Category: Reading

Instead of June reading 2021: the fragmentary vs the one-paragraph text – Riviere, Hazzard, Offill, Lockwood, Ellmann, Markson, Énard etc etc

This isn’t really going to function as a ‘What I read this month’ post, in part because I haven’t read many books right through. (Lots of scattered reading as preparation for next academic year. Lots of fragmentary DeLillo for an academic chapter I filed today, yay!)

Instead I’m going to focus on a couple of the books I read this month, and others like them: Weather by Jenny Offill, and Dead Souls, by Sam Riviere. I wrote about the fragmentary nature of Offill’s writing last month, when I reread her Dept. of Speculation after reading Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This (the month before), all three books written or at least presented in isolated paragraphs, with often no great through-flow of narrative or logic to carry you from paragraph to paragraph. 

Riviere’s novel, by contrast, is written in a single 300-page paragraph, albeit in carefully constructed and easy-to-parse sentences. And, as it happens, I’ve just picked up another new novel written in a single paragraph – this one in fact in a single sentence: Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard. I haven’t finished it, but it helped focus some thoughts that I’ll try to get down now. These will be rough, and provisional.

Questions (not yet all answered):

  • What does it mean to present a text as isolated paragraphs, or as one unbroken paragraph?
  • Is it coincidence that these various books turned up at the same time?
  • Does it tell us something about ambitions or intentions of writers just now?
  • Are fragmentary and single-par forms in fact opposite, and pulling in different directions?
  • If they are, does that signify a move away from the centre ground? If not, what joins them?

Let’s pull together the examples that spring to mind, or from my shelves:

Recent fragmentary narratives:

  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021)
  • Weather (2020) and Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021) ­– in part, it jumps around, I haven’t read much of it yet.

And further back;

  • This is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson (2016) A brilliant memoir written in block paragraphs, but allowing for a certain ‘through-flow’ of idea and argument.
  • This is Memorial Device by David Keenan (2017) – normal-length (mostly longish) paragraphs, but separated by line breaks, rather than indented.
  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (2015) – a series of long-ish numbered paragraphs, separated by line breaks.
  • Unmastered by Katherine Angel (2012) – fragmentary aphoristic non-fiction, not strictly speaking narrative.
  • Various late novels by David Markson, from Wittgenstein’s Mistress onwards
  • Tristano by Nanni Balestrini (1966 and 2014) – a novel of fragmentary identically-sized paragraphs, randomly ordered, two to a page. The paragraphs are separated by line breaks, but my guess is that the randomness drives the presentation on the page.

Recent all-in-one-paragraph narratives:

  • Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard (2021)
  • Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (2021)
  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)

And further back:

  • Zone (2008) and Compass (2015) by Mathias Énard
  • Various novels by László Krasznahorkai, of which I’ve only read Satantango (1985) – a series of single-paragraph chapters.
  • Various novels by Thomas Bernhard, of which I’ve only read Correction (1975) and Concrete (1982)
  • The first chapter of Beckett’s Molloy (1950) is a single paragraph, as is the last nine tenths of The Unnameable(1952)
  • The final section of Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)

So, my thoughts:

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How should one read a short story collection? On ‘Intimacies’ by Lucy Caldwell

So Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies was one of my May reads, but I’ve split off into a separate blog to write about it, because I found it so interesting. I’ll say straight out that it is a great collection of stories, which much of the same calm, wry, politically and socially observant writing as her debut collection, Multitudes, but the reason I want to write about it (and not just it) is something different from just the quality.

I’ll also say second out that I met Lucy last year, when she kindly agreed to talk with me, and Michael Hughes and David Collard, for the Irish Literary Society about my poem Spring Journal and its connection to Louis MacNeice, of whom she is a great fan, as evidenced by her Twitter handle @beingvarious, and in fact the great anthology of contemporary Irish short stories of the same title that she edited; and she was kind enough to say some words about the book, which were used for a blurb. So I am in her debt for that.

And but so…

Short story collections.

I own maybe 100 single-author individual collections, as opposed to anthologies or Collecteds, but I’ve got no idea how many of them I’ve read in their entirety. I do read plenty of short stories, not least because of A Personal Anthology, the short story project I curate, which pushes me weekly in all sorts of directions, some of them new, some of them old, but when I do read stories I mostly read one, two or at most three stories by a particular author at a time.

