Books of the Year 2020

The best books of the year – or rather the books that gave me the best reading experiences. Meaning the deepest, highest, widest, closest, most pleasurable. In all the strange ways we measure pleasure.

Well, I’d better start by saying I finished my complete, first reading of Proust – which I’d started on 1st January 2019 – on 31st May 2020. The plan had been to read the whole thing in a year, but by October 2019 I was still only on volume 4, and the last date that year (I took to writing the date in the margin to mark where I finished reading each day) was 21st October, halfway through that volume. I picked it back up in February 2020, beginning again at the start of vol 4, and made good progress through lockdown. All along I jotted thoughts and posted screenshots on a dedicated Twitter account (@proustdiary), and if I had the time I would try to scrabble together and collate these into something more coherent. It was a major reading experience, yes, full of great highs but also full of longeurs and swampy sections to trudge through. Don’t go reading it thinking it’s like other novels. It’s not.

Other major reading experiences of the year from books not published in the year:

  • Middlemarch, read for the first time, on holiday in that odd distant summer window when I was lucky enough (for lucky read privileged) to be able to spend 10 days on a Greek island. Not just a wonderful, exemplary novel, it is also a vindication of the very idea of the Victorian novel, of what it can do: stolid realism, intrusive omniscient narration, all the things we like to think we do without in our literary style today.
  • The Third Policeman. I’d tried At Swim, Two Birds before, more than once, and never got far with it, admiring its precocious undergraduate wit without being convinced that it would develop into anything more worthwhile. This one, though, tugged at me from the first pages, and delivered, in all dimensions. The spear, and the series of chests! The lift to the underworld. The ending! My god, the ending. Let me kneel before the scaffold, which must be the best piece of tactical diversionary business in the history of literature. Read it, then let me buy you a beer to talk about it. (By the bye, I’ve been reading Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, on and off, this last month or so – for so slight a book, it’s taken a long time to get through – and you think: oh man, you have talent, but you don’t have that bastard’s wicked spear, so sharp it will cut you and won’t even notice. “About an inch from the end it is so sharp that sometimes –  late at night or on a soft bad day especially – you cannot think of it or try to make it the subject of a little idea because you will hurt your box with the excruciaton of it.” Recommended to me by Helen McClory, to whom I am grateful.
  • Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. My first by him. The kind of writing I feel able to aspire to. Precise building of characters in the round. All tilting towards a moment. That moment in the Anne Frank House. It made me reconsider VS Prichett’s line about a short story being something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. That particular scene could have made a great short story, and it would have remained a glimpse. Sometimes, however, a novel can be a heavy and ornate or structurally robust frame or scaffold designed to hold a glimpse, and the glimpse hits home harder than it ever would at the length of a story.
  • Autumn Journal. My true book of the year. From March to August I read it every day, as I was writing my own poem, Spring Journal, given out first on Twitter, and now published by CB Editions. I learned so much about metre, and rhyme, from immersing myself in it.

But, of books published this year:

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, not pictured as lent out) was my novel of the year. Such a relief, to start with, that she was able to follow the Neapolitan Quartet, and with something that was neither a shorter version of those books, nor a return, quite, to the short vicious claustrophobia of the three brilliant standalone novels. It is perhaps less fully distinctive than any of those works – more similar, in scope, to what other people write as novels, but no less pleasurable for that. I read it, along with Middlemarch, on holiday, and it gave me the great pleasure of holiday reading, of allowing reading time to overflow the usually watertight boundaries of hours and activities, of blocking out the world. It’s strange, isn’t it, how we go to lovely places on holiday – places with great views, great landscape, and great climate – and read. I mean, you could lock yourself up in your bedroom and read, for a week, but you don’t. (If you can afford to, you don’t.) There must be something about the climate and landscape that improves the reading, or something about the reading that makes the landscape and climate more precious, for being ignored, or not being made the most of. The Ferrante reminded me of Javier Marías – who, incidentally, I had auditioned for taking on that same holiday, buying Berta Isla in anticipation, but I glanced at it a few times before setting off and, chillingly, found it utterly unappealing and most likely dreadful.

