My month’s reading began with Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann and ended with First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, read in a day, started on the train to work, and finished – nearly – on the train home. I read the last five pages leaning over the kitchen counter, eating hobnobs. If it had been light I would happily have stood out on the street to finish it. How does it end? Unexpectedly, desultorily, off-handedly, as it proceeds. It is, I think, the second Riley I’ve read. It’s excellent: a sketch (not a portrait) of a toxic marriage, with the narrator’s other relationships – ranging from also toxic to just failing to simply meh – doodled in the margins. Looking at it now I feel there’s a real risk that, for all my pleasurable immersion in its slantwise take on life, it will evaporate from my mind, as, indeed has the other Riley I’ve read, Joshua Spassky. (Maybe I’ve also read Opposing Positions. I’ve definitely got it. This isn’t looking good.) So, here’s me telling to re-read First Love in five years’ time. Item: “a small, poxed mirror”. Item: “We walked up to the shops, into the throat of the wind.” Item: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light.” Item: the handful of walnuts; those final, vituperative rants. If some novels are the equivalent of a nice cup of tea, this book is a cup of tea, spilled. Deliberately, and pointedly.
Hoban couldn’t have been more different. It’s as much an outlier in the Hoban oeuvre as Riddley Walker, which it follows. A middle-aged reel through the Middle Ages, it follows the man (and owl) Pilgermann through some kind of life, some kind of afterlife. It lifts itself into operatic riffs on various religious preoccupations; it’s got walking corpses and terrible battles and Jewish folklore. It starts better than it finishes, though it starts brilliantly. The idea of picking it up again, now, four weeks on, to work out what was going on in it, seems rather too tiring. I prefer his later, more obviously comic novels, that seem to carry themselves more lightly.
Black Waltz, by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers, is a re-read. I’d been meaning to try it again. It’s a story of a man – a successful international conductor – unhinged by jealousy. With no apparent reason apart from his own delirium, he he decides that his younger wife, a violinist, is being unfaithful to him. He ends up losing much more than her. It’s smoothly gripping, and effectively guts the reader at crucial moments. It reminded me of the early standalone Elena Ferrante novels, especially Days of Abandonment.
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Well: it’s exquisitely written – but I wasn’t fully taken in. Something about the reticence, the distance with which emotions are held, and for what purpose, meant it didn’t work its magic on me as it has on others. I wonder if it’s something to do with American reticence, which has a slightly different tenor to British, or English, reticence. Perhaps Americans see it as less of an inherent national trait, puritanism aside, and so it tastes that bit more delicious to an American palate.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – a Christmas present from my sister – was a bit of a frustration. I mean, how many times do I have to read accounts of quantum physics, black holes and the rest of them, before I actually understand them? I don’t think it will ever happen. (It happened, once, briefly, watching Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. I got it, I really did – with the way the characters walked across the stage representing the movement of quarks or whatever they are – but I lost it the moment I left the theatre.) It doesn’t help that Carlo Rovelli uses some hokey metaphors to try to explain his science. When he says that the elementary particles “combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains…” and so on, I just can’t see how that helps. That’s not how letters work, really, and I can’t imagine that that’s how elementary particles work either: placed in sequence to form clusters as much made up with reference to the letters that aren’t there as to those that are, these clusters then being themselves arranged in particular sequences, so as to suggest meaning. That’s how the universe is made? No, it’s not.
River (by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith) and Sight (by Jessie Greengrass) are there because of reviews, still forthcoming. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk… was homework for that review.
Flight was (re)read for the MA Creative Writing module I’ll be teaching this semester. It’s a great blokey literary thriller, a little too on-the-nose in the way it looks for flight metaphors, but agreeably credible in its blend of mystery and violence, and its slow unfolding of human relations, and evocative in its description of the remote Scottish coastline.
Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (trans Leila Vennewitz) was read as a palette cleanser, because it was so short. But, for a short book, it’s dicey to read, and not just because this old Penguin paperback is going at the spine. At this distance (it was written in 1974) its twin themes of sensationalist tabloid journalism and the furore around the Red Army Faction terrorist group don’t seem to carry equal weight. The journalism stuff seems heavy-handed, but also naïve by comparison with the way news organisations treat individual privacy today, while the terrorism, so much meatier as a theme, is treated less thoroughly. The documentary style is interesting, certainly, and it’s made me want to keep exploring Böll. His stories, apparently, are superb.
Another short book I (re)read in a day is André Gide’s Strait is the Gate, translated by Dorothy Bussy, who features in Kate Briggs’s fascinating book about translation, This Little Art. Picked up because its title accidentally mirrors the title of my current work in progress, it astonished me again with the pure music of its prose, and the aching passion of its story, melodramatic and melancholy at the same time. It’s the story of a young love destroyed by excess religious sense, that sees heaven only in self-denial. It made we well up, and as good as cry, twice. If you read Gide in French as a schoolchild (probably La Symphonie Pastorale) it might be time to pick him up again. I want to go on straight to another of his books. I’ll see what I have. This, though, is a sublime little book.