This partly comes down to the practicalities of reading. A short story you can read in the bath, and a long decadent bath with bubbles and candles might stretch to three or four, depending on the writer. Or, as I have done this afternoon, sitting outside in the garden, reading ‘Heaven’, the final story in Mary Gaitskill’s seminal Bad Behaviour, a story which… but now’s not the time.

But seriously: what a story!

What I generally don’t do is read collections in order, from start to finish. I appreciate that this might be annoying for authors, who presumably put some effort into sequencing their collections, but a collection isn’t like a music album – not quite – which lends itself almost exclusively to listening in order. (I remember when CD players came out, and the novelty of random play. It’s not something I would ever do now, and I find it annoying that it seems to be a default setting on Spotify.)

The reason why I don’t tend to read collections in order, is partly because I like reading stories in isolation. I think it’s a Good Idea. If – to be reductive about it – novels are a writer doing one big thing, slowly, and stories are writers doing a small thing, over and over, then there is a risk, in reading a collection in one go, of seeing a writer repeat themselves. After all, they most likely wrote the stories to be read individually. Read me here, doing my thing, in The New Yorker. Read me here, doing my thing again, in Granta. And here I am, doing something similar but different in The Paris Review.

Some collections of stories are just that: agglomerations of pieces that have individual lives of their own, published here and there, and their coming-together is primarily a commercial rather than an artistic act. Some collections are more integrated than that, more self-sufficient or autarchic, having no particular dependence on anything outside of its little biosphere.

As I tweeted about the theme of this blog, John Self mentioned David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as two collections that operate like this, that need to be read in order. He’s right, though annoyingly I don’t have either to hand. The Vann I think is in a box in the loft, and I’ve never owned a copy of Jesus’ Son, despite it being a touchstone of sorts. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is another example, with its famous ambiguity as to whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, but that has the oddity that I think you could read it in any order.

There must be others. I might think further and come back to this. You might have thoughts yourself.

So once you’ve leaned away from the idea of reading a collection in one go – to avoid the risk of diminishing marginal returns – then the need to read them in order seems somehow weaker. So that’s what I do. I take a collection down from the shelf, a new one or an old one, and I scan the contents page; I consider the titles; I look at the page-length. I make my choice.

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May reading 2021: Offill, Machado, Murata, Slimani, Kristof, Spark

Seven books, mostly quite short. I re-read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill for what was at least the third time. I think I picked it up as I’d been reminded of it by Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which I wrote about last month, and is written in a somewhat similar format. While the fragmentary form in Lockwood’s novel is clearly intended to represent consciousness fractured through Twitter and social media, Offill’s book is less online, and more about consciousness fractured through modern life in general. Offill is more constrained, more zen. The narrator’s brain has filtered the world. Lockwood’s narrator can’t filter the world, and insists on adding to it, interpreting it.

Lockwood’s book, as I said in my post, is unnerving, even enervating to read. Offill’s is restful, even when it turns dark. 

Nevertheless, it’s odd that the book seems to lose its way after the halfway mark. It can’t do the melodrama it has promised, through its story of marital breakdown, but it performs a wonderfully neat pirouette to avoid the collision. This happens in the superb chapter 32, in which the narrator confronts her errant, adulterous husband and his ‘other woman’, but undermines her own description with a viciously precise creative writing commentary: “Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?”

The scene that follows reminded me of the equivalent one in Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. But, where that is brilliantly visceral, this one just crumbles. That said, I suppose the temporary ‘failure’ of the novel is justified by its premise. The narrator is somebody who needs to be in control. That’s what’s behind her compulsive marshalling of facts, which she parcels out in those fragmentary paragraphs. When she loses control, the narrative dissolves into a swamp of entropy and only gradually, and it’s not entirely clear how, works its way back out. She reads a self-help book about surviving adultery, which she sneers at, but which – maybe – helps.

For sure, this book is not a self-help book about fixing a collapsing relationship. For all the nuggets of wisdom it purportedly contains, it’s never clear how they do it, the two of them, the couple and their daughter, beyond moving to the country, the “geographic cure”, which seems a surprisingly old-fashioned resolution to such an untraditionally presented story. 

