Andrew McMillan's sinewy Physical just won the Guardian first book award. There are indeed some excellent poems, starting with "Jacob with the angel."Andrew McMillan's sinewy Physical just won the Guardian first book award. There are indeed some excellent poems, starting with "Jacob with the angel." Yet, perhaps because I read Richard Siken's Crush only a few weeks ago, perhaps because McMillan repeatedly references the poems of Thom Gunn, I could not feel the intensity the poems announced. One example: the broken cento of "Saturday night." Every time McMillan sampled Gunn's lines about the Barracks (a long-closed San Francisco bathhouse, evocative of a vanished world) I was pulled back to the original, stronger poem. But bravo! to McMillan for taking the risk.
One passage did make me laugh unexpectedly (because the book is so deliberately grim) – it comes in the sequence of the long poem "protest of the physical"*
graffti Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco this bridge is not as beautiful as people said
To which I respond: Yes it is, Andrew. Unclench a little. Read Gunn again.
__________ * Apologies for typography, Goodreads will not allow me to display these lines as they're set in the book....more
Sarah Freligh's book comes swathed in blurbs, paragraphs of praise it doesn't need. I didn't read them. Its cover was enough to prompt me to open theSarah Freligh's book comes swathed in blurbs, paragraphs of praise it doesn't need. I didn't read them. Its cover was enough to prompt me to open the book, to read the first poem that met me –
SHUT UP, PLEASE, I'M SPEAKING
of love. You remember. We made it once in a crummy motel near Binghamton
while snow fell, four inches in an hour. The curtains gaped, admitting a slice
of light that cut your back in half while all night clouds shaped like potatoes
floated across the TV screen. Afterward you untangled the sheet from our feet,
rolled wordless into sleep leaving me to stare at your back, smooth as the motel
soap fresh from the wrapper. Like love was before I said it out loud and someone
in the next room fisted the wall, shouted at me to please shut the fuck up.
and I held it in my fist next to the coffee and said No don't shut up, tell me more – and she did, every line strong, sometimes funny, sometimes sticky with blood or tears or the seed of a second-string quarterback or the warm gush of Juicy Fruit, but strong.
and though this is the fifth time Charlotte
has died my mother is crying again and we're laughing at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math, how every subtraction is exponential, how each grief
Without question this is the book I'd recommend to anyone trying to get a grasp of what's happening in Syria and Iraq. As reportage it's a year out ofWithout question this is the book I'd recommend to anyone trying to get a grasp of what's happening in Syria and Iraq. As reportage it's a year out of date (easily supplemented by following Cockburn's articles for the Independent and The London Review of Books); as background, it's a lucid, perceptive summary.
I've started 5 or 6 of Aira's tiny books. This is the only one I've managed to complete. Their charm is undeniable, there's plenty of droll humor andI've started 5 or 6 of Aira's tiny books. This is the only one I've managed to complete. Their charm is undeniable, there's plenty of droll humor and antic improvisation – but as stories their novelty quickly fades. I think my new rule has to be: if I pick one up I must finish it in the first reading. Otherwise it will join the stack with a bookmark 20 pages from the end. I find Aira's writing wonderful as an idea and unexceptional in fact....more
Maigret is retired (already?); his nephew awakens him at his country cottage in the middle of the night to extricate him from a junior mistake. The stMaigret is retired (already?); his nephew awakens him at his country cottage in the middle of the night to extricate him from a junior mistake. The story is interesting mainly because Maigret is now an outsider and is forced to improvise in order to save his nephew from prison.
