Posts Tagged ‘Paul Auster’

A literary A-Z

March 28, 2011

I am usually very good at sleeping. I can do it pretty much anywhere and for as long as is possible. Even during an unbelievably perilous journey across the Indian Himalayas, crammed into a tiny jeep with nine other people and a driver who stank of booze and drove for 22 hours without taking in anything solid. Head lolling from side to side, I was out for the count, much to the annoyance of the fiancé, who spent the 22 hours clinging on to his seat, eyes wide with terror.

But, the other day, I found myself unable to get off to sleep. For those who suffer from insomnia, it must be an incredibly frustrating, debilitating affliction, but, as it so rarely comes my way, I quite enjoyed the novelty. Rather than fretting about whatever it was that was keeping me awake, I decided to put my mind to better use.

I thought perhaps I’d go through the alphabet for a particular category. Capital cities are a good one, as are rude words (the only way to keep me sane while having a filling at the dentist). But, in the end, I went through the alphabet deciding on my favourite author for each letter.

It was a fascinating exercise. There were some unexpected and very difficult matches, (Virginia Woolf vs Edmund de Waal, for instance) and it also showed up several gaping holes in my reading. It is refreshingly logical, which is something I rarely am about books – it’s easy to gush about favourite books and marvellous authors, but when one has to weigh an author against another one, it becomes a far more measured exercise.

So I thought I’d share the fruits of my insomnia with you, and take you through my literary A-Z, a few letters at a time. I think what I’m doing, in blogging terminology, is introducing a ‘series’. I expect I’ll do it once a month. I hope you like it!


For many people A means Jane Austen. So many – usually very clever, well-read – people, such as P.D. James, absolutely adore Jane Austen. But I think she’s the musical equivalent of Mozart. Evidently a genius, but so twee and twiddly that I can’t bear her. I must be a philistine. I hope that, like tomatoes, it’s a taste I’ll grow into.

But just a slipped final letter away from Austen is Paul Auster. The first Auster I read was The New York Trilogy. I’d just decided to apply to read English at Oxford – as opposed to Biology or Psychology, which had been the original plan – and our English teachers had distributed these lists of books that I suppose they considered to be seminal works that we should have read before our interviews. I read several of the books on there with a feeling that they were good but old. Books like Rasselas and Candide and Gulliver’s Travels – all very clever, all very important, but nothing that sets a seventeen-year-old alight. But then there was The New York Trilogy and – apologies for being a bit Billy Eliot here – it was like electricity. I was so astonished to be reading something so modern, so new, so playful, so dark. And, in the words of my seventeen-year-old self, I thought it was quite ‘cool’. It made me feel incredibly excited about the possibilities of literature, as something that could be so experimental, something that was still evolving, something with a future, not just a past.

I went on a bit of an Auster binge after that, and I remember feeling particularly fond of Mr Vertigo, which is about a boy who learns to fly. And Timbuktu, told from the point of view of Mr Bones, a dog. And then I read Invisible a couple of years ago, which was, characteristically, weird but also brilliant. And, most recently, Sunset Park, which was a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5.

Martin and Kingsley Amis deserve a mention, although I hate the one and never got round to reading the other. I better stick with that first, tremendously excited, reading of The New York Trilogy and say that Paul Auster is King of the As.


The Bs, for me, boil down to Bronte vs. Bowen.

Having recently finished Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen (see my last post), I am very much under the Bowen spell. I am longing to read more by her – I’d love to see what her novels are like – and, as I said, her voice is so strong and familiar that I felt like I’d made friends with her. I am even beginning to miss her.

But the Brontes. How can anyone compete? Perhaps it’s because the Brontes are usually part of a schoolgirl’s reading, they seem like a rite of passage. I have felt a particular affinity with Wuthering Heights because when I went to Burma, nearly ten years ago, I met this very kind man called ‘Mr Book’, who ran a bookstall, and looked after my friend and me for a few days. He, funnily enough, loved books, and so he decided to call me ‘Emily Bronte’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’.

