Diary of a Bad Year

January: I read J.M Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, a novel in which two parallel texts occupy the same page, one about the writer’s life, another about the characters in the story he has written. Coetzee remarks somewhere that the novelist must attempt something new when he writes but I wonder is such a goal still tenable? The novel must be finite in terms of form surely? Besides, is there anything more avant-garde than actually writing a complex and enduring literary character? It is literary characters which endure much more than stories themselves it seems to me. On the other hand, what is left at the end of any art form but style, or to put it another way, a kind of Mannerism? Is the novel exhausted? Is its elasticity, always held up as a strength, not actually a sign of a decline? What is it that the novel still does which no other art from can ever do? Is that not the question that requires an answer? I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers…

February: Events on the personal front have deteriorated so much that I feel it imperative to leave Madrid and return to Scotland to recover my health and reconstitute my life. I do so, but arrangements fall through and I am forced to make a return to Spain having just said goodbye. Talking of botched jobs, I watch Terrence Davies’ film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song at home with a mixture of stupor, disbelief and horror. Davies is a top-class director, but seems to understand neither the book, nor Scotland nor one of the greatest female incarnations of 20th Century literature, Chris Guthrie. The film lacks all rhythm and it might have helped if Scottish actors had actually been cast in Scottish parts. Plus, how could anybody omit that opening line from a very disjointed screenplay, so good you want to chant it out loud? “Kinraddie lands had been won by a Norman childe, Cospatric de Gondeshil, in the days of William the Lyon, when gryphons and suchlike beasts still roamed the Scots countryside…”

March: I celebrate my 49th birthday with a kind of Brexit breakdown. I realize that I have become an unbearable person of late, irritable, frequently pissed and often angry, and Brexit has been a tipping point. Whereas I once waxed lyrical, now all I do is howl at the moon. I have stopped writing, rarely read poetry, and have given up studying languages, three tell-tale signs that things are not right. I seek medical help for the triple whammy of alcohol abuse, anxiety and Brexit blues, but any dealings with the State and its minions inevitably plunges me into despair. I can’t help but recall Kafka’s great discovery that the predicament of modern humankind is one in which the role of God in everyday life has been replaced by the State, an omnipresent and omnipotent State which, like God, seems inscrutable and arbitrary and cannot be bypassed or detoured. Still, my doctor points out that I tick the three key boxes for predisposition to alcoholism, namely a) genetic background of alcoholism in the family, b) early onset of binge drinking and c) unstructured life style. She tells me I probably have proteins in my brain by now, stem endings, which have developed over years of heavy drinking and that with just one drink, the pleasure pathways of my brain light up like a Christmas tree (okay, the Christmas tree analogy is my embellishment). Put in such stark terms, just “having the odd drink” seems now too complicated. So, I come to the decision to say goodbye to the booze, for ever. So long, buddy, your patter was always shite anyway…

April: Having grappled with the idea of applying for Spanish nationality in order to maintain my EU status after the Brexit vote, I decide finally not to do so, for it would mean rescinding my UK passport, there being no dual status between the UK and Spain. Nobody chooses their nationality, to actively seek one out seems perverse and disloyal. So, I try to resign myself to losing my much-cherished right to freedom of movement in Europe. The fact that I was not allowed a vote in the EU referendum makes me feel angry at the fools behind the Brexit shambles. They are taking something away from us in exchange for nothing at all. The fact that the EU has not yet offered a Special Status guaranteeing the right to Freedom of Movement to UK citizens who have made an EU country their home feels like an added insult.

May: I leave Madrid and head for Galicia in north west Spain for a few months to aid my lifestyle change, stopping on my way in Leon, where the first primitive parliament of the Iberian Peninsula was established in the 11th Century. I visit the Convent of San Marcos in Leon, once a prison where the 17th century poet Francisco Quevedo was locked away for four years by the Conde de Olivares for his writings, an incarceration which effectively killed him. It was here too that Franco’s forces imprisoned and tortured local Republicans following the Fascist coup of July 18th 1936, with as many as 20,000 held there over the Civil War period. Today, there is a plaque recording those atrocities and inveighing the visitor never to allow such crimes against humanity to be repeated ever again. This modest and tasteful homage is fruit of the Historical Memory Law passed under former President Zapatero, himself from Leon. Spain advances in fits and starts, even if at times it doesn’t feel that way.

