April Reading 2020 Part 2: More Proust

IMG_0265
Part One of my April 2020 Reading blog post covered the essays of Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg. Read it here.

Apart from Ana María Matute’s The Island (reviewed here) the only other book I finished in its entirety in April was, I think, Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust. I started reading Proust last year, as my 2019 New Year’s Resolution, but stalled after finishing the third volume on my summer holiday. By October I’d abandoned the fourth volume. (I’ve been dating the passage where I leave off each day, as well as posting notes on another Twitter account, @ProustDiary.) I picked the fourth volume back up in March of this year, and finished it in April. I am now most of the way through the fifth volume, The Prisoner.

So: I am making good progress, but in fact lockdown hasn’t given me that much more time to read than normal. It’s not just that I am working, from home, but that reading, in a busy house of five people (two adults and three teenage boys) can sometimes be a hard activity to justify. Sitting with a laptop is work. Sitting in front of the television is generally a communal activity, and one that can bring the family together outside of mealtimes in a way that board games and jigsaws, because of particular personality types, can’t always do. Reading, apart from at bedtime, is likely to get you looked at strangely – more strangely, I’m afraid to say, than looking at your phone.

I have been enjoying Proust very much in parts, and drifting through others. Indeed, I felt particularly skewered by this aside in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature:

To a superficial reader of Proust’s work – rather a contradiction in terms, since a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book – to an inexperienced reader, let us say…

So let’s call me an inexperienced reader. Certainly, there have been plenty of bits where I have been bored, and irritated. Irritated by the fascination with the workings of society, and bored by the endless unfoldings, like a piece of eternal fractal origami, of the intricate inner imbrications of sometimes mundane psychological impulses. More on this later. Continue reading

April Reading 2020 Part 1: Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg – two essayists

IMG_0264That pile of books looks more impressive than it should. I didn’t read all of the books there cover to cover. The two MacNeice books arrived only at the end of the month, and so far I’ve only read them scavenger-wise, mining them for the parts about the writing of ‘Autumn Journal’, MacNeice’s book-length poem that I’ve been using as a model for a poem I’m writing on our current Covid-times, called ‘Spring Journal’, that you can read here. I also wrote about Ana María Matute’s excellent novel, The Island, here.

The essays (Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg) I’ve been dipping in and out of, as you should with essays. Reading the Davis is perhaps the odder experience. She is so marked by her style, so wedded to it, you might say, and that style across all her writing is so essaystic anyway, or bellelettristic – and on occasion faux-essayistic, faux-bellelettristic – that the essays themselves seem to almost dissolve in their own solution.

Her stories often read like boiled-down or reduced essays, like you reduce a sauce – but reduced to the level of density and taste that Heston Blumenthal would approve of – but they also often seem to be poking fun at the idea of essays, of the gap between their confidence of delivery and the meaning of what is delivered.

None of the essays in the book are as outright enjoyable as the best of her stories, and the very placidity of her voice – placidly arch, you might say – means I kind of drifted through them. Some of them I must have read three or four times now, without them becoming fixed in my mind, good though they are.

(The essay about fragments, for example: how perfect, how useful, how now, how me: I love fragments! And she is interesting and useful about fragments, and she carefully considers various people who write in fragments, or forms that are akin to fragments, but at the end of it I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning.)

Perhaps she is trying hard not to be showy in her writing, which is good, in a way, but in another way it is not good. Certainly she is never aphoristic. She is only aphoristic in her stories, where she is lampooning aphoristic writing, with its idea that you can boil down wisdom into apercus:

‘Examples of Remember’

Remember that thou art but dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.

Natalia Ginzburg is, on the face of it, a very different kind of essayist. (For those that don’t know, she was a prolific Italian writer and political activist who lived through the second world war, though her husband was murdered by the government, and lived to the early 90s.) She is not primarily writing about literature, and so about things thought, but about life, and lived experience.

