Bornin Glasgow, The United Kingdom
Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, Keith Waterhouse, Douglas Adams, Franz Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, Keith Waterhouse, Douglas Adams, Franz Kafka ...more
I was born in Glasgow in 1959 and although throughout my life I have lived in most parts of Scotland I have found myself continually drawn back to the "friendly city" where I now live quietly on the outskirts with my wife.
My writing career began at school and I continue to write and publish poetry to this day. During the nineties I experienced a length period of writer's block - it lasted two years - then one day I sat down and started writing. Twenty-one pages left I had the bare bones of a novel, Living with the Truth.
Since then I've started to broaden my horizons completing two plays and a decent body of short stories. I am currently trying to decide if I'm writing my sixth novel or just kidding myself.
Librarian Note: There is more than I was born in Glasgow in 1959 and although throughout my life I have lived in most parts of Scotland I have found myself continually drawn back to the "friendly city" where I now live quietly on the outskirts with my wife.
My writing career began at school and I continue to write and publish poetry to this day. During the nineties I experienced a length period of writer's block - it lasted two years - then one day I sat down and started writing. Twenty-one pages left I had the bare bones of a novel, Living with the Truth.
Since then I've started to broaden my horizons completing two plays and a decent body of short stories. I am currently trying to decide if I'm writing my sixth novel or just kidding myself.
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information. ...more
All good things come to an end, and all bad things, too, one supposes, and, as a matter of course, the noncommittal and the inconsequential… The More Things Change, Jim Murdoch
This will be my last post. The last for a while in any case. A good while. Maybe forever. I’ve been doing this for ten years now—my first post was on 6th August 2007 following the death of Ingmar Bergman—which is a long... Read more of this blog post »
Published on August 13, 2017 04:30 • 17 views
Jim Murdoch Average rating: 4.27· 107 ratings · 40 reviews · 10 distinct works
Living with the Truth
3.69 avg rating — 16 ratings — published 2008 — 2 editions
3.91 avg rating — 11 ratings — published 2013 — 2 editions
Milligan and Murphy
3.82 avg rating — 11 ratings — published 2011 — 2 editions
Stranger than Fiction
really liked it 4.00 avg rating — 9 ratings — published 2009 — 2 editions
This Is Not About What You Think
4.75 avg rating — 4 ratings — published 2010
The More Things Change
4.50 avg rating — 2 ratings
The Whole Truth
liked it 3.00 avg rating — 1 rating — published 2011 — 2 editions
Reader Please Supply Meaning
0.00 avg rating — 0 ratings — published 2015
The best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2012
Jessica Bell (Goodreads Author) (Editor),
Dawn Ius (Goodreads Author) (Editor),
Adam Byatt (Contributor)
4.83 avg rating — 35 ratings — published 2012
Poetry Pact 2011
Angela Felsted (Goodreads Author),
4.28 avg rating — 18 ratings — published 2012 — 2 editions
Living with the Truth (Literature & Fiction)
1 chapters — updated Mar 29, 2010 04:33PMDescription: A novel about a old bookseller who finds himself forced to spend two days with the personification of truth.
Question: What has Anita Brookner’s first novel got in common with the film Shrek 2? Answer: The supporting characters steal the show. They, Donkey and Puss in Boots, steal it in Shrek the Third too if it comes to that. Don’t get me wrong, Shrek hims
Question: What has Anita Brookner’s first novel got in common with the film Shrek 2? Answer: The supporting characters steal the show. They, Donkey and Puss in Boots, steal it in Shrek the Third too if it comes to that. Don’t get me wrong, Shrek himself is not unentertaining but he’s at his most entertaining when he has a foil to contend with. The same is true of Ruth Weiss. She’s a weedy, unworldly bookworm who only gets married because she’s asked and she thinks it impolite to refuse as she can’t think of a good reason not to be married. I mean that is funny but more funny-sad than funny-ha-ha.
There are two plotlines to this book: the marriage of Ruth’s parents (that would be George and Helen) and the childhood and young adulthood of their only daughter. On the surface Ruth looks that she’s going to be the novel’s centre figure and, yes, her story is central and it weaves in and out of her parents’ quite nicely but the book would’ve survived had she been demoted to a minor character, “the daughter,” who leaves her parents in the lurch but finds it within herself to do the right thing when duty calls. George and… it could easily have been Mildred but it was, as I’ve said, Helen… are bordering on Wodehousian although to be honest George reminded most of Major “Benjy” Flint from the Mapp and Lucia novels. His wife, once a successful actress (although never an A-lister), spends most of her days lounging in her bed (not) writing her autobiography with the abetment of their “wry, spry” housekeeper, Mrs Cutler.
Ruth is a directionless soul for the most part. The Kirkus Review describes her as “whiny and utterly passive modern-day Eugénie” and I’m sure they’re right but as my knowledge of Balzac is wanting in the extreme—Eugénie Grandet is, apparently, his 1833 novel about miserliness and how it is bequeathed from the father to the daughter, Eugénie, through her unsatisfying love attachment with her cousin—I can’t say one way or the other but “miserly” is not a word I’d use to describe either Ruth or her father; “canny” would be a better choice and only because they’re basically practical people who realise money doesn’t grow on trees. Ruth is a homely girl, plain apart from her flaming red locks, and mostly left to, as we say in Scotland, hang as she grows. Understandably she turns to books but although they ended up providing her a living (as a writer and lecturer) they also provided her with a narrow, outdated view of the world. She does grow as a character… No, no, she’s grows in experience but not in character. She goes to France, changes her look, falls into a couple of affairs but nothing really changes with her.
Her parents on the other had do change although there’s no growth there either: they shrink; they decline; they diminish. They stop being funny except when they’re being funny-strange. They become clingy and aren’t fussy who they cling to.
That said for a first novel this isn’t half bad. If, like me, you’re working your way backwards though Brookner’s works—not quite but sometimes it feels a bit like that—you’ll see a lot that’s familiar. Her use of language is meticulous and she introduced me to several wonderful words including “bungalowed.” Her characters have depth and, well, character but it was the humour that struck me. Her books aren’t without some levity but she’s never been an author I thought was good at—or at least had much interest in—being funny. I stand corrected. My favourite lines were, by far:
She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from. Her father, who could have told her this, had not.I just think that’s wonderful.
