Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sunday frivolity

Rachel Cooke interviews Jilly Cooper at the Observer. I find the novels of Jilly Cooper completely addictive, they are really not very well-written at all in the conventional sense (and the one thing I genuinely disapprove of is her habit of putting bad puns in the mouths of characters regardless of whether it suits their personality or not, she should pick one suitable character and give that person all the bad jokes) and yet I will read them again and again in spite of their badness. There is something very delightful about her sunny view of human nature and her romantic temperament; this interview definitely gets it across, and in fact although I just ordered a bunch of Amazon UK books in a fit the other day (the new Alan Warner novel, Jenny Diski's new collection, Jake Arnott's new novel but also the Long Firm trilogy in one volume which I just wanted although I have read them all already but it is time to reread--and yeah, the shipping added up to almost twenty pounds, I felt ludicrously extravagant) I think I am going to have to order this one as well. I can't imagine it's being published in the US, those books (not the early romance ones but the funny sprawling "sex and drink among the trashy upper classes" ones of more recent years) don't seem to translate very well. Pity: I find them absolutely delightful. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

I am relieved to find myself straightforwardly coveting a trashy novel, I have been suffering more acutely than usual from this spell of anhedonia I can't seem to shake--I went to the excellent and highly light-readingesque Porter Square Books yesterday evening to see if I could find something I really wanted to read but after moping around the store for half an hour I still hadn't seen a single book that made my mouth water--I expect it was partly the weight of all these books back at the apartment as well, and in the end I just came back here and finished reading the B. S. Johnson biography (not a particularly anhedonia-dispelling book unless your spirits lift at the thought of the suffering of others).

But you know, partly the problem is that the particular kind of book I want to read in this mood is not produced in sufficiently high quantity and quality. Jilly Cooper aside (she is sui generis, there is nobody else like her), the kind of book that makes me most delighted is very well-written young-adult fantasy that is as complex and satisfying as adult fiction. And in fact what prompted me to write Dynamite No. 1 as opposed to some completely different novel was my determination to write the kind of book I most want to read: I realized one day that almost every month I went by the Bank Street Bookstore (oh, that store has virtually the same web template as Porter Square Books, must be some kind of shared service) and skulked along the young-adult shelves looking for a brand-new really wonderfully good young-adult trilogy (along the lines of Philip Pullman and Garth Nix) but that of course nothing had miraculously appeared since my last too-recent visit.

Female noir

A very good and quite unsettling little psychological thriller, Danzy Senna's Symptomatic, a novel of passing and stalkers and sublets. Not the book to have read just before going to bed, I fear: the scenario is stylized (the stalking is more like a haunting, you get the sense that the female biracial stalker Greta is like a kind of ghostly double for the blurry main character who is also biracial) but the feelings are incredibly vividly realized, I was particularly appalled and convinced by the description of the horrible sublet. The novel bears comparison with the other same-sex stalking novel in my mind, Enduring Love; now I am off on stalker-subset mental list-making, but I think that genre crime fiction must be mostly excluded or the list would get too long. I really loved Senna's first novel Caucasia; the main character here is not so appealing, but it's an elegant and striking book in its own right & I will look forward with considerable interest to her next novel.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The blood-bond of Siamese twins

What a good book!

I've just finished reading Jonathan Coe's Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, and found it wonderfully enjoyable; during the first half I was having some skepticism, partly about whether it was really necessary to emphasize the formal peculiarities or strangeness of the biography itself and partly concerning the personality of B. S. Johnson who seemed to me overwhelmingly and horribly dogmatic and bulling (in a vein that is all too familiar, and I could horribly easily imagine what kind of a website he would have if he were alive today, and what argumentative and hectoring comments he would leave on other people's blogs, and how much I would shudder & resolve to steer clear).

Yet in the second half the humanity of Coe's biographical practice brought Johnson's more human side into focus as well, so that this maddening man's vulnerabilities and (though I still think it is possible Coe's sentimentalizing, the quotations he gives from various survivors of the early 1970s London literary scene blithely saying "Oh, no, Bryan liked his drink but he certainly wasn't an alcoholic" and "He was a kind man" are obviously problematic) his fondness for his children and his strength as an ally and colleague for those he admired started coming through; and I was in the end wholly won over by Coe's procedure. (And Johnson occasionally surprises you too, as when we see his production notes for a documentary he's making on his New Brutalist architectural heroes Peter and Alison Smithson revealing his frustration with their intellectual self-absorption: "You are NOT talking to yr architectural mates . . . either you discipline yourselves or I do in the cutting. . . ." Elsewhere he seems wholly in their thrall, so it is a relief to see him for once sensible and human and not overly dogmatic in his perception of what the general public should want.)

This book provides an interesting complement to The Rotters' Club, which is surely Coe's best novel to date (it is a remarkably moving book, both that and the Johnson biography really are exceptional). I haven't yet read the sequel The Closed Circle, but am reminded I must get hold of it (and also a copy of the first one which I think I had better reread before going to the second, the one flaw of The Rotters' Club was that it was almost impossible to keep track of the different boys...).

I distinctly remember first reading Coe, I was in grad school and I can't at all remember now how I heard of him (he was much less well-known in the US in the mid-90s than in England), but I got The House of Sleep from the library (it was one of those interesting and appealing large-format paperbacks you get in the UK, but bound in library covers, and I am almost certain--oh, perhaps I just picked it off the shelf there at random--it was in the L&B room at Yale's Sterling Library, an interesting trove of recent literary and popular fiction including a lot of first-run non-US stuff that you would in those pre-lit-blog days have never come across elsewhere) and was transfixed by it, albeit without being sure whether I altogether liked it.

I read all the other novels of his they had at the library & distinctly registered Coe as someone worth watching though it was only with The Rotters' Club that he ascended to my list of favorites. (Though their writing is completely different, there's a strong resemblance between the writerliness of Coe and Jonathan Lethem; you can see both of them moving from early novels interested in avant-garde art and film and collectordom of the teenage boy kind but also a serious commitment to exploring memory into more obviously autobiographical work in their later thirties, and a kind of opening-up of humanity in the fiction that is only hinted at in the early books.)

Longwinded preamble!

What I loved about Like a Fiery Elephant: Coe's seriousness about novel-writing (which ultimately is the basis of his affection for Johnson, who took novel-writing with the utmost--sometimes off-putting--gravity). I strongly, strongly responded to this, I like the way he's willing to put himself on the spot about writing and its importance.

What I loved & was pained by at the same time: the awfulness of Johnson's letters, they are absolutely painful to read! (And even worse are the transcripts of tape-recorded conversations in which Johnson's awful bullying drunken dogmatic manner comes across, nb. the one starting on p. 161 in the British edition.)

Johnson to a prospective agent for his novel TRAVELLING PEOPLE:

[T]he device of using a different style or literary technique for each chapter has succeeded well beyond my expectation, largely as a result of the unifying element of the central character's logical progression and development. Joyce used this device in ULYSSES, of course, but by allowing the nature of the subject matter of each particular series of events which form one chapter to determine organically the style chosen, I seem to have avoided the contrivance to which Joyce was sometimes reduced.

Johnson to Allen Lane on Penguin's declining to buy paperback rights to his second novel:

Dear Allen Lane:

In reviewing my novel ALBERT ANGELO, the Sunday Times described me as 'one of the best writers we've got', and the Irish Times called the book 'a masterpiece' and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett.

You have refused to buy the paperback rights of ALBERT ANGELO. Why?

Yours sincerely,

B. S. Johnson

(Funnier and more sympathetic though possibly equally demented as a specimen of epistolary style is his letter to the Chief Obstetrician at St Bartholomew's Hospital, asking for an exception to the policy on not allowing fathers to be present at births: "I have recently seen films of labour and delivery at the National Childbirth Trust (where my wife has attended classes) and have read appropriately: I am therefore prepared for what should normally happen.")

Most likeable authorial footnote, as an addendum to a Daily Mail diatribe of 1970 against the Arts Council's funding for (among other things) the Midlands Arts Lab in Birmingham, a ramshackle cinema and theater complex in which (so the article charged) "girl members often paint their faces and bodies and simply sit around":

The present author must come clean and confess that he was himself a patron of this louche establishment in the late 1970s. Things must have changed in the itnervening years because I remember it as a rather quiet place where sensitive souls like myself could repair for a cup of coffee, a slice of fruitcake and--if we were feeling racy--perhaps a Werner Herzog or Howard Hawks film. To be honest I never saw any 'girl members' at all, let alone with their bodies and faces painted, 'sitting around' in (for such is the Mail's clear implication) nude and provocative poses. Too late, as usual: to qutoe Johnson himself--'Ah, the chances let slip!'