(Davis seems to give the sense in her writing that she has not experienced anything in her life that has not been thoroughly, even entirely mediated by words. If you walked up to her and tweaked her nose, she would be thinking about the word ‘tweak’ before the sense-impression of the physical act had even reached her brain.)

The Little Virtues (published by Daunt Books) is another book that I have picked up more than once, and read bits of, and probably reread some bits of multiple times. Perhaps it took reading it under lockdown to really make it stick. Ginzburg is a simple writer, rather in the way that Davis is a simple writer, but the difference is that I am reading Ginzburg in translation, whereas Davis always reads like I am reading her in translation. Continue reading

Occasional review: ‘The Island’ by Ana María Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale

IMG_0259 2
The list of independent presses actively bringing great literature in translation is long and honourable – from And Other Stories to Fitzcarraldo to Les Fugitives to Tilted Axis – but it’s worth remembering that the big guys do do it too. Penguin Classics and Modern Classics have introduced me to writers over the last few years that now feel absolutely fixed in the constellation of my reading: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy; Yuko Tsushima’s pellucid novels; Mario Benedetti’s urgent romantic inquisitions; Raduan Nassar’s blistering novella A Cup of Rage. To these I can now add Ana María Matute, with her 1959 short novel The Island. These writers were all working between the 1950s and the 1970s, and it feels absolutely right that our (or my) sense of the international landscape should shift to accommodate them.

The Island is not a direct rendering of Matute’s original title Primera Memoria (First Memories). I think the original title is better, although the island setting is important in the way it focuses the narrative inwards. While the Spanish Civil War is burning up the mainland, Mallorca – for that is where it is set – is a held in an almost fairy tale-like trance. There is reference to Never Never Land, and young Matia’s grandmother is like something out of a Mediterranean Brothers Grimm: ancient, domineering and bound to meddle in fates beyond her own limited purview.

Matia is fourteen, and stuck on the island when the war turns her holiday a permanent vacation. She’s holed up in her grand’s grand old house with her cousin, Borja, who is one year older, and his dopey mother Emilia. Matia’s mother is dead, and her father absent somewhere; he may even – gasp! – be a Communist sympathiser. News comes slow from the war, but there is plenty of drama on the island, largely centred around the Taronji brothers, a pair of local fascists happy to threaten and even kill suspected Republicans. They throw one man off a cliff, then poison his family’s well by throwing down it the corpse of their dog, killed especially.

These personal-political barbarities are really just the backdrop to the story of Matia’s coming of age, however. She has a love-hate relationship with Borja, who torments her even as he needs her as a partner in crime, and over the course of the novel she falls in love with Manuel, son of the man thrown off the cliff. (In her introduction the translator Laura Lonsdale explains the anti-Semitism behind these acts, referring to the Xuetes or Chuetas of the island, descendants of Jews either forced to convert to Christianity or to keep their true religion hidden. She shows how Matata uses them, and the persecution of the Jews by the Inquisition, to draw parallels with Spain’s continued persecution of Republicans, that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make when the novel was published.)

The novel plays out over a summer, and is a ripe and vivid depiction of place. I was struck by the many powerful descriptions of the sun – not the wonderful bright Mediterranean sun that you might wish for, but something far more oppressive:

Hatred would burst through the silence like the sun, like an inflamed, blood-shot eye through fog. To me the sun on the island was always sinister, because of the way it polished up the stones of the square, leaving them shiny and slippery as bones, like a strange and malignant ivory.

And there was a well between the agaves, where a grey sun licked at the rusty chain.

The sun outside was a silent red thunderclap, more deafening than real thunder.

So we are immersed in young Matia’s experience, but our vision of the island summer is also coloured by the book’s narrative position which places us in a vague distant future, with the adult Matia looking back on the events with something like wisdom, something like nostalgia, and something like pity for the characters – herself included, but especially Borja. She interrupts her narration regularly with parenthesised reflections, many of them starting with the boy’s name, repeated, in a kind of platonic lament:

(Borja, Borja. We may not have loved each other as brother and sister, as the Holy Mother Church demands, but we at least kept each other company. And I ask myself, my poor brother, with your bravado and your hard, proud heart, if you were not just a solitary creature like me, like all young people.)

