Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

#603 – #606, #608


Waiting in his car
a timorous husband
looks at his watch
and sighs.


Shrouded in a doorway
he watched her pass
and followed like a shadow.


She smiled when I encouraged her
but she would not pay the ferryman.


I found the bath empty:
someone must have committed

17 October 1986


I bent over the coffin to kiss him
but he turned his head away.

20 October 1986

I have never been the biggest fan of the haiku. I like the idea of the haiku. I like koans. I like proverbs. I like concision. And, for me, poetry is all about that. As I’ve got older I’ve found myself producing slightly longer pieces but nothing you couldn’t fit onto an A4 page with breathing space. Why, in 1986, I decided to write a handful of, what I called at the time, “haikus” I have no idea. These days I admit to writing one haiku (#996) —although even that one doesn’t stick to the rules—and regard the above handful as nothing more than short poems. ‘Nightmare’ was published in Inkshed #19 in the spring of 1990.

Sunday, 27 December 2015


Poem With No Title

This poem has no caption
and that's my problem:
what am I supposed to take from it?

And no instructions,
so what do I do with it?

And if it has any answers
then I don't know the questions.

17 October 1986

This is the eighth poem in my collection Reader Please Supply Meaning. Only a few people have ever read it before today. Which is a shame because although the poem itself is nothing to write home about the collection as a whole is rather good. IMHO. I hadn’t intended to publish another book of poems so soon after This Is Not About What You Think but I was so scunnered after spending months polishing my short story collection Making Sense and not selling a single copy that I slipped into a funk for months and a poetry collection was the easiest thing to put out next. (Technically I did sell one copy of Making Sense to a friend in Ireland—you know who you are—but I’d already posted him a copy and so I refunded him.) The poetry collection fared no better. Worse in fact, if you can imagine that. At least the short story collection garnered a few decent reviews. But I tried not to let it get me down and got lost in working on The More Things Change, my fourth novel which I ended up spending the best part of a year on. (Technically it’s the third but I decided to publish Milligan and Murphy first as it required less editing.)

The More Things Change won’t sell. This is not pessimism or fatalism. This is a hard fact. I will publish it because it’s a damn good book and quite probably the best thing I’ll ever write and I’ll send out review copies and gift copies and that’ll be that. I might try a few competitions too this year. Always shied away from them in the past. But that’ll be it. I’ll move onto my next novel, Left. Or the second short story collection, Still Making Sense. (Technically it’s the second half of a single themed grouping.) But it’ll probably be the novel.

Which brings into question this blog. I said I’d take a year off to work on The More Things Change and expected I’d go back to articles and reviews after that but I think I’ll stick with the poems. If the odd review turns up then so be it. I’ve enough poems to get us through to my ten year anniversary and maybe we’ll call it a day then. It—and by ‘it’ I mean the blog—has not been a huge success and most of those who were writing blogs when I started have packed it in for Facebook or real life. I suffer Facebook at the best of times but let’s not get me started down that road.

It has been suggested I seek out a traditional publisher for my books. It’s not the worst suggestion in the world but at the moment I don’t have the energy for that. It takes me all the time I have to get done what I’m doing now which is next to sod all. Christ knows what’s the matter with me but I worry where it’s heading and that’s another road I don’t want to get started down. This post has been moany enough as it is.

In a few days it’ll be 2016. I still think of these dates as science-fictiony. I remember watching Blade Runner in 1982—1982!—and seeing ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ on the screen and thinking it was so far off and now it’s nearly here. Back to the Future Day is history. 2001 is history. 1984 is history. It all passes. And all our fussing and fretting won’t do a damn thing to stop it or even slow it down. From the new book:

At her leisure the Widow Time will methodically locate every scrap of paper you’ve ever written or typed on, every tape you’ve ever been recorded on (both video and audio), each and every hard drive, flash drive, zip drive, DVD, CD and even floppy disk if you’re old enough and reduce them to dust and all copies will be ground to dust and all those who remember hearing any of your words or seeing your face will be expunged from history and one day—one day or another, one day much like any other but most likely a Tuesday—a generation will awaken that has never heard of you and is none the worse off; it is the nature of things, built-in obsolescence.

Oh, and after all that, happy new year when it comes.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


An Old Friend

The pangs of conscience came later
like an ancient dog,
blind and arthritic,
that he could not bear to destroy.

Though a good few paces behind him,
and forever late,
it always arrived,
knowing no one else would have him.

Even if the old man could find sleep,
when he opened his eyes
the dog would be there,
its pearly gaze transfixing him.

17 October 1986

I’m not a bad person. I tell myself I’m not a bad person. Some people think I am. I’ve done bad things—who hasn’t?—but does that make me bad? And who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad. If you’re a Christian that would be God and there’s not much he’s not expressed an opinion on over the centuries—theft, murder, fornication, idolatry—but he’s never been big on explaining why certain things are bad for us.

Eleven years after I wrote this poem I did a bad thing. According to some. I started living with a woman who wasn’t my wife. My mother point blank refused to meet Carrie until we’d tied the knot. Perhaps she couldn’t stop us living in sin but she was sure as hell not going to sanction the union by breaking bread with us. Carrie understood on an intellectual level—on an emotional level she was upset—but we were all adults and we got over it. At least we got on with it. When my mother was dying—not that we realised that was the case until it was too late—both me and my wife were there and Carrie did most of the practical work. Before she died Mum called Carrie her “angel”. Which she was.

People can and do spoil things. They do it by trying to impose their own set of standards on others. Often they’re well-intentioned—my mother certainly was—but even when we do get to do our own thing somehow they manage to sully it. We don’t just want to do our own thing. We want people to approve of us. From the new book (the 'Jim' is not me but there's a lot of me in him):

[F]ornication was a sin he had found both need and opening to commit on a number (albeit a small number) of less than ideal occasions before although not for some years and, as he recalled (it was not that long ago), it was a mightily enjoyable sin, one of the classier ones that didn’t involve oxen or asses, if you discounted the post-coital guilt that always followed. That he had renounced his parents’ moral code, opting to decide for himself what was right and wrong, was one thing. Living with their disapproval was another. Not that they ever knew. It didn’t matter that they never did and they never would. That was neither here nor there. What mattered was that had they known they would have disapproved. More than that, they would have been hurt, mortally wounded. They would have sat there with otter eyes, hanging their heads wondering where they went so wrong.

Today, by the way, is our eighteenth wedding anniversary. The photo is of the card I gave her. And, yes, they’re pencil shavings.

Sunday, 20 December 2015


The Drowning Man

Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.

It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.

He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:

"There is a drowning man in us all,"
he said,
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."

He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.

We never met again.
I did not expect we would.

And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.

I had only ever seen them in a mirror.

17 October 1986

This is the sixth of The Drowning Man Poems. Thirty years on I cannot think of a single change I might make to it. I have no idea where it came from but it’s one of those poems like ‘Common Denominator’ (#534) I can’t get over writing. I’m not an idiot. I know I have a facility with words. But every now and then I write a sentence or two and there’s this disconnect. I know I wrote them but I can’t imagine writing anything that good ever again nor can I figure out how I managed to write the words I’m looking at. Where did they come from? Was it the crazy guy I sometimes glimpse in the mirror who wrote them? Always a possibility.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015



I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography. I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide. – Philip Roth, Deception

This year I’ve been actively seeking out novels written in dialogue so it was only a matter of time before I got to Philip Roth’s 1990 novella Deception. Having read several books by him—Indignation, The Prague Orgy, Nemesis, The Ghost Writer, The Dying Animal, The Humbling and Everyman—I thought I had a pretty good idea what to expect here but this was something very different.

