Friday, 17 October 2014

Talking to Teju Cole @ Faber Social (07.10.2014)

Your correspondent & Teju Cole at The Ace, Shoreditch
Last week at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch I interviewed Teju Cole onstage before an enthused audience, under the banner of Faber Social, Faber’s excellent series of cross-pollinated cultural and conversational soirees. (I recall it was David Peace, Simon Reynolds and me on the bill at the inaugural Social back in June 2011.)

Talking to Teju Cole was a lively and engrossing discussion to be part of. Right at the top Cole previewed a sardonic piece that he had just written for the New Yorker (and which was duly posted online there the following day) about CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis. Cole is an assured and beguiling speaker, and his prefacing remark about feeling uncomfortably ‘like a slam poet’ in delivering this new text (off the screen of his smartphone, no less) turned out, you might guess, to be modesty in extremis.

Cole is Nigerian-American, or American-Nigerian – born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos, educated in London and New York inter alia, and now a citizen of the world in the manner of all writers who attain his level of accomplishment and reputation. (Cole was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award of 2012 for Open City, his debut publication in the US and UK.) Accordingly the conversation ranged freely. He was in the West Bank this summer past, so there was that for starters.

His most recently published work Every Day is For The Thief (actually his first discrete book, originated as a sequence of blog posts and then published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria around 2007, before Open City went out and made his name) concerns an unnamed protagonist returning to his native Lagos and encountering a society in which daily transactions seem to be endlessly debased by a climate of corruption: one that seems rather to emanate out of the yawning societal gulf between the powerful and crude-wealthy, and the mass of the people in the streets grafting for coppers and fighting among themselves.

Every Day is For The Thief is full of pained scenes and observations that stay with you: from the narrator’s desultory wander around a denuded, asset-tripped, historically dishonest national museum to his pilgrimage into a heaving marketplace where a pilfering child had been burned alive by a mob and the killing recorded on video. Reading this book certainly brought sensory elements of my visit to Lagos in September 2013 vividly back to the front of my mind, but nothing I saw was nearly so dreadful as that.

Every Day is a different sort of book to Open City, in that the latter can be read with a familiar gratified sense by anyone at home in the great city-centred literature of modernity that was born in the nineteenth century and probably attained its high watermark after the Second World War, before rolling back. Open City has been reviewed as a notable entry in the celebrated literature of the flâneur, and its narrator Julius is keen-eyed but as full of melancholy as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, seemingly unable to affect the course of events he perceives so sharply. Cole is not his narrators, though, and the depth of his engagement with politics, coupled to his facility at speaking freely on political matters in his own voice, are noteworthy.

Cole told the audience in Shoreditch that for him the novel was very much about New York in the aftermath of September 11 2001. (He also professed his high regard for Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.) The legacy of traumatic events is certainly of great interest to him. Open City, though not a heavily plot-carpentered work, nonetheless builds to a revelation of personal trauma which shows Cole working in a plangent way on more than one register.

A significant element of Cole’s oeuvre has been made on Twitter, which he has made use of in a manner of ingenuity that far outstrips any other writer of fiction I can think of. If you don’t know of his Twitter projects – Hafiz, Small Fates, A Piece Of The Wall – you should investigate immediately. Cole has been a forceful advocate of the economy Twitter presses upon a writer (‘When you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, naked, so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work’.) For the moment, though, he seems to have retired from the medium. I expect there’ll be another medium along shortly he will use just as adroitly.

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum: Evidence

Above is a nicely shot and edited three-and-a-half minutes marking the event Faber held at the Freud Museum in June 2014 to honour Robert Aickman's centenary. Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson were our distinguished guest speakers and they read and spoke splendidly; and we were also treated to an excellent speech by Jean Richardson, a close personal friend of Aickman's in his latter years, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make in the course of this project. Mr Dyson is at the lectern in the image-capture above; mine is the convict-like profile in the lower-right corner.

