A year in reading: 2014

year in reading 2014
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”

I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.

What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.

The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading

News round up: Dyer, Adultery and a riddle solution

A few things that have happened, recently, that I’m keen to point people towards:

  • Having been published in both Lighthouse and Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, I’m very pleased to say that my short story ‘The Faber Book of Adultery‘ is now online as part of Issue 83 of The Barcelona Review. Read it here. (And there’s a lovely reading of it by Lee Upton here.)
  • A paper I gave at Birkbeck’s conference on Geoff Dyer earlier in the year appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Threepenny Review, and again you can find it online. Read ‘But Funny: Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing‘ here.
  • I’ve added a page to this site for anyone who’s read ‘Randall‘ and either doesn’t know the answer to the riddle it ends on, or wants to check if they guessed it right. Click here to do so. (And if you’ve read ‘Randall’, why not review or rate it at Goodreads?)
  • Finally, if you’ve not heard about my current blogging side-project to read all 52 of Melville House’s ‘The Art of the Novella‘ novellas in a year, then you can find out about it here.

A fresh vision of hell, the old dead scanning the new

First, read this:

Euston. All the way down the train doors burst open while the inky ribbon of platform still slipped by. Nobody could wait for the train to stop; everybody was hurling themselves on London as though they, too, must act upon some inhuman resolution before it died down. She, now it came to the point, was to be the last to leave the carriage; she stopped to stare at herself, as thought for the last time, in the mirror panel over the seat. Picking up her suitcase, stepping out onto the platform, she looked from left to right, then began to walk along the flank of the train. The few blued lights of the station just showed the vaultings up into gloom; toppling trolleys cut through the people heaving, thrusting, tripping, peering. Recognition of anybody by anybody else seemed hopeless – those hoping to be met, hoping to be claimed, thrust hats back and turned up faces drowningly. Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older, she thought she could have thought; but she felt nothing – till her heart missed a beat, her being filled like an empty lock: with a shock of love she saw Robert’s tall turning head.

It is from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, the first book of hers I’ve read, and one that I wrote about here. A struggle at times, I’ll admit, in its density – aptly exemplified by the paragraph above – but shot through with writing of such luxurious intelligence that it made scanning your average contemporary novel feel like drinking dishwater.

Let me pull the line out for you, that in particular struck me:

Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older

Now, firstly, this may be an idea, or an image, that has appeared elsewhere before this. (I haven’t read Dante through even to the end of Hell, for example.) But certainly it is a pointedly modern twist on traditional conceptions of damnation.

Hell here is not the flame-grilling of old time religion, nor the more existential crisis of definitive knowledge of one’s banishment from God; no, here it is simply the boredom of transit, become torment through extension ad infinitum.

Bowen’s novel is set during the Second World War, when air travel was not yet common, but still it’s easy enough to transpose the scene from railway station to airport. Easy enough, but still there is some elucidation needed. The damned, here, are in Arrivals, whereas we all know that it’s the Departures Lounge that most equates to our contemporary idea of purgatory: an unliveable public/private space that is merely the physical manifestation of dead time; designed only to keep us from the Paradise of our holiday destination; comprehensively fitted out with worthless and useless distractions; and peopled with hordes of people just like us whom we hate by virtue of their showing, objectively and unanswerably, quite how bored and badly behaved we, too, are.

So we’ve got to somehow merge those two places, Destinations and Arrivals. The boredom of Departures, plus the disappointment of Arrivals. The moment of arriving in Hell is one in which the passage from the plane, via Customs and Immigration, and leading to that first glimpse of the Arrivals lounge, with people leaning on the angled metal barriers, some of them holding up cardboard signs or clipboards with names on… but the realisation that we are not about to be released and set loose into the free but dirty post-plane world of holiday or home, but that we will never leave, that our arrival is into another Departure Lounge, but one from which we will never depart for anywhere…

…and in which the only entertainment is watching the newcomers arrive – perhaps we make the trip especially to meet those we loved, back on earth – and to see their expressions drop from anticipation, through realisation, to despair.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bowen.

A first look at Patrick Modiano: ‘The Search Warrant’

the search warrantYesterday I picked up, in the UEA library, the English translation of Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s non-fiction book Dora Bruder (translated by Joanna Kilmartin for Harvill as The Search Warrant) and read it on the train back to London – easy enough to finish in the two hours that journey allots.