I’ve never been one of those writers who plunders his real life for ideas. Whenever I think about it I reflect on the scene in Hannah and her Sisters where Hannah gets upset with Holly because it’s obvious that Holly’s book is all about her family and contains things about Hannah’s marriage that Holly really shouldn’t have been privy to:

Hannah: I'm upset about what you wrote.

Holly: My script?

Hannah: It's based on Elliot and me.

Holly: Loosely.

Hannah: Not loosely. Real specifically. Is that how you see us? Can I not accept gestures and feelings from people? Do I put people off?

Holly: It's a made-up story.

Hannah: No, it's exact. The situations, the dialogue, everything. It's full of details about Elliot and me... which I don't see how you could know about.

FactsA writer’s just asking for trouble when he does that. And yet so many of us do. Even great writers like Philip Roth apparently. Or do they? On the surface the male protagonist in this book appears to be a thinly-disguised version of Roth. He’s even called Philip and this ‘Philip’ is the author of books where the main character is a certain Nathan Zuckerman. That really should settle it: this is biography, or—let’s do the man a favour—semi-autobiography. Roth opens his actual autobiography The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography as follows:

Dear Zuckerman,

In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract. Yet, to my surprise, I now appear to have gone about writing a book absolutely backward, taking what I have already imagined and, as it were, desiccating it, so as to restore my experience to the original, prefictionalised factuality. Why? To prove that there is a significant gap between the autobiographical writer that I am thought to be and the autobiographical writer that I am? To prove that the information that I drew from my life was, in the fiction, incomplete? If that was all, I don’t think I would have gone to the trouble, since thoughtful readers, if they were interested enough to care, could have figured as much for themselves.

The reality of Deception is that Roth did work in a studio flat in London’s Notting Hill. At the time of writing the book Roth was in a long-term relationship with the British actress Claire Bloom (they first met in 1966) who he ended up marrying (in 1990 shortly after he finished Deception—notably Bloom proposed to Roth). They also ended up divorcing most acrimoniously a few years later. In the book there’s a conversation between the writer ‘Philip’ and his wife (who, in early drafts had been named ‘Claire’) where she’s discovered his notebook and questions him regarding the contents: just how fictional was his fiction? It’s a good question and one that hovers over this book. The wife accuses him of having an affair. She’s read the novel he’s been working on (which is ‘Philip’s’ version of Roth’s The Counterfile) and feels she knows the Englishwoman there but, she says, “this is not that English woman, this is not the model for that English woman, this is the real woman! Don’t pretend they are one and the same.” ‘Philip’ says he doesn’t:

One is a figure sketched in conversation in a notebook, the other is a major character entangled in a plot of an intricate book. I have been imagining myself, outside of my novel, having a love affair with a character inside my novel.

This, of course, is not dissimilar to the defence provide by Humbert Humbert in Lolita when Charlotte Haze finds his journal in which he’s recorded his feelings for her daughter:

Let us be civilized people. It is all your hallucination. You are crazy, Charlotte. The notes you found were fragments of a novel. Your name and hers were put in by mere chance. Just because they came handy. Think it over. I shall bring you a drink.

Roth’s autobiography (written in 1988 by the way) is interesting because as you might’ve noticed a) it’s addressed to a fictional character, his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, but also because b) we get to read Zuckerman’s critique of Roth’s book. He says:

Dear Roth,

I’ve read the manuscript twice. Here is the candour you ask for: Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than “accurately” reporting your own life. Could it be that you’ve turned yourself into a subject not only because you’re tired of me but because you believe I am no longer someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises? Well, on the evidence of what I’ve just read, I’d say you’re still as much in need of me as I of you—and that I need you is indisputable.


What you choose to tell in fiction is different from what you’re permitted to tell when nothing’s being fictionalized, and in this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful—changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings—no, this isn’t you at your most interesting. In the fiction you can be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about causing direct pain.

leaving a doll's houseOdd that after writing this book he would then produce a novella like Deception. Or maybe not so odd. Supposedly the first step to recovery for an addict is admitting to themselves (as well as others) that they’re an addict. But that admission isn’t a cure-all in itself because there are plenty of addicts who know they’re addicts but just keep right on flushing their lives down the pan. Roth acknowledges in his biography what he’s like and then keeps right on doing it. And one can’t say that Bloom didn’t know what she was getting into. Her first letter to Roth included praise for his novel My Life as a Man, a warts and all account of his what Morris Dickstein in his review for the New York Times calls Roth’s “operatically unhappy” first marriage. It was clearly only a matter of time before Roth turned his talent on her. In her own kiss-and-tell autobiography, Leaving a Doll's House, Bloom writes:

Almost immediately I came upon a passage about the self-hating Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn't like my family. There was a description of his working studio in London, letter-perfect and precise. Then I reached the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him—in the most convoluted positions, preferably on the floor. As Philip always insisted that the critics were unable to distinguish his self-invention from his true self, I mindfully accepted these Eastern European seductresses as part of his "performance" as a writer; but I was not so certain. Finally, I arrived at the chapter about his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears constantly bemoaning the fact that his other women are so young. She is an actress by profession, and—as if hazarding a guess would spoil the incipient surprise lying in store—her name is Claire.

As it is she actually gets off fairly light. The character of the wife only appears in one chapter of the book where she challenges him after flicking though his notebook and ‘Philip’ ends up storming out of the house. “The only woman in my studio,” asserts ‘Philip’, “is the woman in my novel. It would be nicer with company but it doesn’t work that way.” The wife isn’t convinced:

‘How can she be imaginary when she knows all these things you couldn’t possibly know? She is someone who comes to your studio and she is why you have been so distracted and totally uninterested in me now for months.’

The defence calls James Ellroy (from an interview with Chris Harvey):

Ellroy, one suspects, is just glad to be back with the characters he loves: “I wanted to know these people again, because they’re so stunningly real to me, and with all but a few cases in my personal life, maybe just one case in Helen Knode, they’re more real to me than the real people I’ve known.” He slips into an imagined reunion with them: “I’ve missed ya. Hey. I love ya. I’m back. You’re doing this crazy s--- at the beginning of World War II. Hey, Dudley, you’re an opium addict, bet you didn’t know that, hey Dud? Hey, but you f--- Bette Davis, how bad can it be?” [bold mine]

Try typing into Google “more real to me than” and see how many writers have said something similar to the above.

Going back to My Life as a Man it’s worth looking at how it’s structured. As Wikipedia puts it:

The work is split into two sections: the first section, "Useful Fictions," consisting of two short stories about a character named Nathan Zuckerman, and the second section, "My True Story," which takes the form of a first-person memoir by Peter Tarnopol, a Jewish writer who authored the two stories in the first section.

