Vienna: Walther König bookshop

It’s a rare thing for us to visit a town without finding a bookshop or two to hang out in. The only one I came upon in Graz was closed when I went by. In Vienna we were particularly taken with the Walther König bookshop. I hadn’t heard of this chain before – they are in galleries around Europe, including a couple in London, I discover.

We went to the Museumsquartier in order to view the Schiele and Klimt holdings at the Leopold Museum, only to discover that it is closed on Tuesdays. It was a splendid second prize to walk into this bookshop. It’s very large but not impersonal. I’m used to the way in which secondhand bookshops grow, organically, if not higgledly-piggledy. Here it felt designed, in a good way. Lots of different categories merged into the idea of art. There are critical works and fiction. There is landscape gardening and books like The Architecture of Trees. There is design, including interior, and fashion and craft. Photography, of course. Graphic novels. Fascinating books on architecture and urban planning.

The book I would have loved to buy was Schiele: All paintings 1909-1918. But it cost 150 Euros and that’s without adding in excess luggage as it weighed kilograms. Still, an extravagant and beautiful book I could come back to. I’m not sure if it was the beginning of the internet, or simply cheaper ways to produce excellent art books, but the bottom fell out of the market for secondhand ones in the mid-nineties or so. Despite being well aware of that, I was nonetheless taken aback to see so many beautiful art books yesterday at such heavily discounted prices. For example, for a mere 15 Euros one could buy Dancing Around the Bride. An interesting looking publication in a unique format.

Instead I ended up with a small book on Schiele, text in English, and a John Berger I haven’t come across before: Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. I look forward to visiting this bookshop again, we must go back to Vienna.




A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

Written in 2017:

Late last year we were offered the library of an avid, widely read deceased uncle of a friend. He had a habit of writing angry comments at the front of the books he disliked. I can do no better on this occasion than quote him: ‘Another bad one.’

I’m really surprised that this is a seventies Rendell, I thought her work from that period would read better. Have I overrated her in the past?

I do wish I could have kept the entire library of this stranger-to-me. Going through his books, picking one and discarding another – as it was, we kept maybe a couple of hundred of them – his scathing commentaries almost urged me to read the books, I could see some companionship in agreeing with him. Can you get anything like that from a kindle? With the book comes so much more than the book. Books, paper and glue books, touched in ways that are passed on to the next reader, value added, if you like. Long may even the bad ones live.

Slowness by Milan Kundera

This isn’t:

Just no.

It’s more like:


I’m sorry Kundera. I don’t know if we are going to meet again, but the bridge-player in me isn’t liking the odds.

I wrote that in June, and put the book on the hall table ready to give to my local secondhand bookshop. I know, I felt sort of bad about that. It’s a lovely bookshop and deserves better.

My mother at the age of 81 is an entirely voracious reader. In the nicest possible way she resented every moment of her life she spent raising four children whilst working fulltime and all the rest of it. So much time that would best have been spent reading. Her eagle eye spotted the book and despite everything I said about it she took it home with her.

Today, three months later, I call my mother from the other side of the world. I can feel she is just being polite as I conscientiously try to entertain her with my story of how it is Day of Fasting on Prune Tart holiday here in Geneva. It’s about 10pm where she is. ‘You want to get back to your book, don’t you?’ I say to her slightly accusingly, like a dutiful daughter who is being subtly told they aren’t wanted. ‘Err, yes’ she replies, sounding slightly guilty about it, I thought. Or perhaps hoped. ‘What are you reading then?’ I continue. ‘Well, you remember that book in the hallway,  you were going to give it to East Ave Books?’, she began.

Oh the shame of it. Dumped in the middle of a phone call for Slowness. Mothers.

Is WordPress losing the plot?

Anybody who has a WP blog will note a major change going on at the moment where WP is trying to force its users down the road of The Block. Some will also have noticed that millions of people are desperately unhappy about that. Unfortunately when you are talking about an organisation that now ‘powers a third of the internet’ millions doesn’t amount to diddley squat.

