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Writing On Squared Paper

Paul Griffiths interviewed by James Tookey.

Paul Griffiths is a writer of novels, books on music, poetry and librettos. He was born in Wales in 1947, and today lives between the Pembrokeshire coast and New York. I struck up a correspondence with him after meeting him last year in London, at the launch of Music & Literature magazine’s issue no.7, which was partly devoted to Griffiths’s work. In the course of our email exchanges, it became clear that Griffiths had several unpublished novels on his desk, written over the last few years. He sent a couple to me, and I was struck by how varied and strong they were. I asked to see the others, and in the course of looking over them, I became interested in the overlaps between these very different pieces, as well what was driving him to write them. The below is a brief Q&A on some of the themes that interested me, along with extracts from two of Paul’s unpublished novels.

3:AM: A few years ago, Will Self argued that after reaching their apogee in the 19th century, the novel and the symphony both suffered invigorating crises of confidence in the early twentieth century, in the form of modernism. He suggests that composers have continued to push these formal boundaries in the last 100 years, while novelists mainly write as if Ulysses had never been written: ‘novelists have fulfilled their readers’ desire for the old cosy certainties by turning their backs on the experimental truth and taking refuge in the apparent harmony of the past.’ As a writer deeply concerned with the limits of the novelistic form, who has published extensively on modern music, what are your thoughts on this? And if you agree, why is it that music didn’t recover — as it were — from modernism, and literature did?

PG: Yes, I saw that Will Self piece. Other people have been talking about this, too; Gabriel Josipovici for one.

Music did indeed recover (if that’s the word) from modernism in the hands of many composers in the 1970s, and has continued to do so, to the extent that there are now sheaves of scores that wouldn’t have surprised anyone too much a century ago — except that they’ll often have a pumping beat coming out of rock. Of course, there are also plenty of composers who find it impossible to go on as if the old certainties of continuity, authority and culture had not been long ago brought into question. Equally, there are plenty of writers who recognise those same impossibilities. I suppose the difference is that our dominant culture tends to favour the more conservative writers and the more adventurous composers, to express it with brutal simplicity, and I’m sure that’s because of how these two art forms are operated. Book publishing is essentially commercial; classical music is very largely subsidised. Book publishing is controlled by many hundreds of editors and agents; classical music is in the hands of maybe (in this country) two or three dozen people of influence: orchestra managers, radio executives, music publishers, all of whom share much the same understanding of new music as having value (or not) in itself, irrespective of any audience’s reaction.

But your question implies another, concerning how much my work in fiction has been influenced by the music to which I’ve been exposed — new music, not least. The answer is: enormously. For example, working with constraints, of form or material or both, seems to be unavoidable in the world of musical composition.

3:AM: It seems to me that book publishing, of literary fiction at least, as it becomes less central to the culture, is moving in a similar direction. I fear we may find literature ruled by a self-appointed (and self-defined) noocracy who talk to themselves, whilst no-one else listens. The proliferation of small presses in the UK who are subsidised by funding and have a relatively small readership, could push things in that direction. Equally, and here’s the hope, it could mean a great many more voices merrily babbling away, with difficult and/or marginalised literature finding a home and an audience. Probably we’re heading for some combination of the two. Does the prospect of publication influence your writing, both your critical writing and fiction? And how has this changed over the course of your writing life?

PG: We may indeed be moving into — or further into — a world where, in terms of culture, we’re all in small minorities. However, I want to maintain a culture that is meaningful to all. It was always my aim as a music critic to write reviews that anyone reading that particular paper or magazine would be able to read and would find it profitable to read. Writing fiction, I want the audience Jane Austen has, or any of the rest of them. I don’t believe we have to give up on wide appeal, even if — indeed, least of all if — we’re writing outside the conventions. Otherwise we’re heading towards a population whose intellectual space is in the nineteenth century.

This is how I respond to publication. Yes, I am writing for myself; I am writing what interests me and concerns me, and I am writing in order to discover where certain ideas will go. But also, yes, I am writing for everyone, and every sentence is considered on that criterion.

3:AM: This idea of ‘where certain ideas might go’ speaks to your Oulipian experiments. You have previously quoted Milton Babbitt’s dictum ‘Everyone plays by certain rules; I just like to know mine’. I find these limitations interesting, such as writing in Ophelian (Griffiths has written two novels which use only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet), or writing a novel that doesn’t use a certain letter. Do you always find some sort of cage to trap yourself in when embarking on a writing project?

PG: No cage; no trapping. Constraints and forms open up possibilities. With them, and through them, we discover things we could not have imagined otherwise. Everybody talks about the terror of the blank page; I prefer to write on squared paper.

3:AM: Despite this, these limitations can be difficult to overcome. I know it took you 13 years to write your first Ophelian novel (let me tell you, published by Reality Street in 2008). But you’ve written a sequel (or companion piece?) now, and this took you much less time I gather. Do you know why? Had you simply become fluent in Ophelian?