Most appealing irrelevant biographical detail: on the expense claim for research done for a projected film commemorating the jubilee of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Johnson (having visited a meat-processing factory) requested "₤2.75 for shoes ruined by blood'--decimalization having been introduced a few weeks earlier).

Saddest list (from the notes for an unwritten novel):

Suicide - the goldfish - not to feed - but he came up mouthing - was he trying to commit suicide?

I am now thinking of this myself

I once had a gun (ref. SAC)

Now I have an air pistol, the cheapest

Buy a leg of lamb, say, belly of pork, see how far the pellet can penetrate

The combined pathos and humor--unintended?--of that line about the leg of lamb....

Most enticing possibility: that someone will release as an audiobook the BBC recording of Johnson and others reading aloud from Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (which sounds by far the most appealing of Johnson's novels): "when it came to Chapter XVI of the novel," Coe observes, which laid out how to build a Molotov cocktail, the narrator on the tape "explains--truthfully--that the passage has been banned by the BBC, and instead we get a recording of Johnson reading the chapter, but speeded up more and more until it becomes an incomprehensible stream of high-pitched noise."

Most perceptive comment about Johnson's writing by someone other than Jonathan Coe (the speaker is Istvan Bart):

Bryan may look like an avant-garde writer, but what turns out, after so many years, to be his contribution is that in fact all the time he was writing a folklore, a folklore of a whole society, of this working-class past: attitudes that simply disappeared and will never come back and are gone. Even at the time he was making this world up: it was not real at the time. It was dead. There were just relics of it. He was making up a lore for himself, on which to fall back. It was quite obvious that this was the past, this was gone.

I thought Coe's emphasis on his own distrust for the assumptions underpinning the writing of & popular appetite for literary biography was slightly overstated; surely all of the best literary biographies share this kind of skepticism (Biswell's Anthony Burgess one, for instance, or Richard Holmes's lives of Shelley and Coleridge). Similarly, yes, it is slightly unorthodox to paste in so many documents and offer self-conscious historical speculation, but I do not find it qualitatively different from many other biographers' practice (so that Coe, like Johnson, seems to be doing something rather more humane and--a word I rarely use in a positive sense, but in this case I will make an exception--middlebrow than he lets on).

But here is the book's real credo, the thing that makes it such a rich and fascinating and humane read (and it is idiotic of me to bury this at the bottom of such a long post, but it makes more sense after all the other stuff, and Coe saves it for the end too):

Real novelists, picking up their pens in the morning, booting up their computers, ask themselves this question every day: Is it worth it? Is there any point? Without that bedrock of doubt, nothing that you write will have any value. Novel-writing is not a hobby (although we're allowed to find it enjoyable); it is not a form of therapy (although it can be therapeutic). It's an intervention, if it is anything: an act of lunatic faith in the notion that by adding something to the world we might somehow be improving it. The stakes are that high, and taking our lead from B. S. Johnson we should occasionally throw off our wretched middle-class English self-deprecation (with which he was so thoroughly unencumbered) and say as much. Not many novelists are prepared to do that: to own up to their responsibilities - to the form, to their readers, to the tradition that they are inheriting. That is what B. S. Johnson meant by 'writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter'.

Here's a very thorough set of review links at the Complete Review, in any case; perhaps most notably, Ed Park in the Village Voice, Eva Figes in the Guardian and Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books.

In a random coincidence

not one but two of my high-school classmates have reviews in this weekend's Washington Post book section: Sara Sklaroff reviews two books on madness and creativity and Emily Bazelon discusses recent books on motherhood by Caitlin Flanagan and others.

A premonition streak

Wayne Koestenbaum is my hero, and I just finished a second read through his new book of poems which has the tantalizing title Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (and if you read no other poem in the book, do read the funny and strangely modest title poem and also the bizarre and engaging collection of back-cover blurbs--oh, and I did love the list-poem "John Wayne's Perfumes" too...).

I have written before here about Wayne, I idolize his prose style and his sensibilities (follow these links if you're curious to see previous praise-lavishing posts on Wayne's essay "My 80's", his general excellence and his delightfully baroque novel Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes).

Rachel Kushner had a good interview with him recently in Time Out New York, check it out: "I don’t think I’ve gotten the fantasy of Jewish porn films out of my system. My poem is a manifesto, a call for papers—a comic commentary on the fact that there aren’t any best-selling Jewish porn films. Let’s make some! I’ll start with Diary of a Jewish Sex Fiend."

What I love in these poems is the clarity of Wayne's voice and his absolutely unmistakable diction--someone could say these words to me in the most incongruous and far-flung setting in a funny voice and I would know in a second who wrote them. They're dreamy, dream-like (uncensored), often collecting a handful of shorter lyrics under baroque-noir rubrics.

"Stanzas in My 39th year" opens with "Why I Want X in My 39th Year":

I used to be pretentious;
then I grew simplistic.
Should I devote myself
to pleasure or to labor?

I dreamt of a deep thinker:
Rousseau? A moment ago
I had the idea (it escaped)
that almost saved my life.

I love concentrating,
hugging a periphery
or a hole:
I wish I could prove it.

Somebody strong circled
the word "was" when it occurred
three times in one sentence.
I might have been the figure circling "was."

I love how much work (word-work and idea-work) he gets the word "Rousseau" to do, you would swear it was more than just two syllables....

There are a number of poems here with that puzzle-diction where you can't quite figure out the artificial constraint that produced the extraordinary diction; in "Elegy for Everyone," for instance, which I particularly like, most but not all of the articles have gone astray, with striking but mysterious results. Or what about this sequence of lines in "Observations"?

You can tell when cauliflower is cooked:
it starts to smell like cauliflower.

Rule of thumb:
vegetables are done
when they smell like themselves.

The rule applies to kale, spinach, broccoli,
potatoes. Onions, however,
smell like onions long before they are finished.

I dreamt Elizabeth Hardwick
corrected my verbs--
she told me, "Instead of
is, we use lead or invite."

Something about the precision of the observations ("Rule of thumb: / vegetables are done / when they smell like themselves") combined with the transitions and the surprise of the Hardwick grammar correction just ravishes me.

The poem that seemed to me most Wayne-like is another list-poem (there's a real name for that, isn't there? I'm thinking of Christopher Smart and those great long repetitive lines of "For I will consider my cat Geoffrey") called "In this Vale of Tears We Call Existence." It's got sixteen stanzas of five lines each, all following the shape and rhythm of that incantation; my favorite's number five though I don't know that you can get the effect when it's taken out of context like this:

in this genital mutilation I call rickrack
in this gender I call "No Pets"
in this Manolo Blahnik high heel I call rear-entry intercourse
in this intercrural congress I call fastidiousness
in this retro mentality I call
assiette variƩe

And then elsewhere there are a few one-liners (only they are two or three lines) that jump out here and there, I will leave you with a few of these to finish.

Current events:
my sadomasochistic student
has the smarts for me. (Better than the hots.)

And this (OK, I'm going to have to give you all eight lines):

Eclectic pastoral:
I'm wearing

too much makeup,
or not enough.

I miss confetti,
lacunae. Pals,

I'm on a premonition
streak: please slap me.

A good line, that last sentence; surely useful in all sorts of contexts?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Banville on Roth's Everyman

at the Guardian; other good things include Patrick Ness mouthwateringly making me covet Jake Arnott's new novel Johnny Come Home. You know what, enough of this semi-penitential library-book reading, I'm ordering it from Amazon UK in spite of the exorbitant shippings costs and the book problem round here! I must have it--I can always take it to read in Philadelphia where I will go for my brother's wedding before coming back HOME to New York, my brothers are Jake Arnott fans and I can leave it with them there....

Diana Evans reviews Gautam Malkani's first novel

in the FT. Londonstani won't be released in the US until June, but I am curious to take a look, on the whole I like these extreme-language novels; but I also think a ban should be placed on clever -stan and -stani titles, that is enough already (note Gary Shteyngart's forthcoming Absurdistan--recently excerpted in the New Yorker, but not I think online--and Masha Gessen's "Paranoiastan" in the first issue of n+1).

Ten is the safest age

A fascinating piece by Jo Craven McGinty at the New York Times, about patterns that emerge from New York City's murder victims and murderers over the last three years.

