The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss by Nick Coleman


We can easily forget that our bodies are not on our side. Not only are they not on our side, they are poised and ready to frustrate us. When they go wrong (and they are always tending in that direction) we realize that we don’t really know ourselves, that our bodies, which are supposed to be all we are, have their own plans.

Of the many ways our bodies can turn against us, we’re lucky if we only get the minor ones – at least until the final, not so minor one. Like many people who spent much of their adolescence with tiny speakers jammed into their ears, I live with mild tinnitus. Everyday existence is so noisy that I rarely have to think about the constant static in the background, but it’s still liable to throw me into self-pity if I think about it for long. My eyes are in bad shape too; without glasses I can’t read anything, and I struggle sometimes even with them on. And they’re getting worse. Now that I think about it, my back has started to ache a bit lately, perhaps because I never grew out of the teenage slouch, and my teeth are getting more sensitive, like they’re turning into transparent jelly. The complaints multiply for as long as I’m able to think about them. Life, as an old Greek philosopher probably said at some point, is a navigation through limits.

But it could be worse. Nick Coleman, a long-time music journalist in the UK, was made aware of his body’s terrible capriciousness when one of his ears stopped working. It left a dull blankness for a while, and then a building cacophony of tinnitus in both ears so severe that balance and concentration became almost impossible. “I’d spend the day with pillows wrapped around my head to keep sound out, while, on the inside, my head felt ready to explode with pressure, as if my brains were pushing like a slowly inflating balloon against the inner surface of my skull.” To get to sleep he knocked himself out with Temazepam, only to stir awake a couple of hours later, his head roaring: “Every night between one and four I’d awaken to the pitch-black vision that I was sealed up in the hold of a ship and the ship was going down.”

Scraping chair legs or crumpled paper bags, as amplified through his distorted ear canals, became instruments of torture. Music, his lifelong obsession, had turned into a painful, one-dimensional blast. When he watched some Led Zeppelin concert footage he was almost physically battered by it; Jimmy Page’s guitar had become an “incoherent storm of detuned noise.” His body had stopped picking up the signals of the sounds he used to love. “Music is just music,” he writes. “It doesn’t change. People change. But I haven’t changed. My body has.”

The medical profession was not quick to understand his condition, but eventually he was diagnosed with sudden neurosensory hearing loss, which, if you’ll excuse the phrase, is even worse than it sounds. Unable even to walk without vomiting, his life became a test of endurance. The minutest bodily movement was cataclysmic. As long as his eyes were open he felt sick and dizzy. Going to a party was like climbing a mountain under heavy gunfire. Things were so unbearable that one day, on his knees and with his chin resting on a desk so he wouldn’t lose balance, he found himself Googling “assisted suicide.”

Taunted by the “monument” of his record collection, Coleman missed music even as he craved silence. But superstar neurologist Oliver Sacks told him that the “depth” and “spaciousness” which he’d lost could be regained through imagination and memory. “One might expect,” said Sacks, “that such a power, whilst not available (or less available) voluntarily, could occur spontaneously by association with emotion, a memory.”

The narrative of The Train in the Night takes the form of these pulses of memory. Coleman delves into his childhood in search of the musical thread, from his experience as the trombonist for the Holiday Orchestra, to buying his first LP and then playing it for his father (the record is Razamanaz by the rock band Nazareth, and his father is not overly impressed), to forming his own short-lived band, Lost Cause. For Coleman music is a biography of its listener, as distinct and individual as a fingerprint. His record collection – which for him “might well be the single most concentrated mass of beauty in the world” – is the “narratable” version of himself. “It’s the version of me I’d like other people to know.”

Especially good is the evocation of his teenage years, when he was developing his taste in music. For Coleman taste was the “principle agony” of his adolescence. He remembers the first seven albums he bought as though he’s recalling old lovers – if love for other people was as resilient as love for inert vinyl: “I can call up the desire and the sensation of meeting those desires more readily than I can call up memories of first sex.” It helps that his First Seven is not too embarrassing – it includes the Stones, Lou Reed, and (early) Genesis – and reflects a discernment few people have when young (my first album? Metallica’s Reload).

For people who were not alive in the ‘70s, the cultural landscape as portrayed by Coleman will seem either Arcadian or restrictive, depending on how much you’ve embraced recent developments in production and consumption. He touches on the changes wrought by digital distribution and illegal file sharing, but only briefly, and the abiding problem with this book is how fitfully it leaps from topic to topic, sometimes leaving interesting thoughts undeveloped, while elaborating at length on purely local details, such as the modernization of the city of Cambridge. There’s an impatient choppiness to it which means you probably won’t be bored, but you might be unsatisfied. This is doubly true if you’re not the kind of person whose hands and eyes twitch in the presence of someone else’s record collection.

