New Writing 6
A. S. Byatt & Peter Porter (eds)

Vintage, Random House: 1997
$16.95 (a), 546 pp.
ISBN: 0099545519

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

"British fiction in the twentieth century resembles a large Victorian house - as it appears in a recurring nightmare".

So writes the self-styled "critical-policeman of novel writing", whose opinions, fortunately, need not be relied upon, since he is the wickedly satirical invention of novelist Robert Irwin.

But, even as I write this, I am nagged by the feeling that the authors and works discussed in Irwin's article, 'Unreadable Books: Fictional Landmarks in Twentieth Century British Writing' do actually exist. Sebastian Knight and Kilgore Trout, I do recognise. But _All Fouled Up_, a biography of Philip Larkin by Jake Balukowski? I am tempted to run a quick net-search on this, and authors like X.Trapnel, Fleur Talbot and Dermot Trellis, just to avoid embarrassment.

In any case, this collection of new writing would quickly give the lie to the disastrous state of affairs claimed in Irwin's essay. Many of the writers represented in the collection are well known, most have won awards for their writing, and all write with freshness, skill and great versatility. Which suggests that current British writing is more akin to an ever-changing, magical castle-in-the-air than to any nightmare Victorian mansion.

New Writing 6 contains fiction, poetry, short essays and extracts from novels-in-progress. This unusual range of forms, as Peter Porter says in his editorial foreword, is an attempt to avoid the "straitjacket of genre", and it succeeds admirably. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of poetry in the selection, my favourite being Danny Abse's, 'Events Leading to the Conception of Solomon, the Wise Child', which retells the Old Testament story, linking it with the present in language which sometimes flows with Biblical rhythms but is often startlingly modern.

Abse's poem follows a thought-provoking essay by John Forrester ('Psychoanalysis and the Strange Destiny of Envy') which begins by analysing the famous judgement of Solomon (which entailed cutting a baby in two), and moves on to a discussion of the Freudian interpretation of envy. There is also a disturbing essay on media ownership and its possible impact on diversity, knowledge, choice and accountability in media coverage. And another essay which deals interestingly with the "writerly art" of translating literature, and on the dangers of destroying an author's unique style by imposing current linguistic fashions and fluency on the translation.

Duncan McLaren's piece, 'Soap Circle', like his entry in the biographical notes at the end of the collection, is unique. Fitting somewhere between an essay and fiction - between philosophy, imaginative prose, poetry and art-criticism - it takes McLaren's reactions to some modern art exhibits and moves, through imaginative fantasies, to an art/poem exhibit of his own on the printed page.

Similarly, a piece by David Malouf (an Australian, presumably adopted for this collection as an honorary Brit') which describes his visit to Lebanon, is a rich embroidery on a fabric of fact. It could be called travel writing, and it is collected under 'essays' in the index, but it, too, is innovative in its form and a pleasure to read.

The fiction in this collection, with its multifarious styles, approaches, subjects and voices, all superbly handled, offers a treasury of riches amongst which everyone will have their own likes and dislikes.

The imaginary outcome of a meeting between 'Marcel et Jim' (Surnames: Proust and Joyce), will delight some readers and shock others. It is an ingenious idea but I found Michael Foley's elaboration of it too simplistic and prurient for my taste. My favourites are Tibor Fischer's, 'Breathing, Ephesus', with its heat-burdened, cynical, anti-tourist tourist. And C.K.Stead's wry tale of the first meeting between an academic scholar and the poet who has been the subject of his research. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, the success of each man dependent on the other and greatly enhanced by the romantic early death of the poet in an avalanche. Now, it turns out that the poet faked his death and is contemplating resurrection - a dilemma with a curious resolution.

Oh yes!, and I loved the extract from Christopher Hope's novel Pogrom, about the nefarious deeds of some British Israelites in a small South African dorp; and Kathy Page's, 'Bees', about the dysfunctional relationship between two dysfunctional young people; and Elaine Feinstein's poems; and Marina Warner; and...and...and...


To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link