Friday, 9 September 2011

what we were doing and where we were going

what we were doing and where we were going is the title of a collection of five short stories by Damion Searls. I bought it because I bumped into this prodigy, a kind, interesting, polite, quiet self-effacing individual, representing himself only as 'a travel journalist' covering the W G Sebald weekend at Aldeburgh, for Harper's magazine in January 2011. We fell into conversation on a surreal excursion to the former atomic weapons test site near Aldeburgh, now curated by the National Trust, open on certain days of the year, or by appointment, to the public. In a charabanc returning from the visit, he gave me the title rivalling in length that of his own book, of a recent runaway cult success he thought I might enjoy: The Possessed; Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman. I have been intimidated by Searls' own slim - 100 pages - paperback, handling it with the caution of a shopper who has bought an exotic fruit in a moment of uncharacteristic experimentation, gets it home and then sits staring at it, wondering why they didn't stick with a Pink Lady. I am no great reader of fiction; I lack familiarity with the genre because I have become a lazy, slick and cowardly reader. The most I seem to do nowadays is re-read The Leopard or Dr Zhivago (both of which, oddly, were published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli). Searls makes things more difficult for a reviewer such as myself by appearing to be widely and well read in four or five languages. At the end of the book, he acknowledges works by Gide, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Yasushi Inoue, Nabokov and Tomasso Landolfi, none of which I have read. He is described in the blurb as having translated many of Europe's great writers, has edited a new edition of Thoreau's journal and received many awards. wwwdawwwg reveals itself to be an exercise in 'framing'. A quotation from Aragon's Henri Matisse : A Novel gives a clue to the project: '..if there were no model one could not deviate from it.' In reading Searls' stories, I was reminded of a time when I knew people who aspired to write like this, and of a time when I read Borges and Isaak Dinesen. I was a student in Oxford in the 1960's, when there were quite a few very talented Americans around such as John Lahr, who I did meet and Bill Clinton, who I didn't, and others who went on to become theatre directors, professors of law or ad men you maybe wouldn't have heard of but who added tremendously to the general level of discourse. My room mate Mopsy had already done an internship in Mademoiselle and her fiance Duncan's father, an architect, had written a thinly fictionalised version of his amorous adventures as a young man in Paris. Searls' book reminds me of that time, when the notion was accepted that one could - one should - not only deliberately set out to live one's life recklessly, like Hemingway or oh, I don't know, maybe if you were a woman, Sylvia Plath, (bearing in mind of course that they both committed suicide so maybe not Hemingway and Plath) but also be capable of writing about it. The first of these five finger exercises, presumably framed in homage to Andre Gide, 56 Water St (after Andre Gide's Marshlands), deals in a love triangle against a setting of the well off and the well educated American elite, at home quite literally in the world - north America, south America, Europe. The Cubicles (after Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Custom-House') deals with day to day working life for one of those mysterious (to me) west coast companies that sprang up as the internet boom gathered resonance. Goldenchain (after Inoue's 'Obasute') deals with the end of a marriage, marked by a trip to an island in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, a setting familiar to me. A Guide to San Francisco (after Nabokov's 'A Guide to Berlin'); Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems (after Landolfi's 'Dialogue of the Greater Systems') is a Borges-like story that mirrors the conceptual theme underlying the collection, a meta-commentary on the whole damn messy business of living the examined life as per the prescription. I commend this collection to anyone with half a brain who needs reminding.

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