These interpolations really make the novel, hauling it out of a coming-of-age story into something more powerful. I’ve been trying to remember what this plaintive cry reminds me of, and I can’t quite pin it down. I thought it might be Cendrar’s ‘Prose du Transsibérien’, with its refrain of “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Monmartre?”, which is not it, but it’s as close as I can get.

It’s a great book, unruly and passionate and brutal. The children in it are “malevolent and capricious, with their stubborn wilfulness and stupid arguments”; the adults, to the mind of the adult narrator, fare no better:

(Oh, how dirty and pathetic, how cheap and pretentious adults were.)

No one comes out of the summer well, but the dirt and the sun and the calm eye for human viciousness will leave you exhilarated.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy of the book.

‘Spring Journal’

On the evening of Thursday 19th March 2020 I was lying on the sofa, phone in hand, when I had the idea of tweeting about the coronavirus epidemic in short poetic bursts, inspired by Louis MacNeice’s wonderful long poem ‘Autumn Journal’. I have used Autumn Journal in teaching poetry to undergraduate students, offering it as an example of how to write outwards from the self, how to mix politics and the personal to give a sense of how you see the world. I could do that, I thought. I could do it on Twitter.

I created a new account, @SpringJournal, and wrote two tweets that evening, and six more the following day. Each tweet contained four lines of poetry in MacNeice’s “elastic kind of quatrain”, with rhymes coming on alternate lines, but the line lengths immensely variable, while still keeping to a sort of rhythm. As well as his easy, down-to-earth way of tackling his themes, one of the other things I love about MacNeice is his rhyming. He allows for awkwardness in his syntax, he can be occasionally leaden, but he uses rhyme to pay things off, like a bell till chiming to mark the end of a transaction.

I’ve written more about the poem – and am posting Cantos as they are completed and edited – on a page on this blog, here.

March Reading 2020: Stamm, Hall, Solnit, Léger, MacNeice

IMG_0195
I have this problem with the novels of Peter Stamm. I love reading them, but they evaporate from my reading brain after I have read them – like the conceptual artist mentioned in Nathalie Léger’s The White Dress who pushed a block of ice around Mexico City until it melted entirely away. All that is left from my reading of All Days Are Night is a sense of a couple coming together in a ski resort, and an all-night rave of some kind, and of the relationship not working; Seven Years I remember barely at all; To the Back of Beyond is more memorable, perhaps because more high-concept: it is a novel built on an audacious idea that all the same builds that idea into something subtle, and moving.

The only thing I could remember about Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, when I put it in that stack of books read in March, and photographed it with my phone, was the idea of the doppelgänger – which is also foundational to To the Back of Beyond. Beyond that, I could remember not a thing.

Writing this, though, the book has come back to me. It is just as audacious as To the Back of Beyond, and for that reason cannot be described. Let me repeat that Stamm tends to write books that start from an audacious conceit, but which drift away from it, or sink down into it, or in any case hedge or fudge their treatment of that conceit, so that you are never forced to actually judge it in the clear light of day, as you would with a piece of speculative or fantastical fiction that leads you to ask: yes, well, but would it actually work like that?

There is a kind of disintegration loops approach to the writing here – these are thought experiments that are allowed to unfold only so far until they start to disintegrate, while continuing to unfold.

Or: they are Schrodinger’s Boxes novels, that allow their conceits to both be and not be, and honour both in the telling, on the page, where normally things just are.