Similar in a way to Ferrante’s quartet was Ana María Matute’s The Island (translated by Laura Lonsdale), another essential discovery from Penguin Modern Classics. I reviewed it on this blog, here. As I say there, it was the incantatory aspect of the narration, calling back over the years to the lost friends, lost love, lost self, that stayed with me from reading it.

2020 saw the publication in translation of Natalie Léger’s The White Dress (translated by Natasha Lehrer, Les Fugitives), the third part of her trilogy of monograph-cum-memoirs that began – in English ­– with Suite for Barbara Loden, and continued with Exposition (those two were written and published in French in the opposite order). What a set of books these are! As strong on the furious waste of female artistic talent, and the general and specific ways that men, and male social and cultural structures, set out to achieve this end, as anything by Chris Kraus; as simply, naturally adventurous in its manner of navigating its different forms as Kraus or Maggie Nelson. Each book is brilliant, no one of them is put in the shadow by the other two, but the ending of The White Dress – this book is about Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who was abducted, raped and murdered while hitchhiking across Europe to promote world peace – is as sickeningly powerful in its effect as the end of Spoorloos (The Vanishing). You feel helpless. I wrote more about The White Dress in a monthly reading round-up, before these petered out, here.

I chose Nicholas Royle’s Mother: A Memoir (Myriad Editions) and Amy McCauley’s Propositions (Monitor Books) as my books of the year for The Lonely Crowd. They’re both brilliant, and you can read my thoughts on them here.

Another memoir that I devoured, and that gave me tough minutes and hours of thinking and reflection, even as, on the page, it sparked and effervesced, was Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of my Non-Existence (Granta). In a way it’s the opposite to Royle’s book, which is only ever caught up in the flow of time as if by happenstance. Royle’s mother happened to live through certain years, and be of a certain nationality and generation, so the exterior world does impinge, but impinges contingently. (The book is about personality, and how personalities bend towards, away from and around each other in a family.) Solnit’s book, by contrast, is absolutely caught in the flow of time. Solnit is who she is because of when she lived, and lives. In this it’s somewhat similar to Annie Ernaux’s superb The Years, which I wrote about here, and chose for my Books of the Year in 2018. And it’s as intelligent and insightful as Léger’s books, though Solnit has no reservations about writing about herself. (Léger, you feel, can only write about herself by way of writing about others. She is reticent, and so to an extent subject to the ego. Solnit writes memoir without ego.) This is certainly the book of Solnit’s that I’ve enjoyed the most.

From memoir to essays – and yes there is a lot of non-fiction on this list, among the new books I mean. I’m not sure why this is. There are other contemporary novels and short stories (in collections, journals, on their own) that I’ve read this year that I enjoyed, but none of them impacted on me as heavily as these books. Perhaps it’s because fiction is less concerned with its impact on the reader here and now, it drifts into the timeless time of world and story that must, perforce, be largely unlinked to the phenomenal world. By contrast, all these essays address me, here today, and demand something of me. (Incidentally, timeliness is not a guarantee of meaning. I tried reading Zadie Smith’s ‘lockdown’ essay collection Intimations, and found it rather insipid. It seemed like noodles and doodles, when Solnit, Léger and Ernaux, as good as sat me down and talked important things to me, things that needed to be said.)

I very much enjoyed Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays (Atlantic), the essays of which seemed to spring from the world – they are about disaster, ecological crisis, terrorism, things that we know as it were unknowingly. They are unknown knows. The subjects seemed to be held still by Gabbert as if by force of will, in a way that seems different from the other non-fiction pieces mentioned here. They were not a natural outpouring or distillation of insight – as, for example, and famously, was Solnit’s brilliant ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ – but worked pieces, pieces Gabbert had to work at, to get right, topics she had to apply herself to in order understand them, to bring them under the law of her thought. She was forcing herself to think, and we were beneficiaries.

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo) is a characteristically intelligent, urbane, distinguished set of essays that focus on particular writers by zooming in on – and then building out from – single sentences of their writing. They are master-classes, and they remind me of Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, though that book ranged more widely (James ranged more widely, full stop). Suppose a Sentence is wonderful because what it offers is unapplicable. You can’t use it for anything else. Its lessons are oblique. It’s like a walking tour of a part of the city you’d never found on your own, and never will be able to again.

