The Old Gods and the New

Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, 2017).

Writers, especially experimental ones, complain of the professionalism bestsellers. Like Hollywood movies, we associate them with plots that are too standardised, writing that is too accessible, and an approach that doesn’t take risks.

Yet the biggest bestsellers aren’t like this at all. Dan Brown’s sentences are horrible. Philip Pullman’s plots are desperately overcomplicated. E.L. James somehow turned low-grade pornography into a multimillion dollar empire. None of them could be charged with being cynically over-professional.

Happily, there is no predicting a hit.

The reason I say this, is so that you don’t misunderstand my praise for Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. The terms on which I love this book are the stuff of pure bestsellers. It is pacey, exciting, crystal clear in its prose, and filled with short sentences and concise paragraphs. It features archetypical characters in traditional storylines and just the right level of history and fantasy for the reader to indulge in escapism.

It is the story of Vasya, daughter of Pyotr, a rural boyar and cousin of the Russian Prince. Vasya is blessed with the sight; an ability associated with witches that allows her to see the world of spirits and demons resident within the forest. Living on the outskirts of society, she grows up as a friend to the spirits and rejects both marriage and the convent.

Morozko, Spirit of Winter, lays claim to Vasya as his future bride. The charismatic priest, Konstantin, arrives at the farmstead at the very same time, with a plan to exorcise the woods of their spirits. And so begins the fairy tale.

Arden perfectly balances the duelling narratives. Konstantin the Christian versus Vasya of the Old Gods. Vasya’s friendly spirits against the malicious agents of the Great Bear.

Every scene moves us forward, carrying us effortlessly into a complex world without ever pausing for exposition. The final scenes of the novel may take place in a fantasy setting, but so subtle is Arden’s unravelling of this story that it is only in retrospect that I realised I was reading a full-blown fantasy novel.

Reviewers have so far drawn the obligatory parallel to Carter, particularly Nights at the Circus, but for the first half of the novel I felt it closer in style to the historical novels of Nick Brown or Bernard Cornwall. Arden places you directly into the Prince’s court in the era of the Golden Horde, and convincingly conveys life in the deep northern woods.

When the fantasy elements do enter, they come in the guise of folktales and the ancient religion of the Rus. Arden explains in her afterword that she has taken considerable liberties in her translation of Russian nomenclature. The translation is entirely on the side of readability over authenticity, and it works perfectly.

The final result is an adventure that I found totally enthralling, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend it to a friend. It is a quick read, and uncomplicated, but smuggles some potent ideas in beneath its fast-paced surface. Questions of modernity and tradition, the Old Gods and the new.

Arden’s book is by no means obscure, but it is not a blockbuster. Perhaps she will achieve this rare and ambiguous credit with a future work, but for now her debut is finding success on its own terms.

If you’re looking for a break from Booker Prize-longlisted difficulty, but can’t face the usual fare that cycles through the top 10 bestsellers lists, I can’t recommend The Bear and the Nightingale enough. You will have fun, but it might stay with you too.

– Joe Darlington 

Everyone’s price?

Bryony Bates and Joey Frances – Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto (Generic Greeting/intimate pussy, 2018) 

Where, today, does the worry that we’re not where we want to be come from? Or else the worry that we don’t even know where we want to be? Why, by such and such an age, are we expected to have worked this stuff out? All questions which have been on my mind prompted by a reading of the newly published pamphlet from Joey Frances and Bryony Bates: Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto. A work written, a note at the back explains, over the course of 12 months, some 3 ½ years ago when both the authors were 23.

It’s a work which shows the two authors wrestling with the problem of how to live ethically under capitalism, hyper-aware of their own, as they put it, ‘semi-privilege’ and the accompanying expectations others will have for them and about them based upon that semi-privilege and trying to, instead, figure out for themselves what they want. As the introductory piece indicates, what this wrestling could be said to amount to is a ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ – something which, in itself, need not necessarily be a bad thing, framed positively as a kind of ‘constant personal revolution’.

Following the first half of the book’s focus on cash, centring upon questions of earning a living, the second half turns towards sex, in both domestic settings and the world of pornography. And immediately we are stopped dead with the lines ‘(I (this Romantic I) stopped worrying about walking / down dark streets/ once I knew I would be raped in my bed.) / In a perfect world, yeah, this would be a horrendous/ statement . . . ’ and we’re forced into an urgent questioning and interrogation of the condition and power structures of any world – along with our own position in that world – which doesn’t immediately recognise that statement as the horrendous one that it so clearly is.

And, indeed, this is a book that insists upon asking a lot of questions again and again, which seeks to break through lazy, unexamined ways of thinking. And as such there is the sense that, here, in this text, their declared youth might very much be working in favour of Frances and Bates: that their age perhaps enables them to see and point out to their readership things which their readers may have become blind to either due to their own advanced years or routine, or some combination of both.