I’m engaging in a discussion in their forums about this at the moment. This is the last comment I made and I’m curious to know what others think about the situation.

Hi supernovia. Thanks for engaging. I won’t be the first to have written in these forums along these lines.

In a piece of bad timing I wrote an academic paper not long ago, suggesting that WordPress does a reasonable job of sticking to its core original policies. And indeed it keeps to some of them rigorously.

But in other ways not and some would say how could it? We all know it now ‘powers a third of the Internet’ and you can’t do that based on the requirements of your original core users which were that it should be all about a beautiful place to make beautiful print. You will recall the days before The Image became almost everything and then Monetisation became the God of All Who Use the Internet.

If you are just a person who wants to have blogs and put print on them, it is extremely hard to find any resource online that isn’t either image or marketing obsessed. There are some very small sites that recognise the need for the minimalism. Just you, your screen, keyboard and cursor. But of course, we are all scared about ongoing continuity. A little business that promises we all will be for you for ever. Very easy to say.

This puts people like me, who have zero interest in monetisation, nothing on my blogs is about making money, in an invidious position. Didn’t they all die in the great plague of 2010? Those people who wrote blog posts and weren’t trying to sell socks or sex from it?

Maybe this is the bottom line for me. If you are able to power a third of the Internet and counting, then you have a pretty lousy model if you can’t afford to support the Classic editor. Especially since you have received literally millions of complaints about it and there is at least one serious fork as a consequence. Unfortunately the fork isn’t for me either, as it is for business users.

I would be perfectly happy to use a model of WordPress that charged a small amount to keep Classic going. A few bucks a month times millions of users isn’t nothing. But if you tell me that lil’ ol’ WordPress can’t afford to keep the Classic editor going, something is seriously wrong.

As for specific issues with ‘Block’, it is really hard to talk about this with people who aren’t writers. If you are a writer the idea of having your screen the very opposite of a beautifully blank space is very difficult. For example, right now, I’m not writing in the tiny square I get to write comments in. I’m writing elsewhere on a large plain screen and I will cut and paste it here. If you look at your last paragraph, you will see how the relationship between you and me is a total disconnect. What I want is very simple. An aesthetically pleasing screen, not too much rubbish on it, and a large blank space to write as I want to write. Not as WP wants me to write. Not as The Block wants me to write. But whenever anybody says this to WP, somebody like you replies that this isn’t helpful. Tell me if your images aren’t loading properly. Well, you know. You can define as ‘helpful’ things that let you do what you want instead of what we want. But I’m struggling to see, from my point of view, how that is ‘helpful’. As for the idea that we should stick with something that is so immediately and permanently enraging and we’ll get over it. Not happening. For me, anyway.

Part of the issue is what defines a ‘writer’. Most of the people who call themselves ‘writers’ on WP and the internet generally aren’t. Mostly they are like this as a typical model, a ‘stay at home mom who loves cooking and writing about it and getting you to click on something that will make me money’. They monetise their blog in some way. And if you want their recipe for spag bol, you have to wade through incredibly tedious text about why stay at home mom prefers blah blah blah to bleh bleh bleh when they cook something mind-boggingly boring, a bunch of photos ‘this is me about to stir’, ‘this is me stirring’ ‘this is when I’ve just finished stirring’ and finally you have your bingo. You have got to the bit that is just ‘ingredients’ and ‘method’. At which point you discover that the reason it’s buried at the bottom of a very long and slow screen is that it isn’t any good. But hey, the photos were…ummm. Sigh.

It is not that I mind that many million such marketeers exist and probably call themselves ‘writers’. But there is a major difference between a ‘writer’ for whom that means creating words and a ‘writer’ for whom that means if you click on my pictures it’ll take you to Amazon and I’ll make a cent. WordPress is all over the latter. But I do wonder if WordPress thinks it would be so much better if that other type didn’t exist. That type like me.