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (Influx Press) was perhaps the most interesting new collection of short stories I read this year. The stories are mostly short, and don’t try too hard to be polished or well-rounded, nor to be artfully extraordinary. But they grab you with their insouciance, their not-caring. The story ‘Rite of Passage’, with a girl (I should say ‘woman’) who crawls into hole in a rock on a beach on a date, was thrilling for its unpredictability. It didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions, in the end, but many of the stories left me feeling deliciously unmoored. 

Finally, my other book of the year, it goes without saying, was The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy, reissued by Faber, my favourite novel of one of my all-time favourite writers, who is hopefully becoming better known. This book was, to some extent, the model for my last novel, The Large Door, set, like Midwinter Break, in Amsterdam. I love The Snow Ball with a reader’s passion, that is say excessive, partial, formed by circumstance and transference. 

  • The following books were courtesy of the publishers: The Island, The Snow Ball, The Lying Life of Adults, The White Dress, Suppose a Sentence. Thank you to Penguin, Faber, Europa Editions, Les Fugitives and Fitzcarraldo.

‘Spring Journal’ coming in book form… very soon

“An hour of early evening, early summer sun is like a foretaste of eternity; smack your lips and you can taste it on your tongue.”

In hugely exciting news I can now announce that Spring Journal will be published as a book by CB Editions before the end of 2020.

The publisher says: “Spring Journal is an honest, angry, sad, thoughtful, appalled, urgent act of witness to this lousy year. Why would anyone want to be reminded? Those who have followed the week-by-week reading-aloud of the poem by Michael Hughes on David Collard’s Leaps-in-the-Dark on Zoom know that this is not a statistical summary or an op-ed piece; that something cumulative has been building, and that its sharing has been important. The poem itself is deeply sceptical of exaggerated or romantic notions of what poetry can do, or is for; it feels nevertheless, in part because of this scepticism, a necessary work.”

Huge thanks to Charles Boyle at CB Editions for this mark of confidence. CB Editions is one of my favourite British small presses, and it’s marvellous to see how it turn around ‘on a sixpence’ as Boyle puts it, to publish the poem while it’s still hot and, hopefully, vital. More details in the CB Editions newsletter, here.

And full information about Spring Journal on the dedicated web page on this blog, here.

‘Spring Journal’ finale and reading: 28th August 2020!

So as some readers of this blog and my Twitter feed will know, I’ve spent the last three months writing a long poem, ‘Spring Journal’, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and other aspects of the news in 2020, but taking its cues from Louis MacNeice’s great 1939 poem ‘Autumn Journal’, in which the poet mixed reaction to the looming second world war with more personal reflections.

What started as an impromptu Twitter experiment was given more solid form when David Collard invited me to present the poem as an ongoing contribution to his series of online literary salons, ‘A Leap in the Dark’. So, from early April onwards I wrote a canto a week, and actor and novelist Michael Hughes read it, on Friday evening.

Cantos were drafted on a dedicated Twitter account, Spring Journal, and edited for publication on my blog here.

Now we are approaching the end of the project, as dictated by the 24 cantos of MacNeice’s poem, and David has magnanimously handed over an entire ‘Leap’ to mark the occasion, with a full read-through of the poem, to end with the first reading of canto XXIV.

This will take place on Friday 28th August, and will be – for me at least – a thrilling experience. Michael Hughes will be reading half of the cantos, with a series of guest readers doing the rest. There will also be a musical contribution specially composed for the event by Helen Ottaway.

Like all Leaps in the Dark this will be invitation only, for usual online security reasons. If you have already attended one of David’s Leaps you’ll be on the mailing list and so will get an invitation. If not, and you’d like to attend this special event, then please use the contact form below and I’ll pass on your details to David.

(The event will be recorded and attendance assumes acceptance of this. Attendees will be asked to keep their Zoom video feeds on, rather than blacked out.)

NB Please drop a line in the Message box saying how much you love Spring Journal so I know you’re not a bot!

April Reading 2020 Part 2: More Proust

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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