The stories (Chris Power, M John Harrison, Bridget Penney, in a lovely old Polygon edition) I’ve been dipping into and enjoying. I may write about them next month.
Also read, but not pictured: The Language of Kindness, the forthcoming nursing memoir written by my colleage at St Marys, Twickenham, Christie Watson. That made me well up more times than I care to remember. A stonkingly human book, brilliantly pitched and controlled.
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”
I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.
What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.
The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading
I am bad. This is old. We are going back to early February here. I’ve been reading, but I’ve not got round to writing any of it up. There are two reasons for this, beyond sheer laziness. One of them is that I wanted to use one of these month’s round-ups to reconsider the whole ‘reading women writers’ / #ReadWomen2014 thing, which beyond being a prompt to myself to read more women was originally supposed to be a prompt to thought: not just why don’t I read more of them, but why do I read them as women; why when I’m reading them am I aware, at some level, of treating them, in my reading, as women writers, not male writers.
Is this true? Or do I just worry that it’s true?
Is awareness thought?
Am I turning into my own thought police?
Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.
And of course you’re entitled to question the very idea of the pantheon as a method of literary assessment.)
So, the four months I spent reading women last year was supposed to end with some kind of accounting of that experience, and it never did. I wanted to include that in my Feb reading post, but wasn’t ready to, hadn’t marshalled my thoughts.
I’m not ready now.
I have not marshalled my thoughts. Continue reading
Open The Magic Mountain, then, and you’ll find Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro.
Inside Kokoro, bizarrely, Tao Lin’s Taipei.
Inside Taipei, JA Baker’s The Peregrine, the first 100 pages of A Naked Singularity, all of Train Dreams.
Then Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out.
Inside Eat My Heart Out, Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net.
Eat My Heart Out, then back to Taipei, and back to Kokoro. Then on to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, read straight through. No one would plan their reading month like this.
Putting down The Magic Mountain was easy. Thomas Mann has convinced me that this book can sit me out, will not go off like cheap wine, should be taken in long draughts, when the brain and liver is ready for it. (Pace Max Cairnduff on Proust: don’t read unless you can guarantee at least a 50pp stint, ideally a hundred.)
At the time, I wanted something simple, something like the modern classic Japanese romanticism of Natsume Sōseki. I’ve read and loved Kusamakura, his elegy for the past Meiji world, a world that I, for one, never missed, and miss all the more for it. Continue reading
2013 was the second full year that I’ve written a monthly blog about my reading, and this time I’ve decided to put together a ‘year in reading’ summary that lists the books covered, which isn’t quite the same as the books read. As I tried to explain in a post that was supposed to be a similar summary this time last year, but failed to be so, how we read – how I read – is so much more than a list of books ‘read’.
It’s also worth repeating that the whole point of these blog entries was to take the opportunity to to write about books in way not really allowed in book reviews – with no summary, no context, not necessarily any judgement, but rather an interrogation of the reading experience, or what reading the books made me think.
They are generally written without a plan, but at a rush, and posted before I can think too carefully about what I’ve said. But, generally, the topic that emerges – if it does at all – is one that has been preying on my mind.
Links to ‘proper’ book reviews given where appropriate. Otherwise, click on the link at the end of an extract to delve into that particular set of digressions.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
The Woes of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolano (Independent review)
First Novel, by Nicholas Royle
A Great Big Shining Star, by Niall Griffiths (Independent review)
plus a digression on physical vs digital books pursuing my graphic index of the mind obsession
I’ve had the Penguin Essays of George Orwell for decades. Perhaps I read it all when I got it, when I had time, but since then it’s come down from the shelves only on occasion, but each time it does, I flick through and remind myself what’s in there. Not deliberately, just as a part of the what the book operates. Click here to read the post Continue reading
Well, I can now reveal that the book I’m reading as the new year turns is… again, The Magic Mountain. Or, rather, still The Magic Mountain.
This wasn’t a reread, oh no. This was the same, first read. I just hadn’t finished it yet. Other books had been read in the meantime, of course, and for most of the year I wasn’t reading it at all. But I picked it back up, in November, turned back 50 or so pages, and pressed on.
It’s a slow, hard read, this book, a slow, hard climb. But the views, when you pause and turn and take stock, are jaw-dropping, the flora underfoot often charming, and the intellectual air bracing to say the least.