From what I can gather from my research, there are lots of reasons why people hate ‘Block’. But you can’t do anything to make it work for me since the very idea of being trapped in a ‘block’ gives me….Writer’s Block.



The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

Oh, I could easily give this five stars. I’d say it’s the most readily accessible of his books that I’ve read thus far. Short stories, no real room to get Off Topic, these are tight and ‘enjoyable’, a word that doesn’t seem suitable for his books in general.

If you are thinking of trying this celebrated Italian author, this really does make sense as the way to start. Dip your toes….into the water of The Wine-Dark Sea.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia

I’m slowly reading all of Sciascia’s work insofar as it’s available in English.

Like John Berger’s fiction, there’s an urge to put Sciascia’s into sociology or some such category. Absolutely not because it’s a historical fiction, padded out with stuff about How Things Used To Be Done, but because they are political. This could be bad, but it isn’t. Although Berger and Sciascia have hearts and consciences, above all they are not proselytisers but observers. And if your observations are acute enough, there is no need to state the obvious.

In this set of four stories, described on the cover as ‘novellas’ but they are not that to me, the stages for the first three are small town Sicily, Sciascia’s usual backdrop.

But the fourth begins in that way, before diverging, with a poor labourer who decides that joining the army to go to fight with the Fascists in Spain is the way out of his terrible predicament. Perhaps predicament isn’t really the right word when you are simply talking of the normal, dreadful life of such exploited people. Life as a miner was awful enough that the army was a step towards something better – or so he hoped, like so many who were tricked or forced by economic circumstance into doing this. Only to discover, when he got to Spain that the good guys were the ones on the other side. He was fighting against peasants and labourers, he was warring against his own. This is a truly great story – Antimony.

Yes, you should read this. I can’t believe not one of my GR friends has.


Ubik by Philip K Dick

It seems to me that Dick is one of those authors who has to speak for himself.  The fact that the internet is littered with forum groups trying to figure out what the ending of Ubik means attests to that.

Although back in the sixties and seventies, Dick was not the commodity he is now, nonetheless a lot of interviews exist where he does get to do just that, speak for himself. So I’m going to let him do that here.

SFR: Why do you think your books have sold so well in foreign countries, and not as well in America?

DICK: Well, the first answer that comes to mind is “Damned if I know.” Perhaps it’s the general attitude towards science fiction in European countries, accepting it as a legitimate form of literature, instead of relegating it to the ghetto, with the genre, and regarding it as sub-standard. The prejudice is not there in France, Holland, England, and Germany, and Poland that we have in this country against science fiction. The field is accepted, and it doesn’t have anything to do particularly with the quality of my writing, it has to do with the acceptance of the field of science fiction as a legitimate field. Bear in mind that many, many of the English writers wrote science fiction: Ian Foster, of course we always think of George Orwell, Huxley, and it’s just natural. It wasn’t a step down, into the gutter for them to do it, and it would be here. If Norman Mailer were to write a science fiction novel — an inter-galactic novel — I doubt if he would. Saul Bellow wrote me recently, and he said he is writing science fiction, and he of course in a very fine writer, so maybe the ghetto walls will break down here. But I think it is the fact that they have a high regard for science fiction there. And I think also one of the reasons — especially in France — is that they’re aware that it’s a field of ideas. The science fiction novel is a novel of ideas, and they’re interested in the ideas. There’s an intelligentsia in Europe among the students that appreciates the ideas. You don’t have the equivalent intelligentsia here. We just don’t have that interest in books of ideas that they have there. They appreciate the philosophical and other types of ideas in science fiction, and look forward to science fiction novels. They have a voracious appetite for them.

SFR: That would probably be the same reason, then, why science fiction books sell so well on college campuses.