Deception isn’t nearly as complex but we’re still faced with the ethical issue: what right does an author have to cannibalise the lives of his family and friends? At one point his (fictitious?) ex-lover says to ‘Philip’: “All the time I thought you loved me for my body when in fact it was only for my sentences.” This is some time after this ‘Philip’ has published his version of Deception (although the book is never named) and she’s calmed down enough to phone him. She’s been mad with him—furious—and so Roth would’ve known how Bloom would’ve been likely to react when he finally handed her the manuscript of Deception to read. Perhaps this is why he (uncharacteristically, apparently) waited several weeks to show it her. Interestingly the e-book I read doesn’t have the usually disclaimer saying all the characters contained within are works of fictions and any similarities to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Fiction is deception. Writers are liars. For some perverse reason we think telling lies is a way to get to the truth while it’s got its knickers down and Roth is no exception. Metafiction is deception squared. And one of the primary goals of metafiction is to look at the craft of the writer. I wrote a poem once called ‘Salome’:


"I thought you'd be pleased," she said
when she presented me
with the typescript of our conversation.

Well I was, in a way, flattered at least,
but I'd never intended
what I'd said to have such permanence.

Better such things to be viewed
through the veil of memory.

29 October 1989

and when I showed it to the girl who’d inspired it—unusually I hadn’t dedicated the poem to her which is odd because I was quite besotted by her—she was appalled at the thought that I might’ve recorded the things we’d shared, not flattered, not in the least. I can only imagine her face if I ever did choose to write about our relationship because we haven’t spoken in almost twenty-five years.

CounterlifePoets especially suffer from readers’ inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. As soon as you put ‘I’ in a poem then immediately the poem’s all about you and they feel cheated—lied to and not in a good way—if they learn you made the whole thing up. This is what Roth says in The Counterlife:

It’s all impersonation—in the absence of a self, one impersonates selves, and after a while impersonates the best the self that best gets one through... What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself—a troupe of players that I have internalised, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that forms my repertoire... I am a theatre, nothing more than a theatre.

In his biography, again, Roth writes (well, Zuckerman responds):

What one chooses to reveal in fiction is governed by a motive fundamentally aesthetic; we judge the author of a novel by how well he or she tells the story. But we judge morally the author of an autobiography, whose governing motive is primarily ethical as against aesthetic. How close is the narration to the truth? Is the author hiding his or her motives, presenting his or her actions and thoughts to lay bare the essential nature of conditions or trying to hide something, telling in order not to tell? In a way we always tell in order also not to tell, but the personal historian is expected to resist to the utmost the ordinary impulse to falsify, distort, and deny. Is this really “you” or is it what you want to look like to your readers at the age of fifty-five? You tell me in your letter that the book feels like the first thing you have ever written “unconsciously.” Do you mean that The Facts is an unconscious work of fiction? Are you not aware yourself of its fiction-making tricks?

Did Philip Roth have an affair with an English woman over a period of several years? Does it matter? Come to think of it did the conversations with the two Czechoslovakian women, the Polish woman and the male Czech expatriate take place exactly as recorded in the book? Or at all? Are they more or less likely to be fiction? And what about the ex-mistress with cancer, or the other ex-mistress (and ex-student) who has had shock treatment? I assumed these were the Englishwoman—I was deceived—but apparently not.

That Deception might feel more like notes for a novel rather than a finished novel is, I’m sure, no coincidence. That his partner would get upset by what she read in the novel comes as no surprise since his character’s wife gets upset by what she reads in his notebook; this is life imitating art. I wonder if Roth would’ve been disappointed, felt he’d somehow failed, if Claire Bloom hadn’t batted an eye when she read his book? So what is it? A novel pretending to be a notebook or a notebook pretending to be a novel?

The final chapter of this book poses a problem. If ‘Philip’s’ notebook comprises the chapters preceding the one where his wife confronts him then what’s happening in the final chapter? I can see two ways of reading this, either the Englishwoman was real and this is a final conversation or, inspired by his wife’s reaction to the notebook, this is a final chapter imagining a pleasanter encounter with the Englishwoman after she has read about herself in the novel ‘Philip’s’ written.

One of the big problems with a dialogue novel is how to distinguish who is talking. In Me & You Powell presents us with two interchangeable characters—it doesn’t matter which one’s which—and in Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Eggers changes location—Buildings 52, 53 and so voxon—and we quickly learn who’s chained up in each building but in Deception Roth shows little regard for his readers and I was lost at the start of every chapter and I was not alone (see Fay Weldon’s comments in the next paragraph). I’d assumed that the book would only contain two people—I was expecting a version of Nicholson Baker’s Vox—but, no, there’re all these Czechs popping up; there’s a whole chunk in fact that reads like an outtake from The Prague Orgy. But think about it, if this is a notebook then it would be confusing to anyone other than the note taker. All I have to do is look at some of the notes I’ve written—which immediately jog my memory—but anyone else would struggle to make any sense out of them if they ever could. They’re not deliberately cryptic. They’re just a kind of shorthand. Which is what we have here. No exposition, no description, just what was (or might have been) said.

In her review in The New York Times Fay Weldon described this as a “swift, elegant, disturbing novel … that reads like a brilliant radio play for a minority (that is to say, brilliant) audience.” She admits Roth’s thrown down a gauntlet:

[T]his literary navel-gazing is a risky occupation. Is this novel a portrait of Roth or non-Roth in hateful literary London, having it off with the wives of his friends? What conceit, to think we're interested. Yet he gets away with it even as he angers us. […] Who is this Olina, who is referred to all of a sudden in the dialogue, with no introduction? Male, female? Who's talking anyway? Do I have to go back yet again and count up—he, she, he, she—to find out? Why doesn't this author turn up and help?

There is no question here: Roth pulls no punches. As his alter ego yells out towards the end of his row with his wife, “I write what I write the way I write it. … I will publish what I publish however I want to publish.” And we readers be damned? Yes, so it seems.

The actual conversations are interesting. The book begins, for example, in media res. It’s as if we’ve sat down on the bus or train and there’s this couple behind us chattering away and it’s impossible not to take an interest in what they’re saying. And that probably is the real attraction here. Writers are voyeurs but then so are their readers. A brief exchange:

        ‘Did you listen to that record I gave you?’
         ‘No. I had to hide it.’
         ‘Why do you have to hide it?’
         ‘Because it would be unusual for me to buy a record. I don’t often do it.’
         ‘What are you going to do with it?’
         ‘Well I’ll play it in the evening when I’m alone.’
         ‘What are you going to do if it’s found? Salt and pepper it and eat it?’
         ‘I did buy records, but I did get so upset for a while that—well, that’s history.’
         ‘What? Did you have fights about that too?’

This isn’t the best Roth I’ve read but, as I’ve said, I’ve focused on his later novellas, none of the famous stuff although I did watch the film adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint and can’t say I’m desperate to read the book now. I should probably read Operation Shylock. It’s supposed to be his masterpiece. Deception isn’t. It’s an experimental novel and as I’m always quick to point out, most experiments fail but Operation-Shylockthat doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile ventures; it’s how we learn. And what I learned from this book is that an author needs to have a little more respect for his readers than Roth’s shown here. We don’t need to be spoon-fed but as most of us aren’t that brilliant a little help here and there would be appreciated.