What’s particularly interesting, however, is the book’s striking opening line. As is often the case with first novels the autobiographical quotient is a bit on the high side but when Brookner (as the book’s narrator) says:
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.one has to wonder where that’s coming from. Thirty years later when she published her last book and was dusting her CBE I expect she might want to modify that verb. At least I hope she would. ...more
One of the hardest things for any author to control once his or her book is in print is reader expectation. Especially if he’d dead. But even more so if he’s a legend. I’ve been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work for about thirty years. I’ve not read eve
One of the hardest things for any author to control once his or her book is in print is reader expectation. Especially if he’d dead. But even more so if he’s a legend. I’ve been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work for about thirty years. I’ve not read everything but every now and then I treat myself to a book and hope I don’t die before I’ve read the best of them. I’ve never dipped into his non-sci-fi stuff before and so I thought it was high time. I didn’t know what to expect but I can’t say I opened the book with no expectations. Frankly I expected to be disappointed. And that can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy I find.
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland was written in 1960 and so just three years before he won a Hugo Award for The Man in the High Castle. It was, I was surprised to learn, his twentieth novel and most of the preceding works (including The Man Who Japed, Time Out of Joint and The World Jones Made) were science fiction. That said it is actually a reworking of an earlier novel written in the mid-fifties entitled A Time for George Stavros. How different the two books are who can say? but it’s not the Philip K. Dick we’ve all become familiar with. That said, slip in a few video phones and a flying cop car, and it could easily be (consider A Scanner Darky). Question: Had someone handed me this text and asked me to identify the author would I have guessed right? Answer: I think there’s a fair chance I might. Because the underlying theme is one of paranoia; just who can you trust?
In his Analysis of Philip K. Dick’s Novels Nasrullah Mambrol talks about the book…
…as a sequel to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), recounting what happened after the “Okies” got to California: They settled down, lost their way, ran used-car lots, and became “humpty dumpties”—passive spectators of the American Dream.Dick himself described the work as “a novel about the proletarian world from the inside” as opposed to one written, say, by a middle-class writer. It’s a fair description because the book’s central character is a one lot used car salesman who will probably die a one lot used car salesman. He’s jealous of those who’re more successful than he is and yet when luck shines on him and he gets offered a leg up he does everything in his power to scupper his chances of success.
When it was rejected by Harcourt, Brace the editor said, “One is left asking, at the end, what the book has really been about, what the author is trying to say in it. As with earlier Dick novels, it simply doesn’t add up to enough.” I’m not sure I agree although I can see why he said what he did. What struck me was the ending because, by Philidickian standards, it’s a happy ending; Humpty is put back together again by, of all people, the King or at least the kingpin. It shouldn’t add up. Injured people aren’t known for their forgiving qualities but what Al Miller gets at the end of the book is a second chance; the system is not out to get him after all. Not this time anyway.
Talking about plot and form in his article ‘Motion and mobility in the realist novels of Philip K. Dick’ Ian C. Davidson writes:
The vacillation of the characters and the uncertainties around the purpose of their movements resulted in novel forms and narrative structures that seemed to wander rather than proceed with any sense of purpose towards a conclusion.He then basically gives Dick the opportunity to respond by quoting from a letter he wrote in 1970:
I set up my characters; I set up his worlds; then I have him begin to lose his world as he knows it […] I am writing about a man or men who have lost control or are losing control of their worlds. By making this my subject I am denying that this world really is as we see it…That is a fair description of what happens to Al Miller in this novel. His is a mundane life and he’s well-suited to it even if he’s not always happy with it; ruts are not always bad things; there is comfort in the staticity (the status quo-ness, if you like) of the quotidian. The news he’s going to lose his livelihood is jarring and then when faced with the possibility that he could be something else he panics. We get to watch the proverbial car crash in slow motion.
My problem with Dick in general is he’s not a great writer. He’s a great ideas man and we’re so taken by his ideas we don’t pay as much attention to the quality of the writing as perhaps we should. By comparison to his later works this is a chamber piece and it’s easier to see its flaws. That said I never found it boring and I was, happily, less disappointed than I’d expected to be.
If you’re interested in Dick’s other mainstream novels you should also check out Death of a Salesman: Petit-Bourgeois Dread in Philip K. Dick's Mainstream Fiction and Philip K. Dick’s Suburban Jeremiad. ...more
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever, EVER imagine I would describe a work of fiction by Gerald Murnane as Philidickian but here I am doing exactly that. I’m a fan of both authors but until today I wouldn’t have imagined they had much in common othe
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever, EVER imagine I would describe a work of fiction by Gerald Murnane as Philidickian but here I am doing exactly that. I’m a fan of both authors but until today I wouldn’t have imagined they had much in common other than they write in English. More fool me. Dick, of course, was obsessed by the nature of reality. So is Murnane, in fact he writes, in ‘Landscape with Artist’ the final story in this collection, “I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life.” But, of course, that’s not Murnane speaking; it’s the story’s narrator. Only it’s not the story’s narrator because, as we were reading the penultimate story in the book ‘Charlie Alcock’s Cock’, we learn that ‘Landscape with Artist’ is a story that story’s narrator wrote. But it gets worse. ‘Charlie Alcock’s Cock’ is a story the narrator of ‘A Quieter Place than Clun’ wrote. And so on and so forth. Which begs the question: Is Landscape with Landscape a collection of short fiction or what we would normally think of as novel? It’s something the author of ‘Landscape with Artist’ wonders too when he’s not wondering if he’s “some character in a work of fiction” himself.
If you’ve never read Murnane before this might not be the best place to start. Most people would say go with The Plains or Tamarisk Row and there’re good reasons to begin there but before you get stuck into the likes of Inland you probably should read this book because in it he explains as best he can what his entire œuvre is about. As one of his nameless proxies puts it:
I despaired of writing publishable fiction because as soon as I began a story or a novel I lost sight of my subject and wrote page after page trying to explain what was wrong with me as a writer, which was that I hardly noticed people and things around me because I was always looking for some kind of ideal scenery that would correspond to obscure places in my thoughts.Many authors have taken a word and made it their own. With Murnane that word is “landscape:”
The moment that changed my life was when I muttered a solemn phrase that had suddenly become rich with meaning. I said the words ‘literary landscape’ as though I was naming my lost homeland, announcing a destination I was about to make for, and explaining the oddness that others seemed to see about me.This is a deep book; don’t let its mundanity con you. As always with Murnane it feels as if he’s just droning on and on and, yes, he can drone with the best of them but really his problem stems from the fact he can’t find a way to boil what he has to say down into tasty sound bites. Just think about a landscape you’re familiar with—any landscape with do, even your back garden—and try to do it justice in words. Murnane’s books are really only a single massive work trying to describe the literary landscape he’s been exploring all his life. It feels and sounds a lot like the real world but, as with Dick at his best, it’s just a little bit skewed. It’s tempting to think of Murnane’s work as autobiographical fiction and there’s no doubt he’s drawn heavily on his life but that’s because the literary landscape he inhabits inhabits him.
