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Letters From Santorini: Selected Reading

Is there anything that cannot be learnt from the Greek thinkers, the Russian novelists, and the English poets and playwrights? Such is beginning to be my conclusion whilst at Atlantis Books.

But reading can be surprisingly difficult to do here. First, the selection is overwhelming. The shelves are filled with temptation, books that stare at you mournfully and accusingly and ask why you haven’t read them yet. How do you select one, when to make a selection is to reject all the others?

And there’s always something to do – customers to serve, shelves to dust, cooking, writing, wine drinking, admin and emailing, wrestling with the tangles of Greek bureaucracy and so on and so forth. Just like in the real world, it can be hard to make time for books, even when you are surrounded by them.

But I’ve still got a fair whack of reading done. It is strange to consider how important reading is to me. It is an education, religion, meditation, entertainment…and yet it is such an odd activity to devote oneself to. Turning pages, reading black scratches on white paper and converting them into a story, a personal philosophy, a way of life…

Here’s some of the books I’ve read whilst out here, in no particular order. Anyone read any of these? What did you think?

Selected Poems of Byron (Unfinished)

Fascinating character as he is, I think that the celebrity of Byron is more interesting than his poetry. Compared to his contemporaries, he seems like little more than an occasionally witty rhymester, undermined by narcissism. A hundred pages was enough for me.

Homer’s Odyssey, Armitage

Bit of a disappointment this one. Homer’s Odyssey reimagined as a radio play. Armitage is very good at rowdy crowd scenes and has a good comic touch, so the Suitors, the Gods, and Odysseus’s crew are pretty fun, but he struggles with heroism and serious sentiment. With the Odyssey, this is a problem.

The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn

Flat out brilliant. What is it about Russia that produces such brilliant novelists and chess players? Those long cold winters, perhaps. This evocation of Stalinist Russia is convincing, terrifying (especially when Stalin crops up), angry and humane. For the first time in ages I’ve felt proud with the society I live in. Western capitalism may have its faults, but damn if it isn’t better than this kind of totalitarian horror.

A Primer of Chess, Capablanca

A very fine book on chess tactics. Many parts a little too technical for me, but he talks very pragmatically about the basics.

Batsfords Modern Chess Openings

Only leafed through this, but fascinating stuff. You could get seriously lost in it. I’m now a fan of the Italian Game, the Ruy Lopez, and The Queen’s Gambit for white, and the Sicilian Defence and Berlin Defence for black.

The Defence, Nabokov

After reading this and Lolita, I think that Nabokov is a truly stunning stylist and character writer, but that his plotting and narrative are a little patchy. Some cracking descriptions of chess playing though…

Chess, Zweig

Noticing a pattern yet?

A cracking little novella about a game of chess on a ferry to Buenos Aires. Simple story, very well told.

Ways of Seeing, Berger

A very good collection of visual and written essays on perception, painting, and art. Liable to change your way of seeing. The chapter on the depiction of femininity in painting is particularly troubling.

Aristotle’s Politics (In progress)

I’m alternating each of my other books with a section of Aristotle’s Politics. Meaty stuff, but he has a brilliant mind and some very interesting ideas about capital (he inspired Marx), slavery (he views it as necessary and natural), and the organisation of society as a whole.

The Theban Plays, (Sophocles)

With the Greeks, everything was in its infancy – poetry, drama, philosophy, history, democracy. Everything was unexplored. The Greek drama that I’ve read so far is basic compared to modern day works, but the force of the debates in the plays survives unravaged by time, with Antigone the real star of the Theban plays.