As much as I love Simenon and the new translations from Penguin, I'm finding that the series provides diminishing returns. Still – I enjoy the atmosphere of Paris in the 1930s, the rather bleak insight into everyday life that the novels display through the eyes of their jaundiced inspector....more
Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren is one of my favorite detectives (especially as played by Sven Wollter in the film versions of the books). Borkmann's PoinHåkan Nesser's Van Veeteren is one of my favorite detectives (especially as played by Sven Wollter in the film versions of the books). Borkmann's Point was the first of Nesser's books translated into English, and I keep hoping for another as good. The Living and the Dead in Winsford isn't even close. It gets high points for atmosphere – the evocation of the Somerset moor is superb but cannot support the the feeble plot. The narrator, an enervated Swedish television presenter betrayed by her literary husband, is tedious from the start and her ruminations only get worse over the next 400 pages. Mildly intriguing events are never explained; mildly mysterious characters are never illuminated. The plot divagates pointlessly (particularly in its disappointing backstory) then collapses, predictably, about 300 pages too late....more
Benjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favoritBenjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favorite) and Jean-Yves Tadié, as well as Edmund White's handsome abridged version.* Taylor's book belongs more in the good company of slim volumes like Proust in Love or Monsieur Proust's Library, a view into one aspect of Proust's life and work: the mysterious inner alchemy that turned a lazy fop into the author of the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Taylor doesn't provide any dramatic revelations. What he offers is a series of polished reflections on the transition that will engage anyone who's worked their way through the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I could have forgiven his omission of one of the more distasteful aspects of Proust's private eroticism, but appreciated his light touch.
On the subject of Proust's erotic tastes Tadié writes: "He required increasingly complicated scenarios: voyeurism and masturbation had always been at the wretched core of this. Proust possessed nothing and no one despite his attempts at relationships; the power he tried to exercise over people was of a moral kind, which explains the cross-examinations, the solemn pacts, the inevitability that to be loved by him was to stand trial. He never succeeded in these relationships except with his mother, and with Céleste Albaret. We should console ourselves with the thought that no historian has ever classified writers according to their sexual achievements."** All just and accurate and beyond anything said by earlier Proustians – though what is so wretched about voyeurism and masturbation I do not see.
Indeed - such are the besetting sins of any writer, more or less. The astonishing thing is that Proust's books seem to know everything about love, jealousy and the permutations of desire.
___________ * For those looking for instant insight into Proust, I highly recommend The Proust Project with lightning essays by André Aciman, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Susan Minot, Colm Tóibín, Edmund White et al.
A characteristically dark, satisfying conclusion to the Verhœven trilogy. I started it the day before the shootings in Paris, which added an uneasy asA characteristically dark, satisfying conclusion to the Verhœven trilogy. I started it the day before the shootings in Paris, which added an uneasy aspect to the whole tale. ...more
Yesterday Manotti's most recently translated novel arrived in the mail. Eagerly, I read it in a couple sittings and am sad to say Escape was not veryYesterday Manotti's most recently translated novel arrived in the mail. Eagerly, I read it in a couple sittings and am sad to say Escape was not very interesting. The pace is off entirely, the political history behind its plot points is convoluted and not particularly engaging (in this respect it reminded me of the background of Massimo Carlotto's "Alligator" novels). Her protagonist, a small-time criminal who (improbably) becomes a celebrated Parisian writer for his first fiction, is a delightful confection – but he's overshadowed by political machinations, as is the confused, confounded reader.
Don't mistake me: Manotti is a terrific writer. I consider Rough Trade one of the very best examples of Euro Crime, as good as and even edgier than the first books by Fred Vargas. But, for me, this book was a dud. Other Goodreads reviewers tell a different story; maybe they read her better. I wouldn't want to discourage fans of crime fiction from discovering her work....more
Dying last was like dying first, Albert thought to himself; it was rank stupidity. But this was exactly about what was about to happen.
I thoroughly enDying last was like dying first, Albert thought to himself; it was rank stupidity. But this was exactly about what was about to happen.
I thoroughly enjoyed this darkly humorous tale of two poilus whose fates cross at the bitter end of the first world war. Anyone who's read Alex knows that Lemaitre is capable of wickedly shifting the frame of reference so that the reader's expectations are confounded again and again. In The Great Swindle he's up to his tricks from the very first page. Much of the story unfolds like something out of Dickens – juxtaposed characters clearly marked as Innocent Dummy, Plain Virtuous Woman, Aristocratic Villain (etc) – and there are plenty of pleasurably anxious moments along the way. A few scenes are spectacular, and the resolution is almost what one would expect....more
Last month I picked up a massive book – Germany: Memories of a Nation – just because the illustrations were so fine. MacGregor's book (as yet unfinishLast month I picked up a massive book – Germany: Memories of a Nation – just because the illustrations were so fine. MacGregor's book (as yet unfinished) is well-written but episodic, so I hunted down Ozment's history which had been stuck on my shelves for the last decade. This time I read it straight through. Ozment is a straightforward stylist; he's easy to read, he's obviously mastered a wide range of material, and his judgments and emphases are original. In a little more than 300 pages he takes us from the Germanic tribes of Tacitus to the 21st century nation (still) at the center of European politics.
