Navigating Ulysses: a literary map from Nabokov

“The Joyce industry has elevated a diseased and querulous pedantry into an artform […] It is literature at its most debased.” So wrote Kevin Myers in The Telegraph in late 2001.

Few books have the effect of producing a such a strong reaction upon hearing its name that Joyce’s Ulysses.  Yet the impact of Joyce’s work on modern literature is beyond doubt. Inspiring to some and retch-inducing to others, it is a work surely every writer or creative thinker has encountered at some point or another in some form or another.

But no matter where you stand on the book, the fact is that Ulysses is, if nothing else, a prime example of the important connection between walking and creative thought.

Nabokov – a man of strong opinions that could cause no shortage of strong reactions himself – said “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”

You can see his own hand-drawn version here below.

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A handy visual guide to a challenging literary tome? Or indecipherable scribble based on an equally obtuse book? We’ll let you decide! And while you’re doing so, why not send us your own book maps and literary navigation aids? 

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Will Eaves makes Goldsmith Prize shortlist for second time

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Will Eaves makes the shortlist of the Goldsmith Prize for the second time.

The Goldsmith Prize – the literary award for “fiction at its most novel” – has nominated the author for the second time for his acclaimed novel Murmur, inspired by the real-life tragedy of Alan Turing.

Published by CB Editions – an exemplar of quality in independent publishing – Murmur follows The Absent Therapist as the second of Eaves’s books to be nominated for the prize.

It should perhaps come as little surprise to see Eaves on the shortlist once again. His work has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of modern literary writing, with Murmur, in particular, a real treat. As Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Professor Wu wrote:

“For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.”

The Goldsmith Prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

At a time when mainstream publishing so often seems concerned with publishing novels that are little more than copies of previously commercially successful novels, literary awards like the Goldsmith Prize are vital in supporting and promoting the work of new and adventurous writers.

Eaves has been joined by five other excellent authors, each with searingly original books of their own that very much hold the potential to reshape the way we approach the construction of novels.

Indeed, as Professor Adam Mars-Jones notes: “the 2018 shortlist offers a tasting menu of all that is fresh and inventive in contemporary British and Irish fiction. There’s poetic language here, not all of it in the verse novel selected, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take.  There’s the language of the streets, fighting to be heard, in Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City and the language of an overmediated world in Olivia Laing’s Twitter-fed Crudo. There’s a cool survey of the unbalanced present in Rachel Cusk’s hypnotic Kudos, while the deceptively quiet unspooling of Gabriel Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes shows the powerful effects that can be achieved without ever raising your voice.’

The full list of shortlisted books is below:

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Will Eaves – Murmur

Guy Gunaratne – In Our Mad and Furious City

Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes 

Olivia Laing – Crudo

Robin Robertson – The Long Take

The winner of the award will be announced on 14 November. More information on the award can be found online.

Check out Nothing in the Rulebook’s interview with Will Eaves here. 

Why this Norwegian poem about carrots is the best thing you’ll read today

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A short poem has recently been “doing the rounds” on various social media platforms. It’s Norwegian, and it’s about carrots. It’s also quite, quite brilliant. Here it is – in its original text and with an English translation beneath.

 

Kjaere, babygulrot

Babygulrot

Liten

Stygg

Lever I gulrotens skygge

Babygulrot.

 

And the translation:

Dear babycarrot

Babycarrot

Small

Ugly

Lives in the shadow of the carrot

Babycarrot.

 

Moving stuff, right? Now, aside from the fact that this is probably the best poem ever written about carrots, it’s more than just a social media oddity to be marvelled at – perhaps even laughed at (who would laugh at a poem about carrots?) – and passed on to Twitter followers and Facebook friends. Here’s why.

The author isn’t dead

Okay, well, technically, because this poem was written sometime in the 19th century, and because of time and everything, the author of this poem is actually dead. But in analysing the poem, it’s important to take into account who the author is (despite what Barthes might say).

This is because the poet is Henrik Ibsen – the acclaimed Norwegian playwright often considered to be “the father” of modern theatre and one of the founders of modernism in theatre.

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He’s even been cited as the most important playwright since Shakespeare, because of the revolutionary role his writing played in shaping not just theatre, but also poetry and fiction and modern art.

At its heart, Ibsen’s writing is about sub-text, and realities that exist beneath the surface of any superficial context or subject. This actually was a bit of a scandal in 19th Century Europe, because people were scandalised by the idea of realities being hidden behind facades.

This is crucial in deciphering the real meaning of the Babygulrot poem, because it means we can’t take it at face value: we have to strip away the superficial context and look at the realities of what is going on underneath. So, what does this mean for the poem?

The shadow of the carrot

Obviously, because the poem is so short, there’s not so much text available that can have much context. So we have to identify what’s going on in each word.

Clearly, the most important line – insofar as it gives us the most detail and emphasis in the poem and thus highlights where readers should focus their analysis – is the longest: “Lives in the shadow of the carrot”.

Using this, it is possible to identify how we’re supposed to read the poem; and what it’s really about.

So – what lives in the shadow of carrots?

This question moves us onto a crucial element in the poem – and modernism in general. This is symbolism, and the use of images and symbols to represent other ideas, emotions or qualities.