And, despite its subject matter, it is an easy read: clear without being limpid, articulate without eloquence, conscientious and free of guile. It is easy to see why a book such as this might appeal to the Nobel committee. It sets writing out as a humane art, a way of seeing clearly, with none of the complications and doubts that Twentieth Century thought has thrown up to complicate and explain our inability to come to terms with our own history.

That’s not to say that there is no ambiguity in Modiano’s book, which is his account of his attempt, over many years, to uncover what traces remain of a Parisian Jewish teenager sent to the camps, starting from a short notice in a newspaper, in 1941, asking for her whereabouts after she had run away from her convent school.

(It’s tempting to talk about Modiano’s writing, but I can’t yet generalise about that; this is the first book of his I’ve read. I’ve just started an earlier novel, with another, in French to follow. For a useful overview, see Leo Robson’s piece for the New Statesman.)

So, yes, the book is full of gaps, but the gaps are seen clearly. The author is present, inserting elements of his own autobiography as well as the details of his search of Dora, but his presence is a stable one, troubled but untroubling. There is none of the anguished breast-beating of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in which the author questions his motives in writing about the activities of the Third Reich, and even his right to do so. There is none of the strategic obfuscation of WG Sebald, whose path through the labyrinth seems to build new, secondary or side-labyrinths, splitting off like fractals, as he goes. Continue reading

Kate Bush live: The theatre’s already in the music (a short screed)

On Wednesday evening I was at the penultimate Kate Bush gig. I went without expectations, hoping only to experience whatever it was that Bush, whose songs I used to play obsessively on the piano as a teenager, chose to present to us. To give myself over to the moment.

But, of course, five minutes in, found myself blindly scrawling notes all over the book I happened to have with me.

At times the show was immensely powerful, immensely moving, *punch*-moving. It’s not just that you’re in tears; it’s that the contortions your face conspires to achieve seem to involve new combinations of muscle groups, and leave you grimacing like a gargoyle.

At times it was just bad.

Let me try and explain myself.

(By the way, the novel I’m writing now, to follow up ‘Randall’, which was about contemporary art, is about pop music, and so this idea is very much on my mind: of what expectations an audience might have of a live show, and what duty the artist might feel they have towards those expectations. Was it Bush’s job to give us what we want? Or our job to accept what she creates/offers? Or some compromise between them?)

Bush’s voice, the music, were everything you might have hoped. It’s not that she was in the room; it was being in the room with the music.

(And of course, this is highly personal – and yet also not: if you took a straw poll of what people wanted to hear, you’d get what? One: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (bad luck) and Two: As much of Hounds of Love as possible (lucky you).)

Hearing/seeing/experiencing her sing ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ was like being hit like bullets that had been racing towards you for years, decades. Certain lines jumped down off the stage and rampaged across the heads of the audience: lyrics I’d heard thousands of times, made vivid, made crucial.

“Tell me we both matter, don’t we”

That, in particular, was a dagger blow to the body. What she put into it, added to her intuitive understanding of what the music (her music) was doing behind her, drove the song to new depths – or heights – of expressiveness.

(She sang barefoot. She only played piano for one song, a solo encore. ‘Among Angels’ from Fifty Words for Snow. It was lovely to hear.  It’s a terrible song.)

I’m listening to ‘Running Up That Hill’ now, on headphones, as I type, and it’s nothing, nothing like as powerful as it was in that room. It sounds insipid. It may never have the power it had before. It’s a song made to be played live. There it was living, growling, thumping. She whipped it up, whipped it into shape. It took over the room. There was no room for the room in the room. It was all song.

Continue reading

‘This is for you': Francis Plug and the cult of the signed edition

francis-plug--how-to-be-a-public-author--paperbackThese few words on Francis Plug’s How to Be a Public Author, which I haven’t read yet, but which lies on my desk, personally inscribed by its author, Paul Ewen. The book is a satire on the literary world that follows the odyssey of a would-be-writer through a series of encounters with actual, real authors at book-signing events.

The pathetic, though loveable figure of Plug is the very personification of our current confusion over the relation of the flesh and blood author to the words they write, and the relative values of both. It’s finely balanced in its humour (I’ve heard Paul read from it a few times now) but there is one aspect of the book that I find particularly acute, particularly acid.

