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Criticism » Millennium man (published 06/11/2012)

That Crash came to dominate Ballard’s work to the degree it did isn’t a surprise. It’s the novel where all his ambitions – Surrealism, medicine, technology and personal anguish – collide with maximum impact. Given he spent so long trying to deflect moral objections to the book it was ironic that Playboy later declared it ‘the fifth sexiest novel of all time’, and that hindsight has confirmed it now ranks as one of Ballard’s most prophetic moments, anticipating the 21st Century’s fetish for both violent videogames and the rising body count of Hollywood movies. Indeed, when it comes to the future, Extreme Metaphors functions as a greatest hits package of Ballard’s predictions. It’s why Will Self notes, ‘other writers describe. Ballard anticipates’; in this area, Ballard was always a trailblazer. Twitter, YouTube, celebrity, Ronald Regan, the fictions of advertising, Second Life, the dead end of space travel – Ballard predicts them all well in advance of their realisation.

Richard Kovitch reviews Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G Ballard 1967–2008.

Interviews » Psychogeographic soul sister (published 27/08/2012)

I did buy an introduction to psychogeography which again barely mentioned any women writers – quite a feat, when Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting’ is absolutely central. Is it that people are interested in making psychogeographic musing as a male thing? Streetwalkers do a lot of looking: why aren’t we open to their musings? Plenty of women write fabulously about place. Part of the problem may be in the concept of Muse – if you’re male, it’s easier to appear to have a hotline to inspiration in the form of a Muse because a Muse is traditionally feminine. It’s a whole lot harder for women who write to have a Muse like that, or a gendered muse at all.

Richard Marshall interviews Clare Brant.

Buzzwords » The Missing Links (published 26/08/2012)

The films of Norman Mailer are like a punch in the face. * “If there’s any theme of my process, it’s generally to go towards what’s uncomfortable.” Miranda July. * “A story is an engagement although it can be protracted. A novel is a campaign.” James Salter. * One morning, after a night of reading [...]

Buzzwords » The Missing Links (published 10/08/2012)

James Salter on Jacques Bonnet’s Phantom on the Bookshelves. * Reading books in situ. * 15 of the greatest lists in literature. * A series of Beckett recordings from 1966, supervised by Beckett & accompanied by his nephews playing music. * Alex Ross on James Joyce & music. * “A dandy prone to pratfalls who [...]

Nonfiction » Impossible Cities (published 09/07/2012)

Never one to let mere impossibility get in the way of a good story, Italo Calvino retold Marco Polo’s tales even more extravagantly in Invisible Cities. Crucially, Calvino switched the perspective with Polo recounting his discoveries to a sceptical but entranced Kublai Khan. The premise was essentially a jumping-off point for the writer to create his own metropolises of the imagination: Tamara where everything is symbolic, Chloe the chaste city where everyone is a stranger, Adelma populated by doppelgängers of the dead, Thekla a skeleton city of scaffolding, the expanding microscopic Olinda and so on. It is a beguiling, paradoxical, poetic work and like much of Calvino’s writing fully embraces the inventive possibilities of fiction. If art is the telling of beautiful lies, he seems to be saying, then let our lies be boundless, let them alter the world around us or, failing that, the way we see the world and speak of it. It is a book to mesmerise architects as much as poets.

Darran Anderson explores the fictional metropolis and its history.

Criticism » Metaphysical London Dark (published 07/06/2012)

198219So, is the dark a manifestation of London power, where London is the power and the dark its manifestation? Or is the dark the power, and London the manifestation? And when does a substance make its powers manifest? What stimulation is required to bring out the promised power…What many of these stories do, in fact, is suggest different gradings of necessity. Perhaps we should understand these stories as particles, each with basic, fundamental properties all linked to the basic law of the London haecceity, but some derived more directly than others. But there is no agreement about any of this and that may well be because no one knows what the basic laws are. No one knows which are the most fundamental ones. No one in fact knows if London is a power even, although Shakespeare thought it was, Ted Hughes agreed, and it seems all metaphysical cities are metaphysical London.

Richard Marshall reviews Oscar Zarate‘s It’s Dark In London.

Criticism » The Room of Phantoms (published 06/06/2012)

thewalkIf there is another quintessential subject for the modern European novel alongside walking, it’s writer’s block. These twin topics are the backbone of Robert Walser’s masterfully enigmatic 1917 novella The Walk, as they were in some ways the defining states of his life. His predilection for the former is immortalized in the eerie photo of his corpse, collapsed in the snow during the course of one of his perambulatory excursions from the psychiatric hospital in which he spent his final years. And writer’s block — that defining symptom of modernist anxiety from Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Kafka, Beckett and Pessoa — is one of Walser’s enduring subjects. Just as one of his most important descendants Thomas Bernhard’s novels tend to consist of the thing that his protagonist does or writes instead of writing their magnum opus, the narrator of Walser’s The Walk imagines himself out in the world on various trivial matters of business, on an excursion he has taken in order to cure his writer’s block.

Danny Byrne reviews Robert Walser‘s The Walk.

Buzzwords » Self-employed urbanists (published 22/05/2012)

To call a city a slough of despond, or a great wen, or a cesspool, is to give it a functional identity, to fix it in the mind as surely as Bradley Headstone is fixed in Dickens’s novel. The city, like the people in it, lends itself to this sort of moral abstraction. Oddly enough, [...]

Criticism » From the East End to Wembley & back again (published 17/05/2012)

1948croftTwo London-themed books published this spring, although different in almost everything, from jacket design to word count, can be read in the same subversive spirit. 1948, a monstrous haggard face casting a sinister shadow on its cover, is easily recognised as a parody of Orwell’s most famous work. More precisely, it is an inversion, where a dystopia becomes a utopia, heroes and villains swap places, while the 1948 Olympiad is contrasted with the forthcoming games. The dramatis personae include Winston Smith, a policeman, O’Brien, his boss, Julia, his girlfriend; there is even a fleeting appearance of one Eric Blair. The story is a political farce, a whodunnit which culminates in a massive Two Minutes Joy at Wembley.

Anna Aslanyan reviews 1948: A Novel in Verse & Acquired for Development by… A Hackney Anthology.

Maintenant » Poetry » Maintenant #92 – Jeff Hilson (published 22/04/2012)

I also wonder whether the old-school mainstream hasn’t eventually realised how boring its work has been for the last 40 years and has decided to poach terminologies traditionally associated with the avant-garde. A soon-to-be-published critical work by a well-known mainstream poet and editor claims to be “a radical map of living British poets” (you can google that phrase and find out who it is). It’s a joke! None of the poets examined could be called ‘radical’ in any sense – politically, formally, historically – nor would they, I imagine, think of themselves in this way – but using a word associated with the avant-garde will give this miserable text some much-needed credibility. It’s a small sign of how bad things have got in the mainstream and how desperate they are to be taken seriously.

In the 92nd of the Maintenant series, SJ Fowler interviews the English poet Jeff Hilson.