I’ve just picked the book up and flicked through it: no notes, no underlinings, which is unusual for me. And as I flicked through the book I thought about the nasty trick it plays with its gimmick; and that that’s precisely the reason for having it. It’s a book that undermines its own narrative strategy, or at least its narrator, that kills him off and leaves him alive to see it. It made me think of Simon Kinch’s excellent Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, which plays a more similar trick, I think, to To the Back of Beyond. There is something to be written about doppelgängers in fiction – not the simplistic Jekyll and Hyde type, but the type of novel that plays with the foundational idea of narrative that the narrator is a stable, indivisible unit. There’s also Geoff Dyer’s The Search. It is only men who write this kind of novel?

A thought experiment novel, I like that. Perhaps also a little like a Borgesian novel, if Borges hadn’t been too lazy (to use his word) to write one, and had had the patience to let his conceit roll out and gradually disintegrate, like the 1:1 scale map in That Empire in ‘On Exactitude in Science’.

Just for reasons of titular symmetry I’ll move from Stamm to Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference. Now, I’ve never quite managed to get to grips with Hall as a writer: I’ve failed to make significant headway with any of the novels of hers I’ve tried, and although I remember being quite affected by the story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ – the part with the creature following the woman along a beach in some far off holiday country – and I’m sure that I did get to the end of the story at least once, I was still surprised by that ending when I read it this time.

This time I read it because Hall was again picked as part of a Personal Anthology. Continue reading

“Let’s give every last fucking dime to Science”: Lorrie Moore and Sarah Churchwell on the Importance of the Humanities

ESSXN6WXsAE70oS

Image courtesy St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Last night I attended a lecture by Professor Sarah Churchwell to celebrate the launch of a new BA Liberal Arts degree at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, on the importance of the Humanities. It seems a necessary statement to make. The university where I teach is opening a Humanities degree at a time when departments in that field are closing around the country (History in Sunderland; English at Portsmouth), and there have been concerns over the future of the sector as a whole. People who work in it are feeling defensive, with the sense the Government is only interested in STEM subjects, or in subjects that can be taught in a narrowly vocational way, leading to defined, definite, concrete jobs.

Churchwell spoke about the value and the necessity of the study of the Humanities, drawing links between American Blues (we had just heard a version of Catfish Blues played by a fusion group mixing Blues with classical Indian instrumentation), slavery, film archiving, the Holocaust, and fascism and the ideology behind America First – the subject of her last book.

She spoke, too, about current global issues like the Coronavirus epidemic, saying that medical knowledge here is not enough, as you can’t learn from a medical emergency in real time: “You won’t stop an epidemic if you don’t understand politics, human behaviour, history.” And the same goes for the migration and refugee crisis: “Everything happens in a political, social, historical, medical context, and the Humanities’ business is the understanding of context.”

She spoke, too, about the advances of technology, and how it’s not enough to have the technical skills to invent new machines and mechanisms; you’ve got to understand the social and ethical effects they bring into play. Her example here was Facebook. By not understanding – and not caring to understand – the implications of uncontrolled and unregulated political advertising on his platform, he allowed the undermining of democracy in the 2016 American election.

Her lecture made me think of Lorrie Moore’s brilliant short story ‘Dance in America’ (you can hear Louise Erdrich read it on the New Yorker podcast here). The story is about a probably 30-something dance teacher visiting an old college friend during a work trip teaching ‘Dance in the Schools’ in rural Pennsylvania. The friend – Cal – lives in a big old unrenovated former frat house with his wife, Simone, and their son Eugene, who is seven years old, and has cystic fibrosis – which is likely to kill him before he even reaches adulthood.

The story is partly about the narrator’s self-image as a former performer (artist) gone to seed and second-rate work, and it’s partly about how how we conceptualise and respond to our impotence in the face of illness and mortality. (It’s about other things too: it’s one of Moore’s best stories.) The relation between these two things is laid out clearly quite early on the story, when Cal says to Moore’s dancer (we haven’t met Eugene yet, only been told about him):

“It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really–I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”

What is wonderful about the story is that it does not contradict that sentiment, but it shows how we as people are bigger than it. Cal and Simone, he a college teacher, she a painter, don’t treat Eugene as a problem to be solved or saved by science, but as a person. And so does the Moore’s dancer. That’s what the Humanities do; they do put our problems in context, and – Churchwell was very clear on this point – they critique that context.