Mostly, though, The Train in the Night is a memoir executed with considerable style and grit. Coleman is more than proficient at translating music to words, usually with the aid of pop-magazine hyperbole. When he describes listening to T-Rex on the radio it sounds almost as good as T-Rex does: “like a god out of the machine, Marc Bolan would descend on pillows of distortion to rock me in my bedroom casing like a baby in his arms.” The Ramones are “a single muscle flexing against a single bone. A reflex not a rock band.” His analysis of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” takes up five pages, but I would have been content with twenty more.

There is inevitably something life-denying about a fan’s addiction to any art form, and Coleman only partially hides from this dilemma. For him music is a shield, a by-product of hypersensitivity, a symptom of loneliness, and the only way to make sense of life. “I think music was the laboratory in which I learned to contain and then examine emotion,” he writes. This line of thought is followed to its bleakest conclusion: that his obsession was an escape from, rather than a refinement of, reality. But he stops before things can become utterly hopeless. Instead, burdened with what could have been a ruinous impediment, he reaffirms his love of music. It’s just that the damage to his hearing has made it accessible through “pain and exultation” rather than joy and pleasure – pain because of the buzzing mesh through which the melodies must travel; exultation because he can hear anything at all. This may seem like a bitter consolation, but it’s enough to build on. The worst has happened and yet something remains. He hasn’t changed. His body has.

More News from Nowhere: John Lanchester’s Capital


London has become so separate from the rest of England that anyone who wishes to write about it will have to match the essential weirdness of a disembodied city. It is the cultural, political, and financial capital of the country, but also, in parts, the most deprived and conflicted. This means that, of course, there’s a lot to say about London. It has been busy lately. But to take on the capital as a subject for a novel seems increasingly maniacal. A.A. Gill, in a recent piece for the New York Times, called London “the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.” It has achieved this while having a uniquely unwelcoming atmosphere. For an international city it feels closed, cordoned-off, as if even when you’re there you’re not really there. If you want to be ignored, go to London. Perhaps this is why the best recent novels about the city are radically subjective, interested in perceptions, ghosts, and pseudo-history rather than The Way We Live Now.

Intelligent writers since Dickens have dodged the city-wide survey and focused on their own polemics and pathologies. Iain Sinclair’s novels pack in a lot of factual information about the capital, but he is less interested in shedding light than casting shadows. Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive peregrinations are strictly solo, partly because he writes faster than we can read, while Will Self and J.G. Ballard have veered towards the satirical and surreal. None of these writers catches the whole thing and, perhaps with the exception of Ackroyd’s non-fiction, they are all as interested in their own obsessions as they are in the social and political reality.

Anyone familiar with John Lanchester’s work will know that he does not sit comfortably with this roster at all. Weirdly he has managed to get half a dozen books into a writing career without establishing a particular style. His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a decadent and Nabokovian riff on gastronomy and murder, completely unlike, say, Fragrant Harbor, which is a teetotal take on the recent history of Hong Kong. That novel was published ten years ago and for a while it seemed like he had ditched fiction for its straighter cousin. After a series of fantastic essays for the London Review of Books, and a family memoir published in 2007, Lanchester wrote  I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a brief and accessible examination of the financial crash and its various follies. “I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found,” he writes in the introduction to I.O.U. The novel he was researching, we now know, was Capital.

In hardback form, Capital is as heavy as a black cab, its very title – which has already been used by Maureen Duffy for her own London novel – refreshingly immodest. The setting is Pepys Road, a fictional place somewhere in central London where, due to the housing boom lunacy, the properties that were once made for the lower-middle-classes (“the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor”) are now worth millions of pounds. This is a solid conceit, guaranteeing an automatic cocktail shaker of characters. Eighty-two-year-old Petunia rattles around her £1.5 million house alone, terminally ill and about to make her daughter property-rich. A Muslim family living above a shop can barely afford heating, but across the road a wealthy banker wishing for a million pound bonus lives with an unemployed wife and an entourage of nannies for his spoiled children. Non-residents who nonetheless have many reasons to spend time on Pepys Road include a Zimbabwean traffic warden who vows only to go back to her country when its despotic ruler dies; an urban artist (based on Banksy) called Smitty whose identity is hidden from everyone but his embittered assistant; and Zbigniew, a Polish carpenter who finds himself jammed in an ethical dilemma with a case full of cash.

Capital is a novel in almost entirely discrete segments and many of the characters never have cause to meet. Their parallel lives are tied together by a subplot that starts with mysterious postcards being found on the doormats of every resident. On one side a picture of their house, on the other an ominous message: “We Want What You Have.”

