plastic, many of them unread. Franzen calls this “a lack of permanence” which (he implies) may eventually lead to failure in civil governance and the judicial state, but that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? Forgetting where my favorite bit of Seneca is located is not going to stop the Arab Spring, though it may in time turn me into a lunatic.

There is a tendency among humans to chatter, like monkeys crowding the tree-tops alongside the parrots. That is in fact what I am doing now, and the problem of social networking is that my chatter becomes your chatter, and before long we have all turned into that monstrosity (coined by Auberon Waugh, an English writer and columnist) known as the “chattering classes” – once a scathing reference to middle-class buffoons with the time and money to sit about worrying about nothing. Eventually it led to the invention of psychotherapy—I think I read that somewhere.

As we sit in our tree, arguing about the shape of this leaf or the angle of that branch, it is worth asking ourselves if we’re really getting to the heart of the matter. In debating the merits of eBooks, aren’t we just losing ourselves in detail? Surely the important thing is that the tree is growing straight, its roots reaching deep, no army of loggers on their way with giant chainsaws and monster trucks to chew the forest to pieces?

The eBook is not intrinsically wrong, it is simply a book in digital form. Only its gaseous cousin, the noBook, could ever be a threat to our liberal consensus. The noBook is the real problem of our age, leading to a nasty public addiction to inane twenty-four hour news bulletins, celebrity kiss-and-tell, “reality” shows, or out-of-tune singing and elephantine dancing, all faithfully recorded and transmitted over the airwaves like the ravings of a mental disease. Commercialism is advancing with all the confidence and inevitability of a virus. Every possible activity undertaken by humans – coffee-drinking is a great example – is being built into companies listed on the Stock Exchange. We used go to cafés run by families who kept their profit for themselves. They saved their dough and sent their children to college so they could learn about Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein. Now “the parents” work for eight bucks an hour or less, can’t afford children, and have never heard of college.

I have every sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. In an unguarded moment (no doubt to his eternal chagrin) he revealed that he does not like to have an Internet connection while he is writing. Like everyone else, he is addicted to this distracting show, this round-the-clock firework display of human consciousness. The mere fact that we all know about this habit of his speaks volumes for the invasiveness of the online world. We are dealers of tidbits, of samples and excerpts and scraps, tufts, feathers, dried bread and moldy cheese. We chew and chew, in the end it starts to taste like food. But there’s no meat or fresh fruit in this mixture, there are no vitamins, no B7 or calcium or potassium or zinc, our brains start breaking down. We develop tics and sudden silences, information goes missing and dementia becomes a state of mind, not a disease. One day we’ll all feel impotent without our portable auxiliary drives, also known as iPods, where we can store all the background information of our lives, all the hyperlinks and video clips and podcasts, all illustrative of… of… well… illustrative (I would say) of the need to shut up.

Back to Franzen, the fatted calf of his kind, relaxing in his comfortable Cartagena hotel at the Hay Festival: yes, Jonathan, no one can write in a storm of words. You need a bit of silence, a bit of thought. I agree. And you are entitled to your opinion like everyone else, even though the media’s insistence that you are “the Great American novelist” has earned you general opprobrium all over the world. There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless. And few, very few, are great and most of those are dead.

But it is not your fault that we are all chattering.

We have to keep it in perspective, we have to think about the roots, the trunk of the tree, the wind and the stars. Not whether leaves look best in autumn or spring, whether the oak beats the baobab or the sycamore’s a sophomore?

Back to fundamentals. Basics. Roots.

So, now for my conclusion on it all: I am much more worried about the noBook than the eBook. The way society is currently set up, people have time to read gossip, restaurant reviews and the lengthy and utterly inane clarifications of “financial experts.”  Television serves up a gravy of entertainment, and we need bibs to stop ourselves from looking like eight-month olds daubed in lamb purée and carrot mash. Ideas about our future society are presented by the likes of Mitt Romney or the Koch brothers, who pay for air time and in this way want to win elections. In fact they are closely emulating Amazon, the emerging behemoth that wants to own both the writer and the bookshop. Amazon will be broken up in a few years – this is my prediction of the week. Incidentally, it was a similar monopolizing instinct that led to the demise of the Hollywood studio system – directly responsible for some of the best films of the 20th century and not surprisingly coinciding with the golden age of America. Hollywood, now fragmented into virulent competing entities, is helpfully wading into the digital battle, serving up bland, lukewarm fare and wondering why the audience is disappearing. Even dressing up Meryl Streep to look like Margaret Thatcher doesn’t quite hit the spot any more. The audiences stay at home, watching television or surfing the net. Films are boring and cinemas a popcorn-stinking nightmare.