June: I rent a small, cheap and dilapidated apartment in Vigo, Galicia, just an hour from the Portuguese border, from an elderly lady from San Sebastián who fled the Basque Country due to ETA’s murderous terrorist campaign. She tells me in strongly partisan terms that Vigo is a poor man’s San Sebastian, and breaks down in tears when she recalls witnessing a car bomb which killed a Spanish policeman and his children in her home town many years before. ETA’s formal dissolution, which took place in May, is positive news in newspapers which are dominated by negative news. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I visit as much of wonderful Galicia as money and time allow, and am impressed by Pontevedra which has drastically restricted car access to its urban centre, as Madrid has now done too. Surely it is time for Edinburgh to do likewise and prevent day-trippers taking their car into the overly crowded city centre?

July: I finally muster the mental energy and discipline to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It is a very long and highly original book but, among many other things, it provides the best description of alcoholism and its attendant consequences and treatment that I have read. Poor Gately and his AA meetings constitute a literary creation of the highest order. Reading the book made me feel extremely sad for David Foster Wallace and his tragically early death by suicide. Only a man of infinite sensitivity, irony and empathy could have written a book as large and brimming with life, humour and pathos as Infinite Jest.

August: I get to grips with some long since pending classics in the languid summer months in Galicia, most importantly Jane Eyre. It’s one of those books which you finish and wonder why it took you so long to sit down and read: a truly radical book with an ugly, feisty, brilliant narrator. I also reread Luis Buñuel’s memoirs, My Last Breath. Buñuel is one of the great pioneers of world cinema and his career path is a lesson in patience and quiet application. While he initially became famous / notorious for Un Chien Andalou, which he co-directed with Salvador Dalí, Buñuel also had a spell in which he went a decade without shooting a picture, and it was really only towards the end of his career, from his fifties onwards, that he enjoyed success, working with writers like Jean Claude Carrier on the surrealist films which saw him win an Oscar for “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise”, and with Julio Alejandro on the Palme d’Or winner “Viridiana”.

September: I return to Madrid and am reminded what a great city this is: buzzing, dynamic, plural, open and friendly. It is much less a uniform city, and more a patchwork of distinct barrios which is why locals sometimes refer to it in the plural, “Los Madriles”, or the Madrids. There are a number of places I try to go to at least once a year like I do this September: Goya’s stunning fresco work in San Antonio de Florida, or the peaceful and somewhat eerie British Cemetery in Carabanchel with its old gravestones and their sober inscriptions: “called away in Madrid, aged 22”. There are days I think I will end up there too and that Spain has always been a kind of destiny.

October: I re-join the cyber world having deleted my Facebook some time ago. I resort to using my inactive Twitter account to follow the Brexit madness as it unfolds. I also sign up for the dating application Tinder to meet new people. After a quick sketch of Tinderees, I decide to decline anyone whose profile photo includes a) a domestic animal in pole position, b) a tourist landmark and c) a glass of alcoholic beverage. This narrows the field down considerably, about 75% of Tinderees being eliminated by this simple procedure. I am reminded of the line by a philosopher whose name I cannot recall that to be oneself is no easy matter, and indeed might be the most difficult trick of all. What are we without our props? Or as Orson Welles said, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth”.

November: I subscribe to Netflix to catch David MacKenzie’s “Outlaw King” a well-directed, well-acted film with a slightly shoogly script and the odd bit of clunky dialogue which sounds like a Claymore hitting a flagstone. Nevertheless, it is highly watchable too and I enjoy it. My gripe is less with the films which are made in Scotland, and more with the ones that aren’t: our intellectual tradition, our musical culture, and stories of Scottish women are all too absent from our screen. I start to translate the poetry of the Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez who fought in the Republican trenches during the war and, like so many 20th Century Spanish poets, is overshadowed by Lorca: Death passes by with rusty lances / through the wasteland in a suit of canon / where Man cultivates roots and hopes / raining down salt / and scattering skulls…

December: I am sad to learn of the death of Tom Leonard, whose intellectual outlook was forged by his autonomous reading in Pollock public library, in an age when the local library is under threat. Leonard’s radical, egalitarian outlook on art and democracy in Scotland shines through every page he writes. Given it is Scotland we are talking, it comes as no surprise that so much of the comment since his passing portrays Leonard as a mere pawky dinger-doon of the airs of graces of the arts establishment as opposed to the radical intellectual he was, a man who cites as influences the composer Anton Bruckner, the philosopher Kierkegaard and the poet Charles Reznikoff. To read him is to immerse yourself in a bath of modesty and humility, a reminder for anybody interested in the business of writing that all we can ever espouse is one particular, personal and very circumscribed point of view, something which, pen in hand and in full flow, is often all too easy to forget.

