A bit like a collage of feelings, impressions, amusements and some very good extended wanderings around the events of the Conductor von Bulow, who loses his wife Cosmina to Wagner. Not that either of them seemed to be too discomfited, at the exchange, partly because Wagner needed von Bulow more than he needed Cosmina and von Bulow was a complete rake. There are several other extended pieces (I can't call them short stories because they have too little holding their sections entirely together, but nevertheless they make satisfying diversions and have salutary messages and all of them are interesting and entertaining). I liked the poignancy of the second piece in the chapter called Many Happy Returns which didn't have a title, but ended with the words Andrew's life is like a Villanelle.
You can learn a lot about acting in the piece called Fashion Statement - more of a story, with nine beautifully pointed and revealing mini-chapters, covering the way a young girl in a school goes about getting her teacher to help her into an acting career. Mostly by learning how to act. There is part of a poem I've extracted below, which in its entirety lists some of the people that he has written about in the book. I've left out the list, because you could easily insert the names of people you yourself love here:
"You came in a dream. Your usual difficult self. I couldn't decide what I wanted most - to kiss you or to look at you.
Who is speaking?
Anyone who is still in love with someone who is dead."
on 13 July 2010
Firstly an apology - what follows is not a review but if you like a preview, or an attempt to outline a sense of anticipation of the book I ordered a few hours ago and is in the post from Amazon as I write. I ordered a copy of this book today largely on the strength of an excoriating review in the Times Literary Supplement.
When having read Heartbreak, I suspect I might hope to defend Raine from a critic who it seems is uncomfortable with a Poet and Critic straying out of his territory into novel writing. The critic, Leo Robsen (TLS 090710) states that Raine 'takes to fiction like a cat to water'. Ouch.
My first thought was to imagine the atmosphere at say, a first performance of Alfred Brendel's first piano concerto. Imagine the audience - friends, critics, peers. Imagine how many will hope it will be good and how many will hope that it fails?
In writing a novel Raine is up against potential regiments of scorn from peers and from those who see him as breaking ranks and role. Add into the mix the possible personal enmities that might exist in our particular introspective north Atlantic literary village we must at least acknowledge a degree of courage involved in Raine putting pen to paper in chapters rather than verse.
But more interesting for me is the `process' (a word now hijacked into the realm of management speak) that is taking place in any writer hoping to say something on a blank page and is not now only responding to an established canon or a volume that has tumbled through his letterbox or into his in-tray.
The critic (Leo Robson) concludes his review, 'Craig Raine has indulged all the egotistical impulses most likely to render a novel unpalatable, if not unreadable'. I was troubled by the notion that egotistical impulses render things unpalatable and unreadable. There is something wished for in such a comment.
However I do think the poet-academic-critic's curse is that when they commit to writing fiction they do so hoping that their words might gather a quality of attention that they themselves have used in their study and their love of literature. Their love of literature would I imagine influence their feelings as they pop their manuscript in the post, negotiate with an editor, and await the literary editors thumbs up or down for coverage and indeed as they tear up a draft and lie awake at night tossing between images of a glow of recognition and invisible darkness.
The likelihood is that they and their readers will feel disapointed. and that the disapointment is inevitable. Perhaps I will be disappointed and perhaps Raine is dissapointed.
Having not read the book, thus far my sense of Robson's comments boil down to a sort of admonishment along the lines that Raine should get out more and he should leave the 'poetry- quoting middle classes' behind. I am not sure what the poetry-quoting middle classes are. Part of me believes that what defines something middle class certainly excludes quoting poetry. I sense Robson was reaching for a better description but has not nailed it down. What he might be trying to describe is a tribe (if you like) of people who take literature very seriously, so seriously that they become inevitably myopic and unable to distinguish between primary and secondary sources the stuff of life and the stuff of literature - the clue is in title of Robson's review 'Someone else's tears." The stuff of literature amongst other things is life experiences not the life experiences of other's life experiences or indeed critical appraisals of other's life experience of other's life experiences.
I also ordered this book because I am interested in the role of critic (I have admired Raine as a critic and a poet) and whether that role and activity, response to the word and the world, precludes many other activities. It reminds me that I was always bewildered when meeting distinguished classically trained musicians that few of them felt anything other than low-grade terror if asked to improvise a tune on their respective instruments. Their creativity is at the sharp end of performance and is judged by their interaction and creative response to given material (a score) but the blank page was terrifying.
Rosen concludes that Heartbreak is `belletristic blather of the worst kind.' I confess I had to look up `belletristic'. My dictionary describes it as: `essays, particularly of literary and artistic criticism, written and read primarily for their aesthetic effect.' Rosen's criticism seems to me to be an accusation of bad faith in other words Raine's novel is just posture and just clothed in references and second hand devices. He might be right but if he is how does he know? A great deal of anything written about anything is written for aesthetic effect.
I will read the book over the next few days and I suppose I will make a judgment.
In part I don't want to make a judgement Rosen's review seems to coerce me to a position where I am obliged to state the Heartbreak is in some way right or wrong.
We will see.
Saturday 17th July 2010
I think it might have been Evelyn Waugh who might said something to the effect that everything you need to know about love could be written on the back of a postcard. On the subject of heartbreak a postcard and possibly a lifetime's opus will not do. Craig Raine's first novel is ambitious therefore. It reads like a list of vignettes, anecdotes and episodes crossing time, zeitgeists, and somewhat introspective subcultures and indeed culture itself. It can feel like a tossed salad in search of a dressing.
The image that comes to me having finished reading Heartbreak is of skimming stones on a big river. He dips momentarily into a variety of consciousness and then leaves- perhaps sensibly or out of respect or out of fear. The river is as deep as it gets- a current that hums below the noisiness that Raine draws in instances. I do wonder however that the extent that Raine borrows from cultural opuses effectively ties his hands behind his back.
There is much to enjoy, be moved by and irritated by. What irritates are moments of affectation, which leave you feeling uneasy about its authenticity- does he know what he is writing about? What is moving are the accounts of the plights of heartbreak, which avoid mawkishness and don't drown in the over-used and devalued language of loss, grief and bereavement. There are moments that punch you with their understated tragedy. What there is to enjoy are priceless moments of description - I will never look at a peach stone again without smiling and was left wondering about the challenges faced by Benjamin Briten's hairdresser. (My partner pointed out Raine's fascination with hair.)
When Phillip Larkin stated that Sexual Intercourse began in 1963 the consequences of his observation in part meant that anyone interested in sex (and was writing) was now obliged to write something interesting about sex. Raine's sexual descriptions fall into the trap of trying to be truthful about the erotic whilst trying not to be erotic - it ends up being neither. This is a critical error in any attempt to get to the heart of heartbreak and is self- imposed handicap.
I cannot help feel that this book is a prelude to something better from Raine. I do hope some of the critical responses I have read does not dissuade him, because all that is needed is a certain type of confidence that for instance not need him to defer to cultural statues.