the m john harrison blog

new & better amphibians

The above phrase leaked into my Twitter feed the other day, I can’t remember from whom or in what circumstances. One of the things about language is that–unless you’re writing about evolution, say, where it might be a useful & charming hyperbole–there can be no meaning to a phrase like that. It’s a grammatically possible but essentially empty group of words: except of course in fantasy & sf, in which the literalisation/reification of empty groups of words is often the major goal, something I always find sad. I’m excited by the sense of a potential for meaning in those circumstances, but not by the closing-off of the possibility by turning a figure of speech into a substitute real.


August Blue

There’s a Trilbyesque tension between piano virtuoso Elsa and her mentor Arthur, who has been controlling from the moment he adopted her, especially around her early attempts to compose music rather than simply interpret the compositions of others. “It was as if he knew I could hear something that he did not understand,” Elsa tells us, “and resented it. As my fingers found the keys, I discovered that I had a point of view. All I had to do to tear it open was listen.” But Arthur doesn’t want that. He wants her to be another instrument, his instrument just as the piano will be hers. He wants her to be a pair of hands insured for a million dollars. Like all mentors he needs to create a legend: Elsa will be his. Given this, we can see she might want to dye her hair blue, fuck up Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto in Vienna, walk offstage and roam the world at will looking for herself.

My Guardian review of August Blue, Deborah Levy’s brilliant ninth novel.

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me, and be eaten alive” Audrey Lorde

it’s an emergency

I always think of meaning as emerging from the relations of all the elements in a fiction, not just from a formal structure, based on a line of rational, recognisable causalities that leads to a single site of narrative resolution and closure. Meaning is never just carried by plot. This wiki entry is always helpful in thinking of how many possible layers & elements there might be in a fiction, and how complexly the relations & resonances between them might point the reader towards something so organically bedded that it can’t even be called a “direction” but has to be seen as an almost static field–present, perhaps, from the moment the reader reads the first line. Once you recognise that even the most Hollywood formalist product works like this, as well as in its own conventional terms, why wouldn’t you set about removing the conventional terms? If only to see what happened?

…wilful romantics don’t see a problem with that. They know what’s wrong with what they like, and they know it’s culturally unsupported in the same way as an old version of a browser is unsupported. But they go on liking it—or at least engaging with it—anyway, waiting unexpectantly to find themselves in their real lives—or unexpectantly trying to outlive the wrong lives—all of their lives. They’re often surrounded by a detritus of their own acts of abjection, symbolised in collections of rediscovered personal possessions from which they feel alienated. They often remark on these objects.

dad joke

I like reading–

Virginia Woolf, Peter Fleming, Alain Robbe Grillet, Dorothy Richardson, Arthur Machen, Christopher Isherwood, (early) Robert Ford, Robert Stone, Alfred Bester, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jenni Fagan, Jon Day, Brian Dillon, Katherine Mansfield, Chekhov, Will Eaves, Rosamund Lehmann, Alan Ginsberg, Eric Ambler, TS Eliot, TE Lawrence (The Mint), HG Wells, Helen Macdonald, Denis Johnson, Robert Aickman, Austin Wright, (early) JG Ballard, St John Perse (Anabasis, tr Eliot), Maria Stepanova (In Memory of Memory, tr Sasha Dugdale), Lara Pawson, Thomas Pynchon, both Nicholas Royles, Robert Macfarlane, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Gareth E Rees, Borges, Charles Williams, Eve Babitz, Joan Didion, Anthony Powell, AE van Vogt, John Steinbeck (Cannery Row & Sweet Thursday), Paul Bowles, Patrick Modiano, Dodie Smith, Fernanda Melchor, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth & Her German Garden, Lawrence Durrell, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elmore Leonard, Barbara Comyns, Wolfgang Herrndorf, Marc Behm, Claire Keegan, Donald Westlake, Olivia Laing, Kathryn Scanlan, Anna Kavan, Maeve Brennan, Jocelyn Brooke, Lee Childs, Balzac, Kenneth Patchen, Rachel Kushner, Louis MacNeice, Heinz Pagels, Elaine Pagels, Isabel Waidner, Samuel Beckett, Jenni Diski, Jonathan Raban, Kathy Acker, David Constantine, Constantine Fitzgibbon, Theodora FitzGibbon, Cortazar, Roger Deakin, Maya Deren, Tim Etchells, JG Frazer, Alan Furst, James Gleick, Gunter Grass, Gorky (Fragments), Carson McCullers, IB Singer, Iris Murdoch, Rebecca Solnit, Upton Sinclair, Jessie L Weston

–Who else would I like?

Hugh Adlington on Penelope Fitzgerald’s working papers and draft versions, London Review of Books 19.12.2019–

“Fitzgerald believed that an original image or idea ‘always stays so to speak latent, within the novel when it’s finished’. What is omitted … is important because it shadows or informs what remains. She went further: ‘I can only say that [these orginal ideas or images] seem to me close to the mysterious individual life of the novel which you can recognise whether you’re reading it or writing it.” (His insert in square brackets.)

in full sunlight

On holiday recently, to celebrate my new & I hope final status as a relaxed, cheerful & fulfilled human being, I bought a novelty plate to eat breakfast from. Sturdy, off-white & sized conveniently between a side plate & a dinner plate, it would easily acommodate an egg-cup, a teaspoon & two slices of bread. Best of all, it features the image of a rooster in energetic colours, and displays the legend IT’S A BRAND NEW DAY! Nothing could fit better with our striped Cornish mugs and the bright red jacket we bought to insulate the cafetiere. I love my new plate. But sometimes, when I catch sight of it in full sunlight on the crowded drying rack by the sink, I’m dazzled & see only the words IT’S A BRAND & think: true.

anna & james

Anna, unaware of these judgements, took home two bottles of Fleury and a tub of pistachio ice cream then telephoned Marnie and conducted a short but satisfying row; after which they agreed to more broadly respect one another’s feelings and Anna listened to news of Marnie’s boyfriend’s job. Her plan for the rest of the evening had been to turn on her fifty-inch Sony and eat all the ice cream while watching an ageing wildlife presenter gambol in the brackish waters of the North Sea with the half-dozen mouldy-looking grey seals left in the Shetland Islands; but, four of the animals having the previous week contracted human norovirus, the spectacle was cancelled. Anna wandered about. After her exchange with Marnie the house seemed hot and airless. She took a shower. She stood looking out of the kitchen doorway with a glass of Fleury in her hand. Called the cat. He didn’t come.

“James, you depressing animal,” she said.

–from Empty Space, final novel of the KT trilogy, Gollancz 2012

‘The “ominous frenzy” of Kyoto will soon be replaced by an archaic calm, or at least an attempt to maintain one. The man soon finds himself outside the city – though, somehow, the narration is able to claim that he remains inside it.’ Read my review of A Mountain to the North, A Lake to The South, Paths to the West, A River to the East by the fabulous László Krasznahorkai (tr. Ottilie Mulzet, published by Tuskar Rock Press), in today’s TLS–