From this, we can ask a more pertinent question: what does the babycarrot really represent?

Ibsen’s symbolism

Literature, as the record of universal experience, has gradually acquired certain symbols that have become conventionalized–a kind of stage property of poets and artists and common people. The lily is a symbol of purity, the eagle of strength, red of passion, and gray of peace. These are symbols that carry their meaning in the mere naming of them. They serve their use most perfectly when the symbolic quality is most revealed. Rossetti’s work is full of conventional symbolism–mystery and charm and unreality. We walk among his poems as in a garden where perfume and shape and colour haunt the senses with curious, hidden meaning. One may not pluck a flower, or touch it, lest the dream be broken.

Ibsen’s writing has no trace of this conventional understanding of what symbolism means and is. As essayist Jennette Lee wrote in 1910: “Ibsen’s work gives, first and foremost, a sense of intense reality–of actuality even. It is not till later that a hidden intent is guessed, and when this intention is traced to its source, the symbols discovered are original. Each of them–the pistol, the tarantelle, the wild duck, the white horses, the rotten ship–reveals perfectly that for which it stands. They originate in Ibsen’s imagination, and serve his purpose because they are the concrete images of his thought.”

Lee continues: “The symbols are as intricate and as simple as cunningly fashioned as a nest of Chinese boxes. Each complete in itself and each finished and perfect, giving no hint of the unguessed symbols within reaching to the heart of the matter itself. It is a conscious art, but nonetheless beautiful and wonderful. […] Of his work Ibsen himself is the supreme symbol hidden in silence and snow, sending forth his ventures year after year, with no hint of the cunning freightage they carry, concealed in bales of flax and wool, in tons of coal and grain and salt.”

Does this mean, therefore, that Ibsen himself is the babycarrot? Well, there may be something in that. As this biography notes, Ibsen was constantly at odds with the media establishment, and with the majority of 19th Century society, who viewed his work as scandalous and – sometimes – vulgar. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Ibsen may see himself as the babycarrot – always in the shadow of the bigger, more powerful mainstream, which calls it “ugly”.

Yet this explanation doesn’t seem to fit right. Perhaps the babycarrot is modernism in general – that artistic movement that would shape culture for more than the next century, but which was still scorned by those artists operating in the mainstream.

This perhaps holds more weight. After all, as Andrzej Gasiorek points out in A History of Modernist Literature, “most modernist writers defined their groundbreaking work in opposition to the tame production of their fellow literati”. Perhaps Babygulrot is simply evidence of Ibsen contrasting his new modernist, realist style with existing literary and artistic consensus.

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But perhaps there’s another interpretation.

In his extensive essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, George Bernard Shaw explains the underlying socialist principles in much of Ibsen’s work. Indeed, he goes as far as to suggest Ibsen issued clear challenges to the “ruling classes”, and was essential in allowing the ideas of socialism to come into common public discourse because it enabled “the replacement of old institutions by new ones”. Indeed, he suggests Ibsen’s writing is one repudiation of existing societal structures after another, nothing that, “if one does not repudiate one’s absolute obedience to [old institutions], political progress is impossible”.

Within this context, therefore, the babycarrot in Ibsen’s poem could be seen as the working classes, who are perceived as “ugly” and insignificant (“small”) by those in power and are thus forced to live in their shadow.

Indeed, if we take this interpretation, we realise that Ibsen is pointing out the extreme problems of inequality and regressive class structures that Orwell (among countless others) would discuss in his various essays, including The Lion and the Unicorn, in which he notes how “the governing class control […] the press, the radio and education […] and ignore the slums, unemployment […] the mass of the people.”

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels also denote the established structures of society: in which “an oppressed class lived under the sway of a feudal nobility, […] and now live only so long as they can find work. These labourers are ignored by the bourgeoisies […] must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity […] they have lost all individual character and, consequently, all charm of the workman. He [the worker] becomes an appendage of the machine.”

Clearly then, we have a inherent similarity between the babycarrot, overshadowed and diminutive compared to the carrot, and the proletariat or working classes, and how they are ostracised by the ruling establishment.

What is striking is how so many other socialist thinkers took pages upon pages of text and essays to elucidate their ideas. Henrik Ibsen took eight words in one short poem. And he did it by talking about carrots.

We are all babycarrots

The ideas at the core of Ibsen’s poetry are not confined to the 19th century. We live in a world of rampant inequality caused by the unfettered and uncontrolled excesses of neoliberalism and right-wing politics. With continued attacks on worker’s rights and stripping away of the welfare state, while bankers who crash the economy are rewarded with million dollar bonuses and CEOs are given government subsidies, we have created a society in which all the power and wealth lies in the hands of a few. Just 62 individuals, in fact, own as much as 3.8 billion people across the world combined. And these individuals cast a long shadow in which the rest of us live.

In other words, therefore, we live in a world in which we are all babycarrots: disregarded by the ruling classes and confined to the margins and their shadow.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Ibsen’s poem has been picked up by social media: his words resonate through time, and paint a picture of a world that we recognise (even if we might, at first, just think it’s a poem about carrots).