The placing together of ‘cash’ and ‘sex’ in both the pamphlet’s title and within the book itself in its two sections is intriguing: what is it that’s being suggested? How do the two authors see the two subjects as being connected? Questions which seem to be answered towards the end of the book when appears: ‘this horrible impossible force over everyone how/clear or incidental or forceful or whatever it’s a rape/ metaphor, it’s basically at the centre of it, as I expect/ you’ve already noticed except in this case the rapes/ are also not metaphorical…’ Lines which add up to a provocative declaration of the position of the two authors, and one that succeeds in – again – compelling the reader to clarify where they, too, stand with regards to capitalism.

Why, though, didn’t Frances and Bates opt to publish this text as soon as it was finished? Why withhold it? That decision strikes me as an important one somehow. Of course there could be any number of mundane reasons explaining the delay in publication, and probably there are, however I choose to interpret the delay as a deliberate strategy to place a block of ‘time’ within the pages of this book, the 3 ½ years between completion and publication dates, thereby to force the reader’s attention upon that time as a perfect conceptual accompaniment to the words of the text: words as analysis of life under capitalism, chunk of time as actual piece of life under capitalism.

The sub-title of this book… a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto: the putting together of the words ‘verse’ and ‘essay’ suggests questions similar to those raised by the putting together of the first two terms of the title. How, then, might the authors see the relationship between the verse aspects and the essay aspects of this book? Questions which are then additionally complicated by the information that the book is ‘for voices’. Why have Frances and Bates settled on the form they have? Is this book poetry? Is it an essay? Is this piece meant, preferably, to be heard or does it work just as well in the quiet of your own head? All questions which, of course, really, matter not at all… Still, though, as I’ve asked them I may as well say what I think…

The text seems, to me at least, quite heavily edited and crafted, work which has resulted in the finished piece possessing a strange kind of rhythm and musicality, not the musicality of a pop song I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn, rather, that of noise or free-jazz… and it’s that musicality which I think takes the form of Cash/sex somewhere interesting, somewhere new, somewhere which is neither just poem or essay. Seek it out.

– Richard Barrett 


Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

The crackle of damaged wiring

Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson – The Acts (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018)

It was a Sunday and there was damage to the cables in Cornbrook. No-one knew what the damage was. All they could say was that there were replacement services available, although they didn’t know from where. Cornbrook is the central node connecting every tramline across East, North, and South Manchester. It was going to be a long day.

I tell you this to situate my review. When I tell you that The Acts, an experimental collaboration between Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson, is about stuckness, about the oppressiveness of bad space, about social shitness, then you know that’s because I felt it.

This is not a book about being stuck on public transport for five hours, although it might be its philosophical equivalent.

I say that not to put readers off. What Barrett and Hanson have accomplished is the kind of raw writing that is honest in the sense of honest sweat and honest toil. It is not a clean honesty. Not an honesty that shocks you with its confessions. It is simply two men talking about their daily grinds, heartaches and the kinds of suffering that don’t sell.

The narrative, if there is one, is the exchange of messages between two writers. Both are literary, both academic, and yet their writing is clearly as much a symptom of their lives as it is a record of society’s symptoms. There is no separation between personal confession, myth making and theorising. Instead we hear of friends, failed romances and visions like Manchester Area Psychogeographic levitating the Corn Exchange; all three overlapping.

As you read you get the sense of lives lived in constant dialogue with theory. Two voices attempting to understand themselves through the words of hundreds of other voices.

One voice, the self-styled Mendelssohn, plans to analyse every year of his life thus far, moving backwards. Starting at the age of 42 and planning to spend a year looking at each year from 2018 back, he soon realises completion of the task might take him into retirement. The weight of personal and theoretical pasts builds up.

The dialogue is then punctured by updates from a news website. The free-floating prose is suddenly nailed down to a specific time: Trump announces North Korea talks, Labour backs new EU customs union. These remind us that history is always moving on in the background as our writers struggle on with deadlines and the end of their 12 month contracts.

The writing is always clear, even when its grammar fragments and its images grow strange. It is writing like scar tissue, healing over the cuts and cracks of daily life, bits of newsprint sticking into it like gravel in a scab.

As the blurb says, The Acts is an attempt to “tell the self” without the glory of self-promotion. It is a fascinating project for a new press like Dostoyevsky Wannabe to take on. I feel like its combination of raw sentiment and closely observed mundanity might offer a new approach to what we take to be confessional writing.

I have never sold my body for drugs. I have never been implicated in a child’s death. I have been stuck on public transport for five hours, and I am ready for a book that speaks about my pain. This just might be it.