It reminds me of one of my all-time favourite books: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Similar in the fragmentary form, similar in the obsessive relay of facts, and knowledge, and wisdom. (Rilke! The Voyager recording!) All of which is weaponised, and then irradiated. Literature as series of fortune cookies. Knowledge is reducible, and manageable, and transferable, and this is at once a good and a bad thing. (It reminds me, too, of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I never did/still haven’t finished.)

All three books, or four, counting Lockwood, though perhaps that one less, are about the uselessness of knowledge in the face of the world. Forgert Rilke, forget wisdom. If you want to save your marriage, simply move to the country, get a puppy, chop firewood. Which is lovely, but… really?

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an eye-opening account of an abusive relationship that turns expectations of the sub-genre on their head. The formal invention is impressive and effective, but some things do get lost. The book is a persuasive account of a subjective experience – of being gaslit and abused – and what I missed as a reader was the objective dimension. The ‘woman in the dream house’ – the abuser – remains something of an enigma. What was she like? What was her problem? Of course, this lack, this absence, may well be partly due to the ethical and legal aspect of memoir writing. The ‘woman’ presumably must remain vague in some aspects so she remains unidentifiable, and can’t sue. (I covered some of this in my review of Deborah Levy’s Real Estate.) For all its inventiveness, the book delineates the limits of what memoir can do.

I enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, which I read after listening to Merve Emre and Elif Batuman discussing it on the Public Books podcast. I didn’t agree with everything they said, but I was intrigued in particular about their description of the book as ‘an adultery novel’, i.e. a story build on a simple narrative model of thesis – anthesis – synthesis. I was preparing a workshop on plot and structure in novel-writing (for London Writer’s Café, hopefully more to come in the Autumn!) and thought it would be interesting to see how the novel managed this.

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March & April Reading 2021: Lockwood, Moore (Lorrie), Levy, Moore (Susanna), Nelson, Garner, Hall, Musil

At the start of 2021 I began an open-ended Twitter thread listing and commenting on my reading as I finish each book. This was supposed to help with these monthly round-ups, to save time, which clearly didn’t work at the end of March, as I didn’t post a round-up at all. So, for this two-month round-up I’ll be picking and choosing and expanding on those thoughts on some but not all of what I’ve read, rather than going through it doggedly.

It took me a bare couple of hours to read No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and I’ve spent at an hour elsewhere reading reviews and thinkpieces about it. Which only goes to show, as someone on here pointed out, that it’s the least well-titled book of the year. Unless she means it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever. 

I did really like the book, but also I found it exasperating and even anxiety-provoking. The short, fragmentary sections are clearly designed to mimic Twitter, but unlike Twitter you seem to have to read every one of them, as if there is something to ‘get’ from each of them.

This was confusing. On Twitter, after all, you skim through a dozen tweets in as many seconds before you deign to give one your more considered attention, sometimes scrolling back up to read one you initially skimmed over. Your micro-decisions about what to give your attention to are affected by names, and digital paratexts like avis and retweet and like counts. You don’t get that with tweet-length paragraphs on the page of Lockwood’s novel, but equally the usual narrative paraphernalia that allow you to speedily and efficiently navigate a story are also absent. Even Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation had more flow and propulsion across its narrative islets than this. 

Of course you acclimatise, and for a while you drift through the novel, picking up little dopamine hits for identifying memes and moments. The incest advert. The plums poem. But the pace of reading picks up, and the drifting becomes sliding, and it takes a great line to slow you down. Thankfully there are plenty of great lines.

Then Something Happens, plot-wise, and this is where the real challenge for the novel lies. Having established a vehicle of utter affectlessness in the first half (even while critiquing and despairing over the same), can it step up and deal with a subject that demands genuine emotional engagement?

Well the answer is no, for me at least. The emotion is there, and if you’ve read the interviews and perhaps even if not you’ll know it’s real, but the novel simply cannot express it. None of the usual, traditional functional parts – the filters and switches – are present, or work as required. It’s as if the book knows it’s trapped, and wants to break out of the trap it’s built for itself – and that’s part of the project after all, that’s what so many of us want to know: is there a way through this way of being, that will lead to another, better one?

