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Showing posts from 2014

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Eastern promises II

James Wood may not practice the sexy theoretical criticism of the academy, but for all his critical conservatism, he’s an animal which may soon become extinct: a Critic. Unafraid to draw attention to an emperor’s nudity (his review of David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was laudatory but notably cool), he offers a critical opinion I’m inclined to trust. Wood has become a barometer, as the best critics are, rather than a salesman. Thanks to Wood, I’ve been put onto Jenny Offill (Dept of Speculation), and Wood’s essay on Lázsló Kraznahorkai in 2011 alerted me to the Hungarian writer’s work. I’ve finally read Kraznahoraki’s first novel, Sátántango, first published in 1985 and translated by the British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes in 2012.



A still from Bela Tarr's 1994 adaptation of Kraznahorkai's novel

Sátántango is a maniac’s rain-sodden rant: powerful and nightmarish and dull. Beckett meets Kafka: difficult and alienating, mythic and vague. A dead cat…

Gazing as a form of love

George Saunders has been on my shelf since I picked up his latest collection, Tenth of December, in a small thrift shop in Grand Marais on the north shore this last January during the Polar Vortex. Tenth of December is my first introduction to Saunders who, while ubiquitously praised by critics and literary journals, is largely unknown in Britain.

Saunders is David Foster Wallace’s older, wiser, mellower relation. While Saunders replaces DFW’s frenetic braininess with wryness, both share an excellent ear for American vernacular and a fiction which confronts banality with a largely humane satire. (‘Deeply humane’ is Jennifer Egan’s phrase on the cover jacket. A future project in this blog may be a close reading of jacket puffery in general).

In the ten stories of the collection, Saunders takes the flat, cheery-hollow prose of American speech and, by an effective use of ellipsis, turns it into style. This is particularly notable in my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Semplica Girl …

Why Keep a Good Woman Down?

Why is ‘women’s writing’ a category? Does it have any purchase? Should it? I’ve been arguing with myself about this (again) this week.

After catching the last dramatizations of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles on Radio 4, I’ve been looking for the books in charity shops ever since. Finding the first three books this week (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion) has meant that I’ve finally been able to give them a go.

Her books have been celebrated by Julian Barnes and Sybil Bedford. Martin Amis credits Howard, who was married to his father Kingsley Amis for over twenty years, with forming his literary education. But by calling her ‘the most interesting woman writer of her generation’, Amis’ praise is double-edged.

For a woman who constantly battled against being pigeon-holed as a writer only for women – and thus secondary – the books are horribly designed. No man will pick up a book with melancholy empty chairs and girly cursive and a large sticker saying ‘As heard on BBC…

Then & Now

This is the last evening, and I am on the road tomorrow. In a little while I’ll go out and stand on the Fen near Laundress Green.

It’s been a small shock to recognise for all the movement of the city – its growth, development, its domination by chains and high street shops – Cambridge is still the city Sylvia Plath lived in and tried to absorb. This is from January 10, 1957:

‘Brilliant clear blue invigorating day. To heart of town. Sun pale warm orange on buildings of Newnham Village. Fens clear green, rooks nests bared in trees, wet dew standing transparent on every branch, across white-painted wooden bridges. Wind rattling dry rushes. Ducks dipping on river in front of Garden House Hotel, shiny green heads of mallards and speckled brown dames. Wetness on tarred sidewalk reflecting blue glaze from pale sky. Water whipped white by mill raise. Noise of continuous rushing. Pale blue-painted Anchor. Orangy plaster of Mill pub….’

The Garden House Hotel has changed names, and the Anchor and …

'[Q]uietly, as the hour of prayer'

It’s not often that I take someone’s book recommendation so seriously as to immediately try to lay my hands on a copy. One always has a personal list, a long never-ending catalogue of the books one should read and the order they should be read. Usually this list is not followed; it’s an aspiration. But Jon Michaud’s essay on the collected stories of the hilariously named Breece D’J Pancake sent me scurrying to make sure I found it. I didn’t think it very likely that I’d come across a used copy of a little-known American writer whose single collection of twelve stories was published three years after his death in 1979. Although, last week I noticed that W.H. Smith has been carrying the Vintage (Random House) edition of Pancake's collection.Grab a copy.



I read the collection over Easter, in small chunks, when I was A.’s house in Reading. The quietness of this year’s Easter in the suburbs of a mid-size southern English town, the sporadic showers, and the wavering light, was the perfec…

Framed

It’s post-graduation again, and my last week in Cambridge. After spending several weeks at an internship in London, I’ve been able to start reading again. For fun and in earnest. It’s time to return to our irregularly scheduled broadcast.

I’d never heard of Kyril Bonfiglioli until coming across his Mortdecai series recently quite by accident. In good time too, before the film comes out in Depp/Paltrow/McGregor film comes out in 2015. The New Yorker describes the Mortdecai books as ‘The result of an unholy collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming’. One would be hard-pressed to find a better description, aside from adding Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male as a third collaborator.

The Hon. Charlie Mortdecai is a dashingly verbose crooked art dealer with a thuggish manservant, Jock (Mortdecai’s ‘anti-Jeeves’). In the first novel, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the plot – a stolen Goya, a governmental cover-up, a naughty photograph, a flight to the wide routes of America – is …
I haven’t read Eliot for a while, but yesterday while reading Four Quartets, I realised how much of Eliot Joanna Newsom must have read before writing her tone-poems. The ‘Garlic and sapphires in the mud’ clotting the ‘axle-tree’ of ‘Burnt Norton’ (1935) uncles the music of ‘Emily’ (Ys, 2006).


Here’s Eliot:

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Chill
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent…

And Newsom:

Say, say, say, in the lee of the bay
don’t be bothered.
Leave your troubles here,
where the tugboats shear the water from the water
(flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper).

Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor.
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined, and hold us close forever.

Newsom is drunken where Eliot is desiccated, but they both have pronounced habits of consonance, internal rhymes, pleasing ech…

eastern promises

After analysing literature for three and a half years, after learning how not to talk about literature – trying to replace feelings, intuitions, and sensations with critical distance and particularities about how language is working – I feel myself at a loss. Reading the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, I feel the same hazy intoxication that I felt when I first read The Painted Veil seven years ago, in one long, now seemingly sun-drenched summer in Oxford. I read it in the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera, under the white dome with its echoing scratches of pigeon wings. Maugham is a relentlessly visual writer, and when I think about The Painted Veil, when I think about that summer, I’m left with the hot room in which the novel opens, the Chinese screens, the word ‘tiffin’, Charlie’s hat.

The short stories, at least those in the fourth volume of the collected stories, are similarly evocative. These dramas are all set against a setting empire, the last days of the imperial…

grantchester in march

If there was ever a day to be in Cambridge and to walk out to Grantchester meadows, it was this one. I ran out towards the fields before 8. The sky was already Wedgewood blue and the sun Greek. As I ran – slowly; I’m not much of a runner – Vaughn Williams Lark Ascending came up on my ipod. A synthesizing of music and mood and landscape that fit like light jazz and a New York skyline, or blues and the South. I crouched down to the grass when I got to the village and saw the sunlight on the grassblades' unevaporated coating. In the distance, the river ran quiet and deep through monochromatic fields, and the single swan swimming its sole worshipper. The hedges and thickets were blooming: not all together but every odd bush exploded into flower. Plump doves and crows sat high on bare branches, and the tits and robins darted in the hedges. The lichens and mosses around the tree stumps are electric green. The pheasants and grouse call in mulish strangled squawks. I saw what the American…