Orestes, Bakkhi, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis (Euripides)

Orestes was a bit naff, and Bakkhi pales in comparison to Ted Hughes’s version of the same story in his Tales from Ovid, but Iphigenia and Medea are damn fine. Iphigenia is a compelling look at man’s capacity to justify unjustifiable acts. Medea is just pure taboo from start to finish, and the last messenger’s speech is jaw droppingly gruesome.
Gomorrah

Much better than the distinctly overrated film, this is a outstanding piece of journalistic writing. Makes you sick to read it. The most startling thing is that the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) are now businessmen who, by fair means and foul, are simply better than any of the competition. They are products of the economic system. They are capitalism carried to its logical and immoral extreme – business that is pure profit and zero ethics, where everything (labour, drugs, clothing, people, even chemical waste) is a commodity to be marketed and sold. Everyone benefits, from Western consumers to business leaders and politicians (and of course the Camorra) except for the urban poor and migrant workers. And who gives a shit about them? Nobody with any kind of power, anyway.

East of Eden (In progress), Steinbeck

A real cracker of a novel. Biblical Genesis reimagined as a family epic in 19th century California. Very, very well written indeed.

Journal of a Novel (In progress)
, Steinbeck

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote a letter to his publisher every day before he did his day’s quota of writing. For aspiring writers it is an inspirational, personal, and, in places, highly familiar documentary of the joys and pleasures that come when you are wrestling with a book.

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Letters From Santorini: The Customers

Atlantis Books has a strange relationship with its customers. Most people involved with the shop  will refer to it as a project rather than a business. It is a creative space and a collection of outstanding books first, a bookselling business a very distant second. The space is sustained by the business aspect, but that is all. So sometimes the customers can feel like an inconvenience, or at best a necessary evil.

Yet one of the real pleasures of staying in the shop is discovering how broad and how shared a passion for books is. When you study books (or even undertake to write your own) snobbery is inevitable. You feel like you have a monopoly on literary love. Surely it isn’t possible to have a meaningful relationship with books until you have at least a BA behind your name.

Not true, of course. People love books, and they love bookshops. Admittedly the sample I’m exposed to is somewhat self selecting. Our steep set of steps acts as a handy filter, sifting out the gawkers and moneyflashers who will wander into any shop with easy access and plenty of tat to spend your cash on. If you can’t be bothered to go down a few steps to get to a bookshop, we probably aren’t interested in selling to you. There are hundreds of people (mostly the thrice be-damned cruisers) who stroll on by without giving the shop a second glance. There are a ridiculous number that stop to pose for photos in front of the shop, or even come partway down the steps to get the better shot, then walk on down the street without entering the shop. This baffles me. Why would you think a shop was interesting enough to photograph, but not to enter?

But for those who do come in, the wonder on people’s faces is always pure delight to see. Better yet, it reminds you afresh of the amazing and inventive space we live and work in. Instantly, you have a common connection, though you have said nothing to each other and may have very little in common otherwise. You are both there because you are in love with books.

What is most humbling is how much better read than me most people who come into the shop seem to be. It is often simply a matter of age. Most of the people who come into the shop probably don’t take their reading as seriously as I do, but they have had twenty or thirty more years to get it done. They know more and have read more than I have. Being well read is about time and dedication – a lifetime’s task to get a worthy knowledge of literature.

The customers come in innumerable different guises. There are the Second Handers, drawn irresistibly to cracked spines, foxed pages, and old library stamps on the inside front cover. There are The Hordes, packs of American exchange students on break, who come in chattering and bustling in a constant stream of upturned intonations. The Shorts and Sandals crowd wouldn’t know a good piece of literary fiction if it got up and slapped them round the face, but they are suckers for cookbooks and handsome coffee table books. The English Grad self consciously seeks out a challenging and worthy title to work through and feel superior whilst reading, and lays it down on the till with all the silent smugness of a poker player revealing a winning hand.

My favourites are the Intoxicated Bibliophiles, the ones who love books as beautiful possessions. The ones who linger in front of the Faber and Faber shelf, drinking the elegant simplicity of the design, or hover by our shelf of old leather bound books and orange Penguin classics. The ones, in other words, like me, who adore books not merely for the contents inside or the kudos it will bring them to own it, but as a little object of complete aesthetic and mental pleasure.

