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Monthly Archives: July 2011

I started reading this book whilst on shift at a gallery (we’re allowed to read – I wasn’t ‘sticking it to the man’ in any way).

My shift partner, who also had a book, looked over at mine as I looked over at hers, and we had a conversation about Irving that went something like this:

HER: Are you enjoying it?

ME: I just started it, not sure yet.

HER: I’ve actually read all of his stuff; went through a bit of a phase. After I finished them I decided I really didn’t like him as a writer. Now they prop up my table legs because I hate them so much.

ME: Oh. Yeah, I’ve read Garp and Owen Meany, and I guess I preferred Garp to Owen, and this one isn’t shaping up so well…

So, in short, my confidence was rocked even before I’d got past the first few chapters. It is true though, I wasn’t enjoying it as much as the others I had read. The World According To Garp is up there with my favourite books, whereas Setting Free The Bears seemed to be shaping up like a juvenile romp for boys. I was confused.

My confusion didn’t abate through the whole experience of reading this novel. It’s so much less refined, so much less interesting than Garp. The characters are less developed and as a result the whole thing is less compelling. The central female character is so two-dimensional and fleshless as to be almost transparent. The central epistolary section/framed narrative is interesting for its odd, fragmented, tunnel-vision historicism, which is very typical of Irving, but even this feels somehow inauthentic as his resolutely American voice intrudes upon the European content. It just doesn’t convince. 

What else is there to say? I feel deflated and disappointed. I’m not going to let it put me off other Irving novels, but I think I’m going to give it a bit of time before I try The Cider House Rules or The Fourth Hand, which are two others I’ve got lined up.

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The Rings of SaturnSebald is someone I studied at University, on a course called ‘History, Time and Memory’ which focused on modern and post-modern writers and thinkers. On this course I studied and wrote about another of Sebald’s famous books, Austerlitz. Much of the research I did about Austerlitz was related to identity and trauma, particularly in reference to the personal and historical trauma of the Holocaust. I remember there was also a lot of talk about history, modernity and the presence of the past. Having now read two of his books, most recently The Rings of Saturn, I can see that these themes are not confined to one work, but are deeply entrenched in Sebald’s writing more generally. Which is far more interesting, and makes sense when you consider Sebald’s reputation.

There was much made of the fact that Sebald is generally considered not to be a writer of novels in the traditional sense – that he has created his own genre that sits somewhere between history, fiction and autobiography.

Sebald, as a writer and individual and narrative voice seems very keen on archiving, in both The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. He’s a writer weaving together a series of disparate stories and historical events into one semi-coherent narrative, which leaves the reader with an odd sense of having been duped; you’re being led down the garden path a bit in The Rings of Saturn, and it’s a fascinating journey.

The key, I suppose, is active reading – this is defiantly not a piece of writing you can sit back and take at face value, because of the way it makes you constantly question what exactly you are reading. Is it true? What is true? How much of this is borrowed or stolen, how much of it actually happened? There was an uncanny section, just before we start to hear about the life of young Joseph Conrad, where the narrative fell exactly into step with a passage from Conrad’s most famous novel Heart of Darkness. There was a feeling as though I’d missed a step on the stairs – a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar text, a familiar word pattern, a familiar progression occurring in a different place. This one instance made me sit up and realise how much more there is to The Rings of Saturn than meets the eye. It’s almost Joycean in the way that it presumes a certain amount of knowledge of the canon in order to make it coherent for the reader. Serious stuff.

‘Haunting’ is a word often associated with Sebald, and one that seems even more apt in this text than for Austerlitz. Perhaps because this book deals with a lot of European and coastal history, it is deeply evocative of time passing and standing still as it does in seaside places more starkly than others. The ghosts of war, the erosion of the land, the changing face of buildings still standing. Sebald’s walking tour in many voices, identities and mediums (Sebald’s work often includes photographs) is a surprising an absorbing read that requires a bit of space. For long train journeys.

I’m certain this is a book that would bear endless re-reading. I look forward to picking it up ten years from now and shedding different and more focussed light on it. For now, at least, I’ve got a feel for it.

my exhibition guideTracey, you made my day – no, you made my week. I’ve been meaning to see this exhibition ever since it opened, but with one thing and another haven’t got around to it. The price of admission when you’re neither a concession nor a student is high enough to put me off on days I could take or leave it. But yesterday I bit the bullet and spent £12 on a ticket to see Love Is What You Want. It was worth every penny, including the £3.50 I spent on postcards (I can never resist the postcards).

Emin’s quilts and blankets are probably the first thing that I think of when I think of her – the appalling spelling, the textures and patterns and overlays; the blinding frankness.  ‘planet thanet’ made me chuckle. ‘I want an international lover who loves me more than the world’ hung on the uppermost level – shouts over the heads of all the others, and tugs you forwards into the exhibition; full of passion and longing and sweet simple naive ambition.

