Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading
Why Knausgaard? When I have a dozen other things I should be doing, at least three blogs I have lined up to write? Well, sometimes you just have to sit down and blog it out.
In this instance, the post was brought on last night when @gillybethstern hijacked a Twitter conversation about The National to ask: Any of you read the latest Knausgaard?
My contribution was:
I finished Vol II over w/end. Easy to SAY it’s superb. Harder to say WHY, to which Gillian replied
Agree. But I am enthralled, even when he boils water or fries up his meatballs. Then me:
and unties his shoelaces and takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket…
She’s right, and those laces and jacket were already underlined in my copy of the book, that I finished in a glorious sunny binge this weekend just gone, during a 24 hour stretch staying in a nice hotel in St Ives on my own – one of those pockets in time that allow you to really immerse yourself in a book, with no distractions.
Nobody wanted me for reviewing duties on this, the second volume of Knausgaard’s epic, six-volume succès de scandale, My Struggle, so this is my opportunity to just sit down and bash out an attempt at that question: Why Knausgaard? What is about his books that fires me up in a way that simply no other books do, at the moment?
@seventydys tried to answer it thusly: The quality of attention. How the facts are held in language. Nope-can’t do it.
This then is nothing so considered as a review – instead, here are a few of the comments I scrawled across the tops of the pages I read, and a few of the lines or passages I underlined, with hopefully brief attempts to explicate them. Continue reading
The job of retracing my reading over a month is a strange one, involving pulling out the books from the shelves where – hopefully – they’ve found their way, so as to make room for the current mess. Some of April’s reading I’ve already written about – Enrique Vila-Matas’s wonderful Dublinesque (the best book of his I’ve read so far, and certainly the one you would hope will broaden his English language readership) and Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière’s brassily erudite conversation piece This is not the End of the Book in a blog post here, to which I added a footnote concerning Teju Cole’s quietly, devastatingly manipulative Open City; and Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, the book all liberal-minded dads should carry slotted down the back of their Baby Bjorns, celebrated here.
Looking back at books over the chasm of a few weeks, rather than writing about them hot off the last page, means interrogating your reading self to see what remains of the experience: Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking, for instance, seems now an unforgivable diversion, a modernist skit on the caper movie that evaporates from the page, leaving no real sediment to speak of. It is a comedy, told largely in dialogue, about a series of variously wealthy, artistic, ingenious and criminal types all trying to do each other over for the sake of a Braque painting, or love, or neither. It entertains, but less than Charade, or Len Deighton in Only When I Larf mode.
The other thing that occurred to me over and over again as I read April’s books, is how wonderful it is to read books in tandem, or close enough to each other that it feels like it. The Vila-Matas and the Eco/Carrière, as I blogged, seemed in direct conversation with each other about the vitality of the physical book, but then there’s Teju Cole and WG Sebald, whose Rings of Saturn I am still re-reading, slow-slow-slowly. Continue reading
One of my book pleasures of the year has been Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits (as recommended by Just William’s Luck). As he says, this is a book for all parents, and especially fathers – although perhaps let’s not get carried away. It’s mostly for literate, intelligent, liberal-minded fathers. But there’s a fair few of them in the world. It’s a plotless novel in which Abbott, an American university lecturer and part-time stay-at-home dad reflects on his strange life, as illuminated by the twin suns of his two-year-old daughter and pregnant-with-a-second-child wife.
The book is about the small wonders of domesticity, and the strange elation that comes from seeing life develop and blossom, intimately, but at one remove, but it is also a comedy of manners, that focuses on Abbott’s very male, middle-class uselessness, and his unstoppable over-intellectualisation of that uselessness. Here’s one very short example:
‘Wait,’ his wife says. ‘Did you put sunblock on her?’ Abbott nods his head in the manner of someone who could later deny having nodded.
It’s that kind of self-deprecation, shot through with a terrible self-awareness, that is the book’s dominant mode. Continue reading