There is an interesting passage in Barley Patch I’d like to draw your attention to:
During most of the years before I stopped writing fiction, I would have afforded little cheer to any personage who had begged me in a dream to allow him or her into my fiction. I would have tried to explain to the personage that he or she would still be no more than a personage, even if I were to report his or her existence in my fiction. I would have tried to explain that no sort of character could be said to exist in my fiction; that anyone mentioned in my fiction could be never more than a fictional personage, even if he or she might have seemed to resemble some or another person who lived in the place often called the real world or some or another character mentioned in some or another work of fiction. In fairness to myself, however, I might have tried to explain that the state of existence of the personages in my fiction was by no means wretched; that many such personages appeared against a background of mostly level grassy countryside; and that many a personage was the object of my continual curiosity, so that I longed to be on familiar terms with the personage, even if my only means of achieving this might have been the preposterous project of my becoming myself a personage in my own fiction.I struggled with that the first time I read it. Now it’s beginning to make some sense. I should read the book again and I likely will but not for a while. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Murnane is to give his writing space.
After you’ve read the book—and I do recommend you read it—you might want to check out Karin Hansson’s ‘The Departure of the Artist: A Post-Structuralist Reading of Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape’ as well as some of the other reviews on Goodreads. This isn’t a perfect book by any manner or means but it’s as perfect as it was ever going to be at describing a flawed and fluctuating landscape.
There is a theme running through this book: a writer is struggling to understand the way he views the world and then tries to communicate said understanding to others. It’s a common problem. All you have to do is talk to artists like Giacometti or the notoriously secretive Rothko; the most self-deprecating of writers, Beckett, or composers like Gloria Coates and her interminable glissandi and that control freak Stockhausen to understand the struggle, what they went through to produce art the common man shrugs at. Although not a conventional autobiography by any means what Murnane is doing here is explaining the process, how he got from being a bad poet to being nominated for the Nobel Prize.
If this is the first you’ve heard about him there’re plenty of articles about him now. Many dwell on what an odd bird he is and there’s no doubt he is an odd bird—he wouldn’t deny it (‘I don’t know what anyone is thinking,’ Murnane has said. ‘People are a mystery to me’)—but I’m not sure he’s any odder than those I mentioned in the last paragraph; it kinda goes with the territory. The most recent article I read about him is definitely worth a read. It was in The New York Times entitled ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?’ and ends with following excerpt from a poem which is the only one of his I’ve seen in print. He clearly got better:
Reader, if you’re urged...more
This volume consists of two novellas, the titular The River Swimmer (known elsewhere as Water Baby) and the superior (and twice as long) The Land of Unlikeliness. (I should point out that Jon Billman in his review disagrees with me but each to his ow
This volume consists of two novellas, the titular The River Swimmer (known elsewhere as Water Baby) and the superior (and twice as long) The Land of Unlikeliness. (I should point out that Jon Billman in his review disagrees with me but each to his own.) Although Clive, the protagonist in the latter, is three times as old as Thad, the teenage swimmer, both books are, at their heart, about teen-somethings. Living our lives day by day it’s often hard to identify the moments we’ll later on look back on as significant, the ones that’ll shape—or misshape—us. Most, at the time, seem insignificant enough but with time they reveal themselves. Value isn’t something integral to a moment or a thing; it’s something we place on it whether it deserves it or not.
In Clive’s case he’s had years to organise his regrets and the one that comes out top is a lost opportunity:
The irresistible memory, with a remnant of rawness akin to the wound left behind by a tooth extraction, burst into his consciousness with the sight of the tree-bordered farm lane…One night he had found himself alone with Laurette, the love of his life as far as he was concerned at the time although over the intervening years it looks like no one came close to toppling her from her pedestal:
She wanted to talk so he pulled off down the farm lane between their houses. She had half a joint in her purse which she lit and he drew a pint of peppermint schnapps from under the car seat.She’s going to marry Keith in July but she’s open to a charity snog and then a charity hand job but after becoming unconscious due to the drink no charity fuck is forthcoming although when he drops her off she giggles, “You missed your only chance, kiddo.”
Now he’s sixty and back home after forty years only to discover that Laurette is living in her old family home with (and from all accounts with) a woman called Lydia. Surely after all this time the past is the past and maybe it is but has it been put to rest and if not then how?
Thad, on the other hand, has no problems persuading young women to couple with him. Both Emily and Laurie and more than willing and in the tightest corners. Thad was born on “a small farm in the middle of an island in a large river started during the Great Depression.” The farm is in the Midwest two days’ swim—if you’re Thad that is—from Chicago. My first impressions were that he was probably a bit of a hick-cum-jock but there’s depth to him. The rivers and lakes in which he spends so much of his time are much more than the aquatic equivalent of a football pitch:
He himself was quite spiritual in an eccentric way based on all of his reading in the life sciences and astronomy wherein everything seemed to be too monstrously intricate to be accidental whether it was avian vision and migration or the sheer fact of ninety billion galaxies. […] He had learned early not to try to formalize his interesting perceptions or they would stagnate. All of this certainly was not enough to pass for religion but he didn’t care partly because he was still young. His first love, swimming, was certainly not eternal but then so was earth and any creature, human or otherwise.His favourite book from childhood was “a huge book published in England called The Rivers of Earth” and his current reading is “Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology, a primer text for water people.” He wants to go to college and study marine biology and oceanography. And it seems like things might work out. Both Laurie and Emily come from money although Emily’s father is by far the richer and the more amenable to his daughter’s relationship with Thad. He makes no bones about his willingness to put the boy through college too.
But Fate gets in the road before he can make a muck of everything by himself and he ends up back on the farm with no real prospects. Or maybe that doesn’t matter. Clive has his art, Thad his rivers…
If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it. It was his nature.…and maybe that’s enough.
I’ve not read anything by Harrison before but Mark Guarino ends his review of this book for the Chicago Tribune by pointing out that “returning to our natural state is always a potent theme in Harrison's work.” I would agree that this is something both these novellas have in common.
I’ve said already that I preferred the longer novella. The main reason is I’m ages with Clive and I found it very easy to put myself in his shoes. I’m also the least spiritual person you’re likely to meet and so all the mysticism and magic realism in the second novella was lost on me. I’m a writer and painting is similar enough to make sense to me. Swimming is like dancing, totally alien. I couldn’t relate to Thad’s philandering—I wasn’t that kind of seventeen-year-old—but I do have a Laurette in my past that a part of me would love to see once before I die even if she is mostly likely a grandmother.