Studying the Humanities (or the Arts) don’t make you a better person, Churchwell said, and Moore’s protagonist is a great example of that. She is a disappointed, self-deprecating – and self-deprecated – person, as much ruined by chronic irony as buoyed up and saved by it. A classic Lorrie Moore character, in other words. She spouts opaque homilies about the value of art that she doesn’t even pretend to believe in herself (“My head fills with my own yack”), and relies on knee-jerk superiority towards the people who are unimpressed by her exertions (“They ask why everything I make seems so ‘feministic’. ‘I think the word is feministical,’ I say.”)

But what she can do, faced the terrible exuberance, wit and lust-for-life embodied in the questioning, curious, imperious person of Eugene, is dance. When it is bedtime, she leads the family in their nightly routine of dancing – to Kenny Loggins – and “march, strut, slide to the music. We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.” When Eugene is too tired to continue, she stands with him, and moves more slowly, responding to his needs, to his context.

She does all this almost without thinking, almost intuitively. But that’s the difference between the Arts and the Humanities. The Arts can be instinctive, and intuitive. It’s the Humanities’ job to do that thinking, that analysis, that contextualising for them. Moore doesn’t labour the point – she doesn’t return to the question of how and whether the Arts (and the Humanities) can or should measure up to Science, but she shows that what they do is different, and compatible, and both equally necessary.

Certainly, I think Churchwell would be more concrete in her pushback against Cal’s “give every last fucking dime to science”. What? You think simply chucking money at the problem would make it go away? ‘Science’ is not an all-knowing, all-seeing, altruistic entity that cures diseases with a wave of a magic wand. It is embedded and embodied in human structures, and it is those structures – not the petri dishes in the lab – that the Humanities want to, and need to, muscle in on and critique. Science doesn’t just march, strut and slide forwards. It crouches, moves backward, then bursts forwards.

Say Science comes up with a cure for Eugene’s Cystic Fibrosis, but then wants to sell it to him for $272,000 per year? What does that do to Cal and Simone? Does their health insurance cover it? I doubt it, seeing as their dining room has saucepans in it to catch rainwater. ($272,000 is the current cost in the US of the drug Orkambi, the best current fit for extending lives of sufferers. It has been estimated that the cost of generic version of the drug is $5,000 per year.)

Art can’t do what Science can do. It can’t cure disease. It can console us and distract us and energise us, and help us understand why we’re bothering to try. The Humanities are a necessary corollary to the whole process. They provide the context – the continually evolving, continually self-critiquing context – in which both Science and Art can try to improve the quality of our lives. As Moore has it:

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

The Humanities help us ask that question.

January and February Reading, 2020: Simenon, Chandler, Evans, Markson

8584C242-9B23-4E8D-BB1B-322827CBC6BD

January was largely taken up with Simenon – for a piece still forthcoming, for which I tried to read as much of the famously prolific novelist as possible. This was not an entirely rewarding experience. After all, which writer can you honestly binge-read to the extent of weeks and weeks of nothing but them? Bear in mind that your average Inspector Maigret novel is around 170pp long, and you can absolutely blaze through them, so unencumbered are they by much in the way of plot, description or linguistic complexity.

The fact that they are crime novels, that they mostly open with a murder, and are peopled by rough, tough types, don’t stop them being, essentially, soft reads. They are close to Barthes’ Degree Zero Writing. As books, they practically read themselves. This is a good thing, individually: the Maigrets are ideal comfort reads; you can pick them up in confidence that you know what you’re getting. In conjunction, in succession, this is not the case.

Simenon’s romans durs (straight or hard novels) are different. Without the broad, brooding humanity of Maigret – so long as you’re not Jewish, or eastern European, or female and ugly – they give off an acid, acrid stench. Their anti-heroes are nastier than Patricia Highsmith’s basically amoral villains.

