Saturday, March 14, 2009

Found Book Noted

One of the minor miracles of coincidence happened upon me today, though one that needs a bit of set-up to establish its (admittedly deeply subjective) level of astoundingness.

Among the many books, comics and writings of my own which have been archived in my personal Library of the Lost, there was one scifi novel I remember with great fondness from my early teens. Bought from SteppenWoolworths in Broughty Ferry for a derisory sum, it was a time travel adventure starring some special agent battling foes in far-back Mohenjo-Daro. It got swept away in one or another of my mother's clear-outs (following the dusty path to oblivion first trod by my infant companion, a panda, of which more later, and accompanied by many 'Commandos' and 'Astounding Stories'), and all I really remembered about its protecting-the-timelines shenanigans was that the lantern-jawed hero was accompanied by a symbiotic telepathic assistant made of jelly who disguised itself as his shoulderpads.

When the internet made it apparent that everything could be retrieved, reissued, or simply downloaded in a new format, I made a few desultory efforts to track it down, but, without title or author, it was never going to be easy. So an alternative scheme, roughly parallel to the theme of this blog, soon occurred to me: I would write it again. Or rather I would write a scifi novel of my own, based on what I could remember plus what I could fantasise about what I could remember.

Back in January, I was in Sofia after a series of translation sessions with Bulgarian friends and fellow poets, and myself and the poet VBV were strolling from his flat into town. We began chatting about the odd nature of the imaginative quest -- when some goal sets itself you instinctively feel is worth pursuing, and how different such quests are in the era of universal access. We realised we both employed a series of what I used to call (rather grandly) stochastic limitations -- basically self-imposed obstacles -- in order to allow the actual purpose of the quest, which is just contemplation of a theme associated with the goal or object of desire, to take place.

An example of this would be my search for the original seventies editions of the Gene Wolfe fantasy, Book of the New Sun, a book I've since bought in a current edition, but want with the Bruce Pennington covers, as I associate Pennington with Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, and that whole strain of Thirties US Wierd Horror I was so into in my quarantined-off-from-healthy-teenage-stock style youth. So far I have volumes 1 and 4, but I'm quite content to mooch around second-hand bookstalls in Tynemouth Station Market etc until the very thing crops up.

Vassil admitted to similar one-hand-behind-the-back contests with synchronicity, and talked about a project of his which was also to rewrite a novel he'd encountered years before about a fictional revolutionary figure. He knew he could probably pick up a copy through book traders (though at what expense?), but that wasn't really the point.

He mentioned a children's book he'd loved and how, when he'd got hold of it, he was amazed to see how little of what he remembered was actually written down. This, the teeming inner world of the young reader's engagement with even quite sparse text, as long as their imagination could inhabit, renovate and extend that text, was what I was after. (More on that walk elsewhere, later).

Then, only last weekend, I was in London for a couple of meetings, and caught up with old school pal, the novelist James Meek. Among many topics of conversation (bears, plus fours of Shoreditch, narcissism in Vietnamese restaurants, the name of Shakespeare's first theatre, marital contentment and dogs, narrative voice in nineteenth-century Russian fiction, slow reading), I thought I'd throw in the line that I'd finished the fantasy novel he'd told me to write.

In fact, a character in his last novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, begins such a trilogy but abandons it in self-disgust, but it was nonetheless worth it to see his reaction. Yes, I continued, it's a tetralogy, the working title is My Mid-life Genre Crisis, and I'm half-way through the western. None of which is is exactly true (I still have a scene to write of the fantasy one, and I'm no more than a third at the most through the western). But I realised that I'd talked the project a step closer to actuality. It had begun to have textual presence.

I'm followed around by lots of books, plays and poems I'd like to write if I had the time. Some of them are just ludicrously Not Me, some of them are just ludicrous, some of them are perfectly reasonable, and some of them will never happen simply because there is No Time. But they all exert a magnetic pull on my imagination, they all demand to be treated as though they were real texts. And there is a sense in which the concept of text is related more to this idea of presence than to the physical artefact which most people think they're dealing with.