Each chapter of the book treats a particular real-life author – all those featured are Booker winners – and each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of the title page of their book, signed to Francis Plug. There are over 30 such pages, some of them featuring more than one book. Ewen has clearly been preparing his attack for many years.

So far as I can tell from the sections I’ve heard, the authors featured are in no way mistreated. They are not the butt of the joke; Plug is. And yet, by including those signature pages, Ewen has turned the screw on them in an almost immeasurably subtle way.

How many books does an author sign in their career? (I’ve signed maybe 200 copies of Randall since it was published in June of this year.)

How many signed books do you have on your shelves? (I’ve maybe 20 of them; it’s not something I go in for.)

More to the point, why do we want our books signed by authors?

Is it to increase their value?

Hardly! The ‘modern first edition’ bubble has long passed, surely.  I remember buying a signed first edition of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, but thankfully that was a fad that very soon passed. (You could argue that the rise of the ‘special’ or ‘collector’s edition’ is a response to the sheer ubiquity of the signed copy. You get signed proofs now! The author’s signature becomes less valuable the more prevalent, the more compulsory, the more important it becomes.)

Is it then as evidence of some personal connection? Continue reading

Some thoughts on Elena Ferrante: the long and the short of it

elena ferrante event

Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions (standing) introduces, from left to right: Joanna Walsh, Catherine Taylor and myself. Photo courtesy Richard Skinner

Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.

Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.

As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:

Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”

One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.

In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning. Continue reading

Gone in the blink of an eye: Elizabeth Bowen’s contingent realism

I’m reading Elizabeth Bowen for the first time and finding it a slow-going but exhilarating experience – perhaps the closest comparison, in terms of necessary application to the page, is Javier Marías, someone else who won’t be rushed, whose paragraphs flow like dark syrup, not clear water.

One of the things that has most struck me – and that is very different from Marías – is the utter contingency of Bowen’s descriptions. Things are always shown in the light of the moment, not with any definiteness; so much so that you’d almost think that, were you to glance away from the page, and back again, the words on it would have changed, with the movement of a cloud across the sun, or the bough of a tree across a window.

As such, she is working very much against received ideas of ‘realism’ in prose writing, against what Henry James called “solidity of specification”. There is no solidity here; everything is always on the point of dissolution – and this sense of unreality is surely no accident; Bowen extends it to her characters:

The sun had been going down while tea had been going on, its chemically yellowing light intensifying the boundary trees. Reflections, cast across the lawn into the lounge, gave the glossy thinness of celluloid to indoor shadow. Stella pressed her thumb against the edge of the table to assure herself this was a moment she was living through – as in the moment before a faint she seemed to be looking at everything down a darkening telescope. Having brought the scene back again into focus by staring at window-reflections in the glaze of the teapot, she dared look again at Robert, seated across the table, between his nephew and niece.

Obviously the syntax is a brake on understanding; Bowen seems fusty and old-fashioned in her sentences, leaping back over Virginia Woolf towards the likes of James, even when what is been broached in those sentences – the sheer ephemerality of self-consciousness – is as modern as anything by Woolf. Stella (the main character of The Heat of the Day) has to steady herself by looking at the reflections of the windows caught in the glaze of the teapot before she can dare to look at her lover. Why ‘dare’? Well, because she’s scared that when she looks for him, where he sat only a moment before, he will have disappeared, sparked out of existence. Continue reading

Today’s sermon: Sex and death – an excavated fragment

Sex and death. Death and sex. Firstly, let us pick as our guide through this collection someone who has experienced both things. Who would ask a virgin about sex? So why ask anyone but a corpse about death? And no one too recently departed, either. The less familiar with the works considered, the more intriguing their commentary is likely to be. We live in a world where sex is a commonplace, death a social faux pas. Let us go back, back, to when death was public, and sex a more private affair.

I found this fragment on my computer, in the storage folder where I keep my book reviews and associated writing. I was searching for something else, and it popped up. The file is titled ‘Sex and death’. It is dated 13 October 2003. I’ve got no idea what it was intended for. What ‘collection’? A prose anthology? Poetry? Patricia Duncker’s story collection Seven Tales of Sex and Death was published in that year, but I don’t think I had read that then. And in any case the reference to ‘works considered’ implies it’s something other than this.

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.