Working in the shop has given me yet another way of interacting with books. I have approached them as a delighted child, a voracious adult, a semi-studious undergraduate, and as a wannabe writer. Now I am a merchant of books. This should perhaps be a corrupting relationship, but within the distinctly non-capitalist ethos of Atlantis, it becomes one of the purest ways of sharing the thing that you love.

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Letters From Santorini: The Books

I now live in a world of books.

On the many driftwood shelves of the store, there are books in Greek, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and English (though fortunately for me, English dominates.) The selection is comprehensive and diverse – what has sprung out of  an improvised set up by some enthusiastic amateurs five years ago has evolved into a stock collection that puts many a professional bookshop to shame. Cookery, coffee table books, fiction, non-fiction, Greek interest, contemporary Greek authors in all languages, classics, poetry, philosophy (in the philosophy tower)…all is represented.

We have a library of our own behind the till (mostly consisting of poetry, high faultin’ fiction, Greek language books and chess books), alongside a set of beautiful old Penguin classics and leather bound books. Ostensibly on sale, we massively overprice them in order to keep them in the shop.

Living in a bookshop, I am surrounded by literary temptation, but there are limits to how far I can indulge myself. It is general policy that we don’t read the new books, but that the second hand books are fair game. Like Tantalus in the underworld, there are countless books that I crave to pull down and read, but professional duty obliges me to resist. I hunt through the shelves, looking for the creased spine, peeled away corners and yellowed, misshapen pages that mean it is ripe for plucking.

There are so many books (and they are so essentially involved in the design of the shop) that you begin to feel like a book yourself after some time  – skin turns to paper, blood to ink, and perhaps you can even feel the reading creases of your life when you run your hand down your spine.

What kind of a book would I be? Not a Faber and Faber poetry book, which is what I’d like to be, for I am, alas, not beautiful enough for that. Perhaps a Penguin Modern Classic – tasteful black and white cover, silver backing and white lettering. Not as noble as the Penguin Classic, nor as heart warming as the old orange paperbacks, but it has a charm of its own. A slightly knackered copy that has floated around in backpacks and on dusty bookshelves for many years. Perhaps it has been dropped in the bath once, and the pages have that stiff and crooked character of paper wetted and dried in the sun, but a book that is still intact, respectable, not showy but inviting to read.

The first book I sold? East/West by Salman Rushdie.

The first book I read? I found a very handsome copy of Fitzgerald’s majestic translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of my favourite pieces of poetry. Still in a daze, I read it to still my mind, and those rhyming quatrains, dedicated to wine, love, pleasure in the moment and the acceptance of entropy and change, seems to capture something of the spirit of the bookshop…

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter garment of repentance fling,
For the Bird of Time has but a little way
to fly – and lo! the Bird is on the wing!

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Essential Supplies

Packing continues apace (well, not really, but in my mind it does), and the time has come to select the most essential supplies. Not clothes or toiletries or travel gadgets, but books. Given that I’m traveling to Greece to work in a bookshop, this is not as critical decision as it could be, but still – careful selection of travel books is critical. Here are the four, all of which have find their way in by dint of their size (small), relevance to my travels (high), and their pretentious literary kudos (extreme).

For Paris: Les Fleurs Du Mal

fleurs-du-mal

Baudelaire’s funny, filthy and beautiful poetry is the perfect companion to Paris.

Venice: Invisible Cities

invisible-cities

Italo Calvino’s perfect, poetic fable is the ideal guide to Venice – the city is described, in suitably fantastic fashion and concealed as other cities, fifty five times over. It’s also a useful crib sheet for writing – prose has rarely been more imaginative or more beautiful than this.