I know a lot of people don’t care much for Roth—my wife is one of them—and there are good reasons from what I hear and maybe if I had read all the famous books I wouldn’t care much for him either—I was certainly not impressed by the way he treated Claire Bloom when they parted company—but for a book about a love affair the one thing there’s very little of (or even talk of) is sex. That doesn’t mean that ‘Philip’ is not sexist because he is, and manipulative and full of himself. But clearly he’s also capable of attracting women. As was Roth. Roth and Bloom were a couple for years. He must’ve been doing something right. That ‘Philip’ treats women as fodder sounds bad—they’re something to be recorded and studied—but he’s a writer: that’s what we do. Witness for the defence, Randy Murray:

A writer is a dangerous friend. Everything you say, all of your life and experience, is fodder for our writing. We mean you no harm, but what you know and what you’ve done is unavoidably fascinating to us. Being friends with a writer is a bit like trying to keep a bear as a pet. They’re wonderful, friendly creatures, but they play rough and they don’t know their own strength or remember that they have claws. Choose the stories you tell to your writer friends carefully.

What’s interesting about ‘Philip’ and the Englishwoman is that over the years the sex dries up and all they have is the conversation but it seems enough. Better than sex? Better than the wrong kind of sex perhaps. A far cry from Portnoy. Or maybe not:

What I'm saying, Doctor, is that I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds—as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America—maybe that's more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthorp, General Washington—now Portnoy.

If Portnoy was Roth in his youth then why shouldn’t ‘Philip’ be a middle-aged Roth not entirely disinterested in sex but more interested in other kinds of intimacies? Indeed the subject matter covered in this little book is broad: sex, infidelity, family and work, psychotherapy, politics, sleeplessness, divorce lawyers, the anti-Semitism of the English, and how far a writer should be allowed to go for his craft.

The chapters with the Czechs seem out of place at first but Hermione Lee in an article in The Independent suggested that Deception is “also about obstacles to freedom, which is why the novel has other voices cutting across the lovers’ voices of Roth’s obstructed Eastern European characters.” It’s a thought. ‘Philip’ basically hides himself away in his flat and blames it on the locals’ attitudes towards Jews. One thing I haven’t mentioned and really should is the humour in the book. Although it’s far from being a comedy there are a few moments that made me smile, particularly this one in which the Englishwoman has taken on the role of female prosecutor and ‘Philip’ that of the accused writer:

        ‘The women in your work are all vicious stereotypes. Was that your aim as a writer?’
        ‘Many people have read the work otherwise.’
        ‘Why did you portray Mrs. Portnoy as a hysteric? Why did you portray Lucy Nelson as a psychopath? Why did you portray Maureen Tarnopol as a liar and a cheat? Does this not defame and denigrate women? Why do you depict women as shrews, if not to malign them?’
        ‘Why did Shakespeare? You refer to women as though every woman is a person to be extolled.’
        ‘You dare to compare yourself to Shakespeare?’
        ‘I am only—’
        ‘‘Next you will be comparing yourself to Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker!’

Is this Roth answering his critics? Who knows? All the above taken into consideration I have to say I did actually like this book. Now, after doing some research, I’ve a better idea what’s going on and who’s who I think I could relax into it a second time but I’m not in any great rush to read it again. Too many other books crying out for attention.


rothPhilip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, which became the scene for his early novels. His father was an insurance salesman of Austro-Hungarian stock. Roth attended Rutgers University for a year before transferring to Bucknell University. He studied at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in English. In 1955 Roth joined the army but was discharged after an injury during basic training period. Roth continued his studies in Chicago, and worked from 1955 to 1957 as an English teacher. He dropped out of the Ph.D. program in 1959 and started to write film reviews for the New Republic.

Roth, known to be both literary troublemaker and (arguably) the greatest living American writer, has been praised time and time again for his works of literature, beginning in 1959 when he won the National Book Award for his novel Goodbye, Columbus. Ten years later appeared Portnoy's Complaint, a “masturbation story” about young man's search for freedom using forbidden sex as his way of escape. The book gained a great international success and ended up being translated into several languages.

Roth has a well-known style for his use of exploration of American identity that often gets tied together with sexual and familial love. We often see parallels between his novels and his own life, and although his novels do seem eerily biographical, he has sworn up and down that they are, in fact, not.

Philip Roth has had three of his novels made into movies, including Goodbye, Columbus, The Human Stain, Portnoy's Complaint; Battle of Blood Island was adapted from the short story ‘Expect the Vandals’. Roth has also won over twenty awards for his novels, including two National Book Awards and the Man Booker International Prize. Somehow the Nobel Prize keeps eluding him though.

Sunday, 13 December 2015


Obituary (4.10.86)

The drowning man is dead; you killed him.
And in my waking hours I will him stay so.

Yet he haunts my dreams
and lives on in my memories
like the reality of a scarred face.

And the world is full of broken mirrors.
Not that it matters: nothing does:
someone will resurrect him.

4 October 1986

A few poems ago I wrote about demon possession. Now I’m writing about ghosts. There are ghosts in the new book—which is finished now (“finished” being a relative term) and Carrie’s pronounced it “excellent” (which I’m hoping is not a relative term)—but they’re just a literary device. In the park, for example, Jim sees his father’s ghost:

I used to see my father's shade out of the corner of my eye. I’d never see him arrive and he disappeared as mysteriously. I’ve not seen him in many a moon.

What do we mean by “ghost”? The book contains two additional definitions to those we’re already familiar with:

A ghost in this context is an avatar for the imagination. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on!”


I dubbed a “ghost” the kind of pathetic individual who’s not all there who haunts a past he or she never truly had rather than make a life in a present they no longer recognise.

Perhaps because I was a poet before I was a novelist—and fully expect to still be a poet once I’m done with all this prose malarkey—I’m far more comfortable with sentences that are open to interpretation than someone like, for example, Orwell who is known for his clear, direct, and precise writing style. I like that we can take a familiar word like “ghost” and redefine it or perhaps I should say expand its definition.

It’s interesting that I use “broken mirrors” in the poem. I use it in the book too: “Humanity is like… How did Pound put it? A bundle of broken mirrors.” By 1986 I’d pretty much given up trying to read Pound but maybe that line had hung around in my head. Who knows? I might’ve come up with it myself. It happens.

The final two lines of the Pound’s poem ‘Near Perigord’ read:

And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !

Pound actually created a photography machine that used mirrors to create shattered portraits but he’s not the only one to use the expression. Borges wrote, “We are our memories are that chimerical museum of changing shapes, this heap of broken mirrors.” I remember the expression from an article on Beckett, ‘Beckett's Godot: “A bundle of broken mirrors”’ in which neither Pound nor Borges is mentioned; the author references instead Wordsworth and Hamlet.

In my book though what do I mean when I refer to Mankind as a bundle of broken mirrors? Well several times in the book I make mention to Man being made in God’s image. But we were broken. We are reflections, albeit distorted ones, of our creator. I talk a lot about God in the book—and he’s not without a few things to say himself—but, remember, it’s only a novel. The God in my book is a work of fiction. He only exists in my imagination as are all the characters in the book, avatars of the imagination. The characters in my book are all “broken”. They are imperfect and incomplete. It’s what makes them interesting. I can’t think of anything more boring than perfection and my book is certainly not that but I can live with “excellent”.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


For No One Else

I do not want you
to read my poems any more.

You see only the words
and not the mysteries.

But what is worse is
you don't want to see.