The torment escalates to graffiti and vandalism, but nothing ever feels truly at stake. There is no premonition of 2011’s riots. Nothing slouches towards Brixton to be born. Lanchester is soft on all his characters and the satire never bites. The most enthralling figure (and it’s hard to tell whether this is satire backfiring or part of the plan) is Roger the banker, “a man to whom everything in life had come easily.” To begin with, he is described in the blandest and laziest possible fashion – he is “good-looking” but in “an anonymous way,” with “good manners” and “good fortune.” Taken at face value, he is going to be the least sympathetic character for most readers, which means Lanchester can let rip with stereotypes in a way that would be much more uncomfortable with, for example, a Polish carpenter. You can tell – lazy character sketching aside – that Lanchester relishes the chance to write about the ruthlessly superficial.

Roger is a man who doesn’t appear to do any work all day, but nonetheless expects seven figures for a bonus. In fact, because of his family’s overspending, he needs seven figures. The most entertaining – and tense – set-piece in the book is when Roger is about to discover what his bonus will be for the year.
Roger, who had been feeling cool and even-tempered in his silk knickers, felt his heart rate and blood pressure shoot up. A pound sign followed by a one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes. Two with six zeroes? No, that was greedy. One with six zeroes.
His wife, Arabella, is equally fun to be around because she is equally two-dimensional. Obsessed with expensive things, she tries to justify her one-track mind by convincing herself that she hasn’t lost the true value of money. For Arabella, “the knowledge of what money meant gave the drama of high prices a special piquancy.”

Unfortunately most of the book is not about Roger and Arabella, and when we are not in their company the pleasures are scarce. A cynic might say that Capital was rushed for publication to cash in on the Olympic tourists. The cynic, in this case, might be on to something. At times it feels designed for the casual, inattentive reader. Because of the short chapters it feels like the pace is quicker than it really is. Truthfully, Capital is slow going. It was somewhere around chapter 78 – or 67, or 49 – that I realized I no longer cared about what the next vignette had in store. I was simply counting the numbers.

Circumstances are not helped by the suspicion that Lanchester, who showed real literary flair in his debut, has forgotten everything he has ever learned about prose. So, to start the ball rolling, we get the irritating repetition of the word “genuinely” – “a genuinely shitty mood”; “genuinely proud”; “genuinely powerless”; “one of the things Daisy did genuinely love about him” – which after a while begins to sound like an excitable teenager trying to convince you that what they have to say is genuinely important. It is a basic lack of faith on Lanchester’s part. He has to hammer these things deep into our brains. At one point he hypes up the footballing Wunderkind Freddy Kamo by telling us that “there would be a day when everyone in the world with the slightest interest in football, amounting to billions of people, would know that name.” There is something so graceless and hand-holding about that “amounting to billions of people,” as if Lanchester doesn’t trust us to be sufficiently aware of the sport’s popularity. Freddy’s solicitor is “fluent in money,” and later on we discover that the Kamal family is “fluent in irritation.” Why not recycle a phrase or two? Who will notice?

The biggest problem with this novel, though, is its terrible sense of futility. Lanchester has already said everything he can say about the financial crisis in I.O.U., which was a lot shorter and denser than Capital. It was a story of greed and failure that found its way to the heart of the City inside the city, with all the complexity intact. The panoramic novel that has followed feels like the husk trailing the seed. On the shelf, Capital looks promising, bold, satisfyingly baggy. After finishing the book it resembles more of a failed project – well-intentioned but risible, empty, Millennium Dome-esque. We would have been foolish to expect the definitive fictional account of 21st century London, but Lanchester, in muffling the talents he has shown elsewhere, has managed to write a novel that is both amateurish and patronizing.

Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last

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The pleasures of reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels can feel strangely illicit. From the Some Hope trilogy of novellas — comprising Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — through 2006’s Mother’s Milk, St Aubyn has used the trials of Patrick Melrose and his family to explore psychological damage and the intangible terrors of childhood trauma. But he is at his most remarkable when dealing with the experience of the senses, the means we use to escape ourselves.

Bad News, the most gripping book of the early trilogy, chronicles a 24-hour drug binge in New York, where Patrick Melrose almost self-destructs against the backdrop of his father’s death. It is a thrilling novella, and yet its thrills feel slightly dubious because we are invited to revel in what amounts to drug pornography — a specialist genre which, from Hunter S. Thompson to William Burroughs, is notable for its talent-crushing ODs. But St Aubyn’s nimble mind allows him to avoid the usual forms of self-indulgence. “The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire,” is surely one of the best one-sentence summations of drug addiction ever written. And no one I have read has managed to make the anticipation of a cocaine injection sound as cosy but also as infinitely depressing as when St Aubyn writes, “His stomach made a rumbling sound and he felt as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old in the back of a darkened cinema stretching his arm around a girl’s shoulder for the first time.”

