I'd like to thank whoever nominated me for the Author Blog Awards. I'm not sure how this works but it looks as though you can vote for me, raising my profile and readership to new heights. There are quite a lot of us angling for your vote, so don't feel too bad about clicking elsewhere; I'll understand.
Monday, 29 March 2010
Well, what an unsettling experience. Our last afternoon in Palermo and we found ourselves up near the Capuchin monastery, the one whose catacombs are filled with the dried and mummified remains of some of Palermo's most important citizens. Originally, the catacombs were reserved for friars, the first one - Silvestro of Gubbio (see right) - being placed down there in October 1599. More recently, the tunnels beneath the convent became the place to be - and be seen - for the cream of Palermo society and I've no doubt large sums of money changed hands before the defunct were allowed in and prepared for eternal display. It can't have been a pleasant process, if the description at the entrance is at all accurate. The bodies were seated on marble racks in a room called the colatoio (the dripping or draining room), which was then sealed hermetically until the perishable parts of the body had putrefied sufficiently to drain away and gather on the floor underneath. The corpses were then removed to another room, the drying room, where they were cleaned with vinegar and dressed, often in clothes of their own choosing, before being inserted into niches in the appropriate section and held in place by a wire at the neck. Some bodies have been replaced by straw-filled sacks; others, like Silvestro, have arms and even legs. Some have been embalmed - a two-year-old child who was placed there in the 1920s might have died last week.
All in all, it's a peculiarly dispiriting and discomforting place, perhaps because so many of the ideas behind it are foreign to us, and find us ill-equipped to deal with them; we're surfeited by so many ways of not seeing the dead that to have them ranked before us in their hundreds, dangling from their hoops of wire or stacked, in some cases appearing to strain forward as if to press home the question of our being there, is an assumption of intimacy we're not prepared to take on. I'm not sure what I expected, but what came to mind first was the banality of it, the déjà vu of it. These dead resemble heavy metal sleeves and George A. Romero extras; if you stare at them too long they seem to move. Some of them have crumbled into semi-dust, others are almost intact. The saddest ones, for me, have wisps of hair and moustaches. Those skulls that retain their covering of skin often appear to be howling, presumably the result of the skin shrinking and pulling their jaws open. These bring to mind the almost dead of the camps, the shamelessness and the desperation of those faces as the allied troops rolled in. It's both hard to remember and hard to forget that what we are looking at are human beings who have died. But, after the shock and the thrill and the fascination, what struck me most was the indecency of their display, of their desire for it, and of our attention. It's not a moral or spiritual lesson - I don't feel it taught me anything useful about how to live or die - so much as one of decorum, which is being offended. Every third corpse or so a sign says NO FOTO NO FILM but this doesn't seem to deter anyone, and is presumably only there to increase the sale of postcards in the shop above. In any case, the people who chose to be preserved here would probably have welcomed an audience.
Sunday, 21 March 2010
I suppose it's just possible that one or two of you out there might not already own a copy of The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories. It's all right, I don't want to know your names. All I want to do is tell you that you can now buy the prize-winning collection in paperback. It's just as big and fat and full of goodness (and a pinch of wickedness too) as it was in hardback, but it costs less! You can buy it direct from Salt at only £8.79 by clicking here.
Which means you no longer have any excuse. Right? So what are you waiting for? Come on...
Thursday, 18 March 2010
I've been shamefully absent from this blog recently, but, in partial recompense, here's the chance to read a piece I wrote for the first number of the resurrected Cambridge Literary Review about my memories of the concrete poet and Benedictine monk, Dom Sylvester Houedard, otherwise known as dsh and seen here in priestly garb. This excellent new magazine is putting some of its contents online here, but you'd be much happier if you actually bought a copy and held it in your hands. It's beautifully produced and, of course, contains things that will never see the light of a computer screen.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
One of the many odd notions peculiar to the religious mindset is that pain is a good thing. This isn't the same as masochism, which allows that pain is fun, a source of gratification, etc. but does not, I think, claim any higher moral ground for what happens as a stiletto heel grinds down into a crotch (ouch!). When Paola Binetti straps that spiky mediaeval thing around her upper thigh, on the other hand, the rush of pain she achieves is somehow ennobling. And when JP2 gave himself a good flogging in the hush of the papal apartment he wasn't just being kinky - he was recharging his soul. That's why the word masochism doesn't begin to describe the saintly practice of getting a hit from suffering. So I was pleased to discover (from a review of Gilte Legende in the LRB, 3 December 2009) that there's another term for it, coined by Esther Cohen: Philopassianism. It's glossed by Barbara Newman thus: 'It differs from masochism in that pain is valued, not as a perverse source of pleasure, but as a moral and spiritual good'. So where does that put people like Mother Teresa, the subject - as you can see from the picture - of a new musical, who don't derive much pleasure from their own pain, but thoroughly enjoy that of others? It's not quite sadism, also a perverse source of pleasure, although it looks worryingly similar.