PG: Most certainly, writing in Ophelian became a whole lot easier over the years, and has remained so, long after I was doing it virtually every day. As to why I went on in the early days, when I’d rapidly discovered how difficult it was going to be, there are two reasons. I knew it would be possible eventually to come up with a book-length piece of fiction, and when you’ve had an idea, and have a good inkling it’ll work, it’s very hard to give up on it. Also, I was concerned that, if I didn’t do it, nobody would. Maybe that’s arrogant, but I still think I was well placed, partly because of not having anything of a fictional output or reputation to maintain, to be patient a while.

3:AM: Why are you writing so much fiction at the moment? Is this a new thing?

PG: I always have, at least since my mid-twenties. Early on I was slowed down by the sheer difficulty of doing it, and of course by the need to do other things in order to earn a living. Then came the thirteen-year period I spent on let me tell you, so that I couldn’t work on anything else in the fiction department until I was nearing sixty. By that time a lot of ideas had been building up, which now I have to try to carry out.

An extract from they come to me.

They come to me.
In the night and in the day-time they come, and I do not know what to tell them, how to give them what they seem to look for.
Still they come, as if I must be the one with all the answers.
Still they come to me.
Still they come to me and ask me what they will.

Tell us, they say, what is to come.

I do not know what is to come, I say. I know no more of that than you do. How should I? What could have made you ask?

We know you know more than we do, they say. We know you see more than we do. Do not think that we are deceived.
Tell us what you know, they say. Tell us what you see. Tell us what you fear and what you hope for.

I hope, I say, for expectancy in the eyes of all I’ll see tomorrow; I hope for each of us to shoulder no more than we have to; I hope for each to receive what is promised to all; and I hope that nothing and no-one is made the worse by what I do.

We know all this, they say. We have had all this from you before.

I hope for the touching of beauty, I say – for white flowers in the green grass and, what is more, for the green flowers you cannot see so well in all the turf. I hope for these little things.
I hope for the rose and the robin to speak to each other, I say, and for each to know the other’s tongue. I hope that the robin will tell all he must, and will then see how a tear falls from the rose.
I hope for ecstasy in the heart of the morning, I say, for the powers of the rains shaking joy down from heaven.
I hope for grace.
I hope for love.

There is nothing here we do not know, they say. There is nothing here to help us.
This is what we have come to ask you for: your help. What reason could you have to keep from us what you could give? We do not ask for charity but for what we should have by right. How could you close your hand?

I do not close my hand, I say.
I see one of them shaking his head, and I say: You must see for yourself that I could never be the one for this. There was a time, I say, when such a one as I could do this for you, when such a one as I could tell you all you would wish to know, of what was, what is, and what will be. But that time is no more: you cannot go on and on in the hope that it’s still like that.

I see him look, this one, at some of the other men that are there. They do not speak. To me they speak, indeed, but not to each other, never.
Still, I see it in their eyes, what they would say if they could, what they could say, it may be, if I was not there – if I was not here.
Tell me, I say.
Tell me, I say to the one that was shaking his head,
Tell me what is on your mind.



3:AM: There are two unpublished novels by you on the lives of composers, but both start after the death of the real biographical figure. You extend Beethoven’s life, and follow Bach’s antecedents, but in neither do you rewrite the days the man himself spent living. Why is this?

PG: Ah, I hadn’t noticed this. I think it must have to do with freedom. If I write about Bach in 1730 or Beethoven in 1820 I have to take account of the facts, because if you contradict what is definitely known, then the whole fictional edifice slides to the ground.
But apart from that, these are very different projects. One is about speaking through several voices, about memory. and about connection and continuation. The other is a more straightforward narrative, but repeatedly subverted in all kinds of ways. It’s also a comedy, I hope, with part of the humour coming from the interface between fact and fiction – seeking, for example, evidence for ‘what must have happened’ in actual documents of the period. And though this novel, Mr. Beethoven, probably doesn’t read too much as if it’s internet-savvy, of course it is, being based on research anyone can do at the end of a wifi connection.

3:AM: Yes! I’ve just read Mr Beethoven, and I thought it a sort of deconstruction, even a parody, of the historical novel. In the book, Beethoven lives on beyond 1827 and travels to Boston in 1833, where he attends a performance of a new work of his and begins work on his tenth symphony, the Oceanic. It’s the interjections of the authorial voice commenting on how he’s constructing the narrative and filling in gaps for the audience, though, that sticks in the mind. I wonder which idea came first, the ficto-biography or the deconstruction of it?

PG: I don’t think I know. Bear in mind those experiments showing how our brains and nerves commit to muscular actions before we are consciously aware of ‘deciding’ to undertake those actions. In the same way, I’m sure ideas can form before we’re conscious of them. The Beethoven book is maybe the only thing I’ve done that’s in a genre: the ‘What If?’ And it’s very possible the idea of playing with the genre, exposing its workings, was in my mind before the subject. However, it was the subject that got me going, and the first chapter, which went through successive drafts virtually unchanged, is pretty straightforward historical fiction: we’re introduced to the protagonist and to a setting, in a ship going across the Atlantic. It was when I got into the research — Where could this journey have started? What boats were making the crossing at the right time? Who else could have been on the passenger list? — that I realized I could, and should, put all this out into the open. Then all kinds of things become possible. We quote from documents of the period: a memoir, an auction catalogue. Of course, there were other aims, too. I wanted ‘my’ Beethoven to behave like Beethoven, and even to compose like Beethoven. And I wanted to introduce writers who could have been in Boston in 1833, as many of them as possible.