One of the problems with the Some Hope trilogy is that the great sentences, which are usually similes, stand too tall among the underbrush. Instead of being combed through with greatness, the writing is only great at intervals. I can imagine St Aubyn, like Raymond Chandler, keeping a notebook of devastating descriptions to be deployed when an otherwise bland paragraph is in need of horsepower. This problem was partly overcome in Mother’s Milk, where the prose is not as uneven, and a complexity of feeling shines through. That novel was a departure from the trilogy in many ways, not least in its focus on Patrick’s relationship with his mother instead of his father. It also has some very good passages from the perspective of Robert, one of Patrick’s sons, a supremely intelligent five-year-old who has the preternatural clarity of a less sombre Little Father Time. Unlike the trilogy, Mother’s Milk works as a standalone novel, and it is for this reason, as well as for its depth and range, that it might be remembered as the best Melrose book.

But those who have not read all of the Melrose sequence may feel at a disadvantage when they come to At Last (the books are now also out in a set The Patrick Melrose Novels). The most cathartic novel that St Aubyn has written, it achieves a subtle but satisfying conclusion to the saga, comparable in its best moments to John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Its power relies on the accumulation of details, so when Patrick reminisces about “the gecko that had taken custody of his soul in a moment of crisis”, readers of Never Mind will remember the rape of Patrick at the age of five by his father, and how by seeing the gecko on the window sill the child was able momentarily to see beyond the terror. In a characteristic dualism, it also brings to mind the unforgettable description of his father’s eyes: “They moved from object to object and person to person, pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue.”

At Last begins with Patrick in a much longed-for state: a parentless existence. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.” His mother, Eleanor, is finally dead after a long deterioration, and the novel takes place entirely on the day of her funeral. After a month-long stint at the Priory rehabilitation clinic, the alcoholism that haunted Mother’s Milk is behind him. He is separated from his wife, Mary, though still dependent on her. With his inherited money gone, he is living in a bedsit (though, in a nod to his erstwhile privilege, the bedsit is in Kensington). The only person he can really open up to is his friend Johnny Hall, who is, perhaps appropriately, a child psychologist.

The funeral setting allows for a raft of characters to be in the same place, many of whom Patrick despises: the snobbish friends, the greedy relatives, the over-earnest New Age gurus. Most of them are members of the decaying upper class. Eleanor’s sister, Nancy, lives on the prestige of her illustrious family tree (“One day she was going to write a book about her mother and her aunts, the legendary Jonson sisters”), and Nicholas, a family friend, is the perfect symbol of unrepentant snobbery in the face of a future that has no plans for him or his kind.

Everyone at the funeral is troubled in their own way. Eleanor, like a Mrs. Jellyby recast by Evelyn Waugh, has left a legacy of pain to Patrick and a legacy of bewilderment to everyone else. She spent much of her life desperate to help others through charity, while her own son was being abused by her husband, David, one of the most relentlessly despicable characters in recent English fiction. Eleanor tells Mary of a particularly upsetting incident, when a drunken David circumcised his infant son as Eleanor and others looked on, too scared to do anything. “They knew this was no operation, it was an attack by a furious old man on his son’s genitals; but like the chorus in a play, they could only comment and wail, without being able to stop him.” A scandalised Mary wonders how a mother could let this happen, but concludes that her mother-in-law “could never have protected anyone else when she was so entranced by her own vulnerability, so desperate to be saved.”

These gestures towards forgiveness are scattered throughout the novel and are what give it a sense of simultaneous ending and renewal. Yet St Aubyn can stumble when he tries to push conflicted thoughts onto paper. His simile-laden style has no purchase in the tangle of feelings that Patrick experiences towards the end of the novel. We get a hint of its manic source when Patrick tells Gordon, the moderator of the Priory’s Depression Group, that metaphor is “the whole problem, the solvent of nightmares. At the molten heart of things everything resembles everything else: that’s the horror.”

St Aubyn is clearly aware of the malign effect a stylistic flourish can have, and it is perhaps the struggle with this impulse that can cause confusion for the reader. There are moments when, caught in the cobwebs of Patrick’s mind, we are perhaps supposed to be confused; but then we arrive at a sentence like this: “The absolute banishment of irony from Eleanor’s earnest persona created a black market for the blind sarcasm of her actions.” Some readers may be clever enough to digest this on first reading, but many of us will be scratching our heads on the 10th time round. St Aubyn is also capable of dropping the ball entirely. The following sentence is the literary equivalent of a blooper reel: “Her social secretary would call twice a day to say that she had been delayed but was really on her way now.” The siren repetition of the “ay” sound would be shoddy work if the writer was not considered a superior stylist, but in the context of so much careful prose it feels like a minor tragedy.