– Joe Darlington

Taking culture by the throat

Jean Dubuffet – Asphyxiating Culture (Good Press)

Reading Keith Haring’s Journals this Autumn Jean Dubuffet’s Asphyxiating Culture gets a mention. Haring’s thoughts being, if I remember rightly, that the book’s argument is pretty sound if somewhat obvious and that Dubuffet ties himself up in knots a bit in the delivery of that argument. The Dubuffet being a book I’d never heard of before but the combination of that – IMO – fantastic title and, I suppose, Haring’s brief review of it, made me want to read the thing myself. And that I was able to is down, solely, to the fine works of Good Press Gallery who have made a very affordable edition of this book available thus ensuring Amazon’s 50 quid plus copies can remain unsold a bit longer.

As it turns out, that I got myself a copy of Asphyxiating Culture on little more than a whim, really, seems entirely in keeping with the critique of culture and associated industries which Dubuffet outlines in this text. Briefly, Dubuffet has it that the culture industry is nothing more than a big swizz focussed on endless self-propagation which cuts off any real innovation as soon as it’s detected. Dubuffet says that we need to remember that for each supposed exemplary cultural product of times past there were another hundred or several hundred other products which were overlooked, any one of which could just as easily have found its way into the gallery or museum rather than the product which actually did if the arbitrary tastes of the ‘experts’ had been even ever so slightly different.

The concept of value (in the artistic sense) being the big thing that Dubuffet takes aim at here. He says that ‘value’ is a kind of collective illusion, founded on entirely arbitrary bases by a self-serving cadre of critics, academics and governmental cultural workers, with this false notion succeeding in dazzling everyone who encounters it – members of the public and gullible and foolish artists alike, leaving anyone who dissents from received opinion regarding so-called ‘great works’ feeling like a bit of a dummy.

Much more preferable, to Dubuffet, than the idea of ‘value’ is that of whim. Dubuffet prefers to see works of art acclaimed as great on a Monday, if the viewer, on that particular day, for whatever reason, considers them as a such, and then – those same works of art – condemned as rubbish, or at least not worthy of attention, come Wednesday, all received wisdom about what constitutes great art straight outta the window to be replaced by opinions based solely on however the viewer is feeling. Opinion constantly shifting and moving rather than stuck, fixed. Though how different is this vision to Dubuffet’s origin story for the emergence of ‘value’ I can’t help wondering? I suppose not that different at all, just that Dubuffet’s way of doing things would be without the prop – as he has it – of a bogus cultural-critical-artistic supporting structure.

I found Asphyxiating Culture an exciting, liberating read. Dubuffet’s vision of art for all with art as an activity totally incorporated into the everyday lives of everyone, so much so that all talk of art becomes kind of redundant as people are just too busy doing art is tremendously appealing in its anarchy and radicalism. Reading through the book near enough every sentence has been underlined by me and finished off with a couple of exclamation marks signalling my giddy assent. Key criteria of a quality book in 2019 (which it has just turned today . . . happy New Year everyone!) is that every page of Asphyxiating Culture felt Instagrammable to me . . . though the one paragraph I did photo and post to Instagram got no Likes so go figure lol. This is part of the Dubuffet quote I liked so much that I felt moved to post it to social media: ‘It may be that writing, due to the concrete form it must take, has a much more dulling effect on thought than oral expression (which is already dulling to some extent), it is possible that it brings about an entanglement of one’s thoughts, and an inclination for them to enter into the traditional modes of expression, which alters them’.

Another bit I particularly liked was Dubuffet calling for an end to theorizers aiming to achieve a total theory, saying what was needed was a theory of fragments with no attempt to join up each individual fragment. Foucault, right there, I thought. Indeed, Dubuffet’s statement that ‘instead of attempting to straighten lines that by their very nature are curved and will remain curved, this new philosophy of the discontinuous will study the curves themselves’ sounded, to my ears at least, like a pretty good summary of Foucault’s aims in the Archaeology of Knowledge.

Foucault being not the only presence I detected in the pages of Asphyxiating Culture, Georges Bataille also seemed to be haunting the book’s latter half, specifically the Bataille of Eroticism with his view of the insufficiencies of language when it comes to dealing with the mysteries of sex and death. As perhaps indicated by the excerpt above Dubuffet claims art making, as well, must always elude language’s inept attempts to capture anything of its magic and mysteries, that talking about making art immediately alters the impulse that was behind that original desire to make art.

As well as the central argument of Asphyxiating Culture Dubuffet, in his book, travels down numerous fascinating and stimulating side-streets, so much so that it’s easy to understand Haring’s slight frustration with the book’s somewhat meandering style however I, personally, thought the unfolding and wandering of Dubuffet’s thought succeeding in only adding detail to the forward drive of his main thesis. Really, there’s so much in Asphyxiating Culture that this review could easily have be twice, three times its size however I’m gonna stop here as, as I mentioned above, it’s New Year’s day today and I feel like going for a walk now.

– Richard Barrett