I love crime fiction, but I realized a long time ago I was never going to be able to write a straight-up crime novel--I don't approve, really (on account of basic lack of realism), of the kind where a private investigator ends up involved with a murder, and I am way too far removed from the milieu of homicide detectives or for that matter career criminals to do good "life of crime" type writing. I aim to make an attempt one day at some more female-noir-type crime writing (bad things happen inside families), but I have a feeling it's likely to turn into something a little less orthodox--like this idea I have about the animal-shape-changer in Upper Manhattan.

I'm not sure what responsibility the crime writer has to reality. I'm reminded of a talk I heard Cynthia Ozick give this past fall, and in fact I'm just going to paste in what I wrote then (the talk was called "The Rights of Imagination and the Rights of the History," and in it she made the counterintuitive claim--counterintuitive for a novelist, that is--that history is superior to fiction and that in certain circumstances fiction is indeed morally unredeemable; her examples concern failures of representation in Sophie's Choice and The Reader):

I think that as a writer or a literary critic you're better off critiquing books on the kind of evidence we deal with well (close reading, choices to do with plot and endings and argument) rather than this almost statistical argument about representation. (Ozick objects--I'm slightly simplifying her argument, but not by much--to Styron's choice to represent the suffering of a Polish Catholic in Auschwitz when only 5% of the victims were Polish Catholics, or to Schlink's decision to represent a female prison guard as illiterate when German society of the 1930s had very high literacy rates.) I asked a question afterwards that introduced an oblique analogy to put pressure on where this line of thought takes you--is it fair, then, to argue that people shouldn't write serial-killer thrillers because most women and children are killed by people they know & this covers up violence against women?

It happens that I have no problem with people writing serial-killer thrillers (well, in general of course I believe that people should write what they like, your imagination runs along certain lines and you will not do well to wrench it away from them), and yet it does start to seem odd if the preponderance of books published in a certain genre (one whose literary protocols tend to be fairly realistic, moreover) come to seem so much at odds with the patterns in reality.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Good TLS things

Adam Kirsch on Elizabeth Bishop's uncollected drafts and fragments:

Compared to the decades-long gestation of other poems, “One Art” came to Bishop quickly, in just a few months – “like writing a letter”, she said. But the sixteen drafts of the poem reveal how far it evolved to reach its seemingly predestined form. The first draft shows the basic premiss already established, but Bishop expounds it in a dismally coy first-person monologue:

One may find it hard to believe, but I have
actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
maybe it’s lost, too. I won’t know for some

If this attempt is paralysed by its assumed airiness, the succeeding drafts are nearly sunk by naked sentimentality. “One Art” became a villanelle as early as the second draft, but by the ninth Bishop was still contemplating a bathetic ending: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master. / oh no. / anything at all anything but one’s love. (Say it: disaster.)”. And not until the twelfth draft does she abandon the saccharine rhyme comparing the beloved’s eyes to “the small wild aster”. The perfection of “One Art”, the drafts show, was not given, but earned, through the disciplined refusal of Bishop’s deepest poetic temptations. That insistence on perfection, documented on every page of Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, is what makes Elizabeth Bishop not just a cherishable poet, but an exemplary one.

(The layout of the verse may have gotten messed up, by the way, in the paste-up.)

Also Raymond Tallis on Mary Midgley's memoir (mmmm, that's one I have to get, sounds great) and Bharat Tandon on Alan Warner (a mixed but very perceptive review, with some interesting thoughts on modes of contemporary fiction).

Queer as a clockwork orange

I've just finished Andrew Biswell's excellent The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, and the only bad thing about the experience is the painfulness with which my teenage self is called to mind. From age twelve or thirteen to seventeen or so, I was truly obsessed with Burgess, I read almost everything he'd published and really had a fixation of unmatched intensity. In retrospect, it makes tons of sense, Burgess is exactly the man of letters I still aspire to be, even his obsession with Augustinian versus Pelagian accounts of human nature maps very closely onto my ongoing interesting in the nature-nurture-perfectibility stuff; all the linguistic playfulness and intellectual polymathness was exactly what would have appealed to me at an age where you really only have limited access to such things by virtue of the unfortunate handicap (I'm borrowing this phrase from my novel) of a chronological age in the low double digits.

I am planning a massive Burgess reread at some not-long-from-now opportunity (if I was in my real apartment I would be reading A Clockwork Orange right now instead of blogging, having plucked it off my own actual bookshelf, and in fact I may go and buy another copy tomorrow, I have a sudden desire to incorporate it into the nature-nurture talk I have to give on Tuesday). For now, though, I at least have the satisfaction that this was one of those library books I'm so determined to consume. And it also leaves me with the puzzle of what to choose next out of two associatively related library-obtained volumes: Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson biography Like a Fiery Elephant, on the one hand; on the other (the association here is more remote, but Davidson--no relation--is one of the dedicatees of Biswell's biography, and it reminded me of the book's allure for me when I first heard about it) Peter Davidson's The Idea of North. Hmmm... tantalizing choice... anyone who has read one or both is encouraged to express an opinion in the comments.

One of the things Biswell deals with particularly gracefully is the extent of Burgess's own confabulation--call it lying--about his own biography, so the facts below may be taken with a large grain of salt. But here are ten particularly entrancing details garnered from Biswell's pages:

1. Burgess recorded passages from A Clockwork Orange (issued on vinyl, Caedmon, 1973) in a strongish Manchester accent, though he had otherwise modified his speaking voice to something more like RP (Biswell observes that "his speaking voice altered in the other direction when regional accents came into fashion later on in the 1960s, with the rise of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat poets").

2. In a piece for the Sunday Times Magazine in October 1977, Burgess declared his "Seven Wonders of the World" to be Tiger Balm massage oil, the chameleon, the pre-decimal British monetary system, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, the Petrarchan sonnet form, champagne and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

3. In an interview for the magazine of the school at which he taught in 1952, Burgess answered the question "What do you think is the greatest menace at the present time?" thus: "Neo-Pelagianism (refusal to believe in Original Sin) which produced Russia, America, youth organizations and holiday camps."

4. Stanley Kubrick asked Burgess to adapt Schnitzler's Traumnovelle for the screen long before Frederic Raphael wrote the script that became Eyes Wide Shut.

5. After his return to England in the early 1950s, Burgess was so broke that his wife cut his hair using kitchen scissors and a pudding basin ("a mean economy, as the photographs of Burgess from this time testify," Biswell comments); he later also claimed to have paid the chemistry master at the school to make tonic water (at the cost of a penny per gallon) to save the expense of buying it in shops.

6. The junior neurologist who saw Burgess when he arrived at the Neurological Institute with a suspected brain tumor was Roger Bannister, the first person in recorded history to run a mile in less than four minutes (however--despite Burgess's later claims--Bannister did not "trepan the Burgess cranium").

7. Burgess in an unpublished letter written during the composition of A Clockwork Orange: "I've just completed Part I - which is just sheer crime. Now comes punishment. The whole thing's making me rather sick. My horrible juvenile delinquent hero is emerging as too sympathetic a character - almost Christ-like, set upon by the scourging police. You see what I mean by moral deterioration."

8. Burgess often wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week; when his concentration failed him, he took three dexedrine tablets and a pint of gin and tonic and returned to work.

9. The vocabulary of the Shakespeare bio-novel Nothing Like the Sun only includes words that Shakespeare could have known, with one exception, the word "spurgeoning," a deliberate anachronism to honor the literary critic Caroline Spurgeon ("He kicked in youth's peevishness at the turves of the Avon's left bank, marking with storing-up spaniel's eye the spurgeoning of the black-eddy under the Clopton Bridge").

10. Shirley Conran was his neighbor in (tax-havenish) Monaco, and he read her novel Lace in typescript, which led various people to speculate that he was her ghost-writer: "When she asked for his permission to name him in the acknowledgements," Biswell adds in a note, Burgess politely declined: "I don't think it's in order to express this putative help or encouragement publicly [. . .] I think it might even be considered indiscreet to mention help. So please don't bring me into it."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I am hell-bent

on reading an acceptable number of these library books before they have to go back, and so I've set myself a one-a-day rule; I'm not allowed to skip one just because I read a non-library pleasure book, but I am allowed an exemption if I need to be reading for work instead (especially because a lot of the work books are library books also). At last count, I had 164 checked out, of course at least fifty or so of those I've read already--a huge heap of off-putting Fielding criticism for instance, which I had to read this fall, and a lot of volumes of Johnson and Boswell and their critics--but there is no way I will get to read them all before I move.