Mentioning tragedy in such a trivial context might seem insensitive considering the novel’s autobiographical source. From what can be gathered from interviews, St Aubyn lived through many of the most traumatic episodes of his novels. This autobiographical strand is repeated to the point of numbness in most reviews and features, but it is worth remembering that the Melrose books are presented by the author as fiction. In a lot of cases, joining the dots between life and art is a futile practice, and not very interesting either. It is tempting because it is easy, which is why it is not appropriate for these addictive but complicated novels; and it can also lead to the reader doing the author too many favors, investing emotion when it is not there in the words. Or, more unfairly, it can downplay the real strengths of St Aubyn’s abilities. Once we know we can’t unknow, and many readers will be carrying some extra nonfiction baggage when they read At Last. But even without the autobiographical anchor — or, better, if we were unaware of the autobiographical anchor — the Melrose novels would still be a brilliant if awkward display of St Aubyn’s gifts as a writer.

The Pure Writer’s Heart: Fante, Father, and Son

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Dan Fante began writing novels when he was forty-two years-old. By the time his father, John Fante, was that age he had all but given up on novels and was several years deep into a Hollywood screenwriting career. The elder Fante considered himself a failure, and when he wasn’t writing unused screenplays he was gambling away screenplay money. He had at least one great novel behind him, Ask the Dust – featuring his alter-ego, Arturo Bandini – but it would take several decades for it to make its impact.

The calamities of John Fante’s career are well known and threaten to overtake his fiction as the most important element of his life. This is regrettable, but his story is too fascinating to ignore. So the reason for the delayed impact of Ask the Dust goes like this: on the year of its publication his publisher, Stackpole Sons, had prepared an extensive promotional campaign for the novel’s launch. Unfortunately Stackpole Sons also decided to publish an unauthorised version of Mein Kampf that same year and were promptly sued by Adolf Hitler (Hitler is mentioned by Bandini once in the novel, triggering a melancholy irony in retrospect: “To hell with that Hitler, this is more important than Hitler, this is about my book.”). Most of the money set aside for boosting Fante’s novel went to the court case. Ask the Dust was released but floundered without promotion and Stackpole Sons eventually went bust.

This is typical of the kind of luck that John Fante experienced throughout his writing career. The luck wasn’t always bad, but it was always incredible. At the enviable age of nineteen he gets his first story published by H.L. Mencken, after peppering American literature’s gatekeeper with handwritten letters. But his major achievement, Ask the Dust, sells a couple of thousand copies and goes out of print fast. So then he falls into screenwriting and earns big money for little work. But he also inherits his father’s temper and burns a lot of bridges along the way (Dan Fante notes that his father was capable of using the word “cocksucker” eleven times in a single sentence). Decades after Ask the Dust is published he is rediscovered and, with the help of Charles Bukowski and Ben Pleasants, Fante’s reputation as one of L.A.’s greatest writers is confirmed. But by then he is seriously ill, blind and amputated at both legs due to severe diabetes.

Normally it wouldn’t be expected of the son of a writer to provide the definitive account of such a savage life, but what’s great about Dan Fante’s Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving is that he avoids the usual pitfalls of family biography (he can veer towards sentimentality at times, but it’s earned). The complete lack of self pity and the amazing trials of his own life prevent the book from becoming hagiographic or unnecessary. At no point does it feel like a scene, a chapter, an anecdote didn’t need to be written. The younger Fante’s life has been one in defiance of the predictable artistic trajectory; a life even more eventful than his father’s, even more savage.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy begins with this Author’s Note:
I have led an intense life. For the sake of brevity I have not included every marriage, girlfriend, arrest, job, and beating. Just the more interesting ones.
It quickly becomes apparent that “intense” is too modest a word. The sheer speed and variety of his life seems to break not just the rules of human endurance, but also the laws of physics. Instead of taking a single route, he has lived multiple lives within one span, so that to the outsider his biography seems like an endless overlapping smear of events rather than a causal chain. Previous careers include: carny, private eye, taxi driver, drug dealer, street peddler, chauffeur, actor, writer of radio plays (including Smoke, featuring possibly the first black superhero), door-to-door salesman, matchmaker, music manager, telemarketer, and used-car salesman. He once worked 30 different jobs in a six month period. Alcoholism was a perennial problem, so holding down a job wasn’t always easy, but it’s still remarkable just how successful he could be. At one point he claims to have been one of the highest paid chauffeurs in New York City, driving people like Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bette Davis to restaurants and social events. During his telemarketing peak he was earning more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. It’s difficult to imagine John Fante – or anyone else – being so versatile and adaptive.