Readers who expect "the gloomy moralizing of post-World War II historiography" will be disappointed. I was amused to see that Ozment dismisses the (voluminously-documented) battles of World War II in a couple pages, focusing more profitably on the question "Why Hitler?" His answers were surprising – not in that he produces a new point of view, but that he shows how Hitler "made sense" in the context of the time. Very few Germans were signing on for "the barbarian prince" and the unimaginable horrors he entailed. This excuses nothing, of course, but does make the average German less demonic. (Few Americans, whatever their political preference, will feel that we have been represented by our own government; more likely that our core values have been contravened.)
A Mighty Fortress was published in 2004. Ozment concludes his survey with the remark that
There are clear signs that the foundations of the postwar welfare state, exceedingly generous to natives and foreigners alike, are shaking under the accumulated weight of what has been called egalitarianism… The good Germans today are being undone not by war crimes and war guilt but by their own postwar generosity and pursuit of a just society.
This is prescient, as Germany is currently absorbing the majority of refugees from the Middle East, people fleeing the malignant, predictable effects of the US/UK invasions. There's plenty of guilt to go around....more
Gutting does a good job of making the incomprehensible clear, namely explaining what some recent recondite philosophers actually mean. His book opensGutting does a good job of making the incomprehensible clear, namely explaining what some recent recondite philosophers actually mean. His book opens with a short sociology of haute philosophy (institutionalized in the École Normale and the Sorbonne), then drags us through some arduous pages on Hegel and his interpreters. After that initiation it quickly improves – past Heidegger, Sartre and Nietzsche, into some stimulating readings of Levinas, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Jean-Luc Marion (new to me) and Badiou.
When it comes to this crew, I'm accustomed to either reverence from their epigones or polemics from their skeptics. Gutting eschews either extreme, although his conclusion suggests he's less than impressed. Derrida comes in for the roughest treatment:
Derrida's deconstructions fail because they lack the logical rigor that his own standards of success require. His treatment of différance… [cuts itself] off from the basic pre-philosophical concerns that lead us to philosophy in the first place.
Gutting later quotes John Searle, who was quoting Foucault, about Derrida's "obscurantist terrorism." I hunted down the reference for the full remark.
With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part."
That's worth a chuckle. I came to a similar conclusion following L’affaire Derrida in the exchange between Derrida and Thomas Sheehan in The New York Review of Books back in 1993.
Gutting praises French philosophers for keeping "an admirable connection to the richness of personal, social and political action" – yet their "disdain for the obvious," their deliberate hermeticism, severs them from the larger, genuinely philosophic questions they intend to address....more
Siken's first book of poetry was published in 2005 but I just discovered it. It's relentless, obsessed, over-the-top skeltering lines of exacerbated eSiken's first book of poetry was published in 2005 but I just discovered it. It's relentless, obsessed, over-the-top skeltering lines of exacerbated emotion.
Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake and dress them in warm clothes again.
It's hard to believe a book of poems could keep that imagistic intensity all the way through, but for the most part Crush succeeds. Siken is working at the serrated edge of language, employing some kind of focused insanity. The lines whip back and forth like godless serpent in a snake worshipper's hands. At one or two points actual love appears, but for the most part it's pure paranoid propulsion.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.
The only writing I've read by Mary Karr is her By the Book interview in the NYT Sunday Book Review, the type of interview that delights bibliophilic lThe only writing I've read by Mary Karr is her By the Book interview in the NYT Sunday Book Review, the type of interview that delights bibliophilic lovers of lists.* When asked her opinion of "the best memoirists ever," Karr mentioned this book by G.H. Hardy, first published in 1940, which "acts as a pithy argument against suicide." Hmm, I thought, perfect bedtime reading.
