Friday, 30 January 2009

Aiming at foot, hitting foot

I've heard people say that the Westboro Baptist Church, by revealing the true face of fundamentalist homophobia, is the best thing to happen to the fight for gay equality in years. I suppose this is true in the same way that summary executions of teenage gays in Iran or the anathema of Mugabe and the president of the Gambia, whose name I have no intention of committing to memory, are 'useful' reminders of the lengths to which instutionalised homophobia can go. By this token, Ratzinger's decision to welcome back to the catholic fold a gang of befrocked negationists, otherwise known as the schismatic followers of French archbishop Lefebvre, can also be seen as a good thing as it strips away yet one more layer of whatever moral authority the man, and the organisation he represents, is supposed to possess, though it must be rather hard on those catholics who belong to the church because they believe in the message of Christ. The next thing you know he'll be recognising the authenticity of the Protocols of Zion. Why shouldn't he? Holocaust-denier archbishop Robert Williamson already does. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A sudden calm

Well, there were moments I thought I might never make it, moments in which the idea of draggging my weary wine-addled braincells across seemingly endless virtual tundra towards the temporary succour of one more virtual oasis (if that isn't too mixed a geographical metaphor) was simply too exhausting to contemplate. And then a set of new questions would arrive, and I'd read them, and be sparked by them, and think OK, let's see what I can do with these. I'm talking, of course, about my Cyclone tour, the aim of which was to sell as many copies of my collection The Scent of Cinnamon as was humanly possible without its author moving from his keyboard. I don't know whether it achieved that aim or not - though, I hope it did - but it achieved the secondary, unvoiced, aim of forcing me to think very hard about what I do and why I do it: the equivalent of an MA in creative writing without spending a penny. My thanks to all the wonderful bloggers involved, and my final thanks to my final interviewer, renaissance man, Wendell Ricketts, writer, editor of the ongoing project and anthology devoted to working-class gay writers, Everything I Have is Blue, translator of, among other things, the theatre of Natalia Ginzburg (The Wrong Door), astute and prolific reviewer, and author of one of the very few English-language Italian-based blogs that seem to live in the same Italy I live in. You can find his questions, and my answers, here. Phew.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Baa baa black quilt

Italy might have a reputation for being one of the fashion centres of the world, but you wouldn’t think so this winter, with two-thirds of the women and half the men kitted out in the same black quilted synthetic jacket, with a rather sad scrap of fur round the edge of the hood. I don’t know which captain of industry, by which I suppose I mean designer, dreamed up this one, a garment that makes even the slimmest and most attractive of mortals look like some sort of industrial by-product used to line boilers, turned inside-out and trimmed with dead hair. But it must have kept the Chinese cat farms happy for the season, not to mention the usual “special economic zone” Vietnamese and Indonesian sweatshops. It’s a source of constant amazement to me that a country which is internationally prized for its design, originality and quality should fall so easily in thrall to the dreariest of orthodoxies, even if they are dictated by Giorgio Armani or Dolce and Gabbana, or whoever makes their design decisions for them. Two or three winters ago, the rage was utterly impractical white puffa coats trailing almost on the ground, often combined with what we used to call winklepickers. This year, in the way these things happen, it’s padded nylon and scrotty pelt at the neck that are de rigueur, women and men of all ages happily discarding the perfectly good coats they were wearing last year to don the new, apparently without a whimper of complaint despite the parlous state of the economy. Such sheep-like conformity, if it could be turned to the common good - as it was in a sense under Mao -, might actually serve a purpose in Italy, a country which has long since lost any sense of society, let alone civil society, in favour of personal, familial and, at best, parochial interests. If people could be herded in the same mindless way towards paying their taxes, or even their bus fares, who knows what social value might be produced.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Happy birthday, dear blog

I shouldn't get too sentimental about this, but today is my blog's second birthday. It's been an eventful two years for me, with publications and so on, and my blog's been beside me all the way, making useful suggestions, cheering me up when I'm down, calming me down when I'm a little too up. It's made me laugh more than once, and cry as well. It's introduced me to many new friends, and reunited me with old ones (I know, Nigel, I'm mortified, be patient a little longer), and I'm grateful for that. It hasn't always been sensible, or wise, but you expect the very young to embarrass themselves, and their parents, occasionally. So let's wish it more of the same, and more of whatever more there is.