28 September 1986

beer matI was surprised to see this poem crop up here. I would’ve sworn I’d written it about my first wife because there definitely came a point when I stopped showing her my work. I don’t remember getting to that stage with F. but maybe I did or maybe I was thinking about my first wife when I wrote it. Hard to tell. I’ve definitely not got to that stage with Carrie and her opinion still matters. I take that as a good sign. It helps that Carrie’s a writer. No other woman I’ve been involved with has written and so they could never understand how important it was to me. I might as well have been showing them a new beer mat I’d ordered online. They always treated writing as a thing I did and it’s so much more than that. I talk about this in the new book:

My wife used to read all my stuff when she was alive. She would check over everything I gave her whenever I presented it to her; it was never a bad time even when my timing was off which, as I recall, it often was. She read it and then passed comment on it. Customarily she would make notes in the margins, circle certain words or recommend alternative punctuation. It exasperated me no end when she handed the pages back and there were no such addenda. It used to grate on me. I was never convinced that the work was perfect so the problem had to be she had not read it deeply enough or carefully enough or she had only understood it superficially, only read it as a story, an arrangement of plots and subplots, text and subtext, dialogue and description. No, those were merely the strings to my bow, not the music; that was something intangible, something beyond crass notation. It is as good as analogy as any. Perhaps one day that will find itself interred in some godawful book of quotes but hopefully not. “Did you not like it?” I would say and she would say it was “fine”—that was her go-to word—but I would continue to interrogate her: what about the character development? did she feel my hero grew or shrank as the case may be? did he have his own voice or was it merely me mouthing off?
     “No, dear,” she would say (it was the only time she ever called me “dear”). “I think the voice was fine—very… not you.”
     On and on I would go, whittling away, but never asking the key question. I never said, “Did you get it?” did she know what I meant. I never hinted at things like that for fear she might say, “I guess not—sorry,” and I would have failed. I did not wish to fail.

I should be done now. I had one last block of minor changes to make before passing it over to Carrie to read and then my laptop froze during the latest Windows update—damn you to hell Microsoft!—and I’ve had to reinstall my laptop from scratch. So guess what I’ve been doing for the last two days. Which is also why I’m writing on this at 10am on Wednesday. Normally I do not like to leave things this late.

Sunday, 6 December 2015


The Gospel According to Estragon

Godot came today.
We weren't prepared.

If anything we were rather disturbed –
he wasn't supposed to come
(nor was he what I'd expected).

So we killed him
and buried him under the tree
and went back to waiting.

Nothing more to be done.

28 September 1986

GodotI wonder who’s best known, Godot, Yorick or Howard Wolowitz’s mother from The Big Bang Theory? Godot we never see—at least not in Beckett’s play (he finally turns up in Daniel Curzon’s Godot Arrives)—Yorick’s skull is the only part of him we ever see—except in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation where there’s a flashback and Ken Dodd plays the jester—and we only ever see the occasional bit of Mrs Wolowitz (never her face) after the finale to season 5. It’s a popular trope having a character who’s referred to constantly but who never appears like Captain Mainwaring’s wife in Dad’s Army (although she is in the upcoming film) and Arthur Daily’s wife (“’er indoors”) in Minder.

Waiting for Godot has always been a great source of inspiration for me. I eventually wrote my own sequel, Vladimir and Estragon are Dead, but made damn sure there was no Godot in it. There’s also a lot of Godot in my new book:

Maybe he had already found himself—the thought had crossed his mind—and not been all that impressed. That couldn’t be me! No way, Pedro! No doubt it happens more often than people care to admit. And the longer the unwashed masses are prepared to wait it out the greater the likelihood they will be disappointed. It happened to the Jews. A woodworker’s apprentice was not what the prophets promised so they renounced him and went right on waiting for their saviour, waiting for the sake of waiting, waiting as the basis of a whole religion. Christians, on the other hand, are expecting his Second Coming any day now. Muslims are waiting on the Mahdi, Buddhists on a bodhisattva named Maitreya, Hindus on Kalki astride his Schimmel with a blazing sword.

I’ve just finished my 13th draft of The More Things Change. Once I’ve uploaded this blog I’ll take out all the footnotes (of which there are now 1453), and send a copy of the book to my tablet to begin reading for the 14th—and hopefully—final time.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015



Of my feelings
I can never forget that I am their host.

They possess me, not I, them.

And I have nightmares of exorcisms
and what they would leave me.

Better the devils you know.

28 September 1986

Not one of The Drowning Man poems but certainly related. The title comes from Mark 5:9, “Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion,’ he replied, ‘for we are many.’” Jesus is, of course, addressing a demon-possessed man. In the end the demons leave the man and enter a large herd of pigs (about two thousand according to the account) that then rush down a steep bank into a lake and drown. The account raises some interesting questions like How come the demons could get into the man on their own but needed permission to leave him? but I’m not really interested in debating them. The story provides a good metaphor for how I was feeling at the time contending with a host of feelings that I wasn’t ready to accept as my own. I suppose it really should be ‘horde’ of feelings if we’re talking about demons and not angels.

What of the man? “When [the townspeople] came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind…” (Mark 5:15). Good for him. But what about me? If I managed to rid myself of all these feeling—maybe not two thousand but a lot—where would that leave me?


Sunday, 29 November 2015


The Office Party


Looking in at them:
people out of context,
in violent relation to
each other…

underage drinkers,

…and nobody notices
the silent Outsider
in his little bubble
floating just out of reach.

Alter Egos and Subconsciouses
dancing while their Consciences
sit and get bottled at the bar.

Drink just frees the mind,
the heart and the hands…

…and mental blocks become
chips on shoulders.

Time hasn’t got a membership card
so They won’t let him in.

Three of Them have got the
Outsider in the toilets;
They’re trying to smash
his bubble.

They’re trying to tear off
his mask, but They can’t,
and even if They could it
wouldn’t matter: his face
isn’t real either…

…but then again,
neither’re Theirs…

…records’re jumping…

These are not real people.
These are photocopies…

…plastic ice in the drinks…

“—but the fog is getting thick enough I don’t have to watch. And somebody’s tugging at my arm. I know already what will happen: somebody’ll drag me out of the fog and we’ll be back on the ward and there won’t be a sign of what went on tonight and if I was fool enough to try and tell anybody about it they’d say, Idiot, you just had a nightmare; things as crazy as a big machine room down in the bowels of a dam where people get cut up by robot workers don’t exist.

But if they don’t exist, how can a man see them?”

Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

30 August 1976

newcastle-brown-aleI said in my last post I’d find a poem about drink and post it. I found three actually, ‘The Reception’ (#393) from April 1976, ‘Eight Concepts from a Beer-Glass-Drama’ (#415) and the above. I was sober when I wrote the first one—the one and only time in my life I’ve chosen to drink tomato juices—and the second is a more pretentious version of ‘The Office Party’.

I did most of my drinking in the late seventies. I was not very good at it but everyone else was doing it and I wanted to fit in. I went to the above party with two lads I worked with, Richard and Gerry. I stayed with Richard that night and I have a very clear memory of him getting up in the night, going to his wardrobe, locating a plastic carrier bag, vomiting in it and then going back to bed. That had a surprising impact on me. That someone would make such preparations. I’d been sick several times due to drink but it had always come as an unexpected and unwelcome surprise, a disappointment. I never wanted to be sick and I’ve always hated being sick.