Think, for instance, of that current chattering point, the book you claim to, but have not read. You nonetheless have a degree of awareness of it, you know something of it in synopsis, or through adaptation, or intertextual allusion -- and you feel a degree of guilt about it. You imagine it, perhaps even inhabit it or hear it or have ideas you know can't be terribly accurate about it. You are a kind of reader of your own confabulated version of it, and you have imagined this as though it were text.

That's how it is with my unwritten books, and that is also how it was with this long-lost pulp scifi novel. Because, as you've known from the start, because this was a narrative necessity, I found the book. To be more precise, I took my daughter and dropped her off at a cafe I didn't know, but guessed was probably near this bookshop I'd visited once with the novelist Laura Fish while we were killing time before a school visit. It's called Black Flame Books, and I highly recommend it to you, especially if you have any lost cause searches.

We'd had a cup of coffee in a branch of Boarders earlier, and I'd said to my daughter just to drag me out if I started looking at the books, given the entire bookcase I could fill with my unread purchases. So when I'd parked my car by Black Flame, I'd first of all smiled at the notion of having a browse, then, after a slight swither (was something calling in a high-pitched voice only literate dogs could hear?), in I went.

Almost the first thing I saw was Hemingway's Across the River and Under the Trees, the title of which comes from the dying words of Stonewall Jackson. He (Jackson) was shot by 'friendly fire' returning to his own lines after the Battle of Chancellorsville, but died a few days later not of his wounds but from pneumonia. In his final delirium, after issuing several orders to absent troops, he'd said, 'Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.'

The previous day I'd seen one of my PhDs, the very talented Tara Bergin, who'd shown me a poem on the death of Stonewall Jackson containing these lines, and, unrelated to this, we'd spoken as we have before about the role played by coincidence for writers, how it is often interpreted as reinforcing a creative decision, and how difficult it is for critics to acknowledge and indeed incorporate such an irrational methodology in their writing. As soon as I saw it I went to have a look at the scifi section, thinking my luck was perhaps in for another volume of the Gene Wolfe.

Soon I began coming across a familiar publisher, Star Books. Many of the Woollenworth vols had been from this publisher -- in fact I found one with their sticker for '9p' still on it, and I realised that there were a lot of books from the period of my missing vol. Still, I didn't quite believe I would, as I inevitably did, come upon not just it but another book in the same (presumably extensive) series. There it was, cover and title instantly familiar though I couldn't have described it seconds beforehand: The Emerald Elephant Gambit by Larry Maddock, 'starring' Agent of T.E.R.R.A. Hannibal Fortune (published by Ace Books in 1967).

The cover is the quickest sketch: a bald man in a sky-blue tunic, heavily armed with bow and quiver over one shoulder, curved sword and dagger dangling from his belt, is clutching the eponymous pachyderm. He is set against as though encased in a custard force field like a giant helmet against a background of vertical green streaks, which looks like it's raining snot. He advances up a gentle incline from left to right whilst looking back over his shoulder at a feathery boneless flying grey thing, limbs trailing, two saucer eyes staring out of the picture from its swirl of a head. Inside the book, it claims the cover is by 'Sergio Leone'. You can see at once why it might appeal to a fourteen year old boy.

I remember being tremendously excited by the setting: historically verifiable while fabulously distant. I was used to Robert Howard's pre-glacial Hyborian age, or Ashton's Smith's dying future Earth of Zothique. Somehow the idea that the author had done some research as well as invention was very appealing. The other volume, as it turns out, The Golden Goddess Gambit, simply ramped up the coincidometer to eleven by being set -- apparently, I haven't read it yet -- in Minoan Crete. Contemporary Crete, of course, is where I wrote my own equally trashy fantasy novel over the last two summers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Found property

This Guardian feature suggests that what we lose might be more interesting than what we own. It's hard to cherish that which you can no longer hold, but we seem to manage it with ex-people.

This prompts some good news (nearly recent): the black cap I bought in Moscow, which went missing around the time of the notebook, turned up under the sofa like a hibernating hollow dusty cat. The notebook wasn't in it, like a dehydrated mouse.

This was got in Izmaylovo Market, bargaining over kopecks whilst being stalked by two large gentlemen who had earmarked me as a tourist (Vernisazh, next door, is where the real souvenir tat seekers go, and where I got my genuine rat-fur shapka on a previous visit).