Maybe it's a case of Munchausen philopassianism by proxy.
Friday, 5 March 2010
The Vatican has been having a bit of a rough time these past few days. News arrives from Poland that the 'miracle' needed to sanctify GP2 smells a bit fishy, news that has been roundly denied by B16. In 2006, it was claimed that the wandering Pole had cured a French nun of Parkinson's disease, described by GP2 as 'another sign of God's creativity'. Now it looks as though the nun might not even have had Parkinson's disease, suggesting that the creative one isn't God, but his earthly representatives. They'll have to fish around in the tub of other purported wonder cures to see what they can find. Maybe evangelist Benny Hinn has one he can spare, when he's finished talking to his divorce lawyers and counting his money.
As if this wasn't enough, tapes have just been published of conversations in which a Vatican chorister (correction: ex-Vatican chorister), a certain Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, known to his friends as 'Mike', has been pimping men at the rate of two or three a week for Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman of his Holiness (correction: ex-Gentleman of his Holiness), known to his friends as 'Brenda', and deeply implicated in the latest wave of corruption scandals to fail to rock Italy*. Balducci's tastes are eclectic. Among the men that seem to have been procured by Ehiem are two black Cubans, a RAI dancer and a professional footballer, not to mention assorted seminarians. Still, he doesn't seem that easy a man to please. Ehiem's sidekick, Lorenzo Renzi, apparently told one of the lucky hookers to take the Viagra and not to touch the Gentleman's (correction: ex-Gentleman's) balls. Fussy! In a possibly related item, the Ratisbonne boys' choir appears to have been a hotbed of under-age sexual abuse under the direction of B16's brother, Georg, who ran the show from 1964 to 1993. Now why does the name Georg ring a bell?
And there's no cake without a small and delectable fruit perched on the top. In this case, the cherry is the news that money squirrelled away by Diego Anemone, one of the leading figures in the Italian Civil Protection corruption scandal and currently enjoying the comforts of a cell not that far from Balducci's, has been found in the safe of don Evaldo Biasini. (That's don as in catholic priest, not mafioso. I know, I know...) Something like a million euros was hidden behind a religious painting in the office of the priest, who just happens to be responsible for the financial affairs of an organization called the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Ever-so Precious Blood of Jesus. Where do I start?
* One of these facts about Balducci isn't true. Guess which!
Wednesday, 3 March 2010
An interesting post on the always interesting ReadySteadyBlog. As someone whose new book (note subtle plug) is being marketed as 'part thriller, part love-story' and in which there is both a murder and a mystery to be solved, I was very interested to see Jon Fosse's stigmatization of the crime novel as 'pornography of death'. Take a look and see what you think. Here's a taste of his views:
What then about crime fiction, so highly esteemed as literature, at least here in the Scandinavian countries? Is it at all literature? No it isn’t. The aim of this literature is not to ask into the fundamentals of existence, of life, of death, it is not to try to reach the universal through the unique, it is a try to avoid such an asking, such unique universality, by stating already given answers that are not really answers, but just something one has heard before. It therefore feels as a pleasant and safe answer, and what feels pleasant and safe one could also call entertaining.
And when you've had a chance to read Any Human Face, I'll tell you what I think...
Tuesday, 2 March 2010
A little public announcement here for you, folks. I'll be taking part in an event called Picador Day at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, on 20 March. You can find the whole programme here, and it looks well worth attending. I'll be on at 12.30, with Graham Robb, William Fiennes and Jim Crace, to discuss Writing and Place. I'll be reading a few pages from Any Human Face and then talking about the role the setting plays in that and other work of mine. I imagine the other three writers will be doing pretty much the same. If you hang around after lunch you'll also be able to find out what lies beyond poetry with, among others, Jackie Kay, and what becoming a writer might involve, with one of my favourite novelists (and a poet to boot), Gerard Woodward. Sounds good.