my friend Marco Roth has a very interesting essay on Howard Jacobson's latest novel; also (ooh, I've been waiting eagerly for this one since I saw it announced last week, and it is indeed quite wonderful) Stefan Collini on the selected letters of William Empson:
Empson famously characterized much of what went on in writing as “argufying”, which he glossed as “the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way; I do not mean nagging by it, but just a not specially dignified sort of arguing”. He was attractively alert to the combative aspects of this activity: “Argufying is not only mental; it also feels muscular. Saying ‘therefore’ is like giving the reader a bang on the nose”. There is, one way and another, quite a lot of pugilism in Empson’s writing. He liked his prose pieces to have “a bang at the end”, and someone else’s nose was often as handy a place as any for these to land. As an undergraduate literary magazine editor, even before he had fatefully changed from mathematics to English, he welcomed a contribution which would disagree with the views of his future supervisor partly because “it would be rather a smack at Richards”. One of his best-known bits of fraternal joshing in poetry is entitled “Just a Smack at Auden”. In wrangling about the Elizabethan theatre he is pleased to note that he lands a good few “whacks at Wickham” (Glynne Wickham’s was the nose in question). His most frequent punchbag was his typewriter. “I smack this out in a state of moderate beer”, he declares in a letter to Charles Madge, ostensibly to soften the force of some awesomely frank criticism of the latter’s typescript. “I am smacking out my silly Inaugural on the typewriter”, he announces almost two decades later, again turning to the colloquial register to undercut the inherent pomposity and absurdity, as it pleased him to make out, of such professorial pronouncements.
It is ridiculous, I am having a self-imposed ban on non-work-related serious reading until I am done with my book manuscript (this feels for now on the whole more virtuously self-denying than punitive, but we will see how I do under the privation, I do not have a good record with this), I really won't have time to read these for many months, but I am so going to go and order the relevant books from Amazon right now: Stefan Collini's Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain; and John Haffenden's Empson biography (good god, that is an expensive book, and it's only volume one....) and the selection of Empson's letters that Collini's reviewing above. Mouth-watering; they can get added to the huge pile of equally desirable new books that I will almost certainly not get to until September or October....
(Updated: I realized that it was absurdly too much money, common sense spoke to me, not to mention there's not an inch of spare shelf space round here: moreover I can get them all at the library, not a single one of them's checked out and I can get Empson's poems too. Unfortunately I just got back from the library, but I will go again later or tomorrow & snatch them from the shelves before someone else can get them.)