Four stars for The Land of Unlikeliness, two for The River Swimmer—I genuinely struggled to finish it—so three stars overall. ...more
This is the fifth book by Amélie Nothomb I’ve read although I see I’ve only reviewed two on Goodreads, Fear and Trembling and Hygiene and the Assassin; I’ve also read The Character of Rain and The Stranger Next Door. Nothomb is an author who I’d read
This is the fifth book by Amélie Nothomb I’ve read although I see I’ve only reviewed two on Goodreads, Fear and Trembling and Hygiene and the Assassin; I’ve also read The Character of Rain and The Stranger Next Door. Nothomb is an author who I’d read anything by despite the fact none of the five novels I’ve read have much in common apart from the fact their author has a tendency not to attack her subject matter straight on. She’s not infrequently described as “quirky” or “eccentric” and I can’t take issue with either adjective. I think I’ll lump for “peculiar” as in strange, uncommon and distinctive. Oddly though this particular novel is one of her most straightforward although there’s no denying the fact the titular Pétronille is an odd bird and one kept at arm’s length.
There is often a strong autobiographical element to Nothomb’s work and it’s especially apparent here because the book’s narrator is a Belgian writer who is not only called “Amélie Nothomb” but who has written books with the same titles as her. Whether or not the real Nothomb is a connoisseur of champagne I do not know. This is an alternate reality where Nothomb becomes friends with a young woman called Pétronille Fanto who goes on to become a successful writer although not so successful she can support herself by writing alone. It’s an interesting approach to a book, to insert a fictional character into your life and imagine where she might lead you.
Basically this a book about the nature of friendship, of a very specific kind of friendship. It’s partly about what it’s like being a writer and obviously friendships arise out of commonalities but writing’s a solitary business and there’s no instance in the book where the two women sit around scribbling away together. There are, however, numerous instances where they drink—and, inevitably, get drunk—together. That is the bedrock on which this particular friendship rests. Nothomb, at the start of the book, was on the lookout for a drinking buddy—less “companion”, more “comvinion” as she puts it—and Pétronille fits the bill perfectly. Drinking alone is something most people think of as sad; company masques the sadness but it doesn’t obliterate it. Neither is an alcoholic. I wouldn’t say they even have a drink problem but drink inhibits their friendship’s growth into something more meaningful. Is a drinking buddy a true friend or simply an enabler? I like the way Nicholas Horne describes the relationship in his review for Frenchly: “The two become close in the way that only truly closed-off people can…”
At first, and for quite a while, their story seems frivolous and slight and I couldn’t really see where it was going but little by little it becomes clear Pétronille has issues and is less interested in the art of drinking, in achieving “a state of transcendent inebriation” as Trevor Berrett put it; she wants to have fun and, for her, fun inevitably includes an element of risk that Nothomb finds she’s not always comfortable with. But they’re friends and so she goes along with whatever Pétronille has in mind. Unsurprisingly things don’t work out well for Pétronille. She loses interest in boring jobs and chooses to support herself by engaging in drug trials which take their toll on her:
In early January, 2010, I got a call from the Cochin hospital:After three months of struggling to live together Pétronille and the next thing we hear she seems to have got her life together; she’s “now working as a literary critic for a major weekly publication in Luxembourg” and has a new novel coming out. Crisis averted. Lessons learned. And they all lived happily ever after.
The final two, short chapters will kick the feet from under you. I’m obviously not going to talk about what happens but it did make me want to reread the whole book to see if there’d been clues I’d missed. “Pétronille’s life was awash with mystery,” is an easy enough sentence to write but it’s really not very helpful. Can you ever truly know someone? One might think at the end of the book we get to see—or at least glimpse—the true Pétronille and maybe we do. I’m not sure. What would she have been like if, like it is with the rest of us, all she ever got to know about Amélie Nothomb was what she read on the page? They say you should never meet your heroes. Probably best not to go for a drink with them either. ...more
Reviewers have struggled to describe this book. It feels like it ought to be classified as dystopian fiction were it not for the fact the world described—though barely explained—within its pages seems quite a happy and content place. Fairy tales ofte
Reviewers have struggled to describe this book. It feels like it ought to be classified as dystopian fiction were it not for the fact the world described—though barely explained—within its pages seems quite a happy and content place. Fairy tales often begin, "Once upon a time..." but how would that read in the future tense? I'm going to lump for, "Once the future’s here..." Because that's what this book feels like, a fairy tale of things to come.
There’s not much of a story. In reality it’s an expositional novel. The post-urban Japan described in the book has suffered a major environmental and technological tragedy that’s resulted in significant changes to the populace’s way of life. Much of the soil has been contaminated, the surrounding seas too, its plants continue to mutate (red or square pineapples are not unheard of), there are few animals and fewer fit for human consumption without risk; there are no more computers, telephones, vacuum cleaners, washing machines or even cars—there is still electricity though—and yet the country has plodded on stoically:
Since watching television led to weight gain, many dieters threw theirs away. Air conditioners had gone out of fashion more than a generation ago. The only appliance left was the refrigerator, though the ones now in use didn’t have cords. The most popular model, the “Arctic Star,” ran on solar energy.Stoicism is a Greek term, of course, and not one you would hear used in this changing world; they would be instructed instead to talk of the gaman spirit, a Zen Buddhist expression meaning to "endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity."
The Japanese government has chosen to take an isolationist position and broken contact with the rest of the world. It might seem an odd thing to do when clearly the country’s in need of international aid but it seems Japan is not the only country experiencing serious problems so who’s to say what’s happening here isn’t happening the world over? It is mentioned at one point that the whole earth has become “irreversibly contaminated.” When Mumei, Yoshiro’s great-grandson, asks him why Japan is closed to the outside world the old man tries to explain:
“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”It’s an explanation suitable for a young child but not one Yoshiro is entirely comfortable with. And he’s not alone but “no one openly discussed the isolation policy.” Like the Berlin Wall, one day they could travel freely and the next, without warning (and most certainly without a referendum), the “walls” went up. The public was rightly shocked but this wasn’t the first time Japan had chosen to seclude itself—the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868) adopted the sakoku policy (“closed country”) as a means of combatting the colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal—and so they hunker down and make the best of it.