It’s hard to decide between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but I think I’ve got to come down on the side of the latter. It’s such a wonderful book, and one that bears rereading several times. Charlotte Bronte creates such overwhelming empathy for Jane – a sweet, young girl in a big, strange house – that anyone who doesn’t count this among their Top 20 books can scarcely be human!

I nearly forgot Bassani, who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I read this while I was on holiday in Italy last summer (see this post on it). At the time, I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was utterly spectacular. It was only afterwards, that I found I kept on thinking about it, and began to see that really it was a rather subtle masterpiece – Bassani created a lingering poignancy, which still haunts me today.

But, when all’s said and done, no other B can beat Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte has to be the winner.


Now C is an embarrassing letter for me. Not in a Lady Chatterley way, but because it shows up so many gaps in my reading. I know, from various friends and colleagues, that the following C-authors are fantastic: Michael Chabon, Raymond Carver, John le Carre, Wilkie Collins, Albert Camus. I can hardly bring myself to admit this, but I haven’t read any of them. No, not even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not even Kavalier and Clay. Not even L’Etranger.

I suppose one very useful aspect of this exercise is in showing up the gaps. I must stop making excuses and just get round to reading some of these books!

So, for C, I’ve hopped over to poetry. To Coleridge and to Chaucer and yet another tricky decision. I’m not sure there’s much that’s better than ‘Kubla Khan’. And there’s the great opium story that goes with it. But Chaucer … he’s up there with Shakespeare, I don’t think it would be right to knock him off the top spot.

We read rather a lot of Chaucer at university. Here and here are earlier posts about the dream poems, and everyone knows about The Canterbury Tales, but it’s Troilus and Criseyde that seals the deal for me. It’s magnificent. And the character Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, who persuades Criseyde of Troilus’s virtues, gives us the word ‘pander’.

Yes, C has to be Chaucer.

Any disagreements? Any omissions? Let me know … In the meantime, I’ll start weighing up the Ds, Es and Fs.

Boxer Beetle

September 6, 2010

I have just read a book called Boxer Beetle. I suppose this is an unusual choice as I don’t particularly like beetles or boxing.

But the book is written by a chap called Ned Beauman and, while I can hardly call him a close friend, or even really a friend, he did once punt a friend and me along the backs when I was visiting her at Cambridge.

Ned is slightly younger than me, and probably slightly cooler as well. What I remember most about him from that singular boating encounter was that he had painted his fingernails black, was surprisingly good at punting and had quite a few eccentric anecdotes to add to the conversation.

So I was intrigued when this book arrived in the bookshop. How fantastic, I thought, how wonderful that he’s got himself published. I was also pleased to come across some good reviews of Boxer Beetle, like this one in the Guardian.

I decided that buying a copy and reading it was the least I could do.

Now some people, when I told them I was reading a first novel by someone younger than me, said things along the lines of ‘How sickening, how galling, aren’t you jealous?’

I wish that I could say, with all honesty, no.  But of course I’m jealous. Of course I feel somewhat sickened by the idea that someone has already made it, when I haven’t (yet). And when I first picked up the book, my excitement was tinged with a horrid feeling of dread. But I’m pleased to say that as soon as I began to read it, all jealousy evaporated. Here is the first line:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forth-third birthday party.

It’s a great opening line. It’s unusual. It’s funny. It’s quite strange. It’s intriguing. But it’s also something that I would never have written. I have never imagined any of Goebbels’ birthday parties and I don’t think I’d ever dream up a character who would.

This line made me realise straight away that Boxer Beetle might be fantastic and imaginative and funny but it is completely different from what I’ve written and from anything that I might write in the future. (Not that my writing isn’t fantastic, imaginative and funny.) If it were about the 7/7 bombings, or about a young artist travelling around India, or had parallels with E.M. Forster, then, well, then I might have ripped it up in desperation/misery/fury, but I will never write a book about boxing, beetles, or Goebbels. So I was able to switch of the competitive part of me (which mostly surfaces when playing tennis) and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.

And I did enjoy it. It is funny. It is peculiar. It is pacey. It is clever. It is rammed full of meticulously researched digressions. I particularly liked the unexpectedly detailed descriptions, which are casually dropped in and utterly transform the scene.

There was something so submissive and exhausted about the place, thought Erskine, like a thin farmer munching on grass because his own fat cattle have bullied him out of his hot dinner again.