I didn’t spend much time over the neons. ‘people like you need to fuck people like me’ ‘love is what you want’ – they serve a purpose, and the arcade/sex shop vibe is apparent, but they don’t do much for me. The films in the next few rooms, however, are a revelation. I sat through Why I never became a dancer twice because I just couldn’t get enough of the triumphant joy on her face at the end – that’s what surviving and succeeding looks like, right there. Riding for a fall has a similar moment in it – a little smile right at the end.

I could go on at length about each step of the way round the exhibition – the intimate family mementos, the comic value in so much of her work, the horrific account of a botched abortion, trauma, tales of being knocked down and growing tall again, the wonderful self-portrait in the Vivienne Westwood dress of money pouring from between her legs… but all this is self-evident, and expected, in a way. I would have been disappointed not to see used tampons and scrawled mis-spelled deeply personal letters – it’s part and parcel of what makes Emin the artist she is; getting all up in the masculine establishment’s face with her crochet knits and her crotch.

I’d like to talk instead about the top floor of the exhibition. This floor is less visually confrontational than the lower floor’s work. There is limited use of film, still less neon, and no sound. There is also less colour here – much of this work is monochromatic – white on shades of white or grey or blue. There is one self-portrait on this floor entitled ‘Sometimes I feel beautiful’, which is just that – beautiful. There is also some of the exhibition’s most graphic gynaecological work, which I find to be the most powerful element of her work so far – perhaps excluding the autobiographical films. There is a lot of embroidery on old bedsheets, and one which sticks in my mind depicts a  woman’s crotch and bears the legend ‘Harder and better than all those bastards’, which just made me smile.

I’m not sure that I prefer these to the more colourful, more complex, more scrappy and exuberant works downstairs; but there is a coming of age feeling about them – a maturity. This isn’t necessarily a good thing – perhaps the earlier work is better art – but I found these paler, more pared-down sketches and bedsheets and vulvas very compelling; they seem to get to the bare bones of what Emin has been saying all these years.

Often simplistic, yes. Emotive, yes. Crude, certainly. Like her or loather her, Tracey Emin is important. If you’re the slightest bit curious, you should go and see this show before it closes.

Nathan ColeyThe Kent coast has apparently become the centre of the British art world. And why not? It’s only a matter of time before everyone and everything is priced out of London – let art and artists lead the way.

After all, Ms Tracey Emin, premier female British artist du jour – currently enjoying a long-awaited and fabulous retrospective at the Hayward Gallery – grew up in Kent’s own Margate. But it’s not Margate or Emin I want to talk about – it’s Folkestone.

Despite having lived on the Kent coast for just over a year before re-locating back to London, I never visited Folkestone. It’s a strange truth about small towns that people rarely leave them, even to visit neighbouring towns. It’s stranger still that the distances and/or journey times involved often equate to what most city-dwellers would consider a short and easy commute. But this is all besides the point. Folkestone is currently holding it’s Triennial; ‘the flagship project of the Creative Foundation, a charity based in Folkestone, which is leading the large-scale renewal of the old town area, known as the Creative Quarter’. It’s basically a two-month long celebration of the arts, held in and around Folkestone’s public spaces and galleries, and it’s spectacularly good fun.

I suppose it didn’t hurt that the day we went was a sunny Saturday, and the kids from local schools were out in a carnival parade, and it was just the right temperature for eating fish and chips outside, and the light was so clear that every photo we took, and all the people we spoke to glowed with that unique seaside glow. But I’d encourage everyone to go, even if it’s raining.

The sheer scale of the thing is impressive in itself; there are permanent installations by some big names (Nathan Coley, Tracey Emin and Mark Wallinger to name a few) and temporary exhibitions by a fantastic array of well-knowns, home-growns and newcomers. Particularly notable among these, I think, are Paloma Varga Weisz and her Rug People, Cornelia Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid and Strange Cargo’s brilliant and touching Everywhere Means Something To Someone.

Rug People‘s location on the derelict Folkestone Harbour train station is remarkable and atmospheric in itself. We spent a good half hour wandering up and down the platform gaping at the rust and the plants; the place looks as though humans have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least Folkestone) and it’s been untouched and unseen for decades.

The whole effect is of a town coming out of its shell and shouting loudly that it wants to be there. Like Margate with it’s new Turner Contemporary, Folkestone seems to be pinning it’s hopes on art, artists and art-lovers to drag it from obscurity and ruin. Unlike Margate, it seems that Folkestone is a lot further down the line to making this actually work. It’s really very heartening, and I left feeling uplifted and hopeful (and a bit giddy from all the fresh air and sunshine).