Unfortunately (for me) the most interesting part of the book is its introduction by C.P. Snow, who makes Hardy more interesting than he does himself. Three parts stood out:
His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don's. And, like many men who keep a young man's interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it.
So that's something to look forward to.
Snow also recalls a key point of tension between him and Hardy, which recalled the central argument of Peter Watson's The German Genius.
Like many of his Edwardian intellectual friends, he had a strong feeling for Germany. Germany had, after all, been the great educating force of the nineteenth century. To Eastern Europe, to Russia, to the United States, it was the German universities which had taught the meaning of research. Hardy hadn't much use for German philosophy or German literature: his tastes were too classical for that. But in most respects the German culture, including its social welfare, appeared to him higher than his own.
Finally there's the account of Hardy's botched suicide in the wake of a coronary thrombosis, the death of a close friend, and the irruption of the Second World War. Hardy swallowed a handful of barbiturates, then vomited them up, blacking his eye on the edge of the toilet. Snow tried to cheer him up. "I talked about other distinguished failures at bringing off suicide." Hardy promised not to try again. "He wasn't good at it."
After this, the Apology itself is a bit dull, although it does support Snow's observation that he was "utterly free from moral vanity." On the other hand, Hardy can be superbly astringent.
Good work is not done by "humble" men… most people can do nothing at all well… perhaps five or even ten per cent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full… Ambition has been the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.
Hardy believes he followed his own maxim – by his account he was a first-rate mathematician and not much else. Aspects of this Apology sound almost archaic; in my view, the best parts. ___________ * My other favorite is the Guardian'sTop 10s....more
Sometimes when I can't sleep I'll wander over on my iPad to Glenn Harper's International Noir Fiction, which is where I discovered Pétel's Gallic bookSometimes when I can't sleep I'll wander over on my iPad to Glenn Harper's International Noir Fiction, which is where I discovered Pétel's Gallic book. If anything, I was even more disappointed than Harper.
I'm fan of French policiers, but this one hardly counts. It's more of a fevered fantasy that clothes itself in the elements of crime novel but has none of the substance. The plot employs the old doppelganger effect, as in a 19th century Gothic tale or (more scarily) in Polanski's "The Tenant." Here we get the dubious double figure of a Scottish rogue/Parisian detective. I didn't despise the book, but it left me wanting something better, something like (probably because of the Glasgow connection) Louise Welch's terrific book The Cutting Room....more
Kafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with aKafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with a few pages, something that easily happens with Calasso's writing, always astonishing in its erudition even when it seems to glide across the page. K. is less a commentary than a meditation on what Kafka called "the indestructible."
This word brings to mind the Vedic akshara more than it does any term used in less remote traditions. Kafka never chose to explain its meaning. He wanted only to distinguish it clearly from any faith in a "personal God." Indeed he went so far as to assert that "belief in a personal God" is nothing more than "one possible expression" of a widespread phenomenon: the tendency of "the indestructible" to "remain hidden."
Recently I read Roberto Balaño's short story "Police Rat," which echoes Kafka's late tales "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" and "The Burrow." What is it, I wondered, with Kafka and mice? Specifically, the noise they make en masse, which I would have called chirping, but Kafka (and Bolaño following him) refer to as "whistling" or "piping." Toward the end of Calasso's book I found the answer, in a letter Kafka wrote from Zürau.
Dear Felix, the first great flaw of Zürau: a night of mice, a frightening experience. I am unscathed and my hair is no whiter than yesterday, but it was the most horrifying thing in the world. For some time now I've heard them here and there, every now and then at night I've been hearing a soft nibbling, once I even got out of bed, trembling, to take a look, and then it stopped at once – but this time it was an uproar. What a dreadful, mute, and noisy race. At two I was awakened by a rustling near my bed and it didn't let up from then until morning. Up the coal box, down the coal box, crossing the room diagonally, running circles, nibbling the woodwork, whistling softly when not moving, and all the while the sensation of silence, of the clandestine labor of an oppressed proletarian race to whom the night belongs.