Set in the years before the First World War, Mann’s novel opens with young, healthy (in body and mind) engineer Hans Castorp visiting his soldier cousin Joachim in a Swiss sanatorium, where the latter is being treated for tuberculosis. The three week visit turns into a temporary and then indefinite stay when he develops first a temperature, and then is found to have “a moist spot” in his chest.
The narration of these three weeks, I feel it must be said – and the author feels it needs pointing out too – takes up over 200 pages, during which there is a lot of talk, a lot of ideas tossed artfully around, much of which is intriguing enough when it occurs, but little of which I could safely summarise for you now. Does this matter? I’m not sure that it does. There has been no point in this book at which I have not wanted to read on; as Mann puts it in his foreword, “only thoroughness can be truly entertaining.”
Foremost among the brilliancies of the book is that Mann is especially alert to the fact and activity of reading; he is constantly concerned with how the novel will appear from the far side of the textual abyss. In the foreword he warns that the story is going to take more than a moment or two to tell. “The seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months […] For God’s sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!”
After those three weeks, easily demarcated in the text, time starts to act weirdly, and how long the events of the rest of the narrative are supposed take is never quite clear. Which in fact makes it perfect for this kind of uncertain and extended reading that I have been giving it: reading, in fact, that becomes as cyclical and seasonal as Hans Castorp’s stay in the sanatorium. Up there in the Swiss Alps, in that strange pre-war time (when Weimar Berlin, for instance, was being highly temporally specific) time expands and contracts; it exists in a very different to way to the time in Proust. There, the past is something gone, that must be sought out to be retrieved. Here, the past is never truly past, it floods up and engulfs the present. Time (and illness) is something to be escaped, not found again. Continue reading
This will be the third time I have written about JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a metafictional puzzle book that comes in the form of a faux-retro hardback of a novel, Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by one JM Straka, and that carries further sub- and supra-narratives in its editorial notes, and in the marginalia scrawled on its pages, and inserted between them, by a pair of obsessed students who, improbably, conduct a flirtation using the book as a dead letter office, even as come to fear for their lives.
First I wrote about it on my Friday Book Design Blog, where I commented on its exquisite presentation and sense of fun, and noted its debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, before ending with the slightly sniffy enquiry:
What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the destination’s worth the journey?
Left to my own devices, I would probably not have continued the journey. However, I was then asked to review it, for The Independent, and happily took back up the gauntlet, reading through to the very last page (something I wasn’t entirely sure Mark Lawson did for his rather general review in The Guardian).
This time I concluded that, though I was sure I had penetrated only partway to its mysteries, the journey was rewarding nevertheless. Sure, some aspects of the project remain hard to accept:
- in practical terms, that Jen and Eric would keep scribbling in the margins of the book rather than, y’know, texting each other, especially when THEIR LIVES WERE IN DANGER because of it;
- in conceptual terms, that the narrative of their relationship ran more or less chronologically through the book, from front to back, whereas any fule postgrad knows that the text is a two-dimensional space, rather than a temporal continuum, and their notes should have been a lot more confusing to read in tandem with the plot of the novel;
- and, in literary terms, that we were actually supposed to believe there was a clan of dissident-writers fighting evil throughout history in our ‘universe’, whatever we were willing to believe about the ‘universe’ of Straka’ fiction.
Despite all this, then, the ‘novel’ (not a novel-within-a-novel, as some have said, but the opposite: a novel-around-a-novel, over-a-novel, above-a-novel) was kept alive by two things: the positively charming romance that grows in the margins between the two students, Jen and Eric, and the quality of the pastiche of ‘Ship of Theseus’, which reads like a sort of tough existentialist take on the Conrad/ Hemingway tradition, though it keeps slipping towards the fantastical.
If the underlying, background text hadn’t been worth reading – despite the fact that you know its primary, surface meaning is not what you’re supposed to be there for at all – then I’d have had a hard time keeping on with it.
Looking back on my reading experience, now, though, what occurs to me is this: that while Dorst is pastiching a certain strain of mid-century hardboiled quasi-philosophical literature, Abrams (as conceiver-in-chief) is pastiching something else entirely.
He is pastiching, or otherwise playing on, the very postmodern take on meaning and interpretation that has grown up in the past half century, following on from the post-structuralists of the mid-late 60s, that sees intertextuality, marginality and undecidability as central to the literary-critical enterprise.
Postmodern literature loves to play with the possibility of extra- or meta-textual work dominating and even crushing the work-at-source (Pale Fire); it loves the idea of the reader as detective, set loose in the drifting, numinous, authorless world of novel (Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose); in fact it loves this so much it romanticises it to the point where, laughably, ferreting around in dusty libraries becomes a supremely heroic act, and even a dangerous one (Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum [a book I must re-read], Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, and, eventually, as Eco loves pointing out, The Da Vinci Code).