Reece and Jean wrote new pieces about Aickman for the new Faber edition of Cold Hand in Mine. A new preface by me also appears in Dark Entries, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine Dark-Sea. Below is a bit of what I have to say therein:

So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

This effect is especially pronounced – Aickman, as it were, preordains the final black flourish – in stories such as ‘Never Visit Venice‘ (the title gives the nod) and ‘The Fetch’, whose confessional protagonist rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’, his pursuer a grim and faceless wraith who emerges from the sea periodically to augur a death in the family. Sometimes, though, to paraphrase John Donne, the Aickman protagonist runs to death just as fast as death can meet him: as in ‘The Stains’, an account of a scholarly widower’s falling in love with – and plunging to his undoing through – a winsome young woman who is, in fact, some kind of dryad.

On this latter score it should be said that, for all Aickman’s seeming astringence, many of his stories possess a powerful erotic charge. There is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression; and yet he also creates a deep unease whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the feminine) are forms of snare, varieties of doom. If such a tendency smacks rather of neurosis, one has to say that this is where a great deal of horror comes from; and Aickman carries off his version of it with great panache, always.

On the flipside of the coin one should also acknowledge Aickman’s refined facility for writing female protagonists, and that the ambiance of such tales – the world they conjure, the character’s relations to people and things in that world – is highly distinctive and noteworthy within his oeuvre. Aickman’s women are generally spared the sort of grisly fates he reserves for his men, and yet still he routinely leaves us to wonder if they are headed to heaven or hell, if not confined to some purgatory. Among his most admired stories in this line are ‘The Inner Room’ and ‘Into the Wood’, works in which the mystery deepens upon the final sentence.

And lest we forget: Aickman can also be very witty, too, even in the midst of mounting horrors, and even if it’s laughter in the dark. English readers in particular tend to chuckle over ‘The Hospice’, the story of a travelling salesman trapped in his worst nightmare of a guesthouse, where the guests are kept in ankle-fetters and the evening meal is served in mountainous indigestible heaps (‘It’s turkey tonight.’) In the aforementioned ‘The Fetch’, when our haunted man finally finds himself caged in his Scottish family home, watching the wraith watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall – he still has time to reflect that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland.’ This is the sound of a refined intellect, amusing both himself and us.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum

Robert Aickman, photographed circa 1960

In his famous essay on ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) Freud was careful to let us know that he did not scare easily; that taking fright at strange things belonged, indeed, to the backward childhood of mankind, the natural fear of the body’s death and ‘the old, animistic conception of the universe’, of a world ‘peopled with the spirits of human beings.’ That said, Freud accepted that we all go through this phase and that ‘residues and traces’ of it may remain – old beliefs ‘ready to seize upon any confirmation’ of their survival and endurance. 

Freud paid special attention to the uncanny as evoked by literature because of its special appeal and privilege in terms of making the supernatural plausible to us– which is to say, ‘there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.’ And Freud certainly understood that a great writer of the supernatural could shake us at our cores by the skilful pretence of moving ‘in the world of common reality… he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it. We react to his inventions as we would have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late…’

I note all of this in advance of a special event that I am compering tomorrow night, Thursday June 26, at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. The occasion is the centenary of the birth of Robert Aickman, the brilliant English author of ‘strange stories’ whose work I’ve been privileged to publish in Faber Finds and who is now being offered by the main Faber list in glorious-looking new editions. All tickets to the event are already sold, which is a tribute to Aickman’s ardent following but also, I imagine, to the drawing powers of the two gentlemen who will be reading from Aickman’s work and discussing his influence with me: Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, formerly of Royston Vasey.

If you don’t know Aickman already, I can only say that you will not go wrong for one moment if you sample the oeuvre at any point. (The new edition of his Dark Entries, for instance, includes an introduction by me and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.) Aickman's work is a wonder, and will always be so. He is an especially fine exemplar of the style Freud identified, as he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream.

Tomorrow night, in the house where Freud used to live, I hope we’ll throw some light into Aickman's shadows - and I hope to report back here, with pictures.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Notes on Lagos (British Council/Through My Eyes)

Your correspondent in Lagos. (Photo by Sue Parkhill)
At the end of September I spent a week overseas teaching creative writing under the aegis of the British Council’s Literature department – my third such excursion for them, following previous adventures in Buenos Aires and Seoul. This time I dropped into Lagos, Nigeria, for a project entitled Through My Eyes.