First my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fFirst my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fueled by incestuous citations and discredited deconstructionist fantasies of domination, liberation and transgression – all crimped within the conformist cadences of academia. Sebald's Bachelors certainly has its share of these.
The tension in the first three sections of Schwindel. Gefühle. is, more precisely, between what Deleuze and Guattari term 'a schizo Eros and an Oedipal Thanatos,' here a queer erotics that resists the Oedipal process… It further demonstrates what Laura Penny has usefully diagnosed as a tension between Benjaminian and Deleuzoguattarian readings of Kafka, between 'Benjamin's modernist mourning and Deleuze's schizoid affirmation.'
There are occasional hilarities ("the queer heterotopia of the railway toilet"), dutiful affirmations of anti-Orientalism etc. and a crash of jarring metaphors (Sebald's Vertigo "is not a fully realized revolutionary literary machine"). And there is a wealth of insight, nourished by an astonishing range of Sebaldiana.
Despite my queer resistance to this style of argument, Finch held my interest throughout. True, at key points I felt she simply misrepresented the texts she was reading, conjuring homosexual eros out of the most unlikely relationships. (I was reminded of the early days of Gay Liberation when everyone everywhere had to be gay.) But fundamentally I was convinced: there is something queer about Sebald's bachelors. It was worth fighting past the scholastic fetish of Theory. Serious fans of Sebald will find much to enchant them here.
PS: Legenda did a beautiful job publishing this text....more
A fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroyiA fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroying the world it's been given. Humboldt appears as a brilliant, even heroic, transitional figure between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, between the positivism of science and the inwardness of art, between Goethe and Darwin. Wulf is also good at demonstrating his influence on other naturalists, not only Darwin but Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh (new to me), Ernst Haeckel and John Muir.
Because I'd just finished reading On the Move: A Life, I couldn't help being reminded of Oliver Sacks, who also stood outside his own profession of neurology to capture the human and artistic dimension of knowledge, creating a new kind of scientific literature in the process. I was also intrigued to find out that Humboldt never married. He claimed his passion was only for science, but he was rarely without the company of another charismatic young man. His equally famous brother, Willem, "disliked his brother's intense friendships – probably a mixture of jealousy and a concern for what might have seemed the inappropriate nature of these connections." And finally, to my private embarrassment, I realized I've confused Alexander and Willem my whole life. (Humboldt University in Berlin is named after both of them.)
The dark irony is that, although Humboldt was revered his warnings about how humanity was destroying its own environment were largely ignored. What should be obvious to everyone is still the stuff of partisan politics, and the grim conviction deepens that nothing will be done until it is too late, that it is in fact too late already.
I read Hazareesingh's book soon after finishing Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible, which addressed a narrower subject (French philosophy) withinI read Hazareesingh's book soon after finishing Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible, which addressed a narrower subject (French philosophy) within a more concentrated span (since 1960). Even so, the overlap is less compelling than expected. Hazareesingh's French thinkers are a bit more grim, less brilliantly Gallic than Gutting's. After a telling prologue (Dominique de Villepin's 2003 address to the U.N. countering the Bush/Blair rush to invade Iraq), Hazareesingh begins with Descartes, and the book bogs down.
Of course: À chacun son goût. For my taste, the bulk of Hazareesingh's book is as dry as a day-old baguette – as compared to (first example to mind) Tony Judt's Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 or even Gutting's careful account. The last couple chapters, documenting French thinkers' thoughts on their own decline, are slightly more interesting but at the cost of a certain acerbity ("mindless word games in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard"). Those targets are too easily hit, and far from affectionate.
At its best, the book provided a dogged survey of writers I knew nothing about or had largely forgotten. One example: I was startled to see the name of Reynaud Camus, whom I remember only for his unapologetic Tricks: 25 Encounters (1981, introduction by Roland Barthes and the ostensible subject of Gore Vidal's spectacular polemic "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"). It appears he's moved far beyond sex with strangers.