Ned’s imagination really shines throughout the book. I kept thinking that it would be extraordinary to see the world in the similes that he throws in again and again.

The other real achievement is the ambitious architecture of the book – different characters and their plot lines are woven together with real skill. Ned begins with the story of ‘Fishy’, who smells unbearably strongly of fish, is a collector of Nazi memorabilia and spends his time either on Internet chat rooms or doing odd jobs for a dodgy property developer. Then there is ‘Sinner’, aka Seth Roach, an East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s. And finally there is Philip Erskine – a rich young man of the 1930s, who is interested in eugenics and particularly interested in the case of Sinner because of his unbelievable strength despite being small and Jewish and having a right foot with only four toes.

And somehow Ned manages to bring them all together in a narrative that spans over a hundred years (there is a brief chapter about the end of the nineteenth century) and it isn’t confused at all.

On the few occasions in the book when I felt something grate, it was generally a precocity, an arrogance, a pretension, which could be quite annoying. For instance, when Fishy is on the internet chat rooms, he gets a response to a question from someone with the screenname ‘nbeauman’. Ha ha, not. Paul Auster did it twenty years ago. And it wasn’t even all that clever then. It’s a sort of – oh look, this is so witty and post-modern – but actually it just feels unnecessary and a bit smug.

But that grating brings to mind something I came across at university. At Oxford, and I expect at most other universities, a much greater proportion of Firsts are awarded to boys than to girls. And the powers that be thought this was probably because boys have a habit of being so much more arrogant than girls, especially in writing. Perhaps Boxer Beetle does have an underlying arrogance, but that probably comes across as confidence most of the time, which usually gets very well rewarded indeed. Just think of Martin Amis, for instance.

I conclude that if I am to make it in the book world, I shall have to grow a pair. Watch out.

The Oxo Tower – A Peculiarly Placed Product

May 28, 2010

I neglected to mention, in my last blog about the glorious London Overground, that I was on my way to a party at the Oxo Tower.

Soon after we alighted, the fiancé (architect-in-training) said, ‘Of course you do know the story about the Oxo Tower, don’t you?’

I didn’t. In case you don’t either, here it is:

An old power station was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who made Oxo beef stock cubes. They got an architect, Albert Moore, to rebuild most of it in the late 1920s and as part of this art-deco refab, they wanted a big tower on the Thames on which they could advertise their Oxo cubes. They were denied permission to advertise and so Albert Moore designed the tower so that ‘OXO’ was built into its structure. They could claim that the windows just happened to be in the shape of a circle, cross and a circle.

What chutzpah! Yes, it was clever of them, but it was also cheeky and dishonest.

And now, of course, it’s known as the Oxo Tower – the building is defined by this piece of advertising. I wanted to ask the waiters if they had to use Oxo cubes in all the food there, but it didn’t seem like the sort of party where that would have gone down terribly well.

So the OXO can no longer be seen as just an advertisement; it’s part of the building. I’m afraid I think there’s something grotesque about advertising in any case, but it’s particularly foul when a product wheedles its way in like that, insinuating itself in such a dishonest way.

It’s like product placement. Who can forget that Britney Spears, in her film Crossroads (yes, I loved it and I won’t deny it), uses Herbal Essences shampoo? (And so did I for the following five years.) Or that in The Faculty Josh Hartnett and all his friends wear Tommy Hilfiger? The products aren’t advertised in an obvious way, they’re woven into the fabric of the film, adopted by the narrative.

This is nothing new or particularly surprising, I hear you say. Nobody likes product placement (do they?). But product placement happens more than we realise; it happens pretty much all the time. In books as well as in films. It’s a question of where you draw the line – what is a product and what isn’t?

For instance, I’ve just read a proof of Paul Auster’s forthcoming novel Sunset Park (due to be published in November). In this book, the film The Best Years of Our Lives is referenced again and again and again. One of the characters is studying it for her dissertation; the main character and his girlfriend watch it at her request; the father of the main character watches it on an aeroplane … you get the picture.

