I only started reading Jenny Diski after she died. I went out and bought the as-good-as-posthumously published In Gratitude, which brings together material from her LRB diaries about her life with cancer, and about her time living with Doris Lessing, who took her in as a teenager when she went off the rails. When I finished that, I asked for recommendations as to where to go next. Skating to Antarctica, came the response, so I tracked that down and read that.
I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards memoir. I always ask myself: am I reading this book because of the facts of the life it describes, or because of the writing? (Please don’t tell me that it is pointless to try to separate form from content.) (This ambivalence towards memoir is perhaps bound up in the fact that my own life is far too uninteresting to merit memorialisation.) So, Jenny Diski had a chaotic childhood, being fought over by two belligerent, neurotic parents, both of whom attempted suicide at least once, and acted towards her in ways that occasionally bordered on child sex abuse, and she spent time in mental institutions, and she got cancer: lucky her! She has stuff to write about. I’ve lost no one. No one’s mistreated me. My life has been lucky and privileged and healthy. What a bummer.
Of course, what makes Skating to Antarctica such an excellent book, and more than just a high-quality misery memoir, is what she does with these life experiences, with this content. Her formal brilliance works both at sentence level, and in broader, structural terms – in the way, for instance, that she uses a solitary trip to Antarctica to frame the story of her childhood. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the book is powered by an irony that seems at once languid and vigilant. (“Indolence has always been my most essential quality,” I see I have underlined on one page.)
I loved it, and I recognised it as being kin to another writer I love, Geoff Dyer. “Very Dyer” I noted, near-anagrammatically, next to a couple of passages.
Here is an example:
The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is either lovingly preserved in its natural state or derelict, depending on how you choose to look at it. If derelict landscapes, like the murkier parts of King’s Cross and the old unreconstructed docklands appeal, then Grytviken is a pearl of desolation. A rust-bucket ghost town, left to rot in its own beautiful way.
I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)
It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…
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
A few things that have happened, recently, that I’m keen to point people towards:
- Having been published in both Lighthouse and Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, I’m very pleased to say that my short story ‘The Faber Book of Adultery‘ is now online as part of Issue 83 of The Barcelona Review. Read it here. (And there’s a lovely reading of it by Lee Upton here.)
- A paper I gave at Birkbeck’s conference on Geoff Dyer earlier in the year appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Threepenny Review, and again you can find it online. Read ‘But Funny: Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing‘ here.
- I’ve added a page to this site for anyone who’s read ‘Randall‘ and either doesn’t know the answer to the riddle it ends on, or wants to check if they guessed it right. Click here to do so. (And if you’ve read ‘Randall’, why not review or rate it at Goodreads?)
- Finally, if you’ve not heard about my current blogging side-project to read all 52 of Melville House’s ‘The Art of the Novella‘ novellas in a year, then you can find out about it here.
I’ve been enjoying the #bookaday posts on Twitter – originated by The Borough Press, and good for them for coming up with a genuinely fun, community-spirited project that – important, this – has a natural life span, and so won’t get stale.
But I was surprised to find people actually shying away from the Day 4 Challenge: “Least favourite book by favourite author” , because I thought it was a brilliant question. One, because it’s teasingly cruel, delivering a slap and a kiss in the same breath, if that’s not a horrendously mixed metaphor (it is), but also because it might be a question you’ve never actually consciously asked yourself. I know I hadn’t.
We so often think about our favourite things – favourite author, favourite author’s best book – whereas negatives are more general and nebulous: don’t like, end of.
And picking a least favourite book by a favourite author is a very good way of establishing what it is about them that we actually do like and admire. It can teach us something not only about them as a writer, but about us as a reader. Looking through the #bookaday tweets for today, each entry tells me two things about the tweeter. That’s a very neat and efficient way of learning about someone, and of expressing yourself. I like it. Continue reading
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
Today’s text is taken from Nicholson Baker’s U&I (pg 20, in its cute little US Random House hardback), which I happened to leafing through yesterday for some other reason, when I came across these lines:
Updike was much more important to me than Barthelme as a model and influence, and now the simple knowledge that he was alive and writing and had just published one of his best books, Self-Consciousness, felt like a piece of huge luck. How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!
I remember being struck by this when I read the book before, because that is what I had thought, too late, on reading the obituary of Samuel Beckett, when I was 17. I was suddenly struck with the fact that I had been alive, on the planet, at the same time as this person, and with what a huge privilege that was. Beckett would go on being read down the ages, and people in the future would pause from their reading, look out the window and wonder what the world was like, back then, that it could have produced such a response – and I knew. I was there! (Okay, I wasn’t alive when he was writing most of what people would be reading, down those ages, but that was only half the point: I was enviable. I was to be envied.)
The thought, the memory, passed, and I got on with whatever I was doing, but then that evening, as I was doing the ironing, I watched the BBC4 documentary ‘American Master: A Portrait of John Adams’, during which it was mentioned that Adams was the most performed living composer, and it struck me, again, as it had not struck me since Beckett, that here was someone I was privileged to be sharing the planet with: him, creating, me, listening. Continue reading
About a year ago I began writing a monthly post on this blog responding to the books that I had read over the last month – not reviews so much, nothing so considered; more a summation of what had stuck with me from those books. It’s not that I don’t like book reviews – people pay me to do those – but that I wanted to move beyond the balanced, culturally-engaged appraisal they call for to see if there was more to get out of writing about books once the books had been finished, put down, half-forgotten, and allowed to relax into the seething primordial swamp of read books, their sentences lost among the millions of other sentences read, processed, filed, erased. (It’s no surprise that I count among my favourite critical books Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.)