August seems an odd time for an office party. I remember a Christmas party in the same place—the staff canteen—and I expect there was more than one because I can also remember being there with my first wife while she was still my girlfriend; she was drinking Pernod and blackcurrant. I was a cider drinker back then since I pretty much hated beer and lager although I developed a taste for 'Newkie Broons’ (Newcastle Brown Ale) some years later.

I’ve always found drunks interesting from a distance. Some say alcohol makes you more honest but I’m not sure I agree. Maybe you think you’re being honest. In social settings like this I always head to the outside the better to watch what’s going on. I have no idea how much of this poem was written whilst under the influence but it was certainly started on the night. For all my failings in my later teens the one thing you could always be sure of it that I’d have a notepad and pen with me. Never went anywhere without them.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Silent Witness

She did not offer me any
nor did I expect her to
knowing it was her last.

Quickly I became aware
of my mouth filling with
clichés and platitudes
till I felt sick.

But I forced myself to swallow
and the truth nearly choked me.

28 September 1986

nielsen - martini rossi bottleI don’t drink. It’s an odd expression that. Of course I drink. I’d die if I didn’t take in fluids on a regular basis. But when someone says, “I don’t drink,” we know what they mean. Scotland drinks. I can’t think of another nation where alcohol is such a part of the national character apart from Australia and since about two million of them claim Scottish ancestry I rest my case.

When I say I don’t drink I’m not saying I’ll never take a drink—I’m not a sober alcoholic or anything—and whenever my wife (who does drink) has some new concoction I’m happy enough to take a sip and tell her how horrible I think it is especially if it’s wine because all wines pretty much taste the same to me and I really don’t understand all the fuss. Carrie prefers red wine to white. I’ve had some white wines which were tolerable but I’ve never tasted a red wine that wasn’t warm, sour and flat. As I just said, I don’t understand all the fuss.

My parents didn’t drink much when we were growing up. Occasionally a bottle of Martini would appear on the Cornish—their word for mantelpiece—and that’s the first alcoholic beverage I ever tasted. Why would my parents want to drink such a thing? It was vile. I never liked it when the drink appeared. I have no bad memories associated with it but it wasn’t them. My parents didn’t drink. Not drinking was the norm. But that did not continue.

By 1986 my father had developed quite the drink problem and the worst thing about it was he didn’t see it. He’d been working constant nights for about fifteen years by then and at the start he’d found sleeping during the day difficult so he’d taken to having a wee whisky before bed. Eventually he couldn’t sleep without it and it was no longer a wee whisky. My brother and sister too—they’d be 24 and 21 respectively at this time (I was 27)—both drank to excess and it’s my sister who’s the “she” in the above poem but it really could be anyone.

The dipsomaniacal writer is popular cliché. I’ve never got it. Alcohol has never helped me write although I do have a few poems which arose because of the drink and maybe I’ll post an old one next if I can find one that’s not too embarrassing.

Sunday, 22 November 2015


A Familiar Pain

We were broken but found each other.
Our cuts healed over and
our bones knitted together.
I thought we were one.

But it seems I was wrong:
you need your freedom back
and in trying to pull away
old wounds are re-opened
and memories re-kindled.

27 April 1986

AttractionThe laws of attraction. Not quite sure what they are. And no one can seem to agree what they are. There are laws of affinity and if you look up the Wikipedia entry you’ll even find formulas but the laws of attraction are a bit murkier. Does, for example, like attract like (as Plato proposed in his first law of affinity) or, as sociologist Robert F. Winch proposed in the fifties, do opposites attract? It’s pretty much a moot point. Quantum physics has seen to that. We now have something called field particle exchange which, as with most things quantum physicy, doesn’t listen to reason if it doesn’t feel like it.

I never took science at school except when it was compulsory. Once we got to pick our own subjects I dropped all that and never looked back. What is odd is how often science crops up in my new novel and not just any ol’ science but cutting edge stuff. I don’t watch many science programmes on TV but I can enjoy the odd one. I especially love the ones that tell us time doesn’t exist or reality is only real when we look at it.

In 1 Samuel 18:1 we get the phrase “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” and the metaphor of a body being made up of more than one individual is a common biblical one: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). We two are one. You don’t have to be religious to think that—it’s sweet on one level—but what if we were an alien race where marriage involved physical conjoinment? That would make divorce another thing completely, wouldn’t it? There’s a scene in my new novel where I describe a disjoined twin standing next to a full length mirror so he can feel whole again. There’s also one where Chang hands Eng a fiver and tells him to sod off to the pub.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


A Reprieve

Suddenly tranquillity –
floating after drowning –
caught between realities
in the bitter waters of
unrealized dreams and private fears,
fighting the urge to panic.

Panting with fear –
now you're there –
where you thought you wanted to be.

But in the dark you give up hope
and let the waters take you.

27 April 1986

Alban-Grosdidier-Graine-de-PhotographeThis is the fourth of the Drowning Man Poems. I have no memories concerning this poem. I couldn’t tell you when it was started or where or what prompted it. I wasn’t depressed when I wrote this although I may well have been down, scunnered as we Scots say which is probably closer to pissed off than anything else but it’s a wonderful word. I have been depressed and for years but even in my worst depressions there will be these moments when the fog clears and you wonder what you did right so you can maybe do it again the nest time things start to get extra bad. Of course you did nothing. There are no magic words or gestures. Sometimes the fog lifts and the best advice I can give anyone when it does is to make the most of it because it won’t last (until one day it does last and you realise the depression is over).

For weeks I’d been struggling with a single question: What do I feel? I can say that now. Now it seems to be obvious what the question was but not then. All I knew was that I was drowning in emotions, downing but not dying. Being lost in the fog would’ve been a better metaphor—no one dies from contact with fog itself—but you write what you write and try to make sense out of it later.

Don’t like that I used ‘fear’ twice in quick succession. Should’ve caught that.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Tzili: The Story of a Life


Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire

Odd title since the book ends when its protagonist is fifteen and really only concentrates on the last two of those years in which, frankly, little happens other than—through luck mostly as she’s not the brightest of girls—she survives the Second World War as a Jew in eastern Europe (most likely Transnistria) without being sent to one of the territory’s two concentration camps or several ghettos. The book opens:

Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus's life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story. We will tell it in all simplicity.

Why this tale? Because it happened. If it is indeed true that everyone has at least one book within them then every Jew—and, of course, not only the Jews—who lived through (or partway through) World War II has a story to tell but not all are capable of telling theirs. Tzili Kraus certainly isn’t in fact if this book were indeed written in the first person it would be far shorter than the short book it already is and certainly less insightful. Tzili has been laconic to a fault from infancy:

Her father was an invalid and her mother busy all day long in their little shop. In the evening, sometimes without even thinking, one of her brothers or sisters would pick her out of the dirt and take her into the house. She was a quiet creature, devoid of charm and almost mute. Tzili would get up early in the morning and go to bed at night like a squirrel, without complaints or tears.

In conversation with Philip Roth Appelfeld told him that Tzili was written at a time when he had become fascinated by what he calls naïveté:

When I wrote Tzili, I was about forty. At that time I was interested in the possibilities of naïveness in art. Can there be a naïve modern art? It seemed to me without naïveté still found among children and old people, and, to some extent, in ourselves, the work of art would be flawed. [In Tzili] I tried to correct that flaw.

