Human Error as Truth

Essayism – Brian Dillon; This Little Art – Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters – Dan Fox; The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (all Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Fitzcarraldo Editions are beautifully made, with their matt cover and drop caps serif typeface, with their embossed bell logo. Fitzcarraldo publish novels and other things, but I have just read a brace of their essayistic books, with their white covers. Four of them: Essayism by Brian Dillon; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters by Dan Fox and The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

These editions look like European editions. They talk like European editions, perhaps with the addition of a little English punk attitude, in the case of Ben Lerner’s book on poetry. In a time of Europhobia in Britain this is all the more reason to buy and read the essayist Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Kate Briggs contributes a wonderful book (sort of) on translation called This Little Art. She begins in a section of Thomas Mann’s genius novel, The Magic Mountain. It is a dramatic opening, it grabs you and pulls you in. But the story twists into that of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann and her villification after her death.

‘No poem is intended for the reader’ Benjamin once wrote, in his own meditation on translation, but Briggs points out how the ‘little art’ of translation carries big risks. The underpaid, unacknowledged and ignored craftspeople that are translators carry huge burdens and risks along with their joys. Rilke’s translations into English by J.B. Leishman have been similarly villified. These are stigmas that travel beyond death. I have a copy of ‘The Rilke of Ruth Speirs’. The title says, essentially, ‘the proper stuff, not that other shit’.

A dangerous game for no stakes, this is truly the zone of the ‘committed’. Briggs cites a translation of Deleuze by Hugh Tomlinson. Coincidentally, my friend Robert Galeta translated some of the Deleuze editions after Hugh could no longer do it. He tells me, ‘I went grey doing it’. Imagine then being pilloried for your efforts.

In medieval times a Bard could sing a Queen or King into 1000 years of hell. In an unliterate culture they made songs that would outlive the mortal life of its targets. It could put an entire family into a ‘spell’ that persisted for generations. Here I sing Briggs into the opposite, into a song that I hope will carry this book through many reprints and editions.

Briggs describes translating Barthes. But she is navigating Paris, going to libraries, looking at Barthes old apartment, thinking about the people she sees, feeling, reflecting. Briggs puts shoes on, cooks, teaches. She is a human being. The chapters of this book both are and are not about translation, because like translation itself they draw on all the skills and experiences a human has, right to the edge of their consciousness. Because of this, I am reminded of my own reading of psychoanalytical texts often, when reading Briggs.

Kate Briggs is an explorer of her own under-read zones, as well as her over-read exterior, which is littered with Barthes and Benjamin on reading lists as though first year undergrads – and often many of their university tutors – straightforwardly know what those texts contain.

Briggs describes Robinson Crusoe making a table for the first time in his life. I have done this, I am the kind of pretentious pervert who will make furniture and fail fifteen times before getting something that works. It is the only way to learn properly. But like a bad translator, I am failing the original here. You just have to, in the case of Briggs’ book, read the original. It is deeply, velvety rich and utterly life-affirming.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is also a cornucopia of sorts. It argues for the flaws of the essay, for its speculative, hedging, unfinished nature, as its virtue. This is a theme of these editions. That doing scholarship and writing is not something undertaken by Uberhumans beamed down from Planet Academic with everything and some other stuff that nobody knows yet uploaded into their swollen skulls. Out students don’t live in this reality enough. Academics don’t speak honestly about that reality enough.

Ben Lerner’s book on poetry argues that we might engage with poetry through the negative. This isn’t quite Hegel via the Frankfurt School, the negative he describes is closer to the word ‘HATE’ written in white paint on a leather biker jacket. After being immersed in intolerably polite Manchester Literature Festival events, this is a wonderful read. Who says the literature scene must be polite clapping and cups of tea? At this point in history, why wouldn’t the discussion of literature that is often so fluffy it barely touches the world be characterised only by seething invective? However, this is to reduce Lerner’s argument a great deal. He begins hating poetry and urges us, in a Beckett-like way, to ‘hate better’. In between these almost identical poles there lies a fecund meditation on poetry.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit prefigures Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox. This book is also very un-British, as it calls for fabulation in the face of the British climate of dumbed-down, stylistically lumpen miserablism. If I have a worry here it is that the book dovetails too easily with ‘play’ and its origins in horrors such as Playpower by Richard Neville. They didn’t play where I grew up, they were slowly ground down in twelve hour shifts, six days a week, and that was down to another very British thing, class. But then I know from emerging out of the working classes that you get called a ‘clever bastard’. Is there an equivalent phrase in French? I don’t know.

But these books make you think. They don’t just drone information at you. These books take risks. They blend serious scholarship with a human voice. British academia has for too long been a blend of its past in an empirico-logico-utilitarianism that does not really exist outside of its texts and its present in an Americanised vaguely po-mo ‘liberalism’. These books are not some middle way between the two, they just ignore all that and begin where they stand. For that alone I applaud all the authors under review here.

This does not mean they are uncitable, dangerous curveballs from the world beyond Truth. It means that they are a little more Real than all the other rubbish pouring out of academic publishers. This is not to denigrate the few percent of incredible, lightning work emerging from academic publishers. But it is a percentage. You know the other books too well: The literature review with an argument imposed on it, rather than an argument being made from long messy immersion in the world, as the scholarship was done.

We are going to need Fitzcarraldo Editions on this island much more in times to come.

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Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta