Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: No. 1

I’ve been a follower of George Szirtes’ blog for quite a while. I like his politics, his sense of humour, his take on history, but most of all his poetry, which has affinities with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose collection, ‘A Part of Speech’, I’ve been re-reading alongside George Szirtes new collection ‘The Burning of the Books and other poems’.
These poems satisfy a thirst, not just for images or words that fit exactly in the mouth or in the mind, but for ideas - flexing the muscles of the intellect. This is poetry that is ‘more than autobiography’ or observation; poetry as dialogue, part of an ongoing debate between the writer and himself, the reader and the cosmos.

Beginning to read a book is rather like embarking on a voyage - with all the anticipation and anxiety of travel, and the expectation of an altered perspective when you arrive at your destination. In a poem called ‘Seeking North’ [from a sequence called ‘Northern Air - a Hungarian Nova Zembla’] the first stanza records the excitement of setting out on such a journey.
‘To set out with no compass but your nose
for the land of certainty and cool judgement
past moral latitudes, on the back of the wind,
with a plentiful supply of warm clothes
and every spiritual accoutrement
is the dream of the voyager whose mind

seeks resolutions.’

There are few resolutions in George Szirtes’ poetry, but many questions, and many journeys of exploration. Even the validity of language as a medium of communication is challenged in a number of poems. The narrator of ‘The Translators’ makes this observation:

‘Look hard into the eyes
of language and you see nothing. Only rhyme

and punctuation.’

George Szirtes is himself a translator of both prose and poetry from Hungarian to English. He knows the treacheries of language well. Part 2 of the title sequence ‘The Burning of the Books’, a poem called ‘In tall angular letters’, begins:

‘Where books are gathered there gathers also the dust
That sieves through the pores of the skin and the head,
The absolute dust of the language that falls apart
In your hands, that settles in your palm
Like a promise. Ideas are dust. Words dust.’

At first glance it seems a bleak viewpoint for a poet, but George explains more fully in an article in ‘Poetry' magazine entitled ‘Formal Wear’. ‘I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.’

‘.....................Meaning vanishes
into night, into the vacant parishes
of the imagination, into a non-presence
that is positively terrifying.’
[The Translators]

That is the challenge that every writer has to face - wrestling with the inadequacies of language to express what we mean. As George said in his 2005 T.S. Eliot lecture,‘We realise the terrible truth about words: their arbitrariness, their hopelessness, their hollowness and lack of substance. Language, it seems, is no more than a thin layer of convention stretched over dark inchoate matter of which we know nothing except fear and desire’. But George regards poetry as ‘a healing act’ that can ‘bridge the gap between language and what happens.’

For me, as a reader, the poetry is in that space between signifier and signifed. The darkness where the magic and the mystery lie, where memory and imagination are called into play - not just the poet’s, but the reader’s own. The ‘reading’ of the poem is in that space - beyond language.

George Szirtes attributes his own preoccupation with this linguistic chasm to the way that he was abruptly ‘transplanted’ as a child. He was born in Hungary at a particularly troubled point in its history. The Hungarian uprising - a move for independence from Soviet control - was brutally suppressed by the Russians in 1956. George’s parents were among those who chose to leave before the Russian army arrived - abandoning all their possessions and walking across the border to Austria with their young children and two suitcases. They had originally intended to go to Australia, but got as far as England, where they settled. Once in England, George’s parents decided that only English should be spoken at home in order to ensure their complete assimilation.

What this meant, George touches on in his T.S. Eliot lecture. He learned the English words for ‘tea’ and ‘bread’, but they were not the same tea and bread that he had previously known. The lesson for the child was that the meaning of the word ‘bread’, is different in every culture, and it is ‘not just that you will get different kinds of bread in Germany and France but that these breads come with a complex baggage of history, culture and association’. From then on, Hungarian was a lost language, only re-discovered as an adult, along with the cultural identity it represented. Since then, George admits in an interview with a Romanian journalist, he ‘cannot write the songs of the tribe. I feel excluded from it.’ If he has a cultural identity it is wider than any single nationality. ‘I am, I think, above all, a European.’
George went to art college in Leeds and trained as a painter - a discipline that has influenced not only his approach to structure in poetry (more of this in the next post) but the way in which he observes and communicates the visual world. In a poem called ‘Lead White’, he inhabits the voice of Van Gogh:

‘Once I loved the poetry of words
but now it is the poetry of the intractable
that moves me: the hovering of birds
above a field, the windmill’s terrible
sails droning in the gale, the taste of white lead,
the narrowness of a room with its single bed,
the quarrel with a close friend,
the fury of the provincial alley
late at night, the mind’s dead end.’

But in those narrow, closed spaces, there is an epiphany where language blazes ‘with the fury of the sun’ towards the miraculous revelation - what Seamus Heaney called "that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens".

‘........................Mind grows chambers like
the heart and, all clumsiness
forgotten, learns to lilt, dance and strike
light into the world, to bless
the places where god sits: the emptiness.’

[to be continued]
Prose quotations from ‘Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern’, George Szirtes,
From ‘Poetry’ magazine, Volume 187, Number 5, February 2006
Copyright © The Poetry Foundation
And George Szirtes' TS Eliot Lecture 2005, courtesty of the Poetry Library
Book cover by Clarissa Upchurch
Author photograph - Caroline Forbes

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Anne Zouroudi: The Messenger of Athens

Oh, what joy to find a new crime writer! I love all kinds of puzzles and crime fiction is one of my addictions, but I also like them well-written. So many of them are plot driven - with clever twists and turns, lots of surprises and relentless narrative hooks, but with little thought for depth of characterisation or realistic motivation. Exceptions to this include P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Kate Atkinson, and Bernard Self - and I love all their books.
So it’s fantastic to discover another in Anne Zouroudi. I saw her books advertised by posters on the London Underground - (an expensive form of promotion but it obviously works). I was intrigued by the titles - I’m fascinated by everything Greek (the influence of an old-fashioned classics based education I suspect) - so I decided to give her books a try, beginning with the very first - The Messenger of Athens, published in 2007.
The book is well-structured - the investigation of the crime is parallelled by the back-story told in multiple points of view by the characters, including the victim - complicated and difficult for an author to bring off - but it does give the reader a complete understanding of the motives and the tragic conspiracy of circumstances that lead to the death.
Hermes Diaktoros, the investigator, is a fat man in an expensive suit and white tennis shoes, who speaks Greek with an impeccably pure accent and never gives away why he’s been sent to the island of Thiminos, or who has sent him. He arrives on the ferry and walks unannounced into the police station. ‘He stood at the centre of the room and placed his holdall carefully at his feet, as if it might contain something fragile. The three policemen watched , silent and unwelcoming as if he had intruded at a crucial moment on some private conversation.’ ‘I have been sent from Athens,’ he announces enigmatically, ‘to help you in your investigations into the death of Irini Asimakopoulos.’ His assistance is not required and the corruption of the local police force is clear from the beginning. Irini’s file is closed and no one wants it opened again. But no one is going to prevent Hermes from fulfilling his mission.
Anne Zouroudi gives us a vivid picture of a small Greek Island with an inward facing group of inhabitants who have inter-married incestuously generation after generation, passing on the old systems of honour, codes of relationship, that once ensured survival in a brutal world dominated by the four elements - fire, air, water and earth. One of the younger characters - Theo - meditates on the frustrations of life on the island and the sense of inevitability, of an inescapable fate.
To know the place of his grave from early childhood has an effect on a man. To place flowers on the ground where he himself will one day lie makes him fatalistic, pessimistic. Ambition and ideas for life atrophy - after all, what is the point? Life’s point, on this island, was always clearly visible, up there on the hillside. Eyes raised from chores or play took in the high, white cemetery walls, where for every one of them the family tomb was waiting for their corpse. All knew exactly where life was leading them; all the eating, drinking, fornicating, worrying, working, wishing it were different, wishing there were more, were only steps on that narrow road. They were all travelling together, towards the cemetery gates.’
In this enclosed community, someone from another part of Greece is a stranger, not to be trusted. Gossip becomes truth, moral cowardice can mean someone’s death. The victim, Irini, dies because she does not belong and refuses to conform to the rigid ‘norms’ of the society around her, which has a vast contempt for the modern world, only a ferry ride away. Irini’s life, her hunger for a different fate, is so real, you can hear the sea from her window, and smell the coffee she boils on the stove for her husband.
Hermes Diaktoros, the messenger, unravels the lines of motivation with super-natural intuition, drawing a distinction between who actually killed Irini and who is morally responsible.
This is an enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ve already ordered her other books - the Taint of Midas and the Doctor of Thessaly. And I gather there’s a new one due out in hardback next year which will definitely have to go on my birthday list!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