Camus believed that the notion of France as a land of immigration was a "myth" that had been fabricated by the ideologues of the establishment for the sake of promoting multiculturalism and the "decivilized" utopia of a global village. According to the author, the strategy was succeeding: the sacred concepts of patriotism, patrimony, and heritage had been emptied of their substance, and France was facing a "replacement" of its native populations by immigrants from the Maghreb – an Islamic invasion that Camus described as a "counter-colonization."
Indeed, a quick read of the Wikipedia entry on Camus reveals a complicated character who does indeed (as he did in 1981) seem entirely French. And Hazareesingh is helpful on explaining this exacerbated debate, especially post Charlie Hebdo.
I could have used more of this, more flavor – there's precious little on French fiction (nothing on its crime fiction, one of my favorites); almost nothing on its music or film or food. – Well, there is one orotund quote from the philosopher Yves Roucaute
who used a sustained comparison between the blandness of the fast-food hamburger and the authenticity of the French sandwich jambon-beurre… This opened the way to a lyrical evocation of the liberating virtues of the French café… "Remarkable school of equality, the French café symbolizes equal dignity. Extraordinary school of liberty, the French café opens its doors to all and allows true choice. Prodigious school of fraternity, by this apparently simple act of buying a sandwich is created a communion around regional products. So with butter, bread and pork, without knowing it, you declaim these three words: 'liberty,' 'equality,' and 'fraternity.'"
Like other reviewers here, I lived through the dark decade of AIDS and experienced the loss of friends and lovers, young men in their 20s and 30s justLike other reviewers here, I lived through the dark decade of AIDS and experienced the loss of friends and lovers, young men in their 20s and 30s just beginning their lives. Gooch's memoir brought all that back to me, although not quite with the chilling immediacy of the recent documentaries How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here. This book has the feel of something that needed to be written, an act of homage – and it rings true....more
A wonderful memoir, packed with exorbitant adventures, brimming with a joy both physical and intellectual. When I first spotted the book I was shockedA wonderful memoir, packed with exorbitant adventures, brimming with a joy both physical and intellectual. When I first spotted the book I was shocked at the muscle boy on the motorcycle – not at all how I'd pictured the neurologist as a young man. Who knew he that was gay? Who knew that he'd won prizes for weight-lifting and hung out on Venice Beach? Who knew that he had such tenderness? Sacks is humble and humorous about his extraordinary, often astonishing life. A genuine delight.
**spoiler alert** If nowhere else, there’s a sense of humor in the title of this book which drones on for 720 pages about a single character with a si**spoiler alert** If nowhere else, there’s a sense of humor in the title of this book which drones on for 720 pages about a single character with a single (richly detailed) pathology and the people who selflessly love him. At first I was interested, then enthralled, then exhausted, then infuriated – not least at myself. On the penultimate page there’s a passage in which two characters are reading a letter left to them by Jude, the long-suffering protagonist.
It took us several days to read, because although it was brief, it was also endless, and we had to keep putting the pages down and walking away from them, and then bracing each other – Really? – and sitting down and reading some more.
Yes, I thought, exactly my own experience of this book (except for the brief part), and then I looked a second time I saw that the italicized word was Ready?
This book is packed with pathos; in fact there’s nothing else. The characters and their world are almost without dimension. Jude is defined by a childhood of abuse that beggars belief, as does his subsequent success: he’s not only a brilliant corporate lawyer, but richly talented singer, pianist, linguist, cook, gardener, and pure mathematician of multiracial beauty. Yet for all his legal rapacity, he’s incapable of the least act of self-preservation. His cadre of friends are equally talented, wealthy and world-class successful; they love him and abet his sweet sense of self-destruction to distraction, again and again and again and again and again. There’s the plot in nuce. The novel is all about men (the women are mere shadows and accompanists) yet the men are strangely bloodless, all sentiment and no body. The central romance of the novel, its grand passion, is simply not credible. It’s something out of a mawkish gay romance novel but far more masochistic.