What does feel distinctly dystopian, however, is how the government goes out of its way to control language. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Newspeak obviously is the touchstone here. As Orwell explains:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. – Nineteen Eighty-Four – Appendix: The Principles of NewspeakThis is very much the mindset of the powers that be here. As I suggested earlier Western expressions have fallen into (well, been pushed) into disuse but it didn’t stop there:
The shelf life of words was getting shorter all the time — it wasn’t only the foreign ones that were falling out of use. And some words that had disappeared after being labelled “old-fashioned” had no heirs to take their place.For a writer, which is what Yoshiro is, you can only imagine how painful that must be.
There was an article in the newspaper about a woman who drew wrinkles on her face and dyed her hair white in an attempt to hide her youth, but acting older than your real age is actually quite difficult. Suspicion fell on her when people realized she couldn’t tell the on and off switches on old farm machinery apart, which meant she must have been younger than she looked. The ability to understand even a little English was evidence of old age. As studying English was now prohibited, young people didn’t know even simple words like on and off.Why would anyone want to act older than they were? Because in this new word it’s the old who have strength and vigour and people are still working and living active lives after turning a hundred:
Retirement — what an odd system, but it was important back then, as a way of handing jobs over to younger people.That, of course, had to change because with each successive generation getting frailer and frailer were it not for the ranks of the “young-elderly” (seventy- to eighty-year-olds), the “middle-aged elderly” (people in their late-nineties) and centenarians like Yoshiro the wheels would’ve stopped turning long ago. Why they’re so ridiculously healthy is not explained and doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s best with this book not to get bound up in the science of it all. This is the way the world is. “Mumei’s teeth were so soft he couldn’t eat bread unless it was softened by steeping.” The obvious solution would be to increase his calcium intake and to that end “Yoshiro had tried giving him about half a cup of milk every morning, but the boy’s body had responded with diarrhoea.” “[T]he adjective healthy didn’t really fit any child” any more. Even the seemingly simple task of drinking orange juice is a problem:
His eyes circling in their sockets with the effort, he would struggle to keep his Adam’s apple pumping up and down like an elevator, trying to force the liquid down. Sometimes it would come back up, burning his throat. Or on its way down it would enter his bronchial tubes instead, bringing on a coughing fit. Once he started coughing it was hard to get him to stop.At one point the boy complains:
We kids don’t have even a single drop to spare. If I spend too much energy getting dressed I don’t have enough left to walk to school and end up riding on the back of Great-grandpa’s bicycle. It’s embarrassing to ride all the way so I always try to walk at least the first ten steps or so, but my legs get so heavy I can’t walk anymore.By the end of the book he’s in a wheelchair, he can no longer talk without mechanical aid and is expecting to need a breathing machine any day soon. He is fifteen.
There are a lot of questions you’re not going to get any answers for here. But that doesn’t mean what we do get isn’t enjoyable even if it’s not as satisfying as it might be. Just imagine wandering round a zoo and marvelling at the behaviour of the different species. Well that’s what we have here:
[Y]ou know, the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined. I mean, maybe we’re moving toward the octopus. Watching my great-grandson I certainly get that impression.”This book isn’t written on a grand scale like Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men or The Shape of Things to Come but they’re close relatives. This feels like one section from a much bigger storyline like Cloud Atlas which it absolutely is; all stories are. You’re inevitably left wondering and wanting more. And a part of me wanted to pick up my pen and start filling in the blanks. It’s hard to know when to leave well alone. Not everything has to be explained in microscopic detail. That’s not the purpose of fiction. But it should intrigue and fascinate and this book does manage that quite well. ...more
I suppose if you’d asked me to sum up Billy Collins before I’d read this book—at which juncture I’d avoided reading all bar a smattering of his most popular poems—I would’ve probably likened him to the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, technically prof
I suppose if you’d asked me to sum up Billy Collins before I’d read this book—at which juncture I’d avoided reading all bar a smattering of his most popular poems—I would’ve probably likened him to the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, technically proficient enough to please the masses who don’t know much about art but know what they like but missing that certain something to find an in with the cognoscenti. According to Josh Spiro in an article in The Guardian Vettriano’s “style is superficially like Edward Hopper’s” but whereas “Hopper's paintings are filled with strong emotions, despite their apparent simplicity … Jack Vettriano's paintings are as daring as rich tea biscuits.” It’s an unkind article but I can imagine much the same being said about L.S. Lowry when he was alive. Even now forty years after Lowry’s death academics are miserly in their praise.
Unlike the two artists above Billy Collins has pretty much always been a part of the in crowd though. He received a B.A. in English from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963 followed by an M.A. and Ph.D in Romantic Poetry from the University of California, Riverside whereupon he became a Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he joined the faculty in 1968. These are not the credentials of a popular poet—compare the career paths of Brautigan and Bukowski.
It took me four days to work my way through this lot but halfway through I took a break and decided to look him up because there was something there I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something familiar. The answer came quickly enough. A name kept appearing in quote after quote by him. To illustrate from Rollins360 :
I read humourless poets in school. They were all dead, they were all white, they all had three names and they all had beards. Then I read Philip Arthur Larkin and he allowed humour back into poetry. I realized it didn't have to be a sad day.”And this from The Boston Globe :
I always go back to Philip Larkin. I’ve lost interest in finding the cutting edge, if there still is one. When I became poet laureate I was in a slightly uncomfortable position because I think a lot of poetry isn’t worth reading.Larkin is why I became a poet. I don’t write like him—and neither does Collins—but once you realise he’s there in our pasts you will start to notice his shade in the background. What surprised me was to see Collins, in the same article, name check my other literary hero:
Discovering Samuel Beckett in college was a big deal for me. I realized you could be very funny and very dark at the same time. Whenever I go to a Beckett play I always notice that the audience divides itself into the ones who are laughing and the ones who are looking disapprovingly at people laughing. I’m one of the people laughing.I’m a great believer that all writing should stand on fall on its own merits. That doesn’t mean knowing a little about the writers isn’t helpful like; for example it helps to know R.S. Thomas was a Anglican priest. Possessing no sense of spirituality myself there’s a gulf between me and Thomas and although culturally there’s a huge gulf between Collins and me—over three thousand miles—knowing we have Larkin (and to a lesser extent Beckett) in common goes a long way to bridging that gap.
Collins is often referred to as an accessible poet. For some that’s as disparaging a term as “popular” and it’s easy to see why although Collins prefers the term “hospitable” as he says in conversation with Neal Conan:
That word has become “like nails on a blackboard” to him. But access is still essential to his craft. “It's a way of getting a reader into the poem,” he says, but once they get there, he hopes to move them into worlds that are “a little more challenging, a little more hypothetical, and finally, a little more mysterious.”It’s a good way of thinking about it because the experimentalists have done so much to remove poetry from its roots most of its original audience, the man in the street, is wary of anything called poetry that doesn’t go da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah.