It was my first visit to Africa, and thus not a bad baptism to begin with the most teeming city on the continent – a place, moreover, with a fast-growing reputation for high accomplishment in contemporary literature, thanks to works by the likes of Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, Teju Cole and others. Right now must be the most exciting ‘moment’ for Nigerian literature since the 1950s/60s heyday of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

Before I set off, the rightly much-praised Teju Cole, with whom I share a publisher and indeed an editor, was kind enough to mark my card on things I might go and see locally. Other than that, I relied for guidance in Lagos through our hugely personable British Council host Fusi Olateru-Olagbegi and on my collaborator in the Through My Eyes project, the brilliant photographer Sue Parkhill, who was also new to Lagos if rather better travelled than me in Africa per se.

The idea behind Through My Eyes was that a group of young writers and photographers, selected on the strength of joint application, would work in their pairs to express through related text and image some poetic truths about the world around them. (Some of the texts and images they submitted in application to the course are collected in this link.) I must say that, having been thrilled to be invited to Lagos, I was fascinated by what I found there and really knocked out by the verve and accomplishment of the students. Their strong opinions and personalities will live with me.

Sue and I were based not on ‘the mainland’ of Lagos but rather, ‘the island’ – in Ikoyi, on the island’s eastern side, where one can observe some notably plush properties, among them the diplomatic quarters of the great nations. Said properties are notably well guarded from the street; but then large numbers of people in Ikoyi are living in compounds of one sort or another, even if the walls be made of concrete blocks, un-rendered and topped with razor wire, gated by reclaimed corrugated iron.

Conversely, as you drive about Lagos a lot of what you see has a somewhat ‘provisional’ feel: from shanty lean-tos to dilapidated structures that clearly didn’t work out, to hastily assembled things that someone thinks just might... Big new-build structures often overlook empty lots of barren land with makeshift barriers, as if a movie crew or some such travelling show were about to roll in and set up. But Ikoyi is, for sure, an aspirational part of Lagos to be living in. As for Banana Island in the nearby Lagos lagoon... Well, it need only be said that I carried the Lagos edition of Monopoly home to London as a gift for my children, who now understand that Banana Island is the spot in Lagos where you should build your hotels.

Shall we deal quickly with a few local-cultural stereotypes that I might have brought with me to Lagos, stuffed in my old kitbag, on the plane over?

1. I expect a lot of Europeans stepping out for the first time on an African evening take a moment to note the lushness of the skies, and feel the difference as thick, warm air settles on your shoulders and disparate aromas come and go in the space of a short walk. That air seems to bestow a botanical, vegetal quality on a lot of what you see: for an idle second you can imagine how easily nature – given six months or so – might reclaim any developed plot.

2. Traffic conditions in Lagos are to be viewed with concentration, good reflexes, and good humour as and when one can muster it. Anything else is a waste of time in a place where white lines are not considered to mean anything special.

3. ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ was said to me by students sporting sardonic grins on more than one occasion – first, when I registered a shade too much surprise about an incidence of electrical power outage caused by generator failure. The locals have long since wearied of complaint on this matter. You have to buck up and get used to it in Lagos, so I did. (In fact I rather liked the low-level of generator hum you heard continuously in larger buildings. It even inspired me to tell my students – some of whom were curious about what might be the ‘ideal’ conditions for writing – about how Faulkner wrote much of As I Lay Dying while working as a night watchman in a power plant.)

4. The second ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ came about after I’d had to press my hands to my old ears during a lunch break, since the lively exchange of views going on around me had risen very suddenly to a stunning cacophony. I gathered this was just one little distinctive facet of how Nigerians like to conduct an argument – robustly, in the best sense.

5. As a middle-aged guy with a bad back I really had to force myself not to look hard and repeatedly at all the young women swaying eloquently down the roadsides with large loads of goods balanced upon their heads. It is quite a thing, though. One of my students, who had a special interest in the issue of how Nigeria’s capital Abuja was constructed on the dispossession of tribal indigents, told the group of the Gbagys people, who buck this trend of head-carriage – indeed swear against it, using only their shoulders – since they consider the head to be exempt from such indignity as the seat of our higher faculties.