So, reading lots of Maigrets back to back was not a particularly edifying experience – in my photo they’re represented by Maigret in Vichy: a fine example. It doesn’t help that Simenon seems to have got more slipshod in the later novels. Nowhere really do the books offer up an ‘extended universe’, beyond the dependable lode stars of Madame Maigret and the inspector’s closest colleagues at the Quai d’Orfèvres, but they do repeat themselves, and they get sloppy. I will go on reading them, and acquiring them in their lovely new Penguin editions, and I will seek out more of the non-Maigrets, but by the time I filed my piece I was desperate for something sparkier, something punchier, something with more heart and mind. I turned to Raymond Chandler, thinking I could make do with one story from Pearls a Nuisance, but actually reading all three of them: the title story, ‘Finger Man’, and ‘The King in Yellow’.

Oh, Chandler is such a joy. Like Simenon he knew well enough to make his hero(s) good, honest men with gruff exteriors, knights in tarnished armour. Like Simenon, he knew that we don’t want Poirot or Holmes-style clever-clever cryptic crossword mysteries; we’re quite happy to tag along behind the detective, picking up clues with them. Bad guys are usually pretty obvious, after all. Most murder is decidedly uncryptic. Unlike Simenon, however, Chandler is a delicious prose stylist, who would never settle for Degree Zero. (He is so even in ‘Pearls are a Nuisance’, in which the first-person private dick protagonist talks like a Dulwich College stuffed-shirt, rather than a laconic, tooth-pick chewing gumshoe; when called on it, he answers:

‘I cannot seem to change my speech, Henry. My father and mother were both severe puritans in the New England tradition, and the vernacular has never come naturally to my lips, even while I was in college.’)

But it’s not just the case of a way with a particular vocabulary. The is a splendid sharpness to the narration in terms of what is told, and what is not. Here is a paragraph from ‘Finger Man’, in which the hero, another standard-issue private eye, comes back to his office to find a client, a standard-issue femme fatale, in his waiting room.

I unlocked the other door and she went in and sat in the chair where Lou had sat the afternoon before. I opened some windows, locked the outer door of the reception room, and struck a match for the unlighted cigarette she held in her ungloved and ringless left hand

The ‘ringless’ is a good detail, but you’d expect that from a private eye. It’s the fact of how that unlit cigarette comes right at the end of the paragraph, like the verb in a German sentence, and the way it sits there, patiently, on the page, shows us that she’s been sitting there like that for a while – for the time it takes him to lock the door and open the windows – waiting for him to light it, in the way of femmes fatales down the ages. And it only takes a second look at that sentence to realise (or guess, if you’re being picky) that he, the private eye, had spotted the cigarette, there in her hand, just as he spotted the ring, at some point in his tour of the office windows, and left her there, waiting, while the rest of the sentence rolled itself out. It’s not narrated, but it’s there. Continue reading

Out of photographs into words: Nathalie Legér’s Exposition, Barthes and the mother-child photograph

IMG_0104Nathalie Léger’s Exposition is the first in a loose trilogy of books published in French between 2008 and 2018. Formally they mix essay, criticism and memoir. In each of them Léger focuses on the work of a woman engaged in making art in some way either provocative or running counter to the prevailing cultural mood, and each of them pulls back from that woman to consider the art form in which they’re working, and then to reverse, as it were, into the author’s own life.

Although Exposition (2008) opens this trilogy, it was not the first to appear in English. That was Suite for Barbara Loden (2012), about the film actor and director of that name. (All three books are or will be published in the UK by Les Fugitives. I wrote about Barbara Loden here.) Loden’s sole film as writer and director, the American new wave landmark Wanda, remains a cult favourite, though hopefully she will in future be better known for that than for being Elia Kazan’s second wife.

The third book, The White Dress (2018), treats Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who in 2008 hitchhiked from Milan to Jerusalem wearing in a wedding dress to promote world peace; she was raped and murdered in Turkey.