Collins is not Larkin any more than Vettriano is Hopper (For the record I’m a huge fan of Hopper’s work too) but it would be a sad world if they were. Since they died Larkin’s and Hopper’s work is now finite and has appreciated in value because there’ll be nothing more by either of them and maybe what both Vettriano and Collins need to do is die to garner the appreciation they’ve been missing out on while they’ve been alive.
But what about the poems in this collection? Before that a quote from Nashville Scene :
"I'm not a formalist, but I'm always seeking form," Collins says. "It might be a much looser set of principles, but when I begin a poem, I'm always seeking a stanza. And if at some point the poem doesn't want to go there, if it's just rebelling against that idea, then it turns into something different." He shifts in his seat, unself-consciously slurping down the remaining sips of his iced coffee.Larkin managed to subsume form. It’s there but it doesn’t overpower. When I read Wendy Cope (another popular poet) I was put off by her devotion to (to my mind) outdated forms, especially the sonnet. I can’t see what’s to be gained by their use except to show off. Wisely Collins sticks to free verse—not that he hasn’t dabbled: see the Wikipedia entry for Paradelle—but at times, especially with some of his longer sentences, the rhythm lost me and I might as well have been reading chopped up prose; prose can get away with being poetic but it doesn’t work the other way round so why the theory and practice of versification gets called prosody is lost on me.
None of the poems in this book grabbed me in the same way Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ did when I first read it. To my mind that poem perfectly exemplifies what Collins’s goal is in poetry. The subject and the language is so ordinary—boring even—and yet he leads you to a cliff edge and leaves you there, wondering. ‘Dining Alone’ nearly manages it—better than ‘The Fish’ and ‘Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant’—although it’s a little on the long side. All three describe a man dining alone and why he’s not to be pitied but what I liked about that one was the ending. After conforming to his own set of rules, what he believes solitary dining should encapsulate, he leaves the restaurant:
I pierced a buttered spear of asparagusWe all know what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people. Aloneness is generally seen as a bad thing but there are people—I am one of them—who appreciate solitude. This is exactly the kind of situation that would’ve inspired Larkin. Most of the things Collins writes about are quotidian and often mundane.
The one I found myself nodding at the most was ‘The Trouble with Poetry’. Trying to explain what being a poet is like to non-poets is a thankless and pointless task and unless you’re a poet you really won’t get this one but who said we could only write poems non-poets could get?
the trouble with poetry isIt does sort of hit the nail on the head. The plight of the poet seems to be a popular theme with him as exemplified in poems like ‘Royal Aristocrat’, ‘The Great American Poem,’ ‘Velocity’ or, perhaps especially, ‘The Suggestion Box’:
It all began fairly early in the dayHow can a poet explain to a non-poet why none of these things will ever appear in a poem other than one like this when some of the things we do choose to write about are every bit as banal? Oh, if only I had the answer to that one. As he says in ‘No Things’:
This love for everyday things,Actually the more I look back through this book the more I see poems about poetry and about being a poet. That’s another thing the purists look down on for some reason I’ve never understood because I can’t understand a poet not wanting to explore this thing he’s addicted to, to try to understand it better.
The bottom line is Billy Collins does what he sets out to do. He writes poems that are easy to get into but hard to shake off. That said, and this goes for all collections like this, their quality is diminished by their quantity. In a perfect world I’d suggest reading one a day before setting off on a leisurely walk to the office. In a perfect world. ...more
Jim rated a book it was ok
I’d just passed the halfway point when I put this book down, picked up my tablet and read half a dozen reviews of this book. They were mostly glowing. Although none pretended the book was the easiest of reads, what with its labyrinthine (not a word I
I’d just passed the halfway point when I put this book down, picked up my tablet and read half a dozen reviews of this book. They were mostly glowing. Although none pretended the book was the easiest of reads, what with its labyrinthine (not a word I use lightly) sentences and lengthy paragraphs, the general consensus was this was a worthwhile and, indeed, rewarding read. So it was with a heavy heart I decided on my fourth day plodding though this novella—and with the prospect of another four days ahead of me—that enough was enough. This isn’t the first novel that’s got the better of me—Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and Herman Hesse’s Gertrude failed to keep my interest—but I’m a better judge of books than I used to be and can usually tell within a couple of pages if it’s the wrong time to read a particular book. So I’m not saying I’ll never return to Blue Self-Portrait because I never say never but I’d need a much clearer head than I have at the moment for anything to go in.
I do doubt I’ll ever finish this though because in my heart of heart’s I’m a grammar Nazi. I have no problem with long sentences IF they punctuated properly—look to Gerald Murnane or Laszlo Krasznahorkai if you need any lessons in that regard. These weren’t and there was no reason for them not to be. In the translator’s note Sophie Lewis says that Lefebvre “weaves her text in approximation of a serialist piece,” and I see where’s she’s coming from but having listened to Schoenberg’s music for over forty years all I can say is that it obeys more rules than it breaks. His musical phrases are no different to Beethoven’s. In fact in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition when he defined a musical “sentence” as an eight-measure theme, that consists of two different phrases ending in a cadence, the example Schoenberg cited was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Minor, op.2. I actually think I would’ve got more out of an audio version of this book.
Here’s a sentence, picked pretty much at random, to illustrate my point:
Two days later, leaving the Kaiser Café where I had once again all but spelled out to the virtuoso pianist how to handle his piano, a stroke of luck that I’d stopped myself just in time, I uttered my notorious Ich habe zu viel gesprochen for it was true, I had said too much, so much too much that I had to proclaim this brand-new truth the very moment it occurred to me; my noble pianist: no, not at all, it’s quite all right, he sweetly replied, warmly replied, even though it wasn’t fine, not only not fine but catastrophic, so catastrophic as to be irreparable, besides I didn’t repair anything but on the contrary promptly went and dug myself in deeper: of course I had to interrupt again, when I had only just said Ich habe zu viel gesprochen, I didn’t pause and count to ten, not to ten nor to any lesser number, I didn’t count at all; I just had to go on and on in the underground car park when he, our poor pianist, was already and indeed for some time had been, broken, kaput, as they say, in fact just five minutes after stepping inside the Kaiser Café he’d already begun to yawn, ten minutes in was out of commission and quite kaput, and yet here we are in the underground car park and I’m picking on his car, I have to make some comment about his car being unworthy of a world-class pianist, as if all that I’d said before in the Kaiser Café hadn’t been appalling, about music in general and the pianist’s playing in particular even though I haven’t the first notion about music in general, and as for the pianist’s playing in particular here I go even now critiquing it from every angle, not only the music performed by the pianist but also that composed by the composer, the pianist being both pianist and composer, I am a pianist first and foremost and yet foremost and first of all I am a composer, the pianist said one day to all within earshot, indeed the pianist did have a talent for composing that not every pianist is blessed with—and the composer a pianistic virtuosity to which few composers may lay claim, both gifts united in a single person, in the perfect bodily and spiritual harmony that alone could justify the general and nevertheless exceptional title of musician; I am, above all a musician, the pianist said, it isn’t my profession but my condition, yet in spite of his condition I held back a mere hair’s breadth away from explaining to the pianist how to play the piano and to the composer how to compose.Let me just say that’s not how I’d punctuate this. You can read a longer excerpt here.