On our second day in writing class I ran an exercise that I always find useful, where the students and I spent 45 minutes or so perusing the morning paper from cover to cover, whereupon I asked them to tell me what, for each of them, was the authentic ‘front page story’ – i.e. which item in the paper, wherever it got printed, and whether large or small, felt to them like the best insight into what happened in Nigeria the previous day (and which could therefore offer good source material for a story...) The discussion we then fell into for an hour or more was probably the keenest of this sort that I’ve ever had the privilege to moderate.

If you follow the news in Lagos you are, for all sorts of reasons, quite likely to get angry – angrier even than those of us who routinely shout at Radio 4’s Today programme. One student in my group is the very capable host of a drive-time talk radio show, and national issues are certainly familiar and vexing to both her and her listeners: Nigerian democracy just does seem markedly at odds with the Nigerian demos. (Another clichĂ© I had in my kitbag, once read in some or other journal, was one about there being ‘no middle class in Nigeria.’ That’s not strictly true, but a lot of Nigerians graft for very little or just about enough while the phenomenal proceeds of oil seem to course around within a golden circle. University teachers and resident doctors, I learned from the paper, were both on strike while I was in town.)

Teju Cole had told me to go to Bogobiri House, and that’s where Fusi took Sue and I, unbidden, on our first night in Lagos. Bogobiri is a terrific little hotel and arts venue with a weekly open-mic performance evening, called Taruwa, which happened to be celebrating its 6th birthday on the night we visited. I was introduced to Lydia Idakula Sobogun, who devised the whole thing.

And in the midst of some rambunctious emceeing and music and impressive ‘slam’ poetry, I watched a fellow named Icee paint a canvas from scratch, in about five minutes, using his fingers and a plate smeared with oils. (That’s it depicted above.) It reminded me, I must say, of how I can't seem to live without the religious in art, if not in life. And the painting sold in auction, for about £400, I think. But if I'd had a better grasp of how to ship stuff out of Nigeria I reckon it would be hanging on my wall right now.

On our penultimate day we went on a class trip for a highly diverting coach ride ‘downtown’ to the marina part of the island – it’s not a place for mooring yachts, mind you, it’s more interesting than that. There I saw a bit of the densely-packed urban tumult for which Lagos is renowned. (For instance: pavement cyclists in London always make me feel narked and aggressive, but they’re charmers next to Lagos’s keen pavement motorcyclists, who growl down the middle of the walkway shooting glares at pedestrians with their footling complaints.) I saw one or two things at the marina that I’d maybe rather not have seen. But I was struck by the commotion, for sure, and by evidence of bits and pieces of civic-municipal renewal. Fusi explained to me how a lot of menacing spaces under bridges and flyovers had been cleaned up and landscaped to move the hustlers along - much as has been done in King’s Cross and Times Square during my lifetime.

We moved on through the Balogun market area, down Broad Street and Breadfruit Street: a proper street hassle, hectic with market-stall and store-front commerce, vendors hailing you at every turn. Vehicle traffic was hindered, mercifully for our purpose, by a JCB stiffly shovelling pieces of the broken road into a pile. But again I had that sense of things in Lagos being very often improvised, tried out, to see what might pay dividends. It certainly felt as if every square yard in Lagos was getting used for some purpose, every little thing that one might pick up was being employed somehow...

Inevitably, this being the Big City, not all of its trade is done by the letter of the law. I became very curious to see the number of buildings around Lagos that were paint-daubed with the same angry message: ‘419-Beware-NOT For Sale’. It was explained to me that ‘419’ is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code concerning fraud; and that it is, regrettably, not uncommon for a truly bold fraudster to advertise, offer and present for sale a large building of which he is not, in fact, the owner.

These sorts of everyday tales of the city are why - as has been observed by smarter heads than me - Lagos is a place that offers rich pickings for thematically ambitious writers. I certainly got the feeling it's producing the right kind of talent to harvest the crop.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

In praise of a pervasive sense of evil - Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium)

I have before me the newly published Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium). It’s a remarkably handsome volume and, I’d have thought, a must-have for enthusiasts and students in this ever more ardently studied field. But then 'we are for the dark', as Shakespeare had the serving maid say to Cleopatra.