It’s also difficult to imagine anyone else surviving the outrageous fortune of Dan Fante’s life. There wasn’t just alcoholism and drug use, but regular suicide attempts, sometimes during intoxicated blackouts. The most hard-boiled paragraph in a book filled with them comes when he describes a particularly nasty shove against death’s door.
When I woke up I found blood covering my bedsheets and a steak knife on the floor. I had stabbed myself in the stomach in a blackout. The gash wasn’t as deep as it was long. After washing the wound I put superglue on it to close it, along with some paper towels and duct tape. My hangover was brutal, and I was afraid that I might vomit and open the cut, so I drank a bottle of Pepto-Bismol mixed with half a pint of whiskey. Then I took some sleep meds and went back to bed. The next day I put three thousand dollars down on a new sports car. A red one. I always bought red whenever possible.
This scene, too good to use just once, was also deployed in his first novel, Chump Change. In fact much of this memoir will be familiar to anyone who has read Dan Fante’s other books. It is almost a reader’s digest of his fiction so far, all the more visceral for being in one place.

But the major point of division between father and son is in the writing. John Fante’s energetic, winding sentences, and his knack for landing both feet on the best possible phrase – “…the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad”, “her hair spilled over the pillow like a bottle of overturned ink” – were not inherited. In Ask the Dust John Fante’s Bandini is unable to seize the moment, trapped by his own inwardness (“you’re too aesthetic for all this”, he tells himself); whereas his son’s writing is a way out of inwardness, an escape from the endless interior chatter.

This partly explains why his prose is so unadorned, so laconic and washed out. But it could also be a product of coming to novels late. There’s a weariness to his phrasing sometimes, as if the decadence in life is enough, without it manifesting as lyricism or self-analysis on the page. In the hands of a more flamboyant stylist the memoir could easily be stretched to a few volumes. There are tantalizing glimpses of dynamic situations that feel like 20-page set-pieces just waiting to bloom. We briefly hear of Katya Kokoff, an ex-girlfriend: “Like me she had radical mood swings, and our time together finally ended after a blowup one night and the arrival of the Santa Monica SWAT Team.”

The bullet-swift prose serves perfectly well for the majority of the memoir, but it isn’t suitable for catching the inwardness of his father – the Bandini within. So we see the bold and violent Fante, but not the solipsistic romantic, the sex-fearing lover, the God-fearing sinner. In the Bandini novels, the protagonist’s anger comes from a complicated and vulnerable place – there’s nothing of the brute about him. But in Fante: A Family’s Legacy John Fante plays the bully; refusing to show up for school events, threatening anyone who crossed him. His son once heard him say to another man at a party: “If I wanted to, I could destroy your life in twenty words or less.” There’s a photograph of him posing with a vicious looking pet dog and both pairs of eyes are eerily alike.

Dan Fante says he himself is not a “profound guy”, and throughout he seems to distrust his own interior being, which is more likely to kill him than reveal itself. At his bleakest he considered his mind as “something separate from me, a sort of newsroom delivering endless, poisonous indictments.” This being the case, he would be loath to intrude on the inner life of his father.

Because he doesn’t probe too deeply, their relationship doesn’t appear complicated. So the toggle switch of emotion tends to have two settings: when there isn’t slight reproach for his father’s wasted talent there is genuine admiration. Dan Fante is clear about just how important he thinks his father’s fiction is, and how much he fulfills the ideal of the writer: “Most of his novels were written for nothing. Not fame. Not recognition. He wrote because a writer was what he was.” In fact he seems to care more about his father’s posterity than his own. In Chump Change, Bruno Dante finds a copy of his father’s novel in a second hand bookstore. The book is called Ask the Wind (Dan isn’t interested in concealing real life – at another point in the novel Dante stops reading a bestseller by someone called “Stanley King” in disgust). Broke and unable to afford the book, he asks an employee at the store to read it, claiming it’s better than Hemingway. It’s Ask the Wind that compels Dante to turn back to his own talent, and at the end of Chump Change he writes a poem about L.A. The result is raw, dry, and almost pathologically afraid of pretension. When Bandini writes a poem in Ask the Dust it’s plagiarized from Ernest Dowson with the express intention of wooing his love, Camilla.

At the beginning John Fante wasn’t there: “The night I was born my father was boozing at a club in Hollywood. The next day he played golf. It took forty-eight hours before he finally made an appearance at the hospital.” It was down to his wife, Joyce – more than a match for her husband, she taught herself German in her spare time, practiced Tarot readings, and read four books a week – to set the rules and raise the children. But at the end of John Fante’s life, as he lay blind and exhausted, his son was there to see him up until the last moment. Dan Fante often claims to be entirely different to his father, a “ne’er-do-well, a whackjob”, compared to the driven artist-patriarch. And yet the way both men climbed clear of their wrong beginnings is an important and noble similarity, and not to be neglected.
We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart. He had begun life with a drunken, self-hating father, backing out of the hell of poverty and prejudice. Now he was ending it as the best example of courage and humility I had ever known. John Fante was my hero.