(It isn't great but this is the only cake I could find for a second birthday. Apart from one with boobs, which just didn't feel right, somehow.)

Au revoir? I don't think so

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Dropping in at Edge Hill

The penultimate leg of my Something Rich and Strange tour can be found at Rob Spence's blog, Topsyturvydom. Rob, for those of you who don't know, is a proud Mancunian, a lecturer in English literature at Edge Hill University and, with Ailsa Cox, the editor of 21: A Journal of Contemporary and Innovative Fiction, and I'm honoured to be invited. In the interview, we chat about genre, craft and what exile might involve. Talking about my story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon, Rob comments: 
"If anything is going to restore the popularity of short fiction in this country, it must be the publication of stories such as these, by turns humorous, surreal, disturbing, but always memorable." 
His last words, which I wholeheartedly endorse, are these: 
"Now, gentle reader, buy the book! "

Monday, 19 January 2009

One morning, when Pietro Citati woke from troubled dreams...

I've written about pretentious windbag Pietro Citati in the past. Enough's enough, you might think, and I wouldn't bring him up again if I hadn't come across this in the back of my copy of the Gordon Burns' novel, Alma Cogan. It's one of those lists that sometimes pop up at the end of paperbacks in the hope, and why not?, of shifting a few more units. In this case, inappropriately given that Burns' book is fiction, it's entitled "Further Biographies Available from Minerva". It's clear from the first entry that the biographer is on the right and the subject of the biography, or its title, on the left. Dickens, in other words, wrote many things but a biography of Peter Ackroyd isn't among them. Which is what makes the third entry so amusing. 

It's almost a pity that Kafka didn't write a book about Citati, if only to get his own back on the vacuous old literary tart.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Feeling thorny?

Digital cameras and cheap air travel have so much to answer for. If you find this photograph amusing you're probably reading the wrong blog or having an off day. If you don't find it amusing but would still like to see lots more photographs of people transforming fragments of the world about them into substantially larger penises than the ones they already possess, along with many other wonders, take a look at this site, entitled Photo Clichés. After which you can come back and explain to me why belonging to the second group is somehow wittier and more noble than belonging to the first.

I apologise for the title to this post. Not because it isn't funny (because, in a way that's congruous to the general mood of the post, it is), but because I sort of stole it from Photo Clichés. This is what happens when you try to be- or pass for being - original, but don't quite make it.

March for Equality

If you're on Facebook and think that equality matters (these categories don't, alas, always coincide), you might like to take part in the Online March for Equality. All you need to do is go to this site and choose an image to replace your profile picture for the next few days. It's a simple procedure and you don't even have to leave your desk, but that doesn't, I hope, make it entirely useless. Of course, if you're anywhere near the actual inauguration and can actually march that would be even better.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Isak Dinesen? Yes!

Moira Crone has just reviewed The Scent of Cinnamon at The Short Review, an essential site for anyone who cares about short, or long, fiction. It's a great review and I'm thrilled, above all because I feel not only that I've been read and understood, which is always wonderful, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that I've learnt a few new things about what I do and how I do it. You can read it, and be thrilled (though perhaps slightly less than I am), here

This is the first time I've been compared to Dinesen. I am without words.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Update from the very dark cave

According to a story in today's Sun, a woman in Britain who's been told that her unborn child has one body but two heads - an extreme example of conjoined twins -has decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. She's a 'staunch' Catholic, apparently, which gives her the right to do what she wants with her body, while denying it to everyone else. She's also unmarried, and appears to have no intention of marrying her partner, also Catholic and clearly from somewhere very close to her in the local gene pool, but hey, nobody's perfect. Why embrace an entire religion when you can cherry-pick? Besides, where's the money in marriage?

On a slightly lighter note, increasing numbers of god-fearing Christians in Texas are putting the fun back into fundamentalism by attending cowboy churches. Around ten percent of baptisms in the state are now conducted by men in chaps and stetsons. And that's not all. According to the MSNBC report:

At a recent Sunday morning service at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, the Rev. Jess McCabe, a visiting pastor, held up different sizes of deer antlers to illustrate his sermon about how people grow as Christians.