Just now I've read a really excellent one, sly and uncanny and altogether having my strongest recommendation, James Lasdun's Seven Lies. The level of moral-psychological insight combined with linguistic firepower is here basically unimaginably high; and yet it is a deceptively simple-seeming little novel that would make a great film.

On every page there's something quotable, but here are a couple paragraphs I especially liked early on, a description of the narrator's mother (the setting is communist East Germany in the 1970s):

My mother in particular was an expert in that particular form of psychological control which consists on the one hand in withholding, or at least delaying, a smile or word of kindness when the situation seems to call for one, and on the other in bestowing her approval of something--when she chose to do so--with a magisterial impersonality, as if she were merely the channel for an objective fact that had been handed down to her by some celestial source of judgment. The effect of the latter was to make one feel elevated, officially congratulated, as it were; as if a medal with the head of Lenin on it had been pinned to one's chest.

You might imagine that in a socialist society a personality such as hers, with the distinctly unegalitarian idea of life that it projected, couldn't possibly thrive. But somehow she managed to short-circuit the mental processes by which people might form a criticism of her in political terms, and confront them instead on a more intimate and primitive level of the psyche, where authority, if it succeeds in imposing itself as such, is unquestioningly believed in and--how shall I put it?--quaked before.

It's a sad, strange, funny little novel about fate and (self-)betrayal, with lots of insights like this along the way; highly recommended.

(Here are my thoughts a week or so ago about his first novel, The Horned Man, which I loved. And I've pulled out of the comments on that post several additional book recommendations--for my own later library-going purposes as well as for readers here, all of these sound excellent though I haven't read them myself: in response to my observation about the appeal of poets' novels, Ed Park urges us all to read John Ashbery and James Schuyler's A Nest of Ninnies, Robert Kelly's Scorpions and Albert Goldbarth's Pieces of Payne; and Maud Newton recommends The Insult by Rupert Thomson.)

Monday, April 24, 2006

I had a minor internal literary psychodrama

last year around David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, it seemed like everyone was raving about it & yet I didn't find the idea of it appealing at all, I checked it out more than once from the library and returned it unread when some other reader recalled it and finally I read the first few pages and thought "Oh, those are remarkably well-turned sentences" and returned it to the library without a qualm and also without reading another page.

It was a revelation of the "Just because everyone else is reading it doesn't mean you have to" sort, but it didn't last, I was having qualms again a month later, clearly most of my novel-reading is prompted by the pleasure motive but as a serious reader and fiction-writer I do sometimes have to read things that may not be calling to me as strongly as some other books. Sometimes, afterwards, I discover that I've been missing out on something I will love; sometimes not.

Mitchell's Black Swan Green sounded rather more my kind of thing, in any case, and so I have just read it, and I find myself still quite torn. (But clearly I must read Cloud Atlas, I've put it in the Amazon shopping cart, I feel that I cannot afford not to see what he's doing technically even if it is not exactly what I love. This is a major English-language novelist & I must keep an eye on what he's up to. That "afford" isn't a prudential assessment, in other words, it just signals my sense that Mitchell may be on the shortish list of writers who are pushing the bounds of what's possible & that if you don't see them doing these things you miss an opportunity to expand your own range of techniques & goals. That kind of missed opportunity is what I find unacceptable; thus the obligation to read things I don't always or necessarily enjoy.)

The book leaves me completely cold emotionally. I couldn't stop comparing it to other roughly comparable novels & finding it wanting; it is not as moving as Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club, not as frightening as Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy, not as intellectually and emotionally compelling (to me personally, I mean) as Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, not as well-crafted (as a novel as opposed to linked-story-thing) as something like--but of course this is one of the greatest novels of all time and not a fair comparison--Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, not (to go a little further afield) as perceptive about adolescent psychology and the dynamic of groups as Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. (But there is a rather good classroom scene late on in the book, it is my obsession that great novelists do not write enough about classrooms--where everyone spends a lot of their time at one stage of life, and where I continue to spend some of my most interesting & engaging time--it is one thing I like about the Harry Potter books, that they reclaimed the classroom as a place where you could write lots of scenes even in a commercially successful novel.) And back to the main drift here, not as rich a bildungsroman as my favorites like Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows or (of course) David Copperfield.

One aspect of the book struck me as absolutely wonderful, and at a different level from the rest: this is the section titled "Hangman" and (more generally) the novel's treatment of the protagonist-narrator's speech impediment. It's really, really cool and well done and amazing things happen with the language related to this strand of the book. It got me through the first third or so of the book when I was just incredibly irritated by the narrator's (only word I can invoke) prissiness: Mitchell has chosen to use this prim and rather pedantic way of transcribing contractions ("would've," "'cause," etc.) and I really wish he hadn't, I know it can be affected when people come up with radical new spelling things (like Shaw does in Pygmalion & elsewhere, just leaving out the apostrophes in contractions in an attempt to get closer to the spoken language) but I think he could have done something better like just had "couldve" if he wanted it, or else done it more conventionally altogether, this way it's really annoying. And I have a personal antipathy to this style of British male middle-class boyishness, it rubs me the wrong way & my irritation distracts me from what should otherwise be the pleasures of the language. So the stammer material took things up to a higher level & tided me over & then the second half drew me in much more effectively, so that by the end I was not nearly so annoyed.

There's an episode in the middle that features a character (I am told) from Cloud Atlas, Madame Crommelynck, that struck me as both excessively stylized-literary (I thought the book would have been stronger without it) but also a productive turning point in the book, as if Mitchell had to get this out of the way before things could get really good. Here's Jason Taylor (who's been publishing his poetry in the parish magazine under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar) on his second visit to this intimidating & cosmopolitan lady who has made contact with him on the basis of those poems (I'm quoting this to give you a sense of what I don't like about the novel's style, and yet what's also striking about it):

As I prized off my trainers I heard a piano, joined by a quiet violin. I hoped Madame Crommelynck didn't have a visitor. Once you have three people you may as well have a hundred. The stairway needed fixing. A knacked blue guitar'd been left on a broken stool. In the gaudy frame a shivery woman sprawled in a punt on a clogged pond. Once again, the butler led me to the solarium. (I looked "solarium" up. It just means "an airy room.") The sequence of doors we passed made me think of all the rooms of my past and future. The hospital ward I was born in, classrooms, tents, churches, offices, hotels, museums, nursing homes, the room I'll die in. (Has it been built yet?) Cars're rooms. So are woods. Skies're ceilings. Distances're walls. Wombs're rooms made of mothers. Graves're rooms made of soil.

So I'm not objecting to what some reviewers have criticized, the incongruousness of this rather callow thirteen-year-old having such thoughts; I think that can be explained in terms of the voice, that awkward oscillation between immaturity and a precocious aestheticism seems to me psychologically more-or-less plausible. But the preciousness of the insights justs rubs me the wrong way (like the one about three people and a hundred); this is a very talented writer, don't get me wrong, but I suppose it's the same reason I don't like a lot of poetry, there strikes me as something terribly self-satisfied about lingering so long on these intricacies of self-observation and insight. Less would have been more: if I just had the plain sentences about rooms, I would find the observation more striking, but once it's presented alongside all this other stuff it takes it over the top in a way I find distinctly irritating.

Later in the section, Madame C. comments that Jason's best poem in the parish magazines is the poem titled "Hangman": "It has pieces of truth of your speech impediment, I am right?" she asks him. But common sense just has me saying here (in the internal monologue that accompanies my reading of a novel that has not fully engaged my emotions and attention), "But this is all very well and self-referential, and of course it echoes my own thought about the first hundred and fifty pages of Mitchell's novel, that the stammering stuff is much the best; but if you see it, and you see it's true, why not write me a really lovely short novel that deals with that truth in the amazing language I see in about ten percent of this novel, rather than giving me this blander and more middlebrow and prissy book clocking in at almost three hundred pages?" It's not an overly long novel, not by any manner of speaking, and yet I feel that some significant further distillation of meaning would have augmented my reading experience.

Some of the insights in the last part of the novel (about bullying, about self-knowledge, about secrets, about the power of being yourself) come a bit glibly, including a slightly over-obvious scene in the Hall of Mirrors at the village fair. "Secrets affect you more than you'd think," Jason tells us near the end. "You lie to keep them hidden. You steer talk away from them. You worry someone'll discover yours and tell the world. You think you are in the charge of the secret, but isn't it the secret who's actually using you? S'pose lunatics mold their doctors more than doctors mold their lunatics?" All very well, but a bit too familiar to be a really satisfying payoff for this artfully crafted bildungsroman. It's related to that blandness I feel here and there; I think one of the things that makes it hard for me to imagine Mitchell becoming a favorite writer of mine, though I am extremely impressed with his abilities and his craftsmanship, is that the books I love most tend to be (a) demented and (b) funny, and neither one of those adjectives applies here.