Most of the objections we hear about eBooks are technical. With time, Kindle and eReaders will become more sophisticated. Technology is easy, humans are good at it. What they are not so good at is using their brains in a constructive fashion, or making technology do what they want it to do.

So… eBooks or noBooks? Before I answer that, let me just check my e-mail.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, February 12th, 2012. View original post and comments here.)

My Haunted Bathroom

8 Sep

We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.

Have you seen any photographs of Neil Gaiman lately? He stares at the camera like a startled child, woken up in the middle of the night to have his diaper changed. Neil Gaiman never realized he would turn out to be Neil Gaiman, and now, like most successful people, he has come to the erroneous conclusion that he is quite good. To be fair to him I think he can be quite good sometimes, but the operative fact about him is that someone on the top floor decided his books would sell. They have, because they had to. But my reader in Chicago may be interested in getting beyond the debate on sales figures and hearing instead how I came to write my first book.

I had rented a small house on a remote island in the Mediterranean, where I found myself in a promising position – a paid position with a film company that never gave me any work to do, just faithfully paid my salary and occasionally asked me to spend ten minutes “doing the crossword” for them. There was never any running about, no gas bills to worry about, no friends using me as a clothes-horse for their ragged misfortunes – just long empty days flooded in sunlight. After a few weeks of sitting on the beach, staring fixedly at the ever-blue horizon, I realized this was my chance to write whatever came into my head.

The house I had rented was haunted by an old woman who lived in the bathroom on the ground floor. When I first moved in I was unaware of her, of course. All I knew was that I had a strange reluctance to use the bathroom at night. Finally, with some embarrassment, I asked a neighbor about it, and she confirmed that the house (a Medieval construction with bad plumbing and a staircase only fit for mountain goats) had once belonged to a semi-lame wyvern, confined to the ground floor.

She invaded my sleep, and I had a nocturnal succession of the most vivid dreams of my life, many of which ended up as short stories. The title of my short story collection, “Love Doesn’t Work”, was initially going to be “Voices of the Ghost Room”.

Once you start typing, it is amazing how quickly a book takes shape. I found myself waking up like a rubber ball and bouncing down to the market to buy an aubergine or a bag of octopus. By the time I had climbed back up to my little study there was a fully formed story in my mind. Fertile as a wild boar!

One night I dreamed of a monk standing by my bed, asking me what I was doing in his house? The clerical theme found its way into my stories, which were often about sexual guilt or the impossibility of spiritual redemption in a corrupted world. I read up on the Cathars, an obscure group of European heretics (mostly butchered by the Church about seven hundred years ago) who were pretty negative about one’s prospects of achieving any real bliss down here on earth. One of my stories concerned a couple who never had sex at all, preferring to caress a little sculpture with wooden spoons as a sort of distancing technique. They called this “mental sex”. Again, you see, I was finding metaphors to explore sexuality without actually writing about it. Then there were the dictatorial dreams, dreams of what I would do if I held the world in the palm of my hand – I invented a telepathic Hannibal with the ability to zap his enemies. In one of my stories I had an Englishman confronting an ex-girlfriend and her giant pet amoeba – he ended up burying his fork in it. Finally, I wrote a story in which the state of Texas was being swamped by a deluge of beetles. This, I know now, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive procreation. Ultimately the beetles caused so much damage that it brought on a second American exodus to Paris, where the locals referred to this new wave of American bohemians as “Sexans” (for obvious reasons, at least to anyone who ever read Henry Miller). This last story never made it to final draft (also, perhaps, for obvious reasons).