Anyway I’ve found myself reading for the sake of reading simply to get to the end, to say I’d read it when I know full well I won’t be able to remember a damn thing about it in a fortnight’s time. There are so many better books than this I can’t remember reading. What is especially annoying is that I jumped this book the top of my to-read list because it really appealed to me and I think its message is one I would appreciate IF the author hadn’t buried it in such a morass of words.
If I haven’t put you off—that was never my intention—do check out the following reviews which I found illuminating. Nothing will be lost by reading them up front; in fact you might find them helpful:
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre review – sex, art and neurosis
The Blue Note: on Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait
In Blue Self-Portrait Noémi Lefebvre created a space to breathe ...more
May 21, 2018 10:52AM · 1 like · like · see review · preview book
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In his Amazon review Paul Pellicci boiled these three plays down to a single sentence, “They are about the life of affluent New Yorkers by an affluent New Yorker and their society which looks great until you put on your glasses.” It’s a fair comment
In his Amazon review Paul Pellicci boiled these three plays down to a single sentence, “They are about the life of affluent New Yorkers by an affluent New Yorker and their society which looks great until you put on your glasses.” It’s a fair comment which you could just as easily apply to a number of Woody’s film like, in particular, Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours. I don’t see that so much as a criticism as a statement of fact. We’ve come to expect certain things from the Woodyverse but that was equally true with Charles Dickens and Philip K. Dick. Woody excels at chamber pieces and it’s surprising he’s not written more stage plays because he doesn’t need a large canvas to make his point.
Before discovering this book I was aware of four stage plays, Don’t Drink the Water, God (the only one I’ve seen performed live), Death and Death Knocks. I’d forgotten about The Floating Light Bulb and that Play It Again, Sam was originally a play. In addition to the three collected in this volume there’s also been A Second Hand Memory (his first full-length play since 1981) and Honeymoon Motel. September, of course, was always intended to be a “play on film” and has since been successfully adapted for the stage by Jacqueline Cohen.
Part of the problem with some of Woody’s later films has been the need to cast a Woody proxy and most, including the otherwise fine actor Kenneth Branagh, have not been up to the task. There are lines that only Woody can deliver and if anyone else tries the illusion is shattered: we know this is only an actor saying what they’ve been paid to say. In these three plays there isn’t really a fully-fledged ‘Woody character’ although Phyllis in Central Park West does get some of the play’s best retorts:
CAROLFred, in Riverside Drive, comes closest but I’ll come back to him.
Woody’s witty come backs are legendary and we look forward to the (seemingly) off the cuff remarks—so Jane Austen—but there’s a place for humour and this’s a problem I’ve been having with The Orville: just because Seth MacFarlane can be funny (and he can) doesn’t mean he should be. That’s Woody Allen’s problem too because every time he does something a little different (or a lot as in the case of Interiors) we miss how good it was because it wasn’t what we were hoping for. As the aliens told him in Stardust Memories: “We enjoy your films! Particularly the early, funny ones.”
There are plays it seems and then there are Woody Allen plays. Oddly two of the three reminded me of God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. If you don’t know it it’s, according to Wikipedia, “about two sets of parents, one of who’d child has hurt the other at a public park. They agree to meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. However, as the evening goes on, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting in the evening devolving into chaos.” Both Central Park West and Old Saybrook involve sets of couples struggling to come to terms with a reality they didn’t realise they were a part of. The more interesting of the two is Old Saybrook because there’s a twist I didn’t see coming that adds a fantastic element to the play which I don’t want to spoil. Central Park West is simply a study in infidelity: a successful psychoanalyst discovers her husband’s been cheating and decides to tackle the woman directly. What makes things interesting is when the woman’s husband arrives and then the psychoanalyst’s husband turn up with his new girlfriend not far behind.
The first play, Riverside Drive, is the easiest to read on the page because for the bulk of the play there’re only two characters and even when the third appears she’s not around for long. There’s a touch of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story here: Jim, a writer, is leaning on a rail watching the Hudson River flow when he’s accosted by Fred, a large and somewhat threatening homeless man, who accuses his of stealing his idea:
FREDIt’s not an original idea but it’s as good a starting point as any. And everything’s going swimmingly until the writer makes a brief comment about his marriage:
JIMand the focus of the play switches to his—surprise, surprise—infidelity and it doesn’t help that he’s waiting to meet his current lover down by the river. When the woman arrives Fred forces a confrontation having realised Jim’s really in love with his wife at which point we’re suddenly in Crimes and Misdemeanours territory:
FREDI think, of the three plays, I liked this best because Fred, being a bona fide neurotic, was the closest to the ‘Woody character’ although a more malevolent version than we’re used to although he’s nothing like Albee’s Jerry. He can, however, get away with the kind of silly remarks that seem, at times, forced in the other plays.
I’m on record as saying even a bad Woody Allen film is still watchable and that goes for a bad Woody Allen play too. Not that any of these are bad. They work better than his television series because all that was was a film that needed to lose half an hour of material cut into six “scenes.” None of these one-act plays overstays its welcome and that’s a good thing.
There are several clips from these plays on YouTube and even a few complete versions if you can understand Spanish or Russian. The best I could find was an English version of Riverside Drive with a female Fred (here). ...more
A couple of days before I read this book I happened to watch a BBC interview with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was an interesting programme, the interviewer had clearly done his research and there’s no arguing with the fact Stockhaus
A couple of days before I read this book I happened to watch a BBC interview with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was an interesting programme, the interviewer had clearly done his research and there’s no arguing with the fact Stockhausen has many fascinating ideas about music but the one question the interviewer avoided—and shame on him—was: Does anyone actually listen to your music for pleasure? Because every excerpt they included was excruciatingly awful. No one would suggest for a moment that Stockhausen was not completely dedicated to his work—nor do I think he’s a charlatan—but there’s nothing in what I’ve heard so far (and I’ve dipped in an out of his oeuvre for over forty years) that reaches me. Mozart reaches me, Beethoven reaches me. Hell, even Schoenberg and Ives reach me. But not Stockhausen.