I've got one other disappointment that I will register (I hope, by the way, that I do not sound evilly mean-spirited; I found this an interesting and stimulating book, and I'm writing about it here mostly for myself, to clarify what reading it showed me about my own beliefs about novels I might write myself as well as novels written by other people). I don't think Black Swan Green works as a political novel, and I think that given its own implied goals and aspirations this is a problem. Jason Taylor mouths a lot of political opinions that his later grown-up self will presumably have disavowed (his older sister has already dissented from the smug Thatcherism professed by the Taylor father & many of the other grown-ups in this novel), but the novel leaves it at the level of simple irony, something on the order of the joke elsewhere about Betamax beating out VHS. There's a long set-piece early on describing a news broadcast early in the Falkland war (I haven't put it in italics so as to keep Mitchell's own italicizing clear):

"Mrs. Thatcher frazzled this twerpy prat in a bow tie on BBC1 this evening. He was saying sinking the General Belgrano outside the Total Exclusion Zone was morally and legally wrong. (Actually we sunk the Belgrano some days ago but the papers've just got hold of the pictures and since the Sheffield we've got zero sympathy for the Argie bastards.) Mrs. Thatcher fixed her stained-glass blue eyes on that pillock and pointed out that the enemy cruiser'd been zigzagging in and out of the zone all day. She said something like, 'The fathers and mothers of our country did not elect me the prime minister of this country to gamble with the lives of their sons over questions of legal niceties. Must I remind you that we are a country at war?' The whole studio cheered and the whole country cheered too, I reckon, 'cept for Michael Foot and Red Ken Linvingstone and Anthony Wedgwood Benn and all those Loony Lefters. Mrs. Thatcher's bloody ace. She's so strong, so calm, so sure."

I think I see what he's doing here, we're of course meant to hear this as thin & self-deluding and Jason just echoing what his father's saying in a painful and embarrassing and short-sighted way, and the story gives us several later surprises and reversals (including a death) to provide context. The longish passage here, though, ends with the following sentences, and it came clear to me that the present-past ironies as Mitchell's set them up can only be expressed by a contrast between speech & story, not by some greater complexity within the speaker's own sentences:

"The Sun's paying ₤100 for the best anti-Argie joke. I can't do jokes, but I'm keeping a scrapbook about the war. I'm cutting out stuff from the newspapers and magazines. Neal Brose is keeping one too. He reckons it'll be worth a fortune twenty or thirty years from now, when the Falklands War has turned into history. But all this excitement'll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People'll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world."

This just seems to me coy and entirely unsubtle; it had me pining for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which I felt was both formally extraordinary and also a really brilliant and subtle argument about Thatcherism and the relationship between the present and the past. (Muriel Spark and Joyce Carol Oates also have really interesting ways of bringing in future events/foreshadowing, I was mentally comparing.) Hollinghurst's vision and technique are nothing like what I could ever pull off myself, it is not that I am a Hollinghurst kind of a person as opposed to a Mitchell kind, and yet I feel a much stronger affinity with that book than with anything Mitchell does here.

I have certainly gone on long enough. Some real reviews particularly worth looking at: Daniel Zalewski in the New Yorker; Adam Phillips in the Observer (imaginative choice of reviewer); and (my favorite) Ed Park in the Village Voice. And here's the roundup at the Complete Review.

Nothing to do with books

but this article is one of the funniest & strangest things I've read for a while; especially check it out if you have any lingering interest (or not) in Finland, heavy metal or the Eurovision Song Contest....

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Of particular interest

in the Guardian Review: John Osborne mistreated his daughter with bizarre unpleasantness; Julian Evans talks to Imre Kertesz; James Lasdun on Victor Pelevin's latest (another one in that Canongate myths series); James Wood on Muriel Spark.

New York was unsettling

for no good reason though I think I must attribute it to a combination of sleep-deprivation and general weariness and homesickness. The good parts of the trip were absolutely lovely--nice meetings with students, enjoyable drinks and coffees and such with assorted friends, dinner with my lovely agent Liz Gately (and basically I am not going to have any news here about novel-related stuff until I really have definite news, which could be months from now, but the book will probably go out to publishers next week so cross your fingers), an exceptionally nice evening with my brother & his delightful fiancee and our step-grandfather, Wayne Koestenbaum's book party (v. fun, and I read the book in the departure terminal at LaGuardia this morning, will post about it a bit later on, it's charming though it made me belatedly self-conscious when someone looked askance at the title Best-selling Jewish Porn Films).

And an amazing conference on moral and psychological weakness at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia, which was what I was really there for; some of it was rather abstruse and philosophical, though it is fun for a change to listen to serious arguments about why there is no such thing as weakness of will (think of it as "preference reversal" instead) and why it is not nearly so surprising that diabetes patients are non-compliant as that they do take their medication, but the Saturday-morning panel (the most pressing motivation for my trip) was an absolutely wonderful pair of papers on Hamlet's weakness, my former dissertation advisor David Bromwich speaking on “Sincerity and the Resistance to Single-mindedness” and the British critic A. D. Nuttall on “Hamlet: A Man Made Ill by Thought." (Nuttall is the author among other things of an extremely interesting book called A New Mimesis, I read it ten years ago & it made a great impression on me, I've just checked it out of the library again to reread.)

It was such an interesting discussion, we were all just sitting there in awe, and I firmly resolved to reread Hamlet at the earliest opportunity (what a crazy play...) and all of Shakespeare this summer if at all possible. Because I tend to get a bit compulsive about these things, the summer before my oral exams in grad school I read (as well as about a million other books) three times through the complete works of Shakespeare, before that I had always had excellent long-sighted eyesight but seriously the type in the Riverside Shakespeare totally did me in, I was thereafter shortsighted. You never believe it when people tell you when you're a kid that reading so much will ruin your eyesight, but it may indeed be truth rather than myth.

But it has also been a few days of mishaps, the dear friend I was staying with was stricken the first night with a virulent stomach virus that I fear is now waiting inside me like a time bomb (if I do not get it, I will be very surprised, and will certainly pour a libation in thanks to the gods of health, but I have resigned myself to being struck down on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, it seems unavoidable), which made everything much less nice than it would have been otherwise; not to mention that because I am an idiot and have the worst sense of direction in the world (put it down to the fact that I'm never really paying attention to these things, you wouldn't believe how bad I am about this stuff), on Friday night I was on the verge of a total nervous breakdown trying to get back to where I was staying. It was a super-simple task, it was about midnight & I thought I would just take a cab back from the West Village to the financial district. But I got impatient and broke the cardinal New York transportation rule which is never get into a livery cab on the street, particularly if the driver hopefully says "You show me?" after you say the address--he had no idea where John Street was, nor Fulton Street, and then somehow (this is ludicrous, I still don't know how it quite happened) he turned onto the bridge to Brooklyn & so we went to Brooklyn and then we came back & it was all pretty funny but I figured I'd better get out & find some more effective way of getting back.

So there I was on N. Moore St. in Tribeca (which I am told does not stand for "North," v. confusing) and called my poor stomach-virused friend & told her I was vexedly en route. And figured at this point (since I had given every last dollar in my pocket to the hapless livery driver) I would just walk. So I energetically & determinedly walked for about twenty-five minutes in what I was certain must be the right direction, only then it was gradually dawning on me that it wasn't right at all and with horror I realized that I was actually by now at the corner of West Houston and West Street (oh, say, about five minutes' walk from the Bedford Street bar I'd started out from more than an hour earlier), having gone in exactly the opposite direction from what I imagined. So I got money and a taxi and rode to John Street in bitter self-reproach at my own idiocy, I first lived in New York in 1990 and it is certainly the only city I have any claim to know how to find my way around in and yet....

And then last night I was again making my way from Tribeca to John Street around eleven at night, after the previous night I was very careful to get myself pointed in the right direction but I wasn't in the mood to take a cab, you know how when you don't get one right away it then becomes off-putting & you think you might as well walk. So I was making my way south on Broadway, the weather was awful in a way that somehow suited my mood (forty-something degrees, driving rain, insane wind, etc., plus I was carrying this garment bag with clothes in it I had earlier retrieved from my real apartment--traumatically, it is weird going into your own place when it is in the hands of even the nicest subletter, as my subletter is, but I had to get this stuff before my brother's wedding so as not to have to spend a gazillion dollars on clothes I do not want).