"That's one thing about cowboy church — we all got room to grow," McCabe told the congregation with a smile.

Well, hi ho, Silver!

Coffee and Cronenberg

Just over six months ago, I wrote a rather snippy post about the way quality newspapers were as entranced by celebrity as their tabloid counterparts. The post was occasioned by a couple of reviews of first novels written by people who, regardless of their own ability, were also extremely well-connected in the literary world, and I was in a huff about how they got all the attention while poor little me other first novelists didn't. To my surprise, and joy, one of these novelists - Nick Harkaway - got in touch with me that very day to say that he agreed with me. Since then, we've been in touch frequently about all sorts of things, we've almost shared a spaghetti alla carbonara in Rome, I've read and been very impressed by The Gone-Away World (out in paperback on February 5th) and Nick has agreed to interview me on my Something Rich and Strange virtual book tour. You can find the interview here. I have a photograph of Nick holding a copy of The Scent of Cinnamon with a look of disturbingly manic glee on his face - a reaction I hope the book routinely evokes - but I have too much respect for the man, and his reputation, to reproduce it here.

(I'm still waiting to hear from Martin Amis's wife.)


I'm looking forward to something occasional tomorrow. (Well, later today.)

Thursday, 8 January 2009


Not to be outdone when it comes to relevance and quality, Italian state television has its own version of Celebrity Come Dancing. It's called Ballando con le Stelle (Dancing with the Stars) and it has the same cavalier approach to stardom as CCD does to celebrity. Presumably on the principle that no one with a real reputation to lose would appear on the show (pace John Sergeant), it's redefined the word star to cover 'ex-spouse of star', 'glamour model', and so on. This year, though, it's gone one better (in barrel-scraping terms). It's invited Emanuele Filiberto Savoia to shake a leg on prime-time telly.

EFS, for those of you who don't know, is the grandson of the last king of Italy, forced to skedaddle after palling up to Mussolini. His father, Vittorio Emanuele, a slack-faced halfwit with the brains and moral equipment of an amoeba, managed to use his 'business' contacts under t
he last Berlusconi government to have the whole gang re-admitted to the country after decades of gilded exile in Geneva, Paris, Sardinia (yes, Sardinia is in Italy, but money makes borders permeable).

Since their return, Daddy Savoia has been in trouble with the law for various 'business' dealings involving gambling, sex slavery and prostitution, and, along with his son and wife, a botoxed biscuit heiress who makes Ivana Trump look classy,
has sued the Italian government for moral damages. (More about this here.) EF's first bid for stardom (in the televisual sense) came when he endorsed a pickle manufacturer. Along with many others, I wrote to the company to suggest that this wasn't a wise choice and received, within seconds, a long, carefully-worded email in which the pickle makers hedged their bets, defended their decision, apologised, etc. Two days later, the ad disappeared from Italian TV screens and EF's contract was rescinded.

Since then he's entered politics, running for a party whose name I forget and registering the polling equivalent of nul points. His political sympathies remain on the market, for anyone who might regard them as a worthwhile investment. He was last in the news just over a year ago when he refused to pay a speeding fine. He refused to pay for two reasons. The first was that he wasn't driving the car at the time. The second was that the road signs weren't very clear. This is known in legal circles as the Billy Bunter defence. (As in: I never ate the cake. And, anyway, it was horrible.)

Ballando con le Stelle starts on Saturday. Waltz on, Pickles.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Scones and tales

My seventh visit on the Something Rich and Strange tour and this time I'm in Devon, enjoying a cuppa and a couple of home-made scones with Dovegreyreader as we talk about The Scent of Cinnamon. She asks me some great questions about grief, writing habits and writers I love and I answer with alacrity and a blob of clotted cream on my chin. All is revealed here. There's also a draw for two free copies of the book, but you've already got one, haven't you? Haven't you?