I’ve also been reading and writing poetry for the last forty-odd years too. Some poets I get—Owen, Larkin and William Carlos Williams were early favourites—but others I’ve struggled with. I know the names and some of their better known poems but so much of what I’ve tried to read has just lost me. I want to know what’s so great about them because I can’t see it. And it must be me, surely.
Live or Die was the winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. So it’s got to be good poetry, right? People write theses about her book—I’ve just downloaded three of them—and yet I still find myself asking what’s so great about this poetry because I can’t see it. As something to be studied, yes, there’s tons of material here and there’s no doubt that Sexton herself was a fascinating character and her suicide only increased people’s fascination. It certainly didn’t harm Plath’s reputation and it does seem, reading between the lines, that Sexton lived (unhappily) in Plath’s shadow. Of course at the time she wrote this book Sexton was very much alive and continued to be for another eight years but knowing she took her own life changes how we read these poems; we read into them more than is there. Not that there’s nothing there but in the absence of a suicide note her poems are all we have.
Of course we can’t be sure what we’re reading here is the truth. Sexton herself drew a distinction between actual truth and dramatic truth. Talking about one of the poems in this book she said, in an interview with Patricia Marx in The Hudson Review:
As an easy example, in my long poem to my daughter and about my mental illness, I don’t imply that I was ever in an institution more than once, but that was the dramatic truth. The actual truth was something quite different … it made it a better poem to distort it this way… You can exclude many things. You can even lie (one can confess and lie forever) as I did in the poem of the illegitimate child that the girl had to give upSo whereas she’s known as a confessional poet in truth she delved, like the rest of do, into her life and edited it to meet her needs. “I use the personal when I am applying a mask to my face,” she wrote, “like a rubber mask that the robber wears.” Not that any of that matters. The poems either work or they don’t. They weren’t as inaccessible as Stockhausen’s music’s proven to be but they were all hard work and none of it very rewarding. Listening to Stockhausen talk makes his music seem interesting because he’s interesting and the more I’m reading about Sexton after the fact the more her poems are staring to make a kind of sense to me. But you shouldn’t need that. If you do the work is somehow deficient.
I suppose some might wonder if my being a male is the problem. Well, no doubt in the sixties there were plenty of males who would’ve found poems about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction hard going. But this is the twenty-first century and things like that don’t shock any of us even if they’re often uncomfortable to read about. To be honest I dislike the term “confessional;” it’s frankly pejorative and diminishes her work. Would anyone call Primo Levi’s If This is a Man confessional? He writes about what he went through as did Sexton and, okay, not much compares to The Holocaust but it’s pretty clear she too suffered and was mistreated. The term “confession” makes us think of sinners, bad people. I’ve no doubt Sexton had her flaws—no one’s perfect—but she did what any writer worth his or her salt would do, she examined those faults and that’s why, I imagine, people are drawn to her poetry, to try to understand. The thing is, and the same goes for the Levi, we can’t understand. We can share or watch but I didn’t come away from this book understanding Sexton. I felt for her. That’s the best I could do.
Firsts are always lauded. Kazimir Malevich will be remembered forever for his white painting and John Cage for his silent music. Both pale into insignificance before the greats from the past. But they were the first. Which is why The Bell Jar will be remembered and the same here. They’re historically significant. That doesn’t make them masterpieces.
I don’t have the time to devote to this book of poetry. I found it interesting in the same way I’d be interested to listen to something new (new to me, I mean) by Stockhausen. Just so I could say, “Now I know.” As well as the theses I found an eye-opening article by Jessica Schneider which appeared in Cosmoetica where she analyses, then literally rewrites, ‘Live’, the last poem in Live or Die and she does not pull her punches. At the end of the article she ranks the four poems she refers to including her own (which she awards 72 out of a 100): ‘Live’ only warrants 42 but Sexton’s earlier poem ‘The Abortion’ wipes the floor with the rest with 95. Oddly, since Schneider sees Sexton as a Plath wannabe, none of Plath’s poems are included and I would’ve been interested to see how, say, ‘Lesbos’ would’ve stood up.
I had, of course, read ‘The Abortion’ before—it’s probably Sexton’s most famous poem (I won’t argue if it’s her best)—but the only poem in Live and Die I’d read about (not read) was ‘Menstruation at Forty’. I can see why it was “the straw that broke this camel’s back” (that’s how Sexton's friend, the eminent poet and critic Louis Simpson described it in his review of the book) but it didn’t shock me. I like the conceit, linking her birthday with her potential child’s (David or Susan’s) deathday. I just feel that a great poem is buried in a fairly decent one. And if I had one single issue with Live and Die as a whole is that she does go on a bit. I’m a great believer in saying what you have to say and getting off the page; less is more and all that.
On the plus side—if this is what you look for in your poetry—there’s a lot you can read into this collection. I’m always wary of readings of texts. The one that most obviously jumps to my mind are the varied interpretations of Waiting for Godot. It can’t possible mean all the things people imagine it does. Genius or not Beckett wasn’t that clever. And neither was Sexton. That said because the poems are wisely presented in chronological order it is possible to see a story unfolding but, again, that’s so much easier to do if you know what was happening in her life at the time to give the poems some context.
If you have the time and are interested enough there’s plenty of reading material available online but far too much for me to absorb in the time I’ve allowed myself. Here’re some links:
• Live or Die: Unmasking the Mythologies of Anne Sexton’s PoetryWhen I finished the book the first time I was all for giving it two stars but even if I had I would’ve felt the need to explain why which it why I ended up spending more time researching Sexton that I did reading her book. Hence the extra star. I don’t expect to be spoon-fed and my research was rewarded but I can’t see me rushing out to buy her Complete Poems any day soon. Or even her Selected Poems. ...more
“Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.”
― Cees Nooteboom
― Cees Nooteboom
“I don’t know how to pray,
but I’ve seen them do it
on TV; kneeling by a bed
in nightgowns, hands woven
like secret friends.”
― Jessica Bell,
but I’ve seen them do it
on TV; kneeling by a bed
in nightgowns, hands woven
like secret friends.”
― Jessica Bell,