On Not Enjoying Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood

This was appropriate reading for the plane journey back from Cambodia - although I hadn’t planned it like that. The book was just one of the ‘must reads’ I’d taken along with me to fill the TV free evenings, along with a selection of light entertainment I’d picked up in the airport bookshop. I’d released most of them into the wild during my time in Cambodia and Margaret Atwood’s latest, much hyped novel, was the only one left in the bag. But on the way back to civilisation, after experiencing what it was like to live in a more primitive society, existing much as our tribal ancestors must have done, I felt in the mood for a dystopian excursion into a technology-free future. I’ve got a feeling that we’re all, in the end, going to have to leave the Garden of Eden after turning it into a waste land, so perhaps we should start considering our options now?
The novel opens in the aftermath of the ‘waterless flood’ - a plague virus that has wiped out most of humankind, leaving only a few isolated individuals and genetically engineered animals - some of them with human genes. There are blue people, who have had aggression and jealousy removed from their psychology, purple mohair sheep, completely unfitted for life in the wild, and pigs bred for human transplant tissue. The Gardeners - a harmless, rather barmy religious cult - in their strange clothes could well have emerged from the grounds of Hogwarts.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel, more a companion piece to Oryx and Crake, which I read when it came out. It disappointed me, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Now I feel the same about The Year of the Flood and because Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s major novelists, I need to discover why and give her novel some serious thought.
I never felt settled in the narrative - never knew whether I was supposed to laugh or cry, and it didn’t engage any of my emotional centres enough for either. It never appalled me, gripped me, or made me catch my breath with pleasure as previous Atwood novels have done, (Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye etc). I read it, enjoyed it, and then put it down, still feeling uneasy.
This is in part because I never knew whether the novel was supposed to be an exercise in black humour or a socio-economic parable. It could have been both, but never felt unified enough. Much of my unease is to do with the credibility factor - Margaret Atwood didn’t make me believe in any of it. The multiple narrators meant that I didn’t engage with one character for long enough to care about them. One or two stood out for me - the feisty, gritty Amanda for instance - but the other women seemed rather interchangeable. Adam One was a good depiction of a well-meaning but ineffectual man, but few of the other men came alive for me at all. The thugs, who should have been terrifying, didn’t have any real menace. All the violence happens off-stage, as if the author is saying, ‘It’s ok guys, don’t worry, I’m not going to frighten the children.’ This is definitely PG not a genuine 18 certificate.
The only time the book became real for me, was when one of the female characters contemplated shooting her friend in order to survive. This lack of real horror still bothers me. I felt I needed the author to dig deeper, go darker, in order to offset the strange humour of the rest.
I loved the pompous sermons given by Adam One to the Gardeners, but the Gardeners’ hymns bored me rigid. One or two might have been ok to illustrate the blandness and ineffectuality of the Gardeners’ beliefs in the face of annihilation, but it was possible to skip the rest, without losing anything of the narrative. They weren’t even good poetry - and Atwood is a good poet. Apparently they’ve been set to music, so maybe I’m alone in wishing they’d been left out.
The names were a problem for me too. Names are important in a novel - they help you to believe. But here they never seemed to take themselves seriously. They were spoof names, rather than something a society, however dysfunctional, might develop. Scales and Tails wasn’t bad for the brothel, but somehow none of the others had roots. I didn’t believe in the luxury health spa called Anooyoo, couldn’t quite get my jaws round illicit food at Secret Burgers any more than I could relate to the Pleebrats. The CorpSeCorp - the elite of this future society - seemed only a rather macabre joke, like the eco-toilets called Violet-Biolets.

So there I have to leave it and admit failure. This isn’t the Handmaid’s Tale, and I prefer Cormac McCarthy’s future catastrophe to Margaret Atwood’s - mainly because he makes me believe it could happen and that if it did, it would be just like that.