They were then obliged to act as audience while I pulled my 'A ridiculous price!' face and pointed 'the walk away of disgust' directly at them. They looked massively unimpressed, but did retreat slightly.

It says on the inside 'made in America,' then, on a label tucked under the brim 'made in China.' But of course I bought it because it looked Russian.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lost beginnings 3, the end (of the beginnings)

I've known from the outset that I possessed a certain amount of the notebook's early entries -- the parts that followed my daughter's dedicatory note -- because I plundered those first few pages when I was setting up my MySpace page for the Poet to Poet project. I stripped out those entries which (sort of) filled the boxes MySpace sets for its profile. When I went back and stripped them out from that webpage, something occurred to me which relates to those 'lost' books.

I have a great deal of unpublished poetry from the eighties I never quite got round to finishing off or sending out (the tentative volume Poetry in Unglish), partly because the work was inferior or uncompleteable, partly because I was trying influences on for size, discarding some, amalgamating others, and moving on. By the end of that period, one of the styles I'd settled into, alongside the pieces which went into my first books for Bloodaxe and Arc, was montage, where I'd borrow phrases I found and liked the resonance of, and create an amalgam of these with phrases I was generating anyway in a fairly continuous manner.

This wasn't a fifty-fifty split: the proportions would vary wildly from just an epigraph, to an almost completely collage of 'foreign,' though the challenge of course was to create a voice which was itself slightly foreignised. Both Ashbery and MacDiarmid were behind this mode, and I suppose I grew out of it as slowly as I grew out of them, wanting to bring other elements into the work to roughen up its technique, resisting perfectionism and repetition. (Though repetition has its role.)

Anyway, when I abstracted from MySpace those entries I'd already removed from the notebook, I was reminded of that process of assemblage as digestion, drafting as rehearsal for the voice. No doubt, eighteen years or so ago, I'd have been dividing and reassembling these phrases, trying them out in couplets, tercets, quatrains, improvising parallel or contrasting lines based on tone or image or rhythm. No doubt to some extent that's exactly what I continue to do, just as these have lost some reference points only to begin to gain new ones.

One of the things I think I'm engaged in at this point in my writing life is a reassessing of the selves, consecutive or otherwise, an attempt to integrate those ways of working and thinking into a bundle, to echo Yeats, that is both coherent and incoherent in characteristic ways. I'm trying to see what has to be in the painting alongside such self-portraiture, and to accept that this composite self is a much smaller part of a larger multiplicity of patterns than these previous selves assumed.

I already know that its supposed integrities are much challenged by those patterns. I'm curious what the consequences of this is in terms of new work, but I suppose I'm equally curious in relation to old, 'lost' work.

Lost beginnings 2, the middle

I am seven-sixteenths Cherokee.
None of these sixteenths is inside my body.

I don't have the time to be as obsessive as I would like to be.

It is only by not being able to do anything right
that I have ever got anything done.

I am a Time Peasant (if only I could remember
the past or indeed the future in any detail).

I am relieved to know I am not a Golem.
Nor, apparently, am I the King of the Echo People.
(Though this may go to tribunal.)

The great thing about nowadays is that you can talk to yourself
in public and everyone thinks you're on the phone.

I've got a fever and the only prescription is COWBELL.

I used to shave elephants.
Elements. I used to shave elements.

My favourite was fire, because
the red hot stubble was immediately ash.

With water I only got that brown foam
that washes up on non-Blue Flag beaches.

Air didn't care, but I only took
its oxygen molecules.

If you shave earth you get chocolate.

I'm totally mired
in that portion of the soundscape occupied
by non-human creatures.

The long-maned stumpy horses eating grass
between the yellow mini-pylons
arranged in a grid before runways.

An old schoolfriend with a moustache
where his teeth should be (that's right,
growing from the otherwise empty ridge of his gum).

Men who buy the model aeroplanes
of the planes they are sitting on
in the hope of completing their collection
(of model aeroplanes of the planes they have sat upon).

Jelly Ibrahim! Hands of Shine!
Babies that double up as cameras and MP3 players!
Thomas Jones: a great painter of Mediterranean walls!
Captain Crinkle: imitation without an original!