For Greece: The Odyssey

odyssey

Cliche cliche, irresistable cliche. The first novel, the emblem of Greece, the ultimate travel book for the lonesome wanderer, the namesake for my goddamn blog. If there is one book that was always going to find its way into my back pack, it was going to be this one (even though if there is one book that will inevitably be found in the bookshop, it is this one).

For London: Teeline Fast

teeline-fast

Eh? Teeline what?

I’ll be learning shorthand when I get back, and it seems sensible to try and get started whilst I am out there. Progress will only be made by intensive application of the will…we’ll see how that turns out.

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Picking Up the Pen Again

writer

Writing is refined thought. We turn our thoughts into speech when they are ready to take form, to be made flesh. When they are ready to be crafted and polished still further, we put them into written words. It is an evolution of thinking.

 In writing, you lie your way to the truth – brilliant lies, and terrible truths. But more importantly, it is delicious, delightful fun. It is game playing, yarn spinning, raw delight. This are qualities that are in rare supply, at least in adult life.

There are other art forms to pursue, ones that, perhaps, have more of a future and a relevancy to them than writing, but none that I have any talent or desire for. And there are other much meaningful and valuable pursuits and vocations, things that have a real, direct effect on the way people live their lives. Perhaps writing is a selfish, egotistical pursuit – a desire to live in never never land, lost in stories, coddled in books, pampered by a self recruiting, self appointed literary elite.

But books matter. Writing matters. An individual book is nothing alone – vanity projects, light entertainment, idle experiments with language. But taken together into a whole, they become an assay into brilliance, the sketched notes and fragmentary plans for the perfection of the mind, or even the world. Each writer or painter or actor or whatever shapes and places a piece of something that may become one of humanity’s great monuments.

 I’ve been in writing hibernation for a while. I haven’t written with serious intent in almost six months. But ideas have been simmering away quietly on some backburner of creativity. I’ll have the time and a place to write soon enough – let’s hope I do something with it.

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Books I’ve Read: The House of Meetings (Martin Amis)

Two Russian brothers (pacifistic poet Lev and the more pragmatic and violent unnamed narrator), sent to the same Siberian gulag in the aftermath of World War II, battle for survival in the brutal conditions and for the love of Zoya, the beguiling Jewess with whom they are both in love (and to whom Lev is married). After a night with Zoya in the House of Meetings, the gulag’s special building for conjugal visits, Lev emerges a broken man. After the two brothers emerge from the gulag into an equally oppressive communist Russia, they struggle with the suffering of their past and the increasingly heated rivalry for Zoya.

houseofmeetings1
This (as the back cover of the book will tell you) is the basic plot of The House of Meetings, an apparently straightforward story of a love triangle in difficult times. But despite the novel’s slender size, Martin Amis is hunting bigger game. The Great Russian Soul and how it has been lost, the competitive, combative and indestructible bond of brotherly love, and the thin line between erotic desire and violent rape in the male psyche are just a few of the weighty themes that Amis is chasing after in less than two hundred pages.

At first, it seems that he has overstretched himself badly. In an attempt to make an assay into the state of Russian society, the narrator is apt to make sweeping generalisations about Russia in only the way that a foreign writer would have his character speak. Didactic statements about the character and sins of a nation tends to make for empty and self indulgent prose in fiction, doubly so when it is about a country that is not the author’s own.

The writing itself is an occasional problem. There are some marvels of description, from the apocalyptic horrors of the camp to the more subtle horrors of domestic life in communist Russia in a society that is gradually disintegrating. But often Amis’s prose reminds one of a fussy, fidgety, brilliant child – one longs to give it a clip around the ear (normally I am against the striking of children, but prose is no place for liberal parenting), tell it to sit still and to stop showing off for the sake of it. The story is an equally fidgety thing. Trickily framed as a long letter to the narrator’s daughter and compressing an impressive span of time into relatively few pages, until the very end it seems that the fragile book is trying too hard, trying too much, and will come to pieces.