And I was crossing oh, maybe, Worth Street, soaking wet & lugging garment bag but not altogether sorry to be surrounded by the elements, and then (you will not believe this, I am still just furious thinking about it) though the light was totally mine a madman cab driver took a crazed left without stopping to look and slammed right into me!

The front of the car just kind of clipped me on the hip, I was totally knocked over & the shoe went flying off my right foot. Of course the driver was mortified (I don't know what he was thinking), & it was clear I wasn't hurt, and some girls just behind me went & found my shoe & so forth, and I trudged the rest of the way back to John Street (not nearly so shaken up, I might add, as the last time I was in a minor cab accident, I was sitting in the back seat without my seatbelt & a lane-crossing other cab slammed into the one I was in & I hit my forehead very hard on the partition, it was not pleasant & there is something really nerve-racking about that crash of metal on metal you get when two cars hit each other, this was mild in comparison). But I have a huge bruise on the side of my leg where the car hit me & I didn't go to sleep till very late.

This is really beginning to sound as though I should not be allowed out unsupervised! But the main point is that I will be home soon, the afternoon of May 21st to be precise, and this will be just as well for the sake of self-preservation and traffic safety, I cannot believe how hapless I am sometimes....

Alan Warner

is a particular favorite of mine; he's got a new novel coming out shortly, so Hephzibah Anderson interviews him in the Observer and Aidan Smith has a good piece in the Scotsman. (Thanks to Sarah for the links.)

The new book's called The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven but unfortunately (expensively!) is only showing up on Amazon UK for now (I'm going to have to get it anyway, I think, along with that Jenny Diski one I covet); meanwhile if you have not read them, do check out Morvern Callar and The Sopranos (nothing to do with the TV series), which are both absolutely delightful in surprisingly different ways.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ron Rosenbaum on Lingua Franca

at the Observer. I too am ridiculously nostalgic for that magazine, its existence closely overlapped with my graduate school career & it seemed the ideal periodical to read in those days.

Off to NY for a few days, must run, no posting till Sunday. The weather in Cambridge this morning is blissfully perfect and the prospect of an ideal-combination-of-work-and-pleasure trip to NY has lifted my spirits....

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Maud Newton interviews Keith Gessen

at her blog, on the topic of the prize-winning book he translated into English, Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (now out in paperback). I've got this book and am very much wanting to read it only somehow it's never the day you sit down in the evening and say to yourself, "Oh, now I want to read a lovely book about a nuclear disaster...."

Justin Beplate on Beckett Remembering / Remembering Beckett

at the TLS. It's a good piece, but I do not envy these people assigned to write about Beckett in the year of the centenary (especially about this volume of interviews, which sounds relatively insubstantial); it is a good rule of thumb not to read any reviews of a book you are reviewing yourself until after you've finished (or at the very least drafted) your own piece, but in this case it would have been very hard to avoid them. Anyway, here's one interesting passage from Beplate's piece:

[I]t is striking how often here it falls to the technicians, actors and translators to ask the direct questions, often with rewarding results. The Australian writer and actor Lawrence Held recalls having asked Beckett, during a rehearsal in West Berlin, what Endgame was about. After a moment’s pained look, Beckett recovered and, referring to a chess tournament under way at the time, responded, “Well, it’s like the last game between Karpov and Korchnoi. After the third move both knew that neither could win, but they kept on playing”. And in one of the more revealing contributions to the volume, Duncan Scott, a lighting engineer at London’s Royal Court Theatre, recounts how animated Beckett became when asked about his novel Watt and whether he had ever made himself laugh while writing it during the war years – “with that hair-sticking-on-end look, and ultra-penetrating gaze, [he] confessed that sometimes he had”.

Endgame is still my favorite of all the plays, I think....

James Morrow's top ten books

on witch persecution. These top-ten lists at the Guardian are often pretty interesting, but this one's extremely well-written as well. Here's what Morrow has to say about Arthur Miller's famous witch-hunting play:

Is there anything quite so aesthetically dreadful as a bad production of The Crucible? I think not. Yes, all drama is melodrama, but in writing a tragedy about the Salem witch trials, Miller was running the risk of eschatological soap opera - which is indeed what happens when this play is ill-mounted or indifferently acted. Should you ever hear of a favourably reviewed Crucible, however, don't hesitate to attend: properly staged, Miller's critique of religiosity is a religious experience. If no such theatre-going opportunity lies at hand, your next best option is the printed text. True, the author occasionally departs from the historical facts, and his decision to frame the story as a dress-rehearsal for McCarthyism feels heavy-handed in retrospect. But this is a beautifully structured work, full of searing moments and resonant speeches.

What I want to read: Morrow's new novel The Last Witchfinder.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kansas noir

Just finished Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest, very violent & quite funny (in an understated way--there are occasional sentences that really catch you with how ironic they are, though the effect as a whole is unobtrusive). The original recommendation is now lost in the mists of blogdom, but I've got his next couple here also & definitely plan to read them, though this one failed my personal noir test of caring about what happens to the characters--the protagonist just seems a little less drunk and befuddled than he should be, I think it costs him in readerly sympathy, I was comparing the book in the back of my mind to Colin Harrison's Afterburn, a book I loved & that moved me greatly; Phillips is funny and an extremely good writer, with lovely economy too (something I particularly admire), but somehow his Charlie isn't as endearing as someone like, oh, the hapless villains of Bruen or Swierczynski. I will be interested to see what his later ones are like, in any case. This one has an excellent Christmas Eve 1979 setting.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Hangman, Unborn Twin, Maggot

I am so excited, Ed Park reviews Black Swan Green at the Village Voice with great writerly genius. I find myself disappointed with a lot of books coverage, it just seems so ordinary, but this really is an excellent piece of writing, go and take a look.

I bought Black Swan Green as part of my self-destructive Sunday-afternoon book-buying spree; this clinches it, I am going to take it with me and read it on my trip to NY later this week. I couldn't pick it up this evening, I needed to meet my "read one library book every day" quota while I am actually here (it always seems unwise to take university library books on trips, I am not at all prone to misplacing things but if you did happen to leave one somewhere the replacement costs would be ruinous).

The digested read

at the Guardian deserves a sort of mini-essay of its own, a little anatomy of what kinds of book attract and/or respond best to John Crace's treatment. The one this week of The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is absolutely scathing, and very funny: you really get the feeling Crace hated this book....

I have several particular favorite

kinds of book and one of them is young-adult fantasy especially when it comes in the form of a very well-written trilogy (i.e. Philip Pullman, Garth Nix; or Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series is five rather than three, but it's the same principle). I've been waiting a year for this book (#2 in the trilogy), and it completely lived up to my expectations; I bought it this afternoon & also another copy of the first volume because of course I had to read that again in order to get myself in the right frame of mind for the second (here was when I read volume one last year & loved it). So first I reread Magic or Madness and then I read Magic Lessons which I have just finished & really all I can say is that these are very near perfect books, the narrative voices & characters & settings are exactly what I most love reading and Justine Larbalestier is an outrageously good writer. Very, very appealing.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Human perversity

drove me to the bookstore this afternoon (it is ridiculous, my apartment is full of books in a most problematic way, I think what I have to do is read at least one every day and then it will not be so galling when I have to return the others to the library unread), first to Porter Square Books which was closed for Easter (since when was Easter the kind of holiday that made bookstores close?!?) and then to the Harvard Bookstore where I bought six things, at least four of which I intend to consume immediately. Like tonight. Book emergency! (Actually the real book emergency is not having a good one; I am not sure why I am having this strong psychological need to read a lot of books of a soothing kind, I had vaguely meant to spend the evening rereading Godwin's Political Justice for the chapter I'm writing, but it dawned on me earlier that this was just not going to happen....)

I just finished book #1 from this particular haul (also this reminds you why these good independent bookstores are so necessary, somehow I never even heard about this), the beauty of its cover attracted me like a magnet from across the store: I picked it up & sort of slavered over it with my jaw hanging down, put it back on the shelf because $25.00 seemed an extravagance, but ten minutes later found myself drifting back over and tucking a copy under my arm. It is a peculiarly lovely but also fascinating book called Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005, designer Phil Baines's history of Penguin's book design. Remarkably attractive illustrations, intelligent text and commentary, and the whole thing of course adds up to a bizarrely wide-ranging cultural history of middle-class England in the twentieth century.