Lost beginnings 1, the beginnings

Every night, when I attempt to re-imagine the notebook, I project myself back into the summer, when it sat beneath my Greek pillow; I remove it and look at its cover (the spine repaired by a black masking tape with a slight thready pattern on it, moleskine's black elastic band holding it shut). I open it and pass over the empty space on the first page where the address should have gone, turning instead to the first entry, a note to me from my daughter.

Her handwriting is growing more oval as she enters her teens, but eighteen months ago it still had a childish roundness that's echoed in a few of the phrases. She still calls me 'Dada,' a nomenclature I encouraged past its usual sell-by date because of its echo of Dadaism, and she concludes with my affectionate title for her, 'Best Bug,' the origins of which even I can't quite remember. In between, however, the message has her characteristic insightful maturity.

Although I can't remember the words exactly, I know what their content was: 'this is for you to look at when you're away from home, so that you feel comforted by the thought that I, we [I can't remember whether she includes Debbie in this or not] are thinking of you and love you.' I was touched and reassured by it throughout the time I was able to look at it: it did fulfil a function of bringing my imagination back to my family when I was, sometimes, very far away.

And it still performs that function now, each time I (partially) recall it, before I turn to the last entry, the phrasing of which I can never quite recall, and have to rehearse; then turn to the crucial missing section in the middle, picturing the drawing of Twisty Jesus from Komsomolskaya, remembering how I went through the entries drawing a circle in pencil around each station, so that I'd be able to find them quickly when I finally got round to transcribing them. I was already thinking of each entry as little sketch poems, like the ones I made the first time I visited the Uffizi, later setting them out in lines.

That reminds me that there are other, more subtly misplaced pieces of writing that I still claim to possess:

That journal I kept when I went to Italy for the first time with James Lloyd, with whom I recently got back in touch after a gap of almost thirty years. I typed up its pseudo-Kerouackian passages and called it Travelovel, circulating it around a few friends, one of whom, James Meek, still assumes I keep diaries with that degree of detail. The 'poems' were immediate reactions to the paintings, something I did in approximately the same manner in Rome, though fortunately those were in my pocket sketch book.

That verse play improvised directly onto an old electric typewriter called, ludicrously, Pannini, based on the painter of Roman scenes that montaged Classical ruins and contemporary scenes for the eighteenth century connoisseur market. There were a couple of canvasses in the Ashmolean by him that fascinated me, and the play, such as it was (it was like The Draughtsman's Contract, but with less happening) arose initially from speeches by the statues and bas-reliefs, before adding monologues by Pannini and dialogues between him and his patrons.

The novella Virtual Sideboard, which I wrote on holiday in Lanzarote whilst drinking cheap Spanish market brands of whisky and staying up all night, which consisted of extremely convoluted sentences about the onset of responsibility anxiety in a new parent, and fantasias-within-fantasias, retreats into the world inside the old sideboard that sat for decades in my grandmother's living room and now languishes in the asbestos-roofed garage of my parents' house. Somehow, I never quite got round to typing this up.

These unfinished, unpublishable, never-quite-relinquished pieces of writing are supposedly among my endless heaps of paper. Pannini turned up, briefly, when I got a young writer in to help tidy things up, and I imagine Travelovel is recoverable, not least because the original journal it was taken from still exists. But I haven't seen Virtual Sideboard for years, rather like the synopsis of a verse novel I mislaid when we had to move out of the lighthouse so its floors could be rehung, and never located again, and therefore can never quite get on with writing.

(The atavism of my compositional process lies close to the heart of this project: how can I proceed if I don't have those very scraps of paper?)

There was an incident which still gives me the cold shivers, when I found my research assistant throwing out letters from the 80s because they wouldn't be of immediate interest -- there had been one day previous to that when I hadn't gone through the material being dispensed with, and I keep thinking 'What if?' in a most unjust and ungenerous panic.

So how do these effectively lost pieces compare with the actually gone notebook I try to reconstruct in my dozing mind's eye? How will the piece of work I'll have to produce without it compare to the pieces I could produce if I were to find and edit those missing items?