But Amis is a master, capable of turning the most debased novelistic lead into high carat gold. An unopened letter from Lev to his brother, detailing just what happened on the fateful night in the House of Meetings, seems for much of the novel to be a lazy way of building tension and propelling narrative – a lesser novelist’s trick. But in the final pages, this letter converts from narrative prop into a furious, desperately sad meditation on what brutalisation can do to a man, what vital parts of the soul shrivel and die in the Siberian cold and never grow back again, the fragile solace offered by both brotherly and erotic love and how easily they can be taken away. This letter is followed by a second (just how can Amis get away with two revelatory letters as a conclusion? Only the gods that govern novels can know for sure), the final address of the narrator to his daughter that builds and builds into an apocalyptic vision of a doomed Russian society. Despite its occasional arrogance and self indulgence, at the death this little novel has developed an irresistible momentum, becoming a powerful and moving study of the terrible wounds that a man, a society, a country, and a world can inflict upon itself and survive, only to die slowly in the decades that follow.

Book-in-laws: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevski)

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Books I’ve Read: The Silence Room (Sean O’Brien)

Libraries have always held a particular fascination for writers. Whenever they appear in fiction they take on the qualities of  literary temples – silent, sacred spaces, repositories of knowledge, mystery, learning and perhaps, hidden amidst the yellowed pages and dusty shelves, some kind of capital T Truth.

There have been many fine fictional libraries, but perhaps the library in the Discworld series offers the neatest summary of the charged energy that these places hold for bookish types. In Terry Pratchett’s fantasy physics, knowledge = power, and books = knowledge, therefore books = power. A large library, acting as such a concentrated centre of power, takes on the ability to bend space and time, to warp the fabric of reality itself. Get lost in those shelves, and you might never come out again. Or if you do make it out, you could come out in a different time and place, perhaps even as a different person.

thesilenceroom1

The Silence Room, a new collection of short stories by Sean O’Brien, is the latest addition to the long and honourable line of literary libraries. This particular library is based in a murky, grim, superbly realised Newcastle, a bastion of peace and learning in a city of dimly lit pubs, drunken men and exhausted women. At the heart of this is the Silence Room, favoured workplace for poets and academics. It is room imbued with a peculiar juju, where strange events are commonplace – disappearing poetics lecturers, carpets that come alive and cryptic drug dispensing strangers are just a few of the things to be found in there.

It is a near irresistible concept – the mind bending, world warping library is a superb setting to hang a series of short stories around, and the grubby Tyneside that exists outside of the Silence Room is an equally beguiling setting. O’Brien has an eye for a canny detail, and can turn a tasty phrase, but he doesn’t have an instinct for storytelling – at least, if he does, it isn’t on display in this collection.

Strangely, in a literary landscape where the fantastic is set deliberately close at hand (almost every story moves towards some kind of surreal, world bending climax) it is the fantasy sections where the stories are most incoherent and least satisfying. The stories thrive in the everyday depiction of his imagined Newcastle and its literary refugees. His jealous academics, Shakespeare quoting barmaids, Sunday cricketers and alcoholic Wallace Stevens fanatics are delightful characters, but their stories go nowhere – and when the world turns on its head at the end of each short story, there is something inevitable and utterly uninvolving about each of them.

The shadow of Borges and his Library of Babel (a stunning short story that has perhaps rendered all other literary libraries unnecessary) hangs long over this collection. Each of O’Brien’s stories seems to be aiming towards a twisted Borgesian climax, but it is an impossible task to attempt. Somewhere in Borges’s Library of Babel, where every possible book has been written and sits patiently on the infinite octagonal bookshelves, there is a copy of The Silence Room where O’Brien escaped the influence of the Argentine trickster and found a compelling voice of his own. But that book, undoubtedly superior to the one I now hold in my hands, will forever remain upon that shelf in the Library of Babel, unwritten and unread.

Book-in-Laws: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), The Library of Babel (Jorge Borges), If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino)

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