Sunday, 4 January 2009

All sorts of fun activities

This is from Liveleak, and was first spotted by Matthew Gallaway's cousin. My thanks to them both.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Omega Minor

I’ve just finished reading Omega Minor by the Belgian novelist Paul Verhaeghen, a cognitive psychologist now working in the States. Originally published in Dutch, this enormous novel – 700 pages of closely-printed text - was translated into English by its author, winning the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in the process. The English, like the novel itself, is constantly inventive, and slightly quirky; Verhaeghen has stated that he decided to do the translation himself after seeing the lamentable job a professional translator had done of a section of the book, and I can well believe it. It isn’t a job I’d have taken on willingly, and certainly not at the rates a work this size inevitably attracts if it’s to exist at all. It’s a sprawling, superficially confused, engagingly unwieldy sort of book that resists unity of style, that resists, in many ways, any kind of unity at all, except that provided by its existence as an attractive, slightly austere, well-made physical artefact, for which we have, once more, the Dalkey Archive to thank.

The narrative arc of the novel covers much of the last century, with key events clustering around the opposing poles of the Second World War and the destruction of the Berlin wall. Geographically, its heart is Berlin, although long sections are set in New York and Los Alamos, and one short section in an improbably glamorous Bath, a place I suspect Verhaeghen has never seen. It’s a book that barely acknowledges a world beyond that defined by mid-twentieth century Europe and the post-war diaspora, except – in the case of Japan - as a target for the nuclear bomb. There’s no reason why it should. It has more than enough on its plate as it is.

The novel opens with a description of a sexual encounter that sets the tone for most of the sex in the novel. There isn’t that much of it in terms of pages, but what there is shares a relentless, near-pornographic quality that might have something to do with Verhaeghen’s not being a native speaker. It’s a strange amalgam of the poetic, the urological and the simply weird, as in this extract from the second page:

Behold the purple head that sways so swiftly on its heavy stalk; see how it glistens with her spit and juices; watch the little crater at the top spit out its zigzag line—out shoots the slime, the whirling weathervane, the drunken comet that climbs past the stars: In the moist cloud chamber of Donatella’s room, a signal lights up in silvery white, an almost perfect circle described by the tumbling ribbon of spunk, an acrobatic snake snapping at—but missing—its own tail: an ancient Greek symbol, the latter Omega, capitalized—Ω.

This opening scene does more than establish the tone and central elements of the novel’s theme. Crucially, the sexual act is being described not by a protagonist, but by someone who observes, himself unobserved. The novel is deeply concerned with what it means to be a witness, and with the kind of power, and lack of power, this involves. It goes beyond this to question the nature and permeability of the boundaries we draw between those who act and those who watch, and how historical and personal blame should be apportioned between these two groups, taking into account the extent to which any distinction made between them might be facile, or false. Dangerous ambiguities are evoked as the novel progresses – through confession and dissimulation - and even the aphoristic moral certainty of such a sentence as “There is a world of difference between an act that is permitted and an act that is permissible” is undermined by what the novel does.

Omega Minor is designed to be seen as a book that works on multiple levels. Its refusal, for example, to utter the word God, preferring G*d, suggests that it sees itself as a sort of holy text, as one that runs the very real risk of blasphemy, or, alternatively, as a text that denies God and demonstrates its denial on the page. The action jumps, often irritatingly, from one time and place to another, often without identifying the central character or narrative viewpoint, leaving the reader to flounder for a page or two and sometimes, when a new character is introduced without warning, for considerably longer. It draws on religion, and history, both personal and political, and science both as bodies of fact and as sources of metaphor, as though there really were a mystery at the heart of things that might be revealed. Which mystery, in the end, is what provides the novel with its – for me –unsatisfactory climax. The novel’s over-written at times, and under-imagined at others, particularly when it talks about love, and I found it hard to care for anyone other than the one person who perhaps deserved it least. At the same time, and despite these misgivings, I found the book deeply absorbing, and the time spent reading it time well spent. If what I was left with was a very traditional sense of the sheer awfulness of its material, for want of a better term, rather than a new understanding of the way in which the material is being reworked, by history and time, by deniers and apologists, this didn’t detract from the very powerful impact the book made on me. It’s not damning with faint praise but its diametrical opposite to say that this book is over-ambitious. I recommend it.

Think Pink

I've just found out that Think Pink Radio of Chicago noticed my Cyclone visit to Jockohomo. Think Pink is "is dedicated to promoting queers that do things on their own–people who love this world and want to be themselves in it", which sounds pretty good to me. It had this to say about the book and the tour.

Happy New Year!