I contributed a chapter to the book (on Satanism and witchcraft, naturally) but it’s really not for that reason that I consider the work overall to be essential. I’m just a one-time gothic novelist, not truly a specialist in the discipline; however, inter alia, fellow contributors such as Guillermo del Toro, Marina Warner, Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Anne Billson, Mark Gatiss and Ramsey Campbell most eminently are. The richness and variety of this collection, expertly assembled by the BFI’s James Bell and superbly illustrated to boot, are to be savoured, in more than one sitting.

The book marks a BFI season that begins shortly and will run into 2014. A fine taster of what lies in store was offered at the end of August with a 'Monster Weekend' of special screenings in the forecourt of the British Museum: I went along to the first of these, the movie being Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and thought it a really delighting occasion.

I notice that I’m using a lot of ‘pleasure-words’ in relation to the gothic here, which, funnily enough, is the spirit in which I wrote my chapter for the book. For a long time I more or less believed that the whole origin of the horror genre was quite aptly encapsulated by the ‘celebrated’ line from the Catholic Office of the Dead, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ (‘The fear of death disturbs me.’) Our mortality, and that of those whom we love, is after all the best if not the only thing in this world to be afraid of.

However, horror consumed as a cultural experience clearly has to offer pleasure of sorts too, even if a somewhat masochistic one. Horror might be said to indulge a certain phantasy about the existence of wickedness and depravity in the world: how it might indeed triumph over good, or how, at least, certain souls (deserving or not) could succumb to it. In the process, wickedness and depravity may be dressed up with certain superficially alluring aspects – and when it comes to such costuming, cinema is supreme among the arts. But at such a puppet show it’s easier to spot the strings.

There are many aspects of the gothic that have great powers to haunt and disturb and unnerve us, and gothic works that invoke devils and demons and necromancers (what I thumbnail in my essay for convenience as ‘the gothic occult’) are by no means excluded from that. Their particular powers, though, feel to me a tad reduced. The gothic occult is predicated on the existence of evil as a metaphysical force in the world: a thirsty evil, one that wants to keep its infection spreading. A really bleak gothic occult will propose a black pessimistic view of Man's Fate – that the material world belongs to Satan and goodness is unattainable, on this plane at least, etc. That all sounds scary enough on paper, and can be so on screen.

And yet this particular version (or explanation) of a metaphysical evil seems to me to require – how can I put it? – a more than usual bound into the suspension of disbelief. By contrast, the idea of a ‘ghost’ – where a ghost might come from, what it might look like, what its motives might be – seems to me endlessly recyclable and potentially mysterious, fit (if the mood is right) to inveigle itself even into our wide-awake rational thoughts. Ghosts appear to me as the absolute lifeblood of the gothic. But then to speak of devils, of Satan... of a personification of evil, an antagonist to some almighty king of the heavens, a figure at the head of a large hierarchical structure committed to humanity’s ultimate catastrophe – well, this is to confront the reader or viewer with a heftier (and consequently less nimble and persuasive) proposition. Having written a novel in the Faust mode I appreciate the size of the ask, and accept that one’s first duty under these conditions is to entertain.

The best, most persuasive work of fiction that I know of to imagine Satan’s immanence in our world is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest (which is also perhaps the most decidedly gothic title anyone could ever append to a novel.) If I can’t immediately tempt you to read it, please try this superb interview with Mailer about the novel, written up by Philip Weiss for the New York Observer. And do keep your eye on #bfigothic.

A footnote: when I was readying my Gothic compendium chapter for the presses with BFI editor James Bell I was not surprised and quite amused to hear from him that I ought to try to trim back on a rather prolix attempt I’d made to define exactly what constitutes the gothic in cinema. Apparently, more than one of my fellow contributors had fallen down the same dark well... and the effort is probably doomed, one has to say. There’s nothing exactly Gothic in cinema, but it’s generally agreed that we seem to know it when we see it, or feel it. Gothic is a visual style and a mood, an atmosphere, enhanced above all by production design – one of gloom, intrigue, dread, a pervasive sense of evil, which may well (but need not) materialize in outright horrors. In the case of the gothic occult, this production design tends to dark secret places where cabals gather and rituals occur, the solemn black mass and the orgiastic walpurgisnacht. And there you may also see the goat’s head and the horned man, the grimoire, the beckoning finger of Mephistopheles – all that...