(The White Dress is forthcoming from Les Fugitives and I will be talking with Léger about it at the Institut Français in May.)

What follows is some thoughts on Exposition, following an event last week at The Photographers’ Gallery, at which I discussed the book with its translator, Amanda DeMarco.

Exposition takes as its subject the Countess de Castiglione, Virginia Odioni (1837-1899), an Italian aristocrat who took Paris by storm in the 1850s – though see how young she still was! – and was briefly mistress of the French Emperor. (Again, how young.) She was famed for her beauty and her narcissism, and was later rejected by the court, and ended her life more or less in squalor. Through all this she was obsessed with having her photograph taken, returning again and again to the same society studio, in good times and bad, for elaborate photographs – in costume, role-playing with props and accessories – taken to her own specification. (Shades of Cindy Sherman, as Léger notes in her book, and also of selfie-culture, though Léger doesn’t mention that: the iPhone 4 with front-facing camera wasn’t released until 2010, two years after Exposition‘s original publication.)

Exposition is partly a book about ideas of beauty, then, and partly about photography. It pays homage to classics of the genre such as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, without particularly seeking to insert itself into that genealogy. Léger turns away from Castiglione to write about photography, turns away from photography to write about writing, turns away from writing to write about herself – and her mother.

This aversion to straightforward narrative is played out through Léger’s loyalty to the fragment as form. She constructs her books from island-paragraphs that float unmoored on the white space of the page, with little attempt to make meaning or argument flow between them. You have to hop from one to the next. Which is not to say that there is no order to what is presented; the links are there to be made by the reader. What narrative flow there is works slowly, and at depth. Continue reading

(Not) Books of the Year 2019


This has not been a good year for me, reading-wise. Last year’s Year in Reading post features a stack of great books published in 2018 that I was able to enjoy and write about as they came out. For various reasons, this year’s stack is much smaller. This might be simply that there weren’t so many good books, or it might be that I lost my taste for them – for books, for reading.

There are some other mitigating circumstances:

First of all, 2019 was supposed to be the Year of Reading Proust, something I set for myself as a new year’s resolution, with a dedicated Twitter account to accompany it, and give me encouragement. It started well, with the first two volumes done over the first two months, but the third wasn’t finished until I was on my summer holiday. The fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, sits by my bed even now. Proust calls for time properly devoted to it – you have to have time to find time, or speculate to accumulate you might say – and time this year was sucked up by other things.

There were four intense reading projects that got in the way: a blitz through some unread Iris Murdochs ahead of a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival; rereading some Brigid Brophys as I put together a chapter for an academic book; reading and rereading Don DeLillo for another academic chapter; and currently an avalanche of Simenons for a long piece to be published next year. These were and are all fulfilling and exhilarating in their different ways, but ate up much of my reading/writing energy while they occurred.

Work got in the way: academia is becoming more gruelling. (Academia, in part, means reading lots of things fast to find the things I want my students to read more slowly. It means strategic, points-based, results-oriented reading.)

Writing got in the way, for a time: my morning commute, which is often my best time for reading, suddenly gave itself over to the first draft of a new book – that now, alas, languishes at 45,000 words, untouched in two months. I have no idea when I will get back to it.

A Personal Anthology has been a happy distraction: all those short stories to read! Obviously, I don’t read all of all of them, but the project has sent me in many different and rewarding directions.

There were months this year – September and November – when I didn’t read an entire book front to back, though I never stopped reading. Reading just became scatter-gun, fragmentary, a bit of this, a bit of that, snacking, never finding the book that would suck me in and close off the rest of the world. Perhaps this is to do with teaching (I am always looking for useful examples of types of writing, always classifying, always comparing), perhaps with writing (I am always looking for inspiration, for something in a book that will light the fuse under my own writing; a snatch of writing can be enough).