I was reminded so strongly of my grandparents and the books I would read when we visited every two years (the English ones in Highgate, the Scottish ones in a little seaside town called North Berwick just outside of Edinburgh). Both households had lots of Penguins but especially my Scottish grandfather was an insatiable book-collector, you would open a cupboard and suddenly there would be, like, ten shelves just bursting with green Penguin crime fiction or How-to-Speak-[fill in the blank: Italian, Gaelic, Arabic, etc. etc. etc.] language-learning books. And particular books I associate incredibly strongly with the Penguin edition: in Highgate, the amusing but perplexing 1066 and All That and the altogether perplexing Gamesmanship ones by Stephen Potter; in North Berwick, the novels of Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham.

In any case, this book is well worth getting, it has my highest recommendation if you are interested in this sort of thing at all. It made me yearn to write all sorts of books, novels of course but also more Pelican-type serious ones. The Puffins aren't really treated here, which is sad (I think my most-favorite Puffin book--my grandfather was always sending things like this for Christmas--was Eric Linklater's The Wind on the Moon).

Unreliable narrators

A little while ago I read a great little essay in the LRB by James Lasdun that made me realize I should get his novels, and I've just finished reading The Horned Man (which I find an astonishingly appealing title). It is a strange and elegant little book, rather disgusting--in a good way--and written in the most beautiful sentences imaginable, I like reading novels by poets: a novel of doubles and hauntings and uncanny violence (I am adding it to my list of good glass-eye novels along with We Need To Talk About Kevin). You never really know whether the narrator is the victim or actually (what seems more likely) the divided-against-himself perpetrator of the mysterious conspiracy he discerns all around him--the book it reminded me of most was Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, though there's also very much the feel of Nabokov, or a darker and more uncanny version of Anthony Burgess (I would be surprised if Lasdun had never read the Enderby novels).

(In an extremely interesting interview by Robert Birnbaum, Lasdun denies the utility of the term "unreliable narrator" for his characters, but that seems to me an undue nicety--there's nothing necessarily gimmicky, in any case, about the thing that phrase invokes, which seems to be Lasdun's objection.)

Anyway, here are a few tastes of the prose. Rereading a short story he wrote some months earlier for the clues it provides as to the nature of a strange triangle that includes the narrator, the unpleasant and elusive Bulgarian who used to inhabit his office (the academic settings here are very well realized) and a female colleague he knows through the medium of the university's Sexual Harassment Committee, Lawrence Miller thinks of the three of them "each present there [in the story] via our more or less phantasmagorical versions of each other, our recondite emblems of ourselves":

And for a moment I felt I was at the point of grasping what it was that made the full unfolding of another human being into one's consciousness so painfully dazzling that one spent one's life contriving ways of filtering them, blocking them out, setting up labyrinthine passageways between oneself and them, kidnapping their images for various exploitative purposes of one's own, and generally doing all one could to fend off their problematic, objective reality.

Or here is Lawrence musing on his ex-wife's decision to counter her debilitating fear of flying (something he perversely loves in her) by obtaining tranquilizers, without consulting him in advance or telling him what she has done:

The clandestine nature of it all--the secret visit to the doctor, the covert purchasing of the pills, the non-mention of them when she spoke from Palo Alto, the apparent attempt to conceal them on her return--all that I could forgive, as I knew Carol well enough to know that the motive was to spare my feelings rather than to 'deceive' me in any improper sense. What stung was the act itself. That state of more-than-human vulnerability, of absolute unshieldedness from the dark terms of existence, was one of her glories, like her beautiful hair or the delicate fluting of her hands. She knew I felt this, and so for her to sabotage it, to smother it under a sedative, was an act of self-mutilation that seemed, as I reflected on it, to be aimed at me; aimed specifically and defiantly at me, its principal connoisseur and sole admirer. I pictured her swallowing the pill (minute and violent; I had looked), imagined it unfolding inside her, shedding its artificial calm in great drifting sheets that settled one by one over the disturbance inside her, swathing it in blankness. And it seemed to me that in obliterating this fear, she was also obliterating my own presence inside her, and that this, whether or not it had been her original intent, had proved an unexpected liberation.

I think that is chillingly good prose, I can only imagine that Lasdun's colleagues looked at him with great unease after reading this novel, he so persuasively inhabits this creepy first-person voice....

One last bit, which seems to sum up the book's bizarre appeal. At one point late in the book the narrator thinks with sorrow of having lost touch with his mother, for whom he no longer has an address or phone number:

I had always been aware of something not quite natural about this, but now, for the first time, I seemed to come face to face with its full, appalling strangeness. What was almost worse was that I had no real idea how it had come about! It was as though some deep rift or faultline existed in the terrain of my psyche, some hidden oubliette of consciousness, into which events--even momentous events like this--could fall without a sound.

Kafka is always invoked when people talk about this kind of fiction, the dreamlike disconnected self kind of thing, and yet Lasdun's touch is really nothing like Kafka's, he's written a very original novel that is distinctively his own. I am curious to see what the next one's like, I've got it here but I think I must read something less unsettling next; it sounds a bit like John Banville, and this one also had Banville-like things about it. Hmmm....


Jim Knipfel at the New York Press on the texts included in the new Beckett edition. It's an interesting little piece, and includes some fascinating observations from the "textual supervisor" Laura Lindgren. Here's one revelation:

The version of Molloy most people have read, for instance, contains the sentence: "For I had hardly perfected my plan, in my head, when my bicycle ran over a dog, as subsequently appeared, and fell to the pavement, docile at its mistress's heels."

But originally, and in the new edition, it reads: "For I had hardly perfected my plan, in my head, when my bicycle ran over a dog, as subsequently appeared, and fell to the ground, an ineptness all the more unpardonable as the dog, duly leashed, was not out on the road, but in on the pavement, docile at its mistress's heels."

(Thanks to Frank Wilson and Dave Lull for the link.)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The book problem

I am having is something I've alluded to several times recently, namely that I'm leaving this place on May 18 and must return all library books by then but have a huge, huge number both for work and for pleasure that I would like to read first. It is just galling to return library books that you still want to read, not a pleasant thing at all; and at least in the case of work ones, it is reasonably sensible to go to the library again later and get them afresh, they are mostly not the kind of things you can buy, but the pleasure ones you are just kicking yourself for not buying in the first place. So some sort of triage will be called for, I expect the first thing to do is go through and sort out the ones that I really don't so much want to read & go ahead and return them. Only of course there are not many of those, why would I have gotten them in the first place? The next part of the strategy is to read like a demon; I realize it's slightly perverse, to tackle my pleasure reading with this sort of grim determination to consume in large quantities, but it seems inevitable.

So I picked up the book that looked the most fun off the pile and read it this afternoon and it was great! Reminded me how fun novel-reading really is. It was a very enjoyable novel called The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr (here is a page with a lot of review links if you are curious, I find myself increasingly impatient with the whole idea of plot summary), a novel I made note of when it was published last year not just because it sounded entertaining and interesting but also because it sounded like the absolute twin of my novel Heredity.

The twinness is not in dispute now that I've actually read it (unhappy grown-up daughter narrator, interpolations on genetics, meditations on nature and nurture and determinism, etc.), but of course what I was struck by (these nature-nurture questions are of endless interest to me) was how different this novel is from mine in spite of the fact that they have a bizarrely large amount of overlap. And that led me to have other musings (and I was thinking about it in the context of the shape of Muriel Spark's career, and of Joyce Carol Oates's), so banal as to be really not worth stating I'm afraid, about the funny & appealing way that any book a person writes is like him- or herself in the deepest and most unexpected ways, just as the shape of the career as it is represented by publications and other accomplishments (teaching, child-raising, life, what-have-you) is also so distinctive and personal and must be understood in terms of character or personality as well as of strictly intellectual profile or productivity.