3:AM: Are there other figures from the history of music you’d be interested in writing about? Or perhaps ideas/theories from music you would be interested in incorporating into music?

PG: Connections with music, in terms of form and procedure as opposed to subject, seem to come about below the level of my awareness. I guess it’s a matter of ways of thinking that, over decades of listening to music and studying music, have become embedded. I admired Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony for finding ways to mirror in prose a symphonic structure, but that’s not the way I’ve operated — at least so far.

3:AM: There are novelists and poets who compose, and composers who write literature. Are there any instances of great crossovers you would care to mention?

PG: Yes, lots of examples (Burgess included), but not so many cases of people who’ve worked at a high level in two or more different art forms. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Cage — all of them completely astonishing to those of us who struggle to achieve anything in one.

An extract from Mr Beethoven

Skimming through the thousands of names of those who disembarked at Boston in 1833, looking for any not obviously British or Irish, you might seize on “Abraham Hultz,” and so be led to the brig Florida, which sailed from Amsterdam with just seven passengers (leaving room, then, for your imaginary eighth), curiously, all of them men (family groups were more the norm) and relatively young (which was not so unusual). Abraham, at twenty, was the baby, and he tops the list, presumably because he was first in line presenting himself to the authorities, for there is never any evident reason for how entries were ordered. Below him are Antoni and Francis Kizer, thirty and twenty-five respectively, both of them coopers and, surely, brothers. Next are a shoemaker, a farmer, and a baker – all useful trades where they were going — the first of them the same age as Francis Kizer, the other two twenty-eight. Last on the list was another twenty-five-yearold, J. J. Whatson, mariner, with the observation: “put on board and passage paid by U. S. Consul.” You might wonder if he was being sent home on account of some misdemeanor perpetrated in the Dutch capital – but why, then, as a cabin passenger, all expenses paid?

Apart from this Whatson, given as belonging to the U. S., the passengers are all said to hail from Holland – though this seems unlikely, given their names. Hultz, possibly jewish, could have come from anywhere, though possibly not from the Netherlands, since there are no Hultzes listed at www.telefoonboek.nl. Nor are any Kizers to be found there (the Massachusetts phone directory, by contrast, includes many more than could plausibly have been descended from this pair), but plenty of Keizers. Perhaps Harman Wibling, the farmer, also suffered mistranscription, for this is another surname unknown to the Dutch resource. Or perhaps he was the sole living representative of his line, emigrating to leave a trickle of progeny in Danbury, Connecticut, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With Joan Floren, the aptly named baker, we at last have a potentially Dutch name, but not with the shoemaker, Peter Wortley, who must have been British by birth.

Yet there they all were, on board the brig Florida (which, by the way, was to be painted in watercolor only three years later at Palermo, Sicily, the resulting picture to be sold, in Boston, by the auction house of Skinner, Inc., in 2006 for $8,225), bound for a new life from which, they must have thought, they would never wish to return – unlike their companion passenger, old enough to be their father.

Did each of the six, and the U. S. Consul, too, make separate arrangements with the captain? That they were all single men, and much of an age, might argue rather that they arrived as a group. If so, what brought them together, the possibly Jewish painter (Hultz), the two coopers, the very likely English shoemaker, the farmer, and the baker? They were all skilled artisans, and would therefore have had some time for their own pursuits. Could they have been keen amateur musicians, the Hultz-Kizer-Wibling string quartet, joined by an English clarinettist and a bassoon-playing farmer? And the U. S. Consul, with some sympathy for his miscreant (who, his peppermint cordial spiked by laughing comrades, had been arrested for lashing out at a passing stranger), had placed him in this vessel, where, never separated from his French horn, he would be among friends. They could even get together to play their fellow passenger’s Septet.

As for that fellow passenger, he could have reached Amsterdam in stages, from Vienna to Salzburg, Salzburg to Nuremberg, Nuremberg to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Cologne, Cologne to Amsterdam. The details of the journey need not concern us. He could have been there in a very few days; the others were perhaps there before, awaiting the wind. And so the whole thing falls into place.

Some adjustment will be necessary, however, to what has already been surmised. A brig had only one deck, and so the cabin boy would not have been summoning the distinguished passenger from above but from along. And nobody would have been traveling steerage. The scene in the dining saloon could have proceeded as described, though you might have been imagining ladies present and there were none, and the one who spoke out would have had to be one of these young tradesmen, and yet even as such he could have assumed a lordly tone beyond his years.

“Mr. Beethoven is, I understand, traveling to Boston to attend the first performance of a new work of his.”
Let’s say this was Peter Wortley. He was, of course, right.

they come to me and Mr Beethoven are both currently unpublished. For a representative selection of Paul Griffiths’ work, do look for Music & Literature Issue 7, and visit his website.

Paul Griffiths (pictured above) was born in Wales in 1947.
James Tookey studies literature in Geneva.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 20th, 2018.