What’s missing is the connective tissue. Now, the online world, when we are in it, does contain a connective tissue, of sorts: what gets called ‘the discourse’ (as in: the discourse is particularly toxic this morning). The discourse is the suspension (in the scientific sense) in which the individual tweets float, and take their context, and to which they all, infinitesimally, add. 

The point of the novel seems to be that this way of connecting with the world is leaving us adrift and unfulfilled. But when Lockwood gets to the second part of the novel, when tragedy drags her away from the Portal and immerses her in real life, the novel doesn’t change. It’s still written in that atomised, fragmentary style. Is that because this is the only way the narrator can think the world into being? Or is it intended to show the inability of ‘interneted narrative’ to represent the deep continuum of real life? Would it have been a failure of form if Lockwood had ‘reverted’ to a more traditional narrative style to cope with what happens ‘off-screen’?

No One is Talking About This is a tragedy of form, because although it allows me to empathise with the narrator when she is feeling sad about her unconnectedness, it fails to make me empathise when she suffers genuine tragedy. And it’s the form that engineers that failure.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore was an impulse re-read. It has such a wonderfully idiosyncratic form – four short stories followed by a novella, all featuring the same three characters in different versions and permutations: anagrams of themselves, in other words. Here’s what I said when I read it for the first time on holiday, back in 2013. “These people are us! They are us squared!” is clearly me trying to channel Moore. But it’s true that Moore does use humour to set up devastation. And in fact I’d forgotten quite how bleak the end of Anagrams is. 

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Occasional review: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy

I remember the first Deborah Levy book I read, and where I acquired it. It was Beautiful Mutants, in its splendid Vintage paperback edition, with its Andrzej Klimowski collage cover, and I bought it from a remaindered bookshop in Tenterden in Kent, where my grandmother lived. Tenterden had a good old-fashioned sweetshop, and it had this bookshop, with two low-ceilinged rooms, at the far end of the high street, which I used to try to try to get to whenever we visited.

I’ve always preferred bookshops to libraries. I know how that sounds, and I do love libraries, but it’s true. Books are things I want to acquire. Reading them is not enough; I need to have them. There are reasons behind this beyond mere materialism: I want to be able to read the book in my own time; I want to be able to put it down and pick it up again; I want to be able to write in it; I like to read books I believe I will want to read again; I want it there in my house to remind me I’ve read it, so I can reread it if I want. And yes, book is a statement about the person who buys it. Books are part of the way I interact with the world. This is the way we make culture out of art, by sharing it, and sharing through it.

I love new bookshops, and I love secondhand bookshops, and I love the book sections in charity shops, and each of these venues offers something slightly different as an experience to browser and buyer, but I have always had a fondness for remaindered bookshops.

Remaindered bookshops (good ones – are there still good ones? perhaps there were more of them in the days of the Net Book Agreement) give you two fine things: a sense of getting something new, for cheap, a bargain; and a sense that you’re getting something that perhaps has slipped under the radar, that didn’t sell as well as the publishers thought, that is likely to be something you haven’t heard of, that you might want to take a punt on, that is perhaps not quite first rate, but all the more interesting for that, a potential future cult classic.

I can’t remember all the other books I bought from that shop in Tenterden, except for a book of the graphic design of Neville Brody, and a hardback collection of letters written to George Bernard Shaw by ordinary members of the public. I don’t think I have either of those two books any more, but I do have the Levy. 

(How I wish had written in the front of all my books the details of where I got them. Imagine the Perecesque autobiography those details would tell.)

I do know where I got the newest Deborah Levy, which was sent to me by the publisher. Real Estate is the third of Levy’s ‘living autobiographies’, sort of diary-cum-memoir-cum-essays. I read the first, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and reviewed it for The Independent when it came out, in 2013, published by Notting Hill Editions, but I don’t know where my copy is. Either I reviewed it from a digital copy, or I lent or gave it away. I certainly wouldn’t have charity-shopped it. I didn’t read the second instalment, The Cost of Living, but having now read Real Estate, I’ve ordered a copy. 