A Year with Peter Porter

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When I read Peter Porter’s last published poem, “After Schiller”, in a copy of Ambit magazine, I was already half in love with his poetry. I had been reading him avidly up until then, but I felt always on the cusp of true love, unable to make a commitment, awaiting the depth-charge jolt of lines like this, from the poem’s penultimate stanza:

With looking upwards hardly in my power
And being forced to seek the stars on earth,
In this exacting planisphere I cower:
I have not moved one footstep from my birth.

As final poems go, it’s a remarkably controlled and unflinching performance. It may not seem immediately soothing, depicting as it does an almost Beckettian ennui, but the tight-locked power of the rhymes worked a hypnotic magic, and led me to spend another few months reading Porter’s poetry almost non-stop. I had previously been reading him with desperation, as if something was at stake, and somehow “After Schiller” paid off.

Peter Porter died one year ago tomorrow, on April 23, 2010. Around that date, by chance, I began to listen to his dialogues with Clive James, recorded from 2000 to 2004 for Australia’s ABC Radio. I knew who Clive James was, but the poet Peter Porter was only a peripheral figure to me then. The discussions ranged from Chaucer to Auden; from sex to politics; from surviving as a hack journalist to not really surviving at all as a working poet. It was a revelation to me. There are 36 episodes altogether, and I ingested the lot at full pelt in a few days, before devouring them all over again with redoubled hunger. After two listens I knew the dialogues well enough to pick out favorites, which I listened to out of sequence and at my leisure, over and over again. Reports indicate that my accent began to develop an Australian twang.

Despite my fascination with these dialogues, I wasn’t immediately attracted to Peter Porter. At first he seemed intelligent but supercilious, unsure of himself but lofty, and his wit didn’t have the precision of Clive James’ aphorisms. But slowly this began to change. Porter’s personality emerged and I detected a self-deprecation and a humility that few poets seem to have, or at least seem to display in public. He had a united vision of the arts, switching in his conversation between literature, music and painting on a whim, but talking about each discipline with equal authority and interest. And then I read his poetry.

Diving into a writer’s oeuvre, so to speak, is a lot easier than it used to be. Many of Porter’s books were a click away, and in one of those weird synchronicities which seem to strike as enthusiasm reaches its highest point, I began to see Porter’s poetry collections everywhere. Once Bitten Twice Bitten, Millennial Fables, The Automatic Oracle, Better Than God– the titles alone sparkled with promise. I felt the first pangs of excitement mingled with guilt as I realized all the books were out there, a completed corpus, freshly minted by the death of one of the very greatest post-war poets. I did my best to ravish each and every poem I found, but soon enough it became clear that I was in fact drowning myself in a way that doesn’t suit the reading and digestion of verse.

Even in my overwhelmed state, however, I felt individual lines digging their way into my memory and softly nosing out all the dross. If listening to the ABC broadcasts made me speak with an Australian accent, then reading Porter’s poetry made me think with an Australian accent; or, more accurately, an Australian accent that had been percolated through the filters of London literary life for a few decades.

Porter was born in Brisbane in 1929, but moved to England in 1951, and, apart from a brief interlude back in Australia in the mid-‘50s, stayed there for the rest of his life. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. His relationship with England was ambivalent but symbiotic: “You cannot leave England, it turns / A planet majestically in the mind” he writes in “The Last of England”.  In “Fifty Years On”, from the late collection Afterburner, Porter writes:

Hell is a city just

like London, but I knew I had to find
a working Hell, I’d lived too long in books.
The thing I didn’t know was that I sought
a London which was in me from the start.

Porter’s voice is often one of an urban sage, helplessly part of his surroundings but with a mind full of exotica. In his earlier poems the voice is already there, but the young Porter was far from immune to the temptations of city life. In fact the best thing about the poems in his early collections (the first collection Once Bitten Twice Bitten perhaps more than any other), is the acceptance of the need for the more common (or uncommon, as the case may be) pleasures: namely attractive women and material possessions. One gets the feeling when reading a poem like “John Marston Advises Anger” (“All the boys are howling to take the girls to bed” rings the opening line) that the poet would very much like to be in his ivory tower. But how can he be when the scenery down below is so appealing? The “flesh-packed jeans” won’t be found at the central library. Or is it the other way round: the life of the intellectual walking among the dirty streets – walking, never riding – and the inheritors of money and beauty zipping around in their MGs towards a much more appealing ivory tower called Haslemere? “It’s a Conde Nast world and so Marston’s was.” Retreating to the Elizabethan age is futile; the sporadic sheen of privilege was there too.

And it was also there in Porter’s adolescence, as portrayed in “Eat Early Earthapples”, a remarkable poem about the scarring effect of being a child on the sidelines, swelled with a concoction of self-loathing and haughty indignation. The studs of school may be “thick men now with kids and problems”, but the resentment remains:

The boy with something wrong reading a book
While the smut-skeined train goes homeward
Carrying the practised to the sensual city.