I kept it up for all of 2012, not always posting on time – but then not all of the books were timely books – and letting myself slip only for December. And, indeed, what I found as the year went by is that single issues, single books, tended to dominate the posts. Some months had photographs of big piles of books at the top (nine, ten, eleven books), some three, or even two. Sometimes those books were big books, and so took up lots of reading time (January 2013 I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which doesn’t leave much head space for anything else) but sometimes I had read other books but didn’t much feel like writing about them.
Then there’s the question of how you actually define reading. For a book to be read, must it be completed? Properly engaged with? Where do you draw the limits? If I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain does that mean I’ve not ‘been reading’ anything else? No. Also by my bed is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which I’ve been dipping into after a discussion of philosophy books with my good friend Neil and his son Harrison, who’s just starting to study the subject at school. As part of that discussion I took down from the shelf my favourite philosophical anthology Porcupines – that got read, too, a bit.
Last Saturday, while supposedly watching Borgen on television with my wife, I found myself dipping into another of my favourite ‘dipping into’ books, Clive James’s book of essays Cultural Amnesia; I read two or three entries, including his spirited takedown of Walter Benjamin Continue reading
This month I finished reading two books that had been lying open – by my bedside, on my desk – for months and months: WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (a re-read) and TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death. Obviously, this makes them the opposite of page-turners – page-turn-backers, perhaps, as, with the Sebald especially, I found myself going back and starting chapters over, settling myself back in to whichever slippery, slow-moving digression he was taking me on. With the Clark the stop-start process was not a problem. I knew what I was reading it for: I was reading it for insight, for ideas about how we look at paintings, and what it means to come back and look at paintings over and over again, day after day, rather than assume that we can take them in at one glance.
It’s a marvellous book about art, that exhibits its authority not in the range of its reference (though that’s there), but in the focus of its attention. In it Clark spends a six-month sabbatical sitting in a gallery looking at two paintings by Poussin, giving his thoughts not in a clever post-hoc essay, but in diary form, as they come. It makes me want to read Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf, his book about sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud, which presumably has as much to say about the day-to-day process of art on the other side of the aesthetic divide.
Clark’s book might have something to say about why I’ve chosen, or ended up, reading the Sebald in slow, overlapping, self-replicating waves, rather than a simple linear progression. He is particularly good on the importance of the viewing position in front of the painting, something that is impossible to recreate with any kind of reproduction – and boy the reproductions in The Sight of Death are good, dozens and dozens of details on high-gloss paper, magnified crops to illustrate whatever point Clark is making. I went to see one of ‘his’ Poussins in the National Gallery last week, and it was – in its current condition, or lighting, or situation – a sad and muddy mess: impossible to make out even half of what the book shows us, but then Clark is all about the contingencies of the moment: the hanging, the room in the gallery, whether the lights are on or off, the weather outside. He says:
So pictures create viewing positions – don’t we know that already? Yes, roughly we do; but we have only crude and schematic accounts of how they create them, and even cruder discussions of their effects – that is, of how the positions and distances are or are not modes of seeing, modes of understanding, intertwined with the events and objects they apply to.
Every time he goes back to look at the painting he must reorient himself in front of it, let himself work his way back in. Does something similar happen with books? Perhaps. The key problem with Sebald, for me, is how you should negotiate the information he gives you. Continue reading
I started the month finishing Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and The Hare, a mid-20th century novel reissued in chichi hardback (there’s becoming something of a glut of them, isn’t there?) by Virago, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. It was a Christmas present, though quite why my wife chose to give me a book about the breakdown of a marriage, I’m not sure.
The novel is one of those (like Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) that is entirely governed by the formal gesture of its narrative: in this case, the gradual and implacable usurpation of the wifely role to rich, shallow barrister Evelyn Gresham by ‘handsome’, practical Blanche Silcox – to which Evelyn’s floaty, feminine wife, Imogen, can only stand by and watch. Any deviation from this movement (the possibility of Imogen having an affair, the needs and desires of the Greshams’ horrid son Gavin) gets dragged into the slipstream of the narrative and ruthlessly flung aside.
The key moment of the book comes for the reader when they realise that there is nothing organic about the plot’s progress: it is entirely teleologically determined. Jenkins knows exactly where her characters are going to end up: Blanche in Imogen’s place, Imogen cast out. It’s as mathematical as a Pinter short, or Ionesco’s The Lesson. There is something unreal about the bluntness of this reversal, though it’s mitigated by the domestic texture of the prose. (That said, the book does commit a venal sin: “books that include minor characters just to satirise them”)
Here is Karl O Knausgaard on form: “Form, which is of course a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, them, if any of these take control over form, the result is poor. That is why writers with a strong style often write poor books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write poor books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing’.” (From ‘A Death in the Family’ – more on this below.) Continue reading