To get back to where this Diary of a Bad Year started, what is the novel for? For me it is the only art form which can address the past, the only one which naturally takes place in the past – the tale – a tenuous gossamer spun by a voice between now and then. For Tom Leonard, it was an instrument of democracy, a dialogue with the reader, and the less it mystified things, the more open that dialogue would be. This may be true or not, it was his own personal opinion which was exactly his point, but in any case, few Scottish poets have joined up the dots to outline the bigger picture of how power, politics, language and art intersect with the clairvoyance of Tom Leonard.

So ends this diary of a Bad Year. A new year appears on a horizon where storm clouds gather like invincible armies. Let us not be feart, but rise to meet its many challenges, the personal, the professional and the political, with a happy heart. Or as Gramsci called for, writing in his prison cell: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will…

Madrid, December 31th 2018.

Comments (6)

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  1. Christopher White says:

    I certainly enjoyed reading about your year, Douglas.
    I wonder what events await us in the coming twelve months.
    All the best.

  2. Wul says:

    Thanks Douglas, a good read.

    “What is it that the novel still does which no other art from can ever do?” It proves to us that we are not alone, that another human being feels and thinks as we do.

    ( Plus, it does lots of other things too)

    Have a good 2019.

  3. Tom Hubbard says:

    The novel form isn’t necessarily finite if it deploys irony, which allows for a series of distorting mirrors which can endlessly (and unsettlingly) reflect and refract. Irony allows us to compress one meaning with its opposite. In poetry Tom Leonard was a master of irony and it’s welcome that you cite his debt to Kierkegaard whose work is pervaded with it. Yes, Bruckner was one of his musical passions, as also was Sibelius and a mutual friend told me that he liked to discuss Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

  4. Jenny Tizard says:

    Great writing. Thanks. Best wishes for 2019

  5. Douglas says:

    Thanks for the positive comments folks and Happy New Year to you all.

    Tom Hubbard, what I am trying to say about JM Coetzee’s novel “Diary of a Bad Year”, but there are plenty of other examples as you know, is that, in my opinion, it does not represent a gain for the novel to have three – not two as I say in my piece – different texts on the same page. We’re at the point where it’s just gimmicky. Julio Cortazar of course did something similar in “Hopscotch” 50 years ago of course in any case.

    There may be cases when doing something like that works well, but what I can’t believe is that by doing something like Coetzee does you are doing something real for the form. You’re doing something superficial which is a one off at best, a dead end at worst. And it may actually detract from the novel itself, because you can’t read three texts at once over 150 pages or whatever.

    I mean, contrast with Joyce. When Joyce invents the stream of consciousness at the end of “Ulysses” he does something for the form which opens a whole new pathway for literature: a new way of thinking about writing and, crucially, one which has a relationship to lived experience.

    I mean, “Ulysses” is like a box of tricks. It contains so many different avenues for 20th century writers to explore that a huge percentage of 20th century literature is inconceivable without it. It doesn’t matter whether you like the book or not, as some people seem to think. All modern writers have been influenced by it, even when they haven’t read it, as I’m sure you’ll agree… the same could be said of “Don Quixote” and the invention of irony.

    But the Modernist project was finite. We can’t have the same goal to “make it new” in 2018 as they had in 1918. Which is what people like Gabriel Josopovici and Adam Thirwell argue. What’s always new is the reality around us, and that’s enough to be getting on with. But the novel form itself, has long since reached its limits in terms of form I would say.

    Plus, perhaps the main gain of Modernism, as I’m sure you’ll agree, was as much to do with content as form. I mean to say that Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, MacDiarmid, in Spain Valle–Inlcan – in “Lights of Bohemia” for example – drag literature out of the gentleman’s club and into the street. That was the biggest gain of all maybe.

    As for Tom Leonard, when he says the novel is a dialogue, I don’t think I agree with that to be honest.

    I think the newspapers should be a dialogue, the press, and in the arts in any case, the theatre.

    But the novel is much more a discourse than a dialogue I think…

    Slainte.

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Hi Douglas,

      Bit late to this, but thanks for your insights and your honesty. I hope the year ahead brings a return to health.

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