I’m somewhat in that mood at the moment, on the last day of the year. Knowing that I have a big piece of writing work to do in January (academic bureaucracy) and a big piece in February (the Simenons), I find it hard to settle on any book that I feel deserves my full attention.

Or rather I feel I don’t have enough to offer any book that is going to make demands on me, as a reader. And I have too much pride to reach for something that demands nothing from me.

Instead, I reach for books that I think will steady me, will give an intense shot of what I need without having to read all of it – a ‘livener’ I think you’d call it. Something bracing. So, in the last few days I’ve picked up:

  • an Alasdair Gray novel from the four I have unread on my shelves. It was Something Leather. It didn’t do the trick;
  • a John Berger book I have read before (Here is Where We Meet), hoping that it would match or else steer my self-pitying end-of-year rudderlessness (it didn’t);
  • a big book of RS Thomas poems. That did the trick for one bedtime;
  • then Alasdair Gray’s wonderful The Book of Prefaces, which is the very definition of the intellectual livener.
  • And then see me walking back up the road from the high street, having dropped off a selection of books at the charity shop, reading the opening to Adam Mars Jones’s book of film writing, Second Sight, a steal at a pound, and instantly, though temporarily, feeling invigorated. Here is someone writing insightfully, fruitfully, encouragingly about culture, making it all seem worth while.

None of those books, though, have been read enough to count as Reading. They haven’t been ‘ticked off’.

So if I look back at my Monthly Reading posts from 2019, I find that the new books I read that I loved the most were not new books at all, but just newly translated. Continue reading

‘Knives Out’: character is plot, puke is truth. [Contains spoilers]

1574805596-Daniel-Craig-FI

Last night I saw Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s wonderfully ripe murder mystery, that boasts a fine array of performances ranging from the judiciously over-the-top (Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Colette) to the genuinely affecting (Ana de Armas, brilliant), as well as those that waver between the two. Here I’m thinking of Daniel Craig, whose atrocious southern accent disguises masterful detectorial insight, and Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the bestselling crime writer whose apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday set the film in motion.

The cast is great, and the cinematography and direction workmanlike, but what struck me most of all was Johnson’s brilliantly contrived screenplay, which is a masterclass not just in mystery plotting – intricate enough to keep you guessing, and simple enough to make sense as flashback after flashback sends you zipping backwards and forwards in time – but in the logical construction of the central character’s emotional arc. What follows is an analysis of one aspect of this, and contains spoilers. It is intended only for people who have seen the film.

The key character point of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse, is that she is physiologically unable to tell a lie: if she lies, she throws up. There are four (in fact five) moments in the film when this fact is utilised. Two of them are essential to the plot, but all of them are central to our understanding of the nature of her character.

Character is plot, we are taught in creative writing books and classes, and this is a perfect instance of that. (In passing: I teach on an MA in novel-writing, and it’s a constant annoyance that so many examples that come up in discussion, from me as well as from the students, are from films, rather than novels. Why is this? I hope it’s simply because i) films are more memorable, as combining visual and verbal elements and ii) they are simpler, goddamit! All the same: I’m writing this post because I think the film can teach us a useful lesson in plotting.)

The first time we learn that Marta cannot lie without vomiting is the first time she is interviewed by Daniel Craig’s private investigator, Benoit Blanc. He probes her on her actions on the night of the party, and she dissembles, trying to hide something (we don’t know what at this point), and is then sick in a flower pot. Note that we don’t see the vomit.

There’s another minor repetition of this moment later in the film when Marta and her temporary partner-in-crime Ransom Thrombey (Harlan’s grandson, played by Chris Evans) are caught after a car chase with Craig’s Blanc and the other cops. Blanc, seemingly still believing her to be innocent, asks if Ransom forced her to drive. She says yes, though that’s not true, and surreptitiously spits up in a takeaway coffee cup. Again, we don’t see the vomit, and note that it’s a small bit of puke, for a small lie.

[The spoilers proper kick in here. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film. It’s worth it, I promise!] Continue reading