It’s almost impossible for a young and daunted male to resist poetry this exciting. Book-learned wisdom and painful longing are combined in a viscerally honest way; it’s as if T.S. Eliot added a paean to tight jeans in “The Waste Land”. Bathetic but glorious, and very much in line with one of Porter’s poetic heroes, Alexander Pope, the 18th century master of shifting tone.

But it’s the mid-career poems that hit the hardest. I came back to them once I’d read and re-read “After Schiller”, and was struck by how deftly Porter deals with complicated feelings of loss, especially in his collection The Cost of Seriousness. Background detail is unavoidable: Porter’s first wife committed suicide in the mid-1970s, and many of his poems around this time deal with this tragedy, both explicitly and implicitly. They have been compared to Thomas Hardy’s famous “Emma” poems, and that isn’t hyperbole. “An Exequy” is a formal masterpiece, written in delicate tetramic couplets:

And, oh my love, I wish you were
Once more with me, at night somewhere
In narrow streets applauding wines,
The moon above the Apennines
As large as logic and the stars,
Most middle-aged of avatars,
As bright as when they shone for truth
Upon untried and avid youth.

The style is intentionally baroque. A poet of a more thoroughly modern sensibility would balk at “applauding wines” or “untried and avid youth”, but it would just mean they didn’t understand the artifice of verse. Throughout his poetry, Porter is aware of the weight of the past, all the previous poets and artists who have trodden the same heartbroken byways. To attempt a separation from this, even in the darkest moments, would be to falter in the face of poetic responsibility. In “An Exequy” Porter is implicitly stating that his grief is part of a tradition – a difficult thing to admit – and the imitation of Bishop Henry King’s own “The Exequy” (1657) is a characteristic reference point. His is not a special kind of grief, but it is no less all-consuming.

Many poets have used the subject of personal loss as a springboard for their most intensely felt verse, but as far as I am aware no one else has so fully realised the implications of such a decision. Brute personal experience is supposed to be fair game for writers and artists – more so now than ever – but just how fair is it? Porter realises he is “using” his wife’s death to create works of art. “The Delegate” is a poem haunted by this guilt, which is both denied and re-affirmed. “In the end, we are condemned / only for our lack of talent” – this, the poet tries to convince himself, is the only rule.

                           There is no morality,
no metered selfishness, or cowardly fear.
What we do on earth is its own parade
and cannot be redeemed in death. The pity
of it, that we are misled.

The artist, in his turn, “is being used despite himself”, his life transformed into words “which anyone may use”.

This is also an issue we have to grapple with as readers. Arriving late to Porter’s poetry – mere days after his death – fills me not just with regret (I could have seen him in person at one of his many readings, or read the poems as they were published, if I’d have been a few years earlier), but guilt. The guilt comes from a sense that my access to his poetry has been in some way assisted by his death. The career arc is set out, from “John Marston Advises Anger” to “After Schiller”. When a writer is alive his work is in progress and we as readers feel we have time to get to know them; the body of work is incomplete and not quite fathomable. The roundness of a writer’s complete output appeals to us, even when it is cut short, and it could be said that we desire for writers what we fear for our friends and loved ones. If someone close to us dies the span of their life from beginning to end is upsetting. The openness of our future is where hope lies, and death reduces a life down to a succession of events which probably won’t resolve into any coherent idea of progress or epiphany – life becomes “its own parade”. We think, Is that all a life is? Whereas with writers who have lived long lives we can measure the shelf space that their collected works take up and think, Look what a life can be!

More than anyone else Porter knew about the timeless salvation of art, the fine gauze of perfection which both intensifies and shields us from our existence. Unless we are very lucky – or perhaps unlucky – we can never know our favorite writers. Personal connection with them is an illusion. The guilt is there, but we “use” writers in the same way writers “use” everything else. Death may have spurred my own addiction to his poetry, but Porter wrote with a view for posterity, and he knew all the great artists were dead anyway.

And yet I can’t shake the feeling that I arrived late to the party, but still drank all the best punch. Porter’s own “Fossil Gathering”, from Preaching to the Converted, organises this idea better than I can: I am one of the children who with a paperback can “break an Ancient with impatient ease”:

A Little Guide in Colour tells us how
These creatures sank in their unconscious time,
That life in going leaves a husk the plough
Or amateur collector can displace,
That every feeling thing ascends from slime
To selfhood and in dying finds a face.

Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature

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When Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now?

Decoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just “enormous language dorks.”

So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging.

One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.”  Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all.

Adam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.”  I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff.” As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through.

This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”.

But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop.

It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.

Getting Serious: Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?

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We don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.

Josipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues, Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.

Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.

One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.

Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”

To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.

A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.

And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.