Few could be more innocent that Tzili—Rochelle Furstenberg in a commentary on Tzili: A Story of a Life, describes the girl as “a brilliant agent, a tabula rasa for recording this primal world to which man is returned as a consequence of the Nazi evil”—but she’s not entirely without common sense. Her first encounter once abandoned by her family—“They thought nobody would harm a feeble-minded little girl, and until the storm had spent itself, she could take care of their property for them”—is with a blind man who, when she is silent when he asks, “Who do you belong to?” makes a fortuitous assumption:

        “You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you?” he said and chuckled.
         “Yes,” said Tzili, lowering her voice.
         “So we’re not strangers.”
        Maria’s name was a household word throughout the district. She had many daughters, all bastards. Because they were all good-looking, like their mother, nobody harmed them. Young and old alike availed themselves of their favours. Even the Jews who came for the summer holidays. In Tzili’s house Maria’s name was never spoken directly.

From then on whenever asked she tells people she is one of Maria’s daughters and it seems everyone knows Maria and not for her charitable work. Most importantly Maria was not a Jew and as Tzili doesn’t look especially Jewish herself no one thinks twice about it. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t encounter bigotry and abuse but better to be beaten for being the daughter of a whore than a Jewess. The abuse she undergoes would leave most people flabbergasted nowadays but it was a different time then. There were no carrots to induce good behaviour. Obedience was something imposed upon a child—“Spare the rod and spoil the child”—as if they were animals whose wills were to be broken. When an old woman whose home she’s forced into during bad weather beats her it’s not out of badness:

        The bastard had to be beaten so that she would know who she was and what she had to do to mend her ways. The woman would beat her fervently, as if she were performing some secret religious duty.


         “What have I done wrong?” Tzili once asked incautiously.
         “You were born in sin,” said the old woman. “A woman born in sin has to be cleansed, she has to be purified.”
         “How is that done?” asked Tzili meekly.
         “I’ll help you,” said the old woman.

She, of course, believes that the girl will grow up to be like her mother and finding her husband trying to crawl into Tzili’s bed does nothing to help the situation:

It was from her that you learned your wicked ways. Why are you silent? You can tell us. We know your mother only too well. Her and all her scandals.

Eventually the girl can take no more and flees. Just as she’d fled from the first home she’d found protection in, just as she’d fled the blind man when he tried to take bloomsdarknessadvantage of her. She’s treated like a piece of meat, an animal. In a third house where she’s sought shelter and ended up being beaten “as if she were a rebellious animal, in a passion of rage and fury” she finally snatches the rope from the woman but that doesn’t stop the woman who simply uses her fists on her instead.

Eventually Tzili finds herself alone in the swampland. There she encounters Mark, a fellow Jew, and for the first time since her parents left she experiences some genuine human kindness. This is where she spends the rest of the war and this section reminded me somewhat of Blooms of Darkness the only other book by Appelfeld I’ve read.

Having recently read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I couldn’t help but be struck by the number of references to animals in this book, the section in Coetzee’s book where Abraham Stern writes a letter objecting to Costello’s lecture in which she compares Jews to cattle in particular:

You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept.

Tzili on more than one occasion is compared to some kind of animal or insect. When, for example, she flees the old peasant woman who beats her we’re told that “she was content, like a lost animal whose neck has been freed from its yoke at last.” Mark’s often uses the expression, “A man is not an insect” (he also says that “man is not a mole” referring to the underground bunker he and Tzili spend much of their time in), and yet when Tzili eventually joins the Jews returning from the camps that’s exactly how she sees them and is drawn to them as one of them:

At that time the great battlefronts were collapsing, and the first refugees were groping their way across the broad fields of snow. Against the vast whiteness they looked like swarms of insects. Tzili was drawn toward them as if she realized that her fate was no different from theirs.

The central theme of Appelfeld’s book really concerns itself with this question: What is a man? He’s not as in your face about it as, say, Primo Levi

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

from 'Shemá'

…but that is what he’s asking. And as soon as you start talking about men as insects only one other text could possibly jump to mind, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’:

“The Metamorphosis” nicely illuminates the shared territories of these two writers. Equally important, the Kafka text shadows forth the radical differences between them, placing Appelfeld more firmly in the tradition of Agnon than Kafka. For if Kafka’s story opens up the unadulterated devastation of the world it figures forth, Appelfeld’s lifts up off the grid of the naturalistic and the grotesque in order to provide a very different site for the interpretation of the human. – Emily Miller Budick, Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaust, p.113

Appelfeld is often enough compared to Kafka, at least that’s what I’ve read. They seem miles apart to me. But his influence is there:

Like others of my generation at the University, I read Kafka and Camus with a thirst. These were the founding prophets from whom I sought to learn. And like all primary education of the young, so mine tended towards extremes.


Russian literature saved me from the pitfalls of the mist and the symbol. From Russian literature I learned that there is no need of either one: reality, if correctly described, by itself produces the evocatively symbolic. Indeed, every specifically contextualised object is itself a symbol. – Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life, p.150

the story of a lifeInteresting that the memoir is entitled The Story of a Life and the novel, at least in English, is subtitled A Story of a Life. In Hebrew the book’s original title was Haketonet Ve'hapassim which translates as The Shirt and the Stripes, a play on the Bible's coat of many colours. So what’s the story of Joseph got to do with this book?

The disjunction of construct nouns indicates an inversion of the story of Joseph. Joseph is hated by his brothers because of his cunning and beauty; Tzili is despised because of her dull and homely appearance. Joseph rises to the pinnacle of society because of his genius; Tzili survives on the margin of society because of her simplicity. Joseph is the paradigm of the Jew who successfully assimilates into high society; Tzili is the failed human being who lives in a society into which it is not worth assimilating. – Norbert Weinberg, TZILI: The Story of a Life

In Tzili’s case the stripes, of course, are literal:

Toward the end of winter the old woman lost control of herself. She beat Tzili indiscriminately. “If I don’t make her mend her ways, who will?” She beat her devoutly with a wet rope so that the strokes would leave their mark on her back.

What’s really interesting about this book is the fact that it never deals directly with the war or the Holocaust. This is as much as we get:

That same night the soldiers invaded the town and destroyed it. A terrible wailing rose into the air. But Tzili, for some reason, escaped unharmed. Perhaps they didn’t see her. She lay in the yard, among the barrels in the shed, covered with sacking.

As I said in my article on Blooms of Darkness :

Why this book is so powerful is because it deals with the consequences of war without the horrors of war. It’s like a Shakespearian play in that respect; the battles all take place offstage. Appelfeld similarly uses elision to great effect. Also he reminds us that life goes on even during wartime. Anne Frank became romantically entangled with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels because he was there and Hugo does the same. So, in some ways the same, but also very different. Whereas Anne writes compulsively, Hugo struggles to write and allows lethargy to overwhelm him.

Tzili, too, as I’ve suggested, needs someone to tell her story. Even when she finally does engage with survivors of the camps they don’t want to talk about their experiences. When she (unusually for her) asks a young man, Max Engelbaum, “Where were you during the war?” This is how he replies:

“Why do you ask? With everyone else, of course. Can’t you see?” he said and stretched out his arm. There was a number there, tattooed in dark blue on his skin. “But I don’t want to talk about it. If I start talking about it, I’ll never stop. I’ve made up my mind that from now on I’m starting my life again. And for me that means studying. Completing my studies, to be precise.”