DICK: Sure, yes, absolutely. I got a letter from a German editor. There are science fiction political organizations — right-wing and left-wing — there, too, that there’s no equivalent for here at all. One of them, the left-wing one, voted me a vote of solidarity, and I thought that was neat. It was something like the Workers and Peasants for Science Fiction Gameinschaft. And it was clear to me from the letter that we just have nothing like that here, a kind of political science fiction groups, where they see them in terms of the sociological and political ideas and the effects on society of the 1984 type of novel — the dystopian novel. They take those dystopian novels very seriously there, they really do. I think another thing in the fact that the American people are apolitical. The dystopian novels don’t really signify anything to the American people, because the American people are so politically naïve that the dystopian novels don’t seem significant to them, you know what I mean? They don’t have the relevance to them that they would have to the European people.

SFR: The Americans seem to get more out of things like Tolkien.

DICK: Right, fantasy. But in Europe they’re more politically aware, and in fact they will read political things into novels which are not there actually. I’ve read a lot of European criticism of my writing in which they see a lot of sociologic and political science type ideas which isn’t there at all. “The Decomposition of the Bourgeois Structure of Society” I think was the name of one article about my writing, and how I had subverted the bourgeois society by destroying its fundamental concepts in a most subversive way. A way so deviously clever that I never mention politics. And this was so fundamental that the whole thing would collapse — the bourgeois society would collapse like a house of cards if I would just write two more books like UBIK. The fact that no political ideas were ever mentioned in UBIK merely showed how subversive this book was in undermining bourgeois society.

SFR: With reasoning like that, you could say the same thing about a Buster Keaton film.

DICK: Oh, certainly. That’s your really subversive thing, where there’s no political ideas expressed at all. It’s too fundamental to be articulated.

As usual, although I don’t see reviews talking about this, Ubik’s setting captures ideas of the future that feel like they are coming our way. In particular the automatisation of everything combined with user-pays operation. You can’t as much as get a door open without either credit or coin. And the half-life – so convincing.

But also, as usual, I sat through the book thinking, oh, if only he could write. Characters. He makes them up with a thesaurus surely. They never ring true. So I was rather surprised to read in the same review that this is all he thinks he does that matters. Characters.

I think the writer falls in love with his characters, and wants the reader to know of their existence. He wants to turn what are people known only to him into people known to a fairly large body of readers. That’s my purpose. My purpose is to take these characters, who I know, and present them to other people, and have them know them, so that they can say that they’ve known them, too, and have enjoyed the pleasure of their company. And that is the purpose that I have, which, I suppose, is a purpose beyond entertainment.

The basic thing that motivates me is that I have met people in my life, who I knew deserved to be immortalized, and the best I could do — I couldn’t guarantee them immortality — but I could guarantee them an audience of maybe 100,000, like girls that I’ve met, or drinking buddies I’ve had, turn them from just somebody that I knew, and two or three other people knew, that I could capture their idiosyncratic speech mannerisms, their gentleness, their kindness, their humility, and make them available to a large number of people.

That’s my purpose. So, I suppose in a way I have a purpose beyond entertainment. But I certainly wouldn’t say that this is why people ought to write, or that they ought to write for any purpose beyond entertainment. But this is why I write. Always.

Especially I like to write about people who have died, whose actual lifetimes are over with, and who linger on only, say, in my mind and the minds of a few other people. I happen to be the only one who can write them down, and get their speech patterns down, and record incidents of great nobility and heroism that they have shown under very arduous conditions. I can do this for them, even though the people are gone. I have written about girls that I admire greatly, who are so illiterate that they would never read the book, even if I were to hand it to them. And I’ve always thought that was rather ironic, that I would make this attempt to immortalize them, when they were so illiterate that they could not or would not read the damn thing themselves.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. Who knew that this is what Dick thought he was doing?

Perhaps that just goes to show that real life has the same nature as reality as it appears in his books, where the rug is pulled out from under your feet again and again.

The interview quoted in this post is available in full here. It first appeared in 1976.