Rachel Lichtenstein brought us both a book and an application but the app was the star. It was free for a start and we got excerpts from it. Her subject was the psychogeography of Diamond Street, Hatton Garden. The app is intended to support the book by lending it extra dimensions in terms of interviews, commentary from experts and writers like Iain Sinclair, historical photographs, video clips and trips under the streets into the sewers to see where the old rivers ran. The app uses GPS to trigger the programme in much the same way as Words in Air does, and one may enter the selected area from any point. The whole thing was captivating, somewhere between museology, archivism, guide book and literature.
The image I will carry away from Rachel Lichtenstein’s enthralling programme is an amalgam of an old diamond dealer and the moment we enter the sewers of London. It presents us less with a story than with a layering of stories, a palimpsest in fact - and that to my mind is more a kind of poetry than a work of continuous and developing narrative. It is not so much the story of how we got here, but what the sense of being here actually is. Nor is it the case that one question is more interesting than the other - both are questions we are constantly asking ourselves.
How the app stands in relation to the book might seem to be the central question. In discussing this Rachel talked about the Talmud and the idea of marginalia, a relation between scripture and commentary.
Here I have a copy of The Tempest I picked up in a second-hand bookshop. I bought it not because I didn’t have other copies of the play but because of this. It was the text - the marginalia was not eliminating the text. It was reflecting on it and in some ways modifying and enriching it.
We began with the image of books in crisis but the claim that the literary novel was very much alive. Marcel Möring referred us to the example of Chernobyl, where despite the nuclear disaster and the following leak, nature has quickly taken over. Just so with the novel, which is, he said, an invention, not a construct. The novel is the way we see and think: it is, he said, 'urgent very urgent' The crisis was a function of the market on the one hand and - so I read between the lines of reference to France and French writing - of French theory on the other. He talked about the Dutch Reformed Church that had adopted guitars and happy-clappy services and instituted these instead of Psalm 23. Supply and demand do not work for the soul. Let us be bold, let us be puzzling, let's explore the immense freedom of thought that is the novelist's responsibility.
There was some hestitation before discussion broken by Michelle de Kretzer's, 'We feel ashamed.' Geoff Dyer wondered whether the literary novel was all that it was cracked up to be, and if literary reportage were not more interesting. Jounralism, he suggested, was the new literature. Chandrahas Choudhury was not sure that reportage should pick up too many tricks of fiction. Sjön took the discussion back to notions of 'counter-culture' and 'underground' as ways of disrupting the dominance of commercial fiction. Will Self's Umbrella mentioned as an example of innovative fiction, though others suggested that pastiches of modernism are not daring or genuinely innovative: they are pastiches. The question, Jon Cook argued, was what distinguishes the writer as an artist.
Marcel’s passionate and moving plea for a serious literature, or rather for the serious task of the literary novel in a world of commercial publishing, struck many chords. It was a cry - to link back to Shakespeare - in Henry V’s words before Agincourt, to stiffen the sinews and summon up the true blood of what we might yet be and aim for. The novel, as defined by assumption in the provocation is the blood we should summon. So my image here is of an Agincourt of the world’s bookshelves. It is Disco Inferno, the wrestler, parts of whose body can distinctly twitch.