After four months I found I had a manuscript with a beginning and an end, and this was a revelation to someone who had rarely found an ending before. It had been a painless process, each story rising up in my mind like a bubble of swamp gas – perfect for bottling, it seemed to me. After removing two thirds of the material and editing what was left – which took me about a year – I sent off the manuscript to an American independent publisher and, several months later while enduring a freezing winter in Stockholm, a pleasant letter arrived asking whether I’d consent to having my stories published. I consented; and so, here we are a few years later, I have hit 559 000th place on the Kindle bestseller charts. Was it worth it? Well, yes, it was.

But I still wonder if the old lady in the bathroom fooled me with her imaginings? Maybe if I had written a normal avatar kitchen-sink drama about robot invasion, zombie breakout and scheming psychopaths colluding with Old Nick, I would have been with Neil Gaiman now, having a cold beer on the roof of some hotel. In Kuala Lumpur. I will never know.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, October 24rd, 2011. View original post and comments here.)

The Modern Reader, What’s That?

30 Aug

Recently as I was walking down Wörther Strasse, Berlin, I found myself passing St. George’s English-language bookshop, where a few copies of my short story collection have been kenneled for the last few months. As usual, I find them dozing on the shelf next to Arthur Koestler, which is exalted company, to be sure, yet Koestler’s majestic spines always seem to throw a shadow over the modest heirs of my own invention.

Publishing a book these days is like watching a man falling off a building, hurriedly shrieking a last message to his stunned friends on the roof before he’s dashed against the pavement.

The question remains, how do ‘modern’ readers relate to the torrent of new books pouring over the edge of the precipice and dashing themselves against semi-modern classic bastions such as Philip Roth, Carson McCullers or even (why not?) William Burroughs? They are all ‘pre-digital’ and for that reason solidly endowed with profiles cemented in ‘old media’, while, behind them, rise the towering snow-capped peaks of nineteenth and early twentieth century gigantism, rooted in an age when books held an importance far in excess of their financial performance. Emily Dickinson… George Eliot… Charles Dickens… And then, like stars spattered across the vaulted universe, Shakespeare… Homer…. Virgil… maybe even Ovid? None of the celestials ever earned a dollar in royalties (possibly one of the worst cases of copyright rip-off in history) and would not even have known what a royalty payment was (come to think of it, neither do most modern writers). What they wrote they wrote for love, or necessity.

On my way out, I’m stopped in my tracks by the very inviting magazine rack at St. George’s. I locate the Spring 2010 issue of N+1 and minutes later I am nestled in a café, reading about “Webism, the Social Movement”, an analysis of the web and books and whether the twain shall ever meet.

The Editors of N+1 quote Walter Benjamin, as always uncannily predictive, on “modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced”, a weightier, more thoughtful correlative to Andy Warhol’s infamous “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Yet the two men, though in different eras, seem to be on the trail of the same idea. Benjamin Buchloh, Rosenblatt Professor of Art at Harvard, put it in an altogether more scholastic way when he explained Warhol’s remark by allusion to “the systematic invalidation of the hierarchies of representational functions”, which must now be taken as a reference to the Internet and what it has done to information.

Whether we like it or not, books are information of an amazingly long-winded kind, which is one of the reasons why readers have to be fierce and passionate, riding their terrified steeds into a breaking wave of words. The aim and underlying concept of books is that the reader, whether modern or not, should surface on the other side, wiser and somehow… better. Or at least “amused”. Amused readers are better than bored ones, I think. But not always. If you are reading Kierkegaard you’ll not feel so very amused, but with luck you’ll not be bored either, though if you are then at least you’ll be virtuous.

Back to the N+1 article, which has now turned to the struggle of the mighty New York Times to meet the challenge of the online environment, trying to accommodate the fact that advertising will no longer pay for its paper and ink magnum opus. With the help of Facebook and Google, advertising has found itself an enormous and targeted online market, effectively outflanking the old monopoly. The New York Times threw itself at the online environment like a tin of paint flung at a wall. Somehow, it managed to cover every crevice: blogs, comments, entertainment, celebrity gossip. Yet at times all those brains for hire had nostalgic fits when they thought of times past – those leisured assignments in Vienna, in Phnom Penh, those carefree expense account lunches. Gone! Gone! As the Editors of N+1 put it: “At other times, the obsession with new media has led to strange outbursts – as when the writer of a piece on Robert Caro’s monumental 1,200 page biography of Robert Moses suddenly and entirely irrelevantly bemoaned the ‘age when sentence fragments on a blog pass for intellectual argument.’ Even as the institution itself was struggling desperately to adapt, this sort of dig at the internet emerged from the editorial desk on a regular basis, like a cry of pain.”