Anyway The Family Tree is best when it's doing the childhood reminiscences from suburban-provincial England in the 1970s, it's very sharp about class stuff and about what it was like to be a girl (there are no boys, somehow, in this book!) in that time and place. The novel's first-person voice is also appealing, though I felt Cadwalladr's strengths are more as an observer than as a sentence-writer per se. The present-day story of the narrator's relationship with her husband falls a bit flat, he is too much the caricature of the unfeeling scientist. ("He sounded like a voiceover on a BBC2 documentary," Rebecca Monroe comments about her husband after one of his remarks; "Alistair's the only person I know who speaks in complete sentences." Only this means that while she tells us she's in love with him, we can't at all see why this should be the case, and the way he represents reason & she represents the emotions seems to me not just overly schematic but also of an earlier generation--part of the appeal of this book lies in its rather depressing portrait of life's unfairness for women, but I do not believe that it is so much the case for women born in the late 60s and early 70s as it was for their mothers' generation that they had to be absolutely uncomprehending in the presence of science and rationality, and I now and then wanted to shake Rebecca and tell her to use her perfectly good brain.... but of course this speaks to the vividness with which she's characterized, it's really very good.) The 1940s backstory feels a bit thinner and more stereotyped, it's not nearly as convincing for instance as the postwar chapters in Andrea Levy's Small Island (another victim of the library thing, I had it this winter & read the first half & then it was recalled; haven't got around to getting it again, not sure when I will, but I thought the writing was very good). In sum the novel's pleasures are very reminiscent of Kate Atkinson or of Barbara Trapido (I was particularly reminded of Temples of Delight and Frankie & Stankie).

Spark links

A very good profile at the Guardian from 2000 (most unflattering photo!); the AP obituary (much better photo); Muriel Spark Archive at the National Library of Scotland; Spark in conversation.

Muriel Spark is dead

This makes me sad.

I am obsessed with Muriel Spark, I have always loved her books (haven't read them all, though most of them; when I am back at home, I am going to get all of them from the library and read through them this summer as an act of remembrance) and aside from all of the other things that are great about them (i.e. the precision, economy, humor and intelligence of the language--there are novelists I admire but wouldn't aspire to be like, but Spark is the other kind, I admire her work like crazy but I also want to write exactly like that!) she is the great novelist of people interacting in small groups. So many novels are very good on one person's interior life, or on the dynamic of the relationship between a man and a woman, or within a nuclear family; but I have a special soft spot for novels that take the other tack, resolutely avoid couples & families & instead pursue the question (almost a-la-Erving Goffman) of how semi-cloistered groups of various sizes--girls in a school or a boarding house, nuns, etc.--interact.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains my favorite novel of Spark's (actually I taught it last year in my graduate seminar on the idea of culture, it is obviously not an eighteenth-century text but it is in my opinion the great British novel of culture and illuminates all sorts of senses of the word that we were also working towards by way of eighteenth-century stuff and cultural theory); but I read her memoir Curriculum Vitae a few years ago and it was a revelation, it's a fascinating book in itself but it also became (along with Prime) the single most useful research resource for my new novel Dynamite No. 1, which is set in an alternate-universe version of 1930s Scotland that owes an awful lot to Spark.

(News first seen at Reading Matters.)

The new kind of memory

I'm sort of at the tail end now of the reading-Jonathan-Lethem jag, just finished his first novel Gun, with Occasional Music and of course the hazard of reading backward from newest to oldest is that the early ones are disappointing in comparison with the more recent. I liked some things about this, but I couldn't get out of my head a picture of those cheesy scenes in Star Trek: New Generation (man, I loved that show, there was something quite irresistible about it in spite of its slightly shoddy early-90s-ness) when Jean-Luc Picard goes to the holodeck & pretends he's a private eye in a Chandler-Hammett-type world. The tone of the first-person narrative voice doesn't quite work for me, it's too mannered (maybe because I've read too many other homage/pastiche-type noir novels) and I kept feeling like I'd rather have Gibson or Sterling or Stephenson or one of the other more avowedly SF/cyberpunk types instead. (I think Amnesia Moon is Lethem's more successful experiment in this vein.)

What I liked most, I think, was the way the book fills out another aspect of Lethem as a memory artist. At one point the narrator tells the guy who ends up taking the fall for the murder, "I learned a long time ago that my job consists of uncovering the secrets people keep from themselves as much as or more than the ones they keep from each other." And the people in this world are in many cases literally divided from themselves because of the "make" they snort or shoot up, which includes ingredients like Forgettol (or Acceptol or Regrettol) on a base of addictol.

But the sentences that stood out also struck me as slightly self-conscious in a way the later novels don't so often. Here, for instance, in a rather touching scene the narrator is sitting in a car with the beautiful Catherine Teleprompter:

We were both looking out the front window, only I was looking at the reflection of Catherine, and when I found her eyes, I could see she was looking at the reflection of me. And then we were holding hands. It was just like that; one minute we weren't and the next we were. I want to say it made me feel like a schoolboy, but I hadn't done anything like that as a schoolboy. It made me feel like someone else who had done it as a schoolboy and was being reminded of it now. It made the back of my neck flush. It made me nervous as hell.

I like this paragraph, I was touched by it, and I think the schoolboy sentences are convincing as a psychological insight (we are all always having that sort of second-order thinking, at least I am), but it is still true that when I read them I am thinking "that Jonathan Lethem is a mighty clever fellow" rather than really feeling myself to be in the company of private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf. That said, this novel is far superior to the vast majority of what's out there, and Lethem is definitely on my short list of extremely favorite writers. I have bought and given away or loaned out three copies of The Fortress of Solitude since I fell in love with it this past fall, have only bought one copy of Motherless Brooklyn as a present but have been recommending it like a demon to anyone who will listen. This guy is a writer of great genius. Do we know when he's got a new novel coming out? I've got one more old one to read, I think, plus a bunch of stories, but I need the brand-new-big-novel fix....

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Financial Times

has done a very appealing thing and made its weekend books section free online to non-subscribers. There's some great stuff there this week, including a moving piece by Anna Maria Levi about growing up with her brother Primo (as told to Patrick Nathanson). It ends on a dark note (I can quite see how translating Kafka would be trying if you were already rather depressed):

As for my brother's death in 1987, there were a number of factors behind the depression that drove him to end his own life. One of those was the gloom brought on by translating Kafka's The Trial. Another reason was the effort it took him to write his last book, The Drowned and the Saved - it took everything out of him.

Before he died, Primo came to be seen as someone who could magically resolve everybody's problems with the wave of a hand, as if he had the answer to everything. I think this became a bit of a burden to him. But the thing I remember most about my brother is that he was just a very kind, loving and gentle person.

Also, Rosie Blau interviews Carmen Callil, founder of the feminist publishing house Virago and author of a new book about Louis Darquier, the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in Vichy France from 1942-44 who was responsible for sending over ten thousand Jews to the camps.


Haruki Murakami has a two-part story appearing in the Guardian; read the first part here.

Meghan O'Rourke on Harvey Mansfield's Manliness


If I was in NY on Monday

I would definitely be going to the New York Progressive Reading Series Launch at galapagos in Williamsburg (Monday 4/16, 8pm): it's hosted by Stephen Elliott, and the readers include Jonathan Ames and David Rees.

Hilary Mantel on Robespierre

at the London Review of Books:

Robespierre thought about pain and death with an unflinching intensity which would have destabilised lesser beings. It's a mistake to think he possessed an awful prescience, or that he had a power, quite unsuspected by those about him, to organise the next decade on a pattern he had predetermined. Perhaps his dreams were different in intensity, though not in kind, from the dreams of those around him. It was an era for the young, clutching their copies of La Nouvelle Heloise, to look for something interesting to die of: love, or something else. The young dream of transcending their circumstances, of shaming the mediocrities around them; of saving lives, of being martyrs. When you have so much future before you, life seems cheap; perhaps you cannot fully imagine, as older people can, being extinguished, simply coming to nothing.

For most people, the era of selfless risk-taking is a phase. It irritates their elders while it lasts; though sometimes, in political movements, those elders find a way to exploit it. But then, if young persons survive their ideals, something happens which surprises them: they learn a trade, they develop ambitions, they fall in love, they get a stake in life. Or simply time passes, and middle age beckons, with its shoddy compromises. But for the Incorruptible, idealism was not a phase. He kept his vision carefully in his head through his twenties and carried it carefully to Versailles, where he arrived a few days before his 31st birthday. Because he was perfectly attuned to the times he lived in, because there was a real cause to be served, his wishfulness hardened into conviction, his dreams set in stone. Still, he sounds more like a priest, a saint-in-training, than the seasoned political operator he would become. 'My life's task,' he said, according to his sister, ‘will be to help those who suffer.’

The book she's reviewing is Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, which sounds wonderfully good (something I must get and read as soon as possible, it counts as work-related and also I feel that I am always reading a bit too much Burke as far as French Revolution stuff goes, it's hardly fair...); I also recommend Mantel's own French Revolution novel very highly, A Place of Greatr Safety (it is not a warm novel, but a very interesting one & really exceptional on history and politics and stuff).