Now clearly Auster wants us to think about his book in relation to The Best Years of Our Lives – why else would he mention it so many times? I hadn’t even heard of the film, but, seeing it mentioned so many times, I assiduously looked it up online. It became clear that it’s firmly in the American canon of World War Two movies. (You can watch a bit on YouTube here.) I so enjoyed the novel, was so intrigued by these references to the film that I think I might go out and buy a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives. In the same way that I went out and bought Herbal Essences and Tommy Hilfiger when I saw Crossroads and The Faculty as a teenager.

Yes, there is a lesson here. I need to become less impressionable. But essentially isn’t Paul Auster placing a product in his book? But he gets off the hook because The Best Years of Our Lives is a film, which can masquerade as a cultural reference, rather than obviously declaring itself as something for sale.

But this film is clearly important to Auster, and to his ideas in the book. Why shouldn’t he reference it if he wants to? I’m now reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and he quotes from T.S. Eliot all the time. Why shouldn’t he? Even if it makes me want to reach for my T.S. Eliot and reread his poems. Or, if I didn’t already own it, go out and buy a copy. Where does one draw the line between a cultural reference and advertising something that can be bought in a shop?

And what about if the book, or film, or television programme, is set in a certain place? The Apprentice, for example, got lots of stick for sending all its contestants out to well-known London establishments. ‘Free advertising,’ grumbled the critics, while the restaurants and bars that were featured kept schtum and quietly patted the wads of cash in their pockets as wannabe city execs turned up in droves. But it would be ridiculous if The Apprentice contestants didn’t do anything in London, as that’s where the programme’s resolutely set.

Everyone’s making a fuss over the new Sex and the City film being set in Abu Dhabi over Manhattan. It’s an NYC programme and yes, perhaps it does seem quite bonkers to move it to the Middle East. We expect to watch lunches and brunches, drinks and dinners in ‘fabulous’ Manhattan eateries, not to mention shopping trips to Jimmy Choo and Prada. Evidently product placement is so central to SATC that, to critical eyes, it falls apart when the New York products are removed. The television series would have been just as rubbish as the new film (apparently) is, if brands weren’t allowed to be mentioned, or if it couldn’t be seen to endorse any actual NY restaurants or bars. It would feel far too fake, not nearly NYC enough. Perhaps it is the products and brands that make Manhattan Manhattan.

But in the same Paul Auster novel, Sunset Park, I glimpsed a solution to the dilemma of how to set a story somewhere specific without endorsing gross consumerism. Auster mentions a certain greasy-spoon diner called Joe Junior’s. It’s an important place in the novel – the setting of a couple of poignant scenes and home to some father and son memories. And the diner is described in detail; we learn that it features ‘a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall’. And Auster locates the diner, very specifically, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street.

Gosh, is this a real place? I wondered. Would hardcore Auster fans make a pilgrimage to Sixth and Twelfth and order Joe Junior’s (apparently) legendary onion rings? I searched online and found that yes, Joe Jr.’s is a real place. Or was a real place. It seems that this little diner on the corner of  Sixth and Twelfth – and the photos make it look exactly as Auster described – closed down on 4th July 2009. By all accounts it was a very sad day for fans of Greenwich Village, when this cherished little independent establishment could no longer meet the rent. There was much speculation about which ghastly chain would open there in its place. (I can’t tell, as Joe Jr.’s still exists on Google Maps.)

So yes, Auster has written about a real place, one that many New Yorkers knew and loved, and one that losers like me can look up and see photos of. (I think the best ones are here.) But no, I can’t go and eat their cheesburgers and onion rings because it’s closed down. Instead I can feel sad that an independent has been forced to close its doors, feel inspired to go and support my own local independent lunchspot – no longer will I buy my sandwiches from Pret! – and I suppose be a slightly better person for it.

The irony about the Oxo Tower is that it’s no longer the home of Oxo cubes. The restaurant is let out to Harvey Nichols. And quite why Harvey Nichols would want to encourage the sale of cubes of beef stock, when in their online ‘foodmarket shop’, Oxo is left out of its list of ‘brands’ and one can only buy things like a ‘fashionista hamper’ and a ‘Dolce Vita Espresso Gift Box’, I can’t quite fathom.