All he wants is to get back home, finish his exams and get on with his life:

I have no intention of spending my time sleeping. And in general, if you understand me, I don’t want to spend any more time in the company of these people.

He leaves and she drifts on. In that respect at least she is very much the archetypal wandering Jew.

But why The Story of a Life? Again, in his conversation with Philip Roth, the author explains:

        I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not “the story of my life.” The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process…
        I tried several times to write “the story of my life” in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain…
        …[T]he moment I chose a girl, a little older than I was at the time, I removed “the story of my life” from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.

In 1941 the Romanian Army retook his hometown after a year of Soviet occupation and his mother was murdered; he was nine-and-a-half at the time. Appelfeld was deported with his father first to a ghetto and then to a Nazi concentration camp in Romanian-controlled Transnistria. He escaped and hid for three years before joining the Soviet army as a cook. It’s interesting to hear how he describes his escape from the camp in The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: You escaped by yourself?

APPELFELD: By myself, yes.

INTERVIEWER: But you were a little boy—elegant, not particularly courageous. What happened? How did you transform yourself into a child capable of escape?

APPELFELD: It was a kind of transformation—I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive. [bold mine]

Aharon AppelfeldAt first this feels like a slight and slightly deadpan book. But it’s hard not to empathise with Tzili. She becomes what she needs to to survive. That it happens to be set during the Second World War is academic really. The action could be transferred to any part of the globe and any of the many conflicts that’ve plagued the world since then. Someone on Goodreads described this as a “short and easy read” and it is. It would be so easy to read this on a rainy Saturday afternoon and then make your tea and watch Strictly and in a day or two you’ve moved onto something else. If you do decide to give this one a go try not to do that. Questions are always shorter and easier to express than their answers. What is a man? It’s not a hard question to ask. Not hard at all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Orwell's Café

Sitting with The Drowning Man
over empty glasses
his concomitant friend
finally spoke
though, when they came,
he never recognized
the words he had been
waiting on those years.

He simply stared at her breasts,
and remembered:
a line from Beckett
and a scene by Warhol
and a photo he'd kept
of a woman he'd never met.

She offered him sanctuary
and he fumbled for money.

27 April 1986

chestnut tree cafeThis is the third of The Drowning Man Poems. It’s set in the Chestnut Tree Café from Nineteen Eighty-Four. I was thinking about the end of the book and imagining the scene where Winston meets Julia after they’ve both betrayed each other only now I check I find they actually met in “the Park, on a vile, biting day in March” and, after a few minutes with her, all Winston wants to do is get back to the café where he sits alone and drinks Victory Gin sweetened with cloves.

The line from Beckett is from his short story ‘Heard in the Dark 2’: “Your gaze moves down to the breasts. You do not remember them so big.” I don’t remember which film of Warhol’s I’m referencing. No doubt I’d seen a clip in a documentary, probably one of his Screen Tests. The mention of the photo is odd because years later I did find a photo of a woman and it’s still in my wallet alongside photos of my wife and daughter.

A lot of the material from this poem has crept into the new book:

Only you, my concomitant friend, know what I am trying to say and only you can assess its true worth.

As she stretched the covers fell from her breasts; they were quite magnificent actually. He couldn’t help but stare at them.

Once, in the middle of the pavement, he’d stumbled on a passport photograph of a young woman and had nearly been ploughed into the ground as he bent to pick it up by a harassed nanny with a pram before her and an irascible three-year-old anarchist in tow. He still kept the picture tucked away in his wallet

There are nods too to Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Two and two can make five. Orwell knew that full well. So why did Winston find it so hard to grasp? Every day we reject the logical in favour of the illogical. Every day. Ten times a day. Fifty. Five is more than four. Why would we settle for four?

and Andy Warhol:

I got served up my fifteen minutes early and piping hot simply because no one was writing any catchy songs that week, or skiing down any precipitous mountain slopes or baring any parts of their anatomy that were bigger, better or weirder than the general public had seen before.

In 1991 I wrote a follow-up, ‘A Return to Orwell’s Café’ (#730) but we’ll get to it in time, probably about March 2017 at this rate which also means I’ve enough poems to keep going until August 2020 if I’ve done my sums right and assuming I write nothing else for the next five years which is unlikely.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


The Bedroom

Returning to an unmade bed
during the sixth hour

there seemed to me
a shifting calm

flowing through those places
where our bodies met.

Between thin shadows
cast by white shutters

echoes of bells and
familiar sounds

like merging rivers.

16 April 1986

bedroom lightThis is an odd poem in many ways. It has always felt a little out of place in my canon as if I was writing in someone else’s voice. It has a calm, paced tone, deliberately and appropriately so. It is also not remotely autobiographical and somehow rises above the misery that undercuts so much of my poetry at this time. I know I worked on it for a long time—I kept changing the third line from “there seemed to me” to “there seemed to be” and back again—and if ever a poem of mine was, in the well-known words of Paul Valery, “abandoned” it was this one. Every time I read it I want to do something with it, fix it and yet I think that is the quality that works here; there is something not quite right here, something uncomfortable.

What is happening in the poem? Not much. Someone, a man or a woman, has gone back to bed for a siesta. The word comes from the Latin word sexta which means "the sixth hour". Siestas are not a part of British life and neither are window shutters except for decoration. Had I known the word at the time I might’ve tried to incorporate volets into the poem and probably never got the damn thing finished. Suffice to say the setting (for me) has always been the Continent, somewhere I’ve never been. It’s never mattered to me whether the person going back to bed is male or female and at this point in my life I never went back to bed. Now I do. Now I could happily sleep the rest of my life away. But in my mid-twenties I had all the energy in the world.

The poem’s narrator has gone back to a bed where some time before he or she has not been alone. Are they trying to relive the moment? Perhaps. Oddly enough smells are not mentioned. Only sounds or not exactly sounds, echoes of sounds. Can you hear an echo without first hearing the sound that caused it? Are these true echoes or a memory of bells? And what of the “familiar sounds”? Are they sounds or also echoes of sounds? You could read it that way. I think of the poem as an attempt to capture one of those moments when the past and the present collide. It’s a poem where every word was sweated over. But it’s not right and it will never be right. Like the bed in the poem it’s a bit of a mess but every now and then I crawl back into it and try to remember.

The bells come, I think, from Betjeman. He’s not a poet I have any great love for but he does write a lot about bells: “Into nine–o’clock Camberly, heavy with bells”, “The bells of waiting Advent ring”, “Bask beneath the Abbey bells”, “Bells are booming down the bohreens”, “The Easter bells enlarge the sky”, “A single bell with plaintive strokes”. I’ve tried to find the poem that I read at the time—I’m positive there was one because I recall a sense of guilt at pinching two or three words from it—but Google has failed me. Of course it could be Larkin:

Between long houses, under travelling skies,
Heard in contending bells —
An air lambent with adult enterprise,

And on another day will be the past,

(from ‘Triple Time’)

but now I’m stretching. Over time, and much to my surprise, I wrote another three bedroom poems. You can read the whole sequence here.

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