I’m supposed to be writing about the books that I read in October, but the award last night of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has diverted my train of thought. It’s not entirely unconnected: after all, the book I was reading at the beginning of October was Jim Crace’s Harvest, the only book to be on both the Goldsmiths and Man Booker shortlists.
This is, to put it mildly, a crossroads year for literary prizes in the UK. The 2013 Man Booker was the last prize to keep to its original remit of British/Irish/Commonwealth writers, before widening to any book written in English and published in the UK – which has been generally seen as a shift towards the US, and thus the end of an era. The Goldsmiths Prize is attempting to stake out a territory for experimental fiction, doing what some say the Booker should be doing by rewarding courage and risk-taking. And then we have the Folio Prize, set up in the wake of the ‘Rimington Booker’ of 2011, when it was seen as dumbing down, but which now, despite a rigorous and forward-thinking academy structure, seems rather lost in the wake of the Booker changes. After all, nobody could accuse The Luminaries of being a dumb book.
All this you know.
We also know that the Goldsmiths shortlist was a brilliant setting out of its stall, diverse and eye-catching in all sorts of ways: established vs unknown publishers, old vs new names, humour vs tragedy, dense vs aphoristic texts. I haven’t read enough of the shortlist to say whether I agree with the judges, but I’ve read Eimear’s book, and I can say it’s an utterly worthy winner: the best word I can think of to describe it is gobsmacking.
Certainly, anyone who picks it up and looks at the first page can see that something exciting and exalted is being done here with language (I’ve given extracts of it to Creative Writing students, just to say: Look, you can do this; this can be done), but persevere with the book – as you have to do: this is a demanding read – and it becomes clear that the characters in it are as strong as the language, and the scene-building as strong as the characters, and the story, in the end, as affecting as all of it. Continue reading
Looking down the long tunnel of September towards its distant beginning, I can make out Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, but in outline only, little in the way of detail. I know I found it a hard book to like – I didn’t like it – but not in the way I was expecting. It came riding in on a wave of fierce praise, including some from names I trust, and I approached it with, appropriately enough, flame-retardant gloves, as I do any book that shares a subject matter with my own novel: art and artists in the latter half of the twentieth century. I was ready to envy it, ready to throw it against the wall in despair, ready to rip it up and eat it if that meant I could take it out of the world.
Instead, I found it fussy, in a rather butch way, and drifting. It’s the story of Reno, a young woman artist who comes to New York in the late 70s, from the outer sticks of Nevada, to find her way in to the post-Pollock scene. Soon enough she finds herself the lover of an older, male artist, Sandro, and follows him to Italy, where his family, owners of a major motorcycle company find themselves attacked by their rising-up workers.
(Reno is a biker: some of the best and most lauded scenes are of her racing across the American desert, drawing a line with the machine so light it barely touches the earth.)
It is a book about the mystique and muscle of art, as mine is, and the strange black hole that grows in and eventually engulfs the ‘great’ (male) artist. Some of that was good, but I just couldn’t get on with the prose. It is American prose, made in America. It swaggers, but with a limp, or drag, affected to distract from the swagger. It looks at the world obliquely, drawlingly, always focused on the thing half glimpsed over the shoulder of the thing it’s looking at. It is like a man in a bar, spieling drunk wisdom, while he fingers patterns in a puddle of spilled beer on the counter. But it wants you to know the man, and wisdom, through the doodles.
August, August, August… disappearing into the rear-view mirror of the year, always the saddest sensation. Gone the sun, gone the skip and bounce in the day, gone the time for reading.
I am now firmly stuck in the middle part of life where August means school holidays, which means a couple of weeks away somewhere hot, which means camping and a pool or beach and the opportunity to read unencumbered by home life and academic/journalistic imperatives, while the kids divebomb around me. But I can read what I want.
What I took away with me this year was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (sadly leaving behind Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers because of space considerations), and three paperbacks from my Myopic/Misogynist reading list of women writers: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
The Luminaries, in a way, is the perfect intelligent person’s holiday read. It is a mystery story (keeps you reading), and a meticulously built historical fiction (allows you to drift away into a fully-imagined, fully-upholstered reverie), but it is also presented via a structure as intricate and labyrinthine as a spider’s web (you need to have the time to concentrate). Like the other ‘big book’ on the Man Booker longlist, Richard House’s The Kills, it wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d want to read in snippets, tired, at bedtime. Both are fractured narratives, with various versions of events orbiting a ‘truth’ that the reader is tasked with putting together themselves.
Of course, the risk with this – with all mystery stories, i.e. with all stories that include the past as a dimension to be explored – is that the myriad possible ‘truths’ thrown up in the earlier sections of the book may well be tastier meat than the ‘true’ truth exposed at the end. Continue reading