Real Estate I enjoyed hugely, and more than I was expecting to. I’ve been reading Levy since the early 90s, and loved Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography, though not so much Billy and Girl, I seem to remember. (I can’t find my copy of that either, to update my thoughts.) I was less taken with her second wave or renaissance books, Swimming HomeBlack Vodka (stories) and Hot Milk. I felt she had toned down her exuberance but lost the craziness – the burning zoo, the “Lapinsky is a shameless cunt” – that seemed to carry crackling danger in every sentence, every page. The newer novels were tilted off their axis, certainly, but either didn’t entirely find their footing or didn’t take to the air. 

I don’t remember that much about Things I Don’t Want to Know, and will reread it, to see how the three books operate together, but here’s what I think about Real Estate: it’s a swift, sure, clean, clear account of and reflection on Levy’s world, post-success, post-marriage, with both of her daughters now left home, leaving her to consider how she will make the most of her fully independent life at an age (she turns 60 in the course of the book) when one might hope she can fully capitalise on her promise, and success. 

The title refers to the question of house ownership, as a dream and as an anchor, an aspect of self-identity and self-worth. During the book Levy writes in two sheds in two different people’s gardens, packs up her dead stepmother’s apartment in New York, travels to Mumbai for a literary festival, and decamps to Paris for a nine-month fellowship; she visits a friend in Berlin, and rents a house in Greece to write in for the summer. She is also haunted by the family house where she was once happy, and then unhappy.

All the while she cultivates her dream of a “grand old house with a pomegranate tree in the garden”, furnishing it in her mind with articles and objects she has accumulated over her life that would deserve their place in this ideal dwelling.

If Levy is playing ‘dream house-hunting’ then that’s fine with me. In a way, she herself is living a dream that belongs to many of the rest of us: a writer comes into well-deserved success after early years of promise, and middle fallow years, finding the literary superstructure bending itself as if by magic around her and to her and lifting her up. (Mumbai… Paris… Greece… what writer wouldn’t dream of that! What writer wouldn’t at least consider the painful end of a marriage a fair psychic payment for this other daydream…)

She uses the house metaphor to bring in other themes and issues: the difficulties female writers face, the lack of self-knowledge of male writers who turn up at festivals with their wives in tow as assistants, who corner you at parties with self-centred wining.

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February Reading 2021: Bennett, Rainsford, Galloway, Clark, Bonnet, Didion, de Kerangal, Levi

This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded. You can read January’s reading round-up here.

I followed Claire Fuller’s Uncommon Ground with The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Two books about twins, which I read – in part – for a thing about twins in literature that I hope to be able to share soon. I was impressed by Bennett’s book without particularly being captivated by it. The characters were strong, and the through-line from generation to generation allowed her to cover a lot of ground. (The plot: twin light-skinned African-American girls in the Deep South of the 1960s go their separate ways, one passing as white, one staying black, their stories reconverging when their daughters meet, these two cousins having been entirely unaware of each other’s existence until they met.) 

The narrative is shared out, and I liked seeing the daughters’ lives given as much space as their mothers’, but somehow I felt the novel didn’t have a true centre of gravity, a moral place from which it was being told. Which means the novel’s climactic moment (no spoilers) didn’t really have the emotional punch I was expecting, and wanted This is one of those books that feels rather as if it’s a treatment for a television series. The characters are there, but the work needed to make them really count is not; it’s as if it’s been delegated to a hypothetical director and cast. (Book not pictured as it was a loan, now returned.)

Another twins book was Redder Days by Sue Rainsford, like Bennett an author I hadn’t read before. This was a weird, slippery novel that comes on like an eco-dystopian fiction (shades of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood), dropping us into an ailing world that’s reeling from the impact of some kind of viral cataclysm, and is now waiting feverishly for the oncoming end, a true apocalypse the characters call ‘The Storm’. 

But with its isolated setting and tight character list – centred around a pair of adult twins, their mother, and a guru who has drawn them out to a remote commune to await total destruction – it’s more local in its emotional dynamics than global.

This has a stronger narrative drive, with scenes following the twins Adam and Anna scraping by in their gradually unravelling survivalist commune interspersed with journal entries written by their guru, Koan, about the onset of the virus, of which he alone saw the danger from the first moment. 