I wonder if Homer would have composed an orally transmitted poem if he’d had access to an iPad? It seems unlikely. Would people have invented poetry at all, if rhyme and meter weren’t ideal mnemonic devices? Presumably, back in Homer’s day, one only had to sit by a smoking campfire for a few moments sipping one’s mulled wine and gnawing a haunch of lamb, before some grizzled prophet started intoning the lay of wily old Odysseus? Today, is there anyone in the whole world who could recite “The Odyssey” from beginning to end?

N+1 puts it more succinctly: “Book-length literature is the product of certain historical conditions, of a certain relationship to written language.” This seems hard to deny. Swedish Nobel Prize-winning writer Harry Martinson, when asked by Artur Lundkvist (a Swedish poet) why his early attempts at writing were all poetry, explained that poetry was shorter than novels and at the time he could not afford paper.

So what’s next for the book? Have eBooks transcended the problem of transference, will we keep reading tomes? Or will we slowly but inexorably shift our attention to short stories, novellas, flash fiction, snippets to be quickly digested or admired? “Assimilate book-ism to webism and the book looks like nothing so much as an unreadably long, out of date, and non-interactive blog post.”

The N+1 article was written almost two years ago, and it may be that technological development has already somersaulted beyond the authors’ cautious expectations? Has the effective digitalization of the book finally been achieved? Is there a Modern Reader out there, willing to get out her knife and fork and gorge on some words?

On my way home I pass by St. George’s again; slightly guiltily, I sneak inside, savor the smell of dust and creaky floorboards and come away with contraband: a frayed copy of Manuel de Landa’s “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.” It appeals to me, the way someone else’s sweat and dirt has marked the pages. If we could digitize the smell of worm-eaten books, I reckon the battle would be won. Could someone out there please come up with an App? Books are worth reading. They beat the pants off film or any other medium. The human brain is the best audio-visual device in the world, and always will be.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, November 15th, 2011. View original post and comments here.)


Fruitfulness in Action

13 Nov

Marcus Speh has a vital, innovative mind that energetically clears paths through unexplored country – and with his machete, he finds ways through even the most resistant undergrowth. In his collection of short fiction Thank You for Your Sperm (published by Mad Hatter Press, 2013), Speh proves that by putting into words what has never been thought, one makes the unknown tangible and open to examination. For instance, when one of his narrators describes how he “…drifted into thoughts of alien spaceships fighting over the last women on the planet”, we know that we are about to enter an unknown world, poetical in part but also startling, genre-defying and strange. In this exquisite prose collection, Marcus Speh offers the reader a deft and skilful exploration of the actual mechanism of thought, without any underlying prescriptive or bombastic authorial intentions. What we find, on every page, is a ferocious display of imagination. As Speh comments, “I hung that tie in the window as a message for everyone that freedom is still a possibility”. If there is an opportunity through this union of poetry and experimental prose to achieve a moment of freedom, then reading has a purpose.
Reminiscent both of old central Europe in his philosophical high-mindedness, and the twenty-first century in his instinctive grasp of form, timbre and content, Marcus Speh has a wonderful ability to stay on the friendly side of obscurity. He also has a healthy, if almost habitual interest in sex, which is never a bad thing. The courage, depth and versatility of “Thank You for Your Sperm” is really a cut above anything else I have seen in the flash fiction form, and one could comfortably say that with this collection Speh enters the front rank of international flash fiction writers. But this statement does not by a long shot give him the credit he deserves. “Thank You for Your Sperm” is the opening move in an authorship already mature and ready to progress into other areas, and my guess is that Marcus Speh will move into longer fiction. In the sequential “Serious Writer” pieces we already see signs of this. Here, the author seem to be straining at the leash to cut free of brevity and develop himself across hundreds of pages. Gallop on, Mr Speh, you are already covering a lot of country, but you will cover much more.

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