So why did I read all 720 pages? My only answer is the sunk-cost fallacy – I’d read this far, why not finish it? Maybe, just maybe, there would be something to redeem all the fantastic suffering. And here is the spoiler: there isn’t. ...more
If Gregor Samsa had survived and written a novel, this would be it. Maybe the most unflattering portrait of male sexuality I've ever read, as mordantIf Gregor Samsa had survived and written a novel, this would be it. Maybe the most unflattering portrait of male sexuality I've ever read, as mordant and hilarious as Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels – at least at first. I admire Ian Parkinson's bravado. An impressive debut....more
My trouble is that my intelligence is materialistic, agnostic, pessimistic and solitary, while my heart is incurably tender, romantic, loving and gregMy trouble is that my intelligence is materialistic, agnostic, pessimistic and solitary, while my heart is incurably tender, romantic, loving and gregarious.
Last weekend I had dinner with a friend who was reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, and she mentioned T. H. White and his love for goshawks. Afterwards I hunted down my battered, banged-up copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography – which I'd bought only because I loved her Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune's Maggot – a biography Sadie Stein called "a small masterpiece of humanity." It is indeed all that, and a little less.
My response to White's life is divided. Somewhere in my teens I got a copy of The Once and Future King and despite (or because of) my love for all things Arthurian, I hated it. White's characters were jokey and anachronistic, and after Malory (the absolute opinion of youth) it was an abomination. I never gave the guy another chance.
Warner didn't reverse my judgment of White's most famous book, but she did warm my feelings for the man himself, a man apparently conceived in unhappiness. T. H. White is a study in loneliness – a loneliness however richly qualified by imagination, love of nature, animals and other solitary souls. A consummate bachelor, his greatest love was his Irish Setter Brownie. The saddest passages in the book are his letters about her death. "She was the central fact of my life." His other great love was a 12-year-old boy. White is straightforward in his own account.
It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of this impractical, unsuitable love. Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I love. He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings – not that they are bad in themselves. It is the public opinion that makes them so.... The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on.
Warner describes the result.
He could not still his heart. During the next four years he was to live at the mercy of a love which could only be expressed in falsities, which he dared not let out of his sight, which he could not trust, could not renounce, could not forego without sinning against his own nature, could not secure.
While most of the book tracks White's failures and impressive success at writing and friendship, quoting perhaps too liberally from his letters, it is his essential sadness that finally impresses itself on the reader. "He had been unlucky with his happiness," Warner concludes. White himself wrote in his diary shortly before his death at 57: "I expect to make rather a good death. The essence of death is loneliness, and I have had plenty of practice at this."...more
"Revenge can be grisly but exciting," writes Alberto Manguel in his introduction to Dark Arrows: Great Stories of Revenge. Or it can be small, mean-sp"Revenge can be grisly but exciting," writes Alberto Manguel in his introduction to Dark Arrows: Great Stories of Revenge. Or it can be small, mean-spirited, delusional – and not especially interesting. Morrison is a skilled writer. His chatty narrator quickly pulled me in, but I was weary of him half-way through. Still there's something about the set-up (English seaside, jealous friends, an embittered marriage) and I wanted to see how it all played out. Now my head hurts....more
Over the past few years Carlotto has published two series of Italian noir – novels featuring Marco Buratti (aka The Alligator) and his friends, a trioOver the past few years Carlotto has published two series of Italian noir – novels featuring Marco Buratti (aka The Alligator) and his friends, a trio of criminals turned investigators; and another series starring the very wicked Giorgio Pelligrini, elegant restaurateur and amoral brute. The Alligator likes blues and beautiful women; Pelligrini loves only himself. The Pelligrini novels are more fun because, in Carlotto's portraits, Giorgio is as charming as he is reprehensible – at least until this book.
Gang of Lovers pits the pair against each other – which is all I'll say about the plot. It took me a couple chapters to warm up to it, until a dinner party scene in Beruit which is as hard-boiled as it comes. From that point I enjoyed it thoroughly, even if it lacks the spark and shock of The Goodbye Kiss and At the End of a Dull Day. It's clear from the start who are the good guys and who are the bad but in Carlotto's world categories can capsize without warning....more