The exact nature of the virus is left unclear, both in its origin and its effects. It seems to turn people into violent zombie-like automatons, but also to turn on themselves, licking at their skin where the red shows through like a cat, until they lick the skin right off. This is all described in a way I’d call poetically evasive, and often compellingly so, but at times I did wish for a bit more clarity. More to the point, why do the characters always have to talk like this too? Living the life they do, I’d have thought Anna and Adam might have been a bit less gnomic in their conversation. At times the writing reminded me of Don DeLillo, king of gnomic evocativeness, but I did want a bit more groundedness.

I read The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway too quickly, so as to be able to discuss it with a PhD student: looking for the angles, the quick and easy lessons. It’s not a novel that reads smoothly. Why should it be? It’s a novel about what was probably at the time called a nervous breakdown, as Joy, a single woman only barely getting by as a drama teacher and working weekends in a bookies battles anorexia and alcoholism on a remote Scottish council estate. The book is as fragmentary as her mind, with some really effective typographical play, including some of the most imaginative use of margins (and restrained at that: it wouldn’t work if there was more of it) I can remember seeing.

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January Reading 2021: DeLillo, Moore, Townsend Warner, Power, Oyeyemi, Rooney, Fuller

This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded. 

I started the year with a short Don DeLillo blitz, research for an academic chapter I’m writing. Some of this was rereading, but Americana, his 1971 debut, was one I hadn’t read before. It is strangely split into different parts, as if moving through different tonal landscapes, which is not an approach I associate with this writer.

The opening is a zippy corporate media satire – at times like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, published three years later – with lots of cynical male advertising executives trying to screw each other over, and screw each other’s secretaries. It then diverts into a long dull suburban childhood flashback, and then goes on a Pynchonesque road trip across the country, fantasmagorical in parts, skippably dull in others. 

My conclusion on Twitter was: In the end I suppose I’m just not in the market for these old myths – which, now that I think about it, is basically a paraphrase of the opening line of Apollinaire’s Zone: “À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.” Unlike for Pynchon’s freewheeling carnival of invention, I got the feeling I was supposed to care for these characters, in their struggle to care about themselves, and there were simply too many unexamined assumptions that don’t align with my own for that to apply. It tries too hard to be cool, to shock, to provoke; it flails around to distract you from the fact it doesn’t know what it wants to mean, but as a debut novel it’s still hugely impressive and quite powerful.

I also zoomed through Great Jones Street (1973) and Running Dog (1978). In all these books DeLillo seems to be pushing against the novel form, wanting to find some other way of getting through than via a standard plot arc. Great Jones Street is interesting because of what it says about celebrity, and about music – which is a subject DeLillo has never really returned to. Running Dog to an extent is interesting about the mystique that arises when art and money converge, but he mishandles the thriller plot he starts off by gleefully satirising. The ultra-hardboiled dialogue boils dry, with pages and pages of interchangeable spooks tough-talking each other in the backs of limousines. There is an impressively destructive ending – as destructive as Great Jones Street, but really you get the sense that he’s given up before we even get there. By ‘given up’, I mean given up trying to find a way to resolve the plot in a way that honours equally his characters, his themes, and any remaining sense of reality/realism/credibility.

More on novel endings later in this post.

After DeLillo I moved onto A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, which I’ve tried to read at least once before, but didn’t get far into. As with Moore’s best stories it made me absolutely snort with laughter on a regular basis. It also ends wonderfully and movingly and, in a way, thrillingly – doing that thing that I think DeLillo has tried to do, to move outside or above the confines or sphere of novelistic plot: not just giving you what you think deserve from what has come before. 

It’s clever in the way it stretches what could have been a fine long short story to over 300pp, but there’s too much stodge: more childhood flashback than is necessary (with Americana, is this a lesson?), even bearing in mind the emotional ballast it contributes to the payoff at the end, and too much compulsive-idiosyncratic detail, delivered by the bucketload. This last is of course a familiar aspect of Moore’s short stories, and perhaps she simply though that the same intensity of narratorial gaze can be endlessly extended without consequence, but it ain’t so. 

Lorrie Moore’s short stories work because we can only bear to spend so much time with her characters. 

To which her characters would doubtless say, Imagine what